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I must be getting old, because when I first started teaching English, the Internet was still in its youth. There were no podcasts, no YouTube videos, no TED Talks. Sites loaded slowly and the only thing for English teachers were a few sites with grammar questions that you could copy and print out.
Fast forward to the present day and we have the opposite problem - the paradox of choice.
With so much stuff out there, what do we choose and how do we use it?
That’s what we’ll look at today, with a focus on teaching listening. We’ll go over lots of tips, but the first one is… ditch the coursebook listening.
Is it really that important to teach listening?
“But is it really so vital to teach listening? After all, they’re listening to me, the teacher! Isn’t that listening practice? Anyway, they can get all the listening practice they need outside class…”
Proper listening consists of a series of skills, such as pinpointing the main idea or recognising connected speech. It’s definitely not simply “listening to the teacher” and it’s not something you can expect students to do outside the class unless they are extremely highly motivated.
Listening connects to speaking. Students hear new words and phrases and eventually they will use them in their speech. But they may also use them in their writing or come across them in their reading. In fact, all the skills in English are connected and none should be neglected.
Techniques and activities for teaching listening in English
Let’s go over some techniques, activities and resources for teaching listening. This should be a good way to review, expand and adapt your strategies for teaching listening.
The basics: main ideas and details
The basic way of teaching listening is to first focus on the main ideas of the audio clip and then the details. It’s the reason that we usually listen twice - once for the main ideas and once for the details. We can do this for long or short listening, easy or hard listening.
The questions we give the students reflect this, and we can divide them into questions for the first listening (main ideas) and questions for the second listening (details).
When students listen to English at home, however, they tend NOT to do this. To get them to be autonomous learners, we should point out the benefits of listening TWICE, especially for short YouTube and TikTok videos where it only takes a minute (or a few seconds) to watch it again.
Listen as many times as you like
Although the ‘standard’ way is to listen twice, you can ask students to listen as many times as you like… as long as there is something new to learn.
For example, you could listen a third time to pick out new vocabulary or to pick out grammar structures. Once again, the students won’t get bored as long as they are learning something (and as long as it is an interesting topic).
And again, to promote autonomous learning, make sure your students know that they can listen to any clip as many times as they like, as long as they are learning.
Flipped teaching techniques came into vogue a few years ago. Basically, this technique entails getting students to do ‘homework’ before learning something instead of afterwards.
This is great for longer listening practice where you may feel it’s a waste of time spending 25 minutes listening to a podcast in class. Instead, they can do this at home, and you can spend valuable class time analysing the language used in the clip.
Another ‘flip’ is to encourage the students to ask YOU questions about the listening instead of vice versa.
“What does this word mean?” “Is level up a phrasal verb?” “Why did the speaker use the past perfect there?”
If your students can learn to ask questions like these, they are well on the way to becoming autonomous learners.
How realistic should the materials be?
We know the issue. We want to use realistic materials with our students, but they are still a little bit too difficult for intermediate level.
Years ago, I had a coursebook that used ‘authentic’ materials from NPR (National Public Radio of America). It was awful! The students were lost, the listening was too hard and the content was boring and culturally alien to them.
And yet, we’re fooling nobody when we use overly simplified materials for intermediate level and above.
We need to find a sweet spot in the middle - not too simplified and not too complex.
Fortunately, there are websites out there that offer the news in simplified English.
There are also podcasts, like English Learning for Curious Minds, where the language is carefully graded for intermediate level and above without sounding simplified - and spoken at a slightly slower pace.
Dictation and working with scripts
Dictation is an excellent exercise that many teachers overlook. You can dictate a short passage for the students to write out and will really help them to focus on the exact words and nuance in a way that they do not usually do.
You don’t need to dictate the passage yourself. You can use the introductory part of a listening clip for the dictation.
I’ve had students who beg and plead for subtitles when we watch a video together. In fact subtitles are a great form of scaffolding. I like to watch once without subtitles and once with - or vice versa. But beware those auto-generated subtitles that are full of errors!
With scripts, once again, flip the activity. Get the students to read the script and imagine how the speaker would say it. Then listen and see. Or get the students to ‘shadow’ the speaker with or without the transcript. There are so many possibilities.
Listening… with no sound
One of my favourite things to do with a video is to watch it with the sound off. Then, I ask my students to imagine what conversation took place or even act it out.
When we watch a second time with the sound on, it’s a lot of fun to see how close they were to the actual conversation.
As an alternative, suddenly stop the video in the middle of a sentence and ask the students what they think the person will say next… or role play it. Linking role play to listening is always a good option.
Songs, movies and influencers
The most fun things for the students are likely to be songs, movies and influencer clips. All of these are great practice for listening.
Resist the temptation to ‘just listen to a song’. You need to have an activity to give it focus. And skip sugary sweet pop songs with nonsense lyrics like “Oh, baby, yeah. That’s it. That’s what I like, yeah!”
Instead, spend some time hunting out songs that have a story or a rich vein of vocabulary to pick from. Examples are Last Kiss by Pearl Jam, which talks about a young couple who get into an accident; Stan by Eminen, which generated the slang term ‘to stan someone’ or Sunscreen by Baz Lurhmann, which purports to be a graduation speech.
Ask your students who their favourite influencers are and bring some of their clips to class. It’ll be fun and there’ll be a lot of slang phrases that your students will be dying to know.
Record your own audio
Another great thing about the Internet age is that it’s easy to write your own scripts and record your own audio! It’s something I’ve personally done for many years.
When I say ‘record your own audio’, I don’t necessarily mean recording your own voice - although you can do this easily with an app like Audacity. I mean you can hire voice artists on a site like Upwork to record the scripts for you.
Yes, it’s a little pricey (perhaps tens of dollars), but you will have a fully customised audio clip that you can use forever. You can write the script to focus on exactly the issues that your students need and you can even set it to music or animate it using a tool such as Powtoon.
For just a little extra money, you’ve moved on from being a teacher to being a content producer. (Time to print new business cards!)
Using podcasts for listening activities
I’m a particular fan of podcasts. As they’ve become more popular over the past decade, they’ve also increased in number and quality. There are podcasts on any topic you like, including learning English.
You may think that videos are more compelling for class activities, but audio podcasts do have a clear advantage. That is, there is no distracting visual element and learners can really focus on the audio with their full attention.
In fact, podcasts are perfect for most of the activities in the previous section. A good example is the flipped listening activity. Podcasts from English Learning for Curious Minds, for example, are generally about 20 or so minutes long. Students can easily listen outside of class - on the bus or in the gym - and be ready to discuss and analyse the podcast in class.
Podcasts are great for vocabulary expansion. If you listen to This American Life, for instance, there’s a different topic every week. It can really help with breadth of vocabulary outside of class, while class time can be devoted to depth of vocabulary.
Make listening a habit for your students
There is a lot of talk about the benefits of reading and making reading a habit.
Well, why not apply the same approach to listening? Listening - with the intent to learn - is certainly a good habit for English learners.
As teachers, we can help to do this by discussing things they are interested in listening to, such as influencers. We can find podcasts and YouTube channels to recommend to them. And we can teach them some simple tricks to help them learn autonomously, such as listening more than once, or writing down new words and phrases.
Remember, they’ll take their cue from you, the teacher. You’ll play a major part in inculcating a healthy listening habit in your students.