This is Issue 20, Spring 2010, click here to come back to current edition
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Learn to listen


‘You gotta learn to listen, listen to learn’ as The Ramones once sang. This is certainly true in the English language classroom, although listening tasks would probably top most ESO students’ ‘least favourite activities’ list. But why? Katherine Bilsborough suggests some easy-to-manage tasks designed to increase their motivation to listen.


A few years ago there was an article in the Macmillan Magazine called Why do our students find listening difficult?* by Mike Sayer, the co-author of Time for English 1 and 2. Mike mentioned two factors that made listening difficult for students: a lack of context leading to disinterest and stress factors resulting from their lack of control over the Play button. This article carries on from where Mike left off. It is based on a series of Teacher Training workshops that I did around Spain last year. The teachers who attended were mostly ESO teachers. They had the same complaints and frustrations regardless of their teaching context.


I started each session by asking teachers how their students reacted when they saw them reach for the CD player. Almost without exception the reactions were audible groans, protests and even laughter from the most cynical students. But when I asked teachers how their students generally did in listening tasks, their responses were surprising. Students usually do far better at listening than they expect to do. It seems that our students have good listening skills. What they are lacking is confidence and self esteem.


Over the years I have discovered that by doing a simple fun activity related to the listening in the book - as a way of leading into the real listening task – pressure is taken off the students and they usually perform much better. I tell them ‘First we are going to have a little listening game and then we’ll do the task’. By the time they get to do the task they have already heard the recording once, are familiar with the context and feel less threatened.


The type of activity will depend on the nature of the script. Certain types of listening lend themselves to different activities. Here are a few that go down well with my students.


Comprehension questions
Put your students into small groups. Ask them to look at the comprehension questions in their text book. Tell them to guess the answers to each question. They should discuss their possibilities and come to an agreement. Give a limited time for this. Groups will win a point for each correctly guessed answer. Play the CD. Students listen and award themselves with points. The group with the highest number of points wins.


Dialogues, especially those designed to practise social English, are ideal for a prediction activity. Play the first line of the dialogue and press Pause. Invite the students to shout out the next part. Accept any answers. Some students will probably say the ‘right answer’. This isn’t important. What is important is that they will be thinking of all the possible responses. Give students plenty of time to respond and then press Play so that they can ‘check’. Continue in this way with the whole of the dialogue. It’s noisy, but fun! What’s more, it generates a lot of language.


Start by giving your students information about who is being interviewed. Then put students into pairs and ask them to write down five questions that they expect to hear the interviewer ask. Walk around looking at the students’ questions and drawing their attention to any errors. At this stage students should be concentrating on writing questions that are grammatically correct. Explain that if they hear one of their questions they get a point. If it is worded exactly the same they get a bonus point. Play the CD and get students to listen carefully to the questions and award themselves points.


CollocationsThis activity can be done with almost any recording. It is great for getting students to think carefully about which words go together and which words don’t. First, choose between six and ten collocations from the tape script – making sure that some word pairs at the beginning of the recording and some are at the end. Dictate the list of ‘first words’.  From the example below you could choose mobile, games, mp3, Internet, wireless, instant, text and social. Then dictate the list of ‘second words’ in a different order (broadband, messages, access, phone, player, networking, console and messaging). Give students a limited time to put together words from list A and words from list B, ie to collocate the words. Students then listen and count how many collocations they have the same as in the recording.



Language chunks

This activity works along the same lines as the collocation activity and is ideal for listenings about a specific topic. Tell students what the recording is going to be about (the example below is about someone working in a cafe). Ask them to work in pairs and to write a list of 10 phrases (ie language chunks with a minimum of two words) that they expect to hear, eliciting a couple of examples to check students understand the task. If you feel the students may need prompting, quickly sketch a word cloud on the board containing some word prompts (eg uniform, dishwasher, tables, etc). Play the recording and tell students to award themselves points when they hear their phrase: 3 points if it is exactly the same (eg wear a uniform, load the dishwasher, clean the tables) and 1 point if it they’ve come up with a different (but correct) phrase, eg lay the tables. This activity encourages students to think of vocabulary in a wider sense than isolated words.


Taken from Voices 3 Students’ Book by Catherine McBeth

Select nine words from the first half of a listening script and another nine words from the second half of the script. Write them on the board in two columns. If necessary check that students know the pronunciation. Get students to draw a bingo grid with nine squares and to fill the grid with four words from one column and five from the other. Play the recording. Students listen carefully for their words, crossing them off as they hear them. When somebody shouts ‘Bingo!’, stop the recording. Tell the winner to read out their words to check they’re correct.


Two main common denominators underpin all of these activities. By introducing students beforehand to some of the key words and phrases around which the text is built, they maximise their chances of decoding and understanding the recording when they hear it. The activities are designed to be fun, which will hopefully raise motivation levels. Listenings don’t have to be dull or difficult!


Katherine Bilsborough is a teacher, teacher trainer and co-author of the Voices workbooks for all levels.


*To access Mike Sayer's article Why do our pupils find listening difficult?, go to the Archive section, click on Printed editions and then on Issue 7 Autumn 2005. Open this edition and then double click on pages 6,7.


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