When we think of English skills, the 'four skills' of listening, speaking, reading, and writing readily come to mind. Of course other skills such as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling all play a role in effective English communication. The amount of attention you give to each skill area will depend both the level of your learners as well as their situational needs. Generally beginners, especially those who are nonliterate, benefit most from listening and speaking instruction with relatively little work on reading and writing. As fluency increases, the amount of reading and writing in your lessons may also increase. With advanced learners, up to half of your lesson time can be spent on written skills, although your learners may wish to keep their focus weighted toward oral communication if that is a greater need.
Listening skills are vital for your learners. Of the 'four skills,' listening is by far the most frequently used. Listening and speaking are often taught together, but beginners, especially non-literate ones, should be given more listening than speaking practice. It's important to speak as close to natural speed as possible, although with beginners some slowing is usually necessary. Without reducing your speaking speed, you can make your language easier to comprehend by simplifying your vocabulary, using shorter sentences, and increasing the number and length of pauses in your speech.
There are many types of listening activities. Those that don't require learners to produce language in response are easier than those that do. Learners can be asked to physically respond to a command (for example, "please open the door"), select an appropriate picture or object, circle the correct letter or word on a worksheet, draw a route on a map, or fill in a chart as they listen. It's more difficult to repeat back what was heard, translate into the native language, take notes, make an outline, or answer comprehension questions. To add more challenge, learners can continue a story text, solve a problem, perform a similar task with a classmate after listening to a model (for example, order a cake from a bakery), or participate in real-time conversation.
Good listening lessons go beyond the listening task itself with related activities before and after the listening. Here is the basic structure:
- Before Listening
Prepare your learners by introducing the topic and finding out what they already know about it. A good way to do this is to have a brainstorming session and some discussion questions related to the topic. Then provide any necessary background information and new vocabulary they will need for the listening activity.
- During Listening
Be specific about what students need to listen for. They can listen for selective details or general content, or for an emotional tone such as happy, surprised, or angry. If they are not marking answers or otherwise responding while listening, tell them ahead of time what will be required afterward.
- After Listening
Finish with an activity to extend the topic and help students remember new vocabulary. This could be a discussion group, craft project, writing task, game, etc.
The following ideas will help make your listening activities successful.
Reduce distractions and noise during the listening segment. You may need to close doors or windows or ask children in the room to be quiet for a few minutes.
If you are using a cassette player, make sure it produces acceptable sound quality. A counter on the machine will aid tremendously in cueing up tapes. Bring extra batteries or an extension cord with you.
Read or play the text a total of 2-3 times. Tell students in advance you will repeat it. This will reduce their anxiety about not catching it all the first time. You can also ask them to listen for different information each time through.
Unless your text is merely a list of items, talk about the content as well as specific language used. The material should be interesting and appropriate for your class level in topic, speed, and vocabulary. You may need to explain reductions (like 'gonna' for 'going to') and fillers (like 'um' or 'uh-huh').
- Recording Your Own Tape
Write appropriate text (or use something from your textbook) and have another English speaker read it onto tape. Copy the recording three times so you don't need to rewind. The reader should not simply read three times, because students want to hear exact repetition of the pronunciation, intonation, and pace, not just the words.
You can play a video clip with the sound off and ask students to make predictions about what dialog is taking place. Then play it again with sound and discuss why they were right or wrong in their predictions. You can also play the sound without the video first, and show the video after students have guessed what is going on.
Give students a listening task to do between classes. Encourage them to listen to public announcements in airports, bus stations, supermarkets, etc. and try to write down what they heard. Tell them the telephone number of a cinema and ask them to write down the playing times of a specific movie. Give them a tape recording of yourself with questions, dictation, or a worksheet to complete.
Look for listening activities in the Activities and Lesson Materials sections of this guide. If your learners can use a computer with internet access and headphones or speakers, you may direct them toward the following listening practice sites. You could also assign specific activities from these sites as homework. Teach new vocabulary ahead of time if necessary.
- Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab
Around 140 listening clips and quizzes for students to access online; categorized into four difficulty levels, but activities marked 'easy' may be too difficult for beginners due to unfamiliar vocabulary; many include pre- and post-listening exercises; requires audio software such as RealPlayer (free) or optional interactive software like Divace.
- The English Listening Lounge
Thirty free listening clips categorized into three difficulty levels for students to access online; more available with membership; requires audio software such as RealPlayer (free).