By Margaret Hurley. Co-writer You Can Teach Grammar
The benefits of using authentic material in TESOL are many. Authentic material generate interest, offer more variety than the material embedded in textbooks, and can be extremely practical, fun and current. Especially for teachers who are not in an English-speaking country, authentic material is an excellent way to bring the English-speaking world into the classroom.
This article offers some tips for using (non-musical) radio or podcasts in the classroom.
Using Authentic Material to Motivate Students
Since the advent of podcasting, a rich variety of authentic listening material is now widely available. This enables focus on just about any subject that a teacher might deem appropriate for any particular class. Whether the class is keen on hip-hop fashion, nuclear physics, vegetable gardening or ancient Greek philosophers, there is authentic listening material readily available through thousands of free podcasts.
Authentic material is a huge motivator for students, and can often encourage students to reach beyond their ostensible level of comprehension: if they are genuinely interested in the content, they are much more likely to push themselves and to use all the tools they have to increase their comprehension. For this reason, the first step to developing a meaningful and memorable ESL lesson with podcasts is to find a topic that students have an interest in.
How to Choose the Right Podcast
Choosing a suitable podcast is quite important. With a new class, it can be difficult to gauge subjects of interest, so generic topics (the kind typically found in textbooks, such as food, travel, movies, and home life) are safest.
Duration of Podcast for ESL Lessons
Once a more specific set of interests is established, and suitable subjects are clear, the next step in choosing appropriate listening material is the length and style. A great many podcasts are under five minutes in length, and this is really a good upper limit. If a chosen passage is longer than that, it really is necessary to cut it into more consumable segments. For lower levels, the five-minute time limit is almost certainly too long. The typical length of the listening exercises in the textbooks appropriate for your students’ level is a good guide.
Style of Podcast for ESL Lessons
The style of the recording can greatly influence its suitability as well. Does it have many constituent parts (musical element, introductory passage, background scene-setting sounds, question-and-answer segment), or is it more of a monologue? The more constituent parts the passage has, the easier it is for the teacher to set distinct tasks for repeat listening.
Remember, each time a piece is played in the classroom – no matter the source – there must be a clear purpose to the listening: what should students be listening for? Consider also attributes such as speed, accents, ambient noise, and sound quality.
Listening Activities for Teaching English with Podcasts
Regardless of the length and style of a radio show or podcast, there are a few basic requirements of any listening exercise.
It will usually be appropriate to have at least one listening activity dedicated for the broad meaning: listening for the gist. This is easy for the teacher to prepare for: give students a broad question about the general meaning of the listening (What is the main point? What are the speakers arguing about? Who is speaking and why? Where and when is this happening?). Then play the recording and elicit responses to the preparatory question.
Depending on the focus of the class and the content of the material, it will probably be appropriate to have a subsequent listening that focuses on specific language: listening for details such as vocabulary or use of a certain grammatical form.
After that, the real work (for the teacher!) begins. The deeper exploitation of authentic listening material is simultaneously more difficult and more rewarding. The main techniques and benefits of listening activities should be generally apparent for anyone who uses professionally-developed material from textbooks.
The lines of questioning are typically related to the subject matter for which the listening was designed: if the textbook is covering language associated with health or interrogative grammar forms, then these will be the things that students will be asked to listen for.
Authentic material, of course, is not designed to fit a teacher’s lesson planning, and so invariably requires some filtering, pre-teaching or directed instruction on the part of the teacher in order to be used successfully. If students find the tasks too difficult, then one of the major benefits of authentic material – motivation – will be wiped out.
With authentic listening material, ESL teachers must pluck out the nuggets of useful language. In addition, teachers must anticipate language that could hinder students’ success in completing tasks.
If the passage contains vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar that students are likely to find impenetrable on their own, then the simplest solution is to pre-teach these elements. Students will start the listening exercise with this knowledge and it will not interfere with the target language.
Another simple way to deal with probable problematic language is to get students to use their deduction skills to approximate the meaning, with directed questioning such as, “Is it positive or negative? Higher or lower? Better or worse?” If this is sufficient to get the gist, then leave it at that and move on to the target language.
Teaching Vocabulary, Grammar, and Pronunciation
Having dealt with the inevitable problematic language, the real value of authentic listening material can be extracted. If the material has been wisely chosen, it will contain target elements. Vocabulary and grammar are the most obvious. But authentic listening material is a particularly rich source for language elements that are less frequently given focus in the classroom.
Pronunciation is at the top of the list. In addition to the basic vowel and consonant sounds, authentic listening material is an outstanding resource for teaching intonation stress in context, both syllable stress within words, and word stress within sentences.
A further permutation of pronunciation that can be exploited with authentic listening material is the intonation associated with register. If a passage is clearly specific to a situation (a protester complaining about government policy; a lottery winner; a company spokesperson answering questions about criminal accusations), then a set of words – “I can’t believe it,” for example – would be intoned in a fairly predictable and specific way. ESL students could even be given part of the script beforehand and asked to say it in a normal way, then listen to the words in their context and compare that intonation to their original attempt.
Authentic listening material is a wonderful source of paralanguage: that in-between world of sounds that are specific to English speakers, but are not fully-fledged words. Mmm, hmmm, huh, eh, ow, ssshh, ungh, aargh, and others fall into this category. The vast majority of this paralanguage never makes it into the classroom, in spite of its very frequent occurrence in the English speaking world.
Properly chosen and designed, ESL lessons featuring authentic listening material such as radio shows or podcasts can be among the most memorable for students.