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I’ve been a long-time fan of podcasts - short, downloadable audio programmes -, mainly because I used to have a long commute to work through awful traffic.
Rather than stare out the car window, bored, for an hour or more, I used to make sure I had a good long playlist of podcasts. My favourites were This Week In Tech and This Week In Science. There were no ESL podcasts back then.
I thought of using podcasts in my classes, but they were, well… fiddly. The year was 2005, Internet speeds were deadly slow, Bluetooth never worked properly and Spotify didn’t exist.
Fast forward to 2014.
This was the year that podcasts made it big, thanks in part to a podcast called Serial, which investigated various murders with the help of its listeners. Serial was an unprecedented success and introduced podcasts to a world of younger, hipper fans.
The popularity of podcasts has grown steadily since then, and there are now over 2 million available.
For many English teachers, though, podcasts remained something on their periphery, something filed away to look at later. We might have remembered that our early experiments with them were unsatisfactory due to the technical limitations of the time, or we might just not know how to use them in class.
Well, if you still think that way, it’s time to wake up!
Podcasts are easy to use, mostly free and cover an amazing range of topics and issues. And the entire point of listening to podcasts is to learn something.
In short, they are a fantastic tool for your ESL classes.
Podcasts as English listening exercises
The most obvious way to use podcasts in the ESL classroom is for listening exercises.
Yes, you probably already have listening exercises that come with your course, but podcasts offer the following advantages:
- Podcasts are portable and free - your students can download them and re-listen after the class. Your students can listen to them on their phones without having to download or install anything new.
- Podcasts are more interesting than much of the listening content that comes with pre-designed courses.
- There are typically no licencing issues with using podcasts in the classroom.
- There is an incredible amount of content available on any topic imaginable - you can always find something to match your class topic.
- They are up to date - you can find podcasts about current affairs and ultra relevant topics. Unlike traditional listening exercises, they weren’t recorded months or years ago.
What do you need to play a podcast?
The best bit about podcasts is that you need no complicated software or tools to play them. Any smartphone will come with a free podcast player, and there are dozens of other free ones you can choose to download.
If you have absolutely no experience using podcasts, I recommend you start with Google Podcasts. Simply click on the link, choose a podcast and click “play”. It couldn’t be easier. You can play it on the web player or via their Phone / Android app.
To play a podcast in class, you simply need a phone or other device with an Internet connection and a set of speakers. Every podcast app will allow you to download podcasts and listen to them offline, so you may not even need an Internet connection.
Most will also allow you to adjust the speed, which can be useful for lower-level students.
What level of learner are podcasts for?
Since most podcasts are aimed at native-speakers, you might think that they are suitable only for advanced level learners.
However, according to the CEFR descriptors for listening to pre-recorded media, a student at B2 level can understand recordings in the standard form of the language likely to be encountered in social, professional or academic life and identify viewpoints and attitudes as well as the information content.
While a student at B1 level can understand the information content of the majority of recorded or broadcast material on topics of personal interest delivered in clear standard language.
Hence, if we take time to select a podcast carefully, making sure that it is on a familiar topic or a topic of personal interest and making sure that the speaker is clear and uses standard English, we can use it with level B1 and up.
What’s more, there are some podcasts that are recorded specially for English language learners. The hosts speak more slowly and use simpler language. Often, these podcasts cover topics of interest to English learners, such as studying overseas.
How to use podcasts in the English classroom
Besides simple listening exercises, what are some more creative ways to use podcasts in the ESL classroom?
Here are some ideas:
Following the flipped classroom concept, you could assign podcasts as homework and then discuss them in class the following day.
Unlike normal homework, the students can listen to the podcasts on the way to or from school or while waiting for the bus. Plus, it’s homework they should find interesting!
You can ask students to transcribe what they hear on a podcast, which is a great way to connect listening and writing skills.
Many podcasts come with transcripts on their site, so you can ask students to read part of an episode aloud. This is even better if it is in an interview format as they can practise in pairs.
Podcasts provide a great way to practise summary writing. A five-minute podcast can likely be summarised in one or two paragraphs. Remember, they need not have a full understanding in order to write the summary, making it a suitable activity for intermediate learners.
As background to an extended topic
If you are going to spend the next week talking about, say, global inequality, podcasts can be a great way for your students to preview the topic before discussing and reading about it in class.
By listening to the assigned podcasts, they can become familiar with key concepts in the discussion and key vocabulary items, such as ‘income gap’.
They will also hear the pronunciation of terms that they would otherwise only see written down in text. Hence, podcasts provide a more holistic way of learning a topic.
As a way of learning about English
Many ESL podcasts are actually about English. This means that, as well as being listening practice, they can be a way to reinforce key learning points.
For example, this podcast covers five English idioms. It is a great episode to play in a class on idioms or metaphorical language.
As a weekly or daily treat
Some longer podcasts, such as This American Life, are stories split into parts, just like a TV programme. You could play one 5-minute part at the beginning of each class, as a warm-up activity.
You’ll find that this becomes a treat for the students, as they want to discover what happens next in the story. (Some may “cheat” and listen outside class!)
Presenting a podcast this way helps to reinforce vocabulary (since they hear it over many days) and ease understanding (as it is split into manageable chunks).
As a way to encourage language production
Many podcast websites have sections where fans can leave comments or discuss the podcast episodes. You can encourage your students to leave comments.
In fact, it is a good habit for them to practise writing when and where possible, so you can encourage commenting wherever they get the chance.
You may also want to ask your students to produce their own podcast. This might sound complicated, but all they really need is a smartphone - every smartphone has a built-in recording app.
If they want to be even more professional, they can record one on a laptop, with a microphone and a recording app, such as Audacity.
This makes for a fantastic group or pair project, and the finished project could be released to the public or put on the class website. You could award prizes for the best one.
Some ideas for a student-produced podcast are:
- Ask them to record their thoughts on a debate or discussion topic (such as global inequality).
- Ask them to interview a “special guest”, such as a local business owner.
- Ask them to talk about something they have learned recently.
A short list of recommended podcasts for the English classroom
Here are some podcasts that your students may find interesting.
- This American Life
- TedX Shorts
- Let Me Google That
- 20 Minutes You’ll Never Get Back
- Index of BBC Podcasts (British public broadcaster)
- Index of NPR Podcasts (American public broadcaster)
- English Learning for Curious Minds
- Voice of America Podcasts
- ABA English Podcasts
- BBC 6-Minute English
- Word Matters (Merriam Webster)
You can also simply log into Spotify and search their podcast library.
Get with it!
So get with it, English teachers! Many of your students probably are probably already familiar with podcasts, at least in their own languages.
It’s time to put this fantastic learning tool to good use as part of your classroom repertoire.