The Three Stages of a Listening Activity
In this article, I will present the three stages of a listening activity, and present some basic suggestions for each stage.
“Okay students, we’re going to do some listening.”
(Turns on CD player. Plays listening track from coursebook)
(Plays CD track again.)
“Now, do the comprehension questions. We’ll check the answers in a few minutes.”
In the preceding vignette, you might have felt something was missing. On the surface, nothing was terribly wrong. She played the listening track, she asked the students to answer the comprehension questions. Not much more to teaching listening than that, right?
Although it could be argued that such an approach has a few merits (very little TTT, clear instructions), it lacks an understanding of the principles of teaching listening and does little to help students improve their listening ability.
At this point, a few readers might say “Wait a minute, I don’t think what she did was all that bad. Why do we need to organize a lesson to teach listening?”
It’s important to plan and organize a listening lesson in order to support our students and help them succeed at listening in English. By assigning tasks and focusing attention on different aspects of a listening text, we can help students develop their listening skills and identify where they need to improve.
In this article, I will present the three stages of a good listening activity, and present some basic suggestions for each stage.
The three stages are the pre-listening stage, the while-listening stage, and the post-listening stage. If you are teaching with a coursebook that contains listening activities, you should probably be able to identify these stages in your book. You may want to consider if you want to follow the plan in the teacher’s book or make some changes to it.
In the pre-listening stage, you are preparing the students to listen.
Ideally, you should already be familiar with the listening task. Before class, take a listen to the listening track and ponder these questions.
What is the situation?
How many people are speaking?
What different accents do you hear?
What is the topic?
Do you notice any language that students might find challenging (slang, colloquialisms, advanced level vocabulary)?
Also, before class begins, make sure the equipment is working properly. Test the CD or audio track. Also test the volume.
When you are in class, there are several things you need to do before you press play.
Set up the listening activity. Give students a simple preview of the listening text. You want to give them a little information, but not too much. Ideally, you should get your students thinking about what they hear. Give them just a tiny bit of information, such as the title, the topic, or a short sentence, and allow them to predict what they’re going to hear.
Ask them to preview the coursebook page or worksheet. If there is a worksheet or coursebook page that accompanies the listening track, give students time to look at the pictures, the tasks, the instructions, the questions. All this provides valuable information for the student. Remember: the students have (probably) not heard the listening track before, and they’re listening in a second language.
Steven Brown recommends that you “always set a pre-listening task”. He mentions two types of pre-listening tasks: bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up listening refers to focusing on grammar and vocabulary in order to understand the listening track, so a bottom-up pre-listening activity would be pre-teaching some vocabulary or grammar that is central to the listening text.
Top-down listening refers to using background knowledge (of the world or of text structure) to understand a listening text, so a top-down pre-listening activity would involve asking students to recall what they know about the topic of the listening track. For example, if your listening track takes place in a coffee shop, you can ask students what people say and do in a coffee shop or what things you usually see in a coffee shop. You can also ask students what they know about the type of listening text they’re about to listen to. For example, if it’s a video of a cook explaining how to make a dish, you can ask students to suggest what words might come up as the cook explains each step of the recipe (first, then, after that).
However, it’s important to keep the pre-listening stage fairly brief. McCaughey has noted that some teachers spend ten to fifteen minutes on a pre-listening task that is followed by a one-minute listening text. Choose one short task, and don’t let it drag on too long.
Finally, you should set up a while-listening task right before they listen. Explain the task briefly in English, and write it on the board, if necessary. Take a quick look around and make sure everyone is on the right page or the right side of the worksheet. Then. . . tap the play button and relax.
The while-listening stage is where students listen and do a task. Many coursebooks feature tasks, such as listening for gist, listening for main ideas, making inferences, and summarizing. Assigning a task can help students focus and develop important strategies for language learning.
Here’s a little more information about some common listening tasks.
Listening for gist – This means listening to get the main idea, so students should be trying to get the topic or theme of the listening track.
Listening for detail – This means listening to get specific information, such as How much was the meal? or Where was the bus going?
Making inferences – Here’s where students are listening to get information not explicitly stated on the track. Some examples: How do the two people feel about each other? or Where do you think the man will go next?
Ideally, you should play the listening track 2 or 3 times, setting a different task each time. Many experts suggest grading the tasks, going from easier to more difficult, such as starting with one gist question, proceeding with 3 to 5 detail questions, then following up with an inference question.
You should also give yourself a task: monitor the class. Are they paying attention? Does anyone look frustrated? What is the general vibe in the room?
The post-listening task is the stage where you take them beyond the listening text, and use it as a springboard for further language practice.
Mine the transcript. At this point, you can ask students to look over the transcript and see what they might have had trouble understanding. Some ELT experts protest against ever showing students the transcript, but I think it’s an excellent way for students to get another look at the language contained in the listening track. In addition, it can help students understand words and phrases that they didn’t understand when they were listening. Also, it can help students notice some of the differences between spoken language and written language.
Set a speaking task. Assign students to do a related speaking activity. For example, if students heard a conversation between two people at a party, ask them to reproduce the conversation in a different setting.
Detect problems. Get students to discuss what problems came up during the listening. Which sections were the most difficult? What caused them confusion or misunderstanding?
Personalize the listening text. Find ways that students can relate to the text. For example, if the listening is a monologue of a person expressing their opinion, you can ask students to tell you if they agree or disagree and give reasons for their position.
Overall, these three stages are a reliable format for doing a listening activity in class.
However, sometimes there are good reasons to break from this format. For example, students could read the transcript before the listening to pick up the context of the listening. Or the activity could begin with a short excerpt from the middle of listening text (no pre-listening task), to simulate the kind of listening we do in real life (turning on a TV show in the middle of a program, or walking into a room where a conversation has already started).
In the following weeks, I will share some useful activities for each listening stage. If you would like more information about teaching listening, please consult the books and articles listed below.
Brown, S. (2006) Teaching Listening. Cambridge University Press.
Brown, S. (2011) Listening Myths. University of Michigan Press.
Marks, J. Methodology: New Ways to Teach Listening. One Stop English. (http://www.onestopenglish.com/methodology/ask-the-experts/methodology-questions/methodology-new-ways-to-teach-listening/146394.article)
McCaughey, K. (2015) Practical Tips for Increasing Listening Practice Time. English Teaching Forum. (pp. 2-13) (http://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/53_1_article_practical_tips_increasing_listening_.pdf)
Richards, J.C. (2012) Tips for Teaching Listening. Pearson
Rost, M. and Wilson, J (2013) Active Listening. Pearson.
Wilson, JJ (2008) How to Teach Listening. Pearson Longman.
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