Learning to Listen With Our Eyes

learning to listen with our eyes

Learning to Listen With Our Eyes

Listening is of course a vital skill to develop to enable our students’ language abilities and course book writers are right to include a good range of listening materials and audio files to help teachers do this. These audio files provide students with exposure to a wider range of accents and examples of discourse from a range of contexts beyond the confines of the classroom.

In order to reinforce the development of these listening skills, many teachers also use video clips from the internet. There are a vast range of clips now available on services such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook and other video sharing platforms and these enable teachers to enrich their syllabus with a wider range of authentic listening materials that can help to motivate students and make them feel more empowered by taking their English listening skills into the real world of the internet.

The other important thing that these kinds of clips enable is to help students build the connection between what they hear and what they see. Research findings vary considerably when attempting to describe the ratio of communicative message transfer between the visual and aural with some researchers crediting as much as 55% of message comprehension to visual factors.

Developing this important visual aspect of comprehension is impossible when using audio files alone and often forgotten by teachers using video clips to develop listening skills, but it can form a vital part of supporting student’s listening comprehension.

One of the best ways to help students develop their awareness of the visual information in a video is to allow them to watch the clip silently before they listen. This reduces the cognitive load often associated with trying to decode authentic language whilst viewing and allows students to relax and focus on only the visual aspects.

Here are a few of the ways in which watching can help students to understand.

  • Students can focus on the context in which the language occurs and find parallels from their own language culture.
  • Watching a clip helps students to form a framework for comprehension by understanding the structure of the clip and building up a sense of what is happening.
  • Students can access their understanding of genre. For example, if they are watching a news clip they will have some understanding of what normally happens in that genre of media, e.g. starts with new headlines, followed by major news stories, includes interview with on the spot reporter, etc.
  • Watching the clip helps students see the way the characters interact with each other which helps them understand the relationships between the people.
  • Students can focus on the facial expressions of each person and understand their attitude to each other and what they may be feeling.
  • Watching the clip before listening can also reduce student stress and cognitive overload as stated earlier.

Of course just playing the video clip silently and expecting our students to extract all of this information can be a little optimistic, so we need to facilitate this process by developing a range of silent viewing tasks.


Here are some suggestions for activities.

  • Get students to watch the clip and try to imagine what each person is saying. This is best done in short play and pause bursts, especially if you expect the students to write anything down.
  • Students can watch and count how many times each person speaks. This could be done with a simple dot graph or students could have an image with the people on and draw the lines of interaction between the people.
  • You can give students images of each person in the clip and they can watch and build a profile for each one, including the relationships between them and any aspects of character they can detect.
  • You could create a storyboard template of the clip and get students to complete it. Again if you expect them to draw anything, they will need time to do this so you may have to pause the video or give them time once they have watched. Alternatively you just get them to order cut up storyboard images from the video as they watch.
  • You can ask students to focus on cultural aspects of what the see and ask them to identify features which locate the clip within a certain location or culture. They could also look for differences between the culture of the clip and their own culture.
  • If you have the facilities to do split viewing you could put students into pairs and get one student to narrate what they are seeing to their partner.
  • You can show students a silent clip and ask them to think of questions that they want to know about each person and what is happening, these can then form the basis of their first listening task when you have the audio on.


These kinds of activities don’t just help to focus students and support their listening skills, but they can also help to reduce the stress that students sometimes feel when faced with comprehension tasks based around authentic materials.

These are a few examples of the kinds of activities I have built into the lesson plans in my Digital Video – A manual for language teachers ebook [https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/digital-video/id1025275485] . I hope you find these activities useful.

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