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TESOL: How to Teach Listening Skills

Listening comprehension is an area that many students feel they need improvement in. They feel lost when they have to deal with English outside the classroom, and don’t always feel that they are making progress fast enough.

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How Can Teachers Help?

First, teachers need to encourage students to recognize that listening is a skill that takes practice. Students will not make significant progress unless they are willing to listen to English outside of the classroom, even though it is challenging for them. Teachers need to provide effective listening lessons that help students gain confidence and learn strategies that they can apply in different situations.

Are You Testing or Teaching Listening Skills?

In the communicative classroom, teaching listening skills should be approached in the same way as the other skills – with a communicative purpose.  Communicative TESOL is different. Often, listening is taught with a linguistic purpose first and foremost – to improve and develop listening skills in the target language (this applies to other language skills as well).

This is, of course, a key goal of most listening lessons; however, in the “real world,” how often do we listen with this goal in mind?  Do your students go to the shopping mall on the weekend to buy a cell phone, and then listen to shoppers and store workers intent on improving their listening?

In the shopping mall, we listen because we need to get certain information, whether that information includes specific prices and options on a cell phone, or another shopper telling you why she prefers shopping at one store instead of another.

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Testing Vs Teaching Listening Skills

In the ESL classroom, simply playing a recorded dialogue and then asking students to correctly answer pre-cast comprehension questions based on that dialogue strips listening of nearly all of its real-world communicative context. You are left with a mainly linguistic exercise, which may give you some information about your learners’ current listening proficiency, but does not allow for the actual development of listening skills.

A cycle of listening/answering questions / checking answers/listening/ etc. is really just testing listening skills and doesn’t help students learn how to develop their listening skills and improve their listening comprehension.

Developing Listening Skills

With communicative TESOL, good listening lessons will provide pre-listening activities to help students better predict what kind of information they will hear by creating a context and a purpose for listening. Better listening lessons will also help learners to clear up misconceptions and miscues as they listen.  In other words, developing listening skills requires that students are provided with feedback and support in the process of listening, not just based on their comprehension after they have finished listening.

When listening is approached in this way, effective strategies for listening can be discussed and applied during the process of listening, making it easier for students to understand the relevance of those strategies and how they apply.

What Are The Steps in an Effective Listening Lesson?

For a general lesson, the following steps provide a useful format:

Activate student interest and background knowledge with a relevant introduction

Keep the introduction fluency-focused to encourage more engagement with the topic. This helps warm students up to the topic. In the real world, we don’t usually listen to information without having some idea of what we are going to be listening to, and when given a choice, we don’t usually listen to things that aren’t of interest to us.

Pre-teach vocabulary

Pre-teach vocabulary that is necessary for understanding the text, but don’t turn this into an exhaustive pre-listening activity. The goal is to move into the main focus of the lesson, not to get bogged down with a huge list of new words. If you have to pre-teach too much vocabulary, it’s possible the material or task is too difficult for the level.

Give students a purpose for listening at each stage of the lesson.

From the students’ perspective, new listening is often a wall of words from which they are able to glean small bits of meaning. Help them breakthrough by giving them specific tasks for listening, especially at the lower levels. The first time they listen to a new text, give students 2-4 gist questions to ensure they have got the general idea of the listening text before you begin digging in more deeply.

Read for more detail

After you are sure students have a grasp of the main ideas, you can begin to focus on reading for more detailed understanding. There are many different activity types you can use, but as for the gist stage, give students a specific task for each activity.

Focus on language

After students have worked with the listening text, you can focus on a grammar or vocabulary point that is featured in the listening. This stage in the lesson can expand beyond the themes of the lesson. And It can help students build on the language they have worked on within the lesson. You can also focus on specific features of connected speech. So that students learn the ways that language changes when spoken naturally.

Ask higher order questions

Give students an opportunity to use higher-order thinking skills in English by including an opportunity for discussion on the ideas or themes addressed in the listening. Expand the topic beyond the strict limits of the listening text. And also encourage students to make connections to their experience and to the world around them.

Encourage extensive listening outside of class

  • Have a regular ‘In the News’ focus in class. Encourage students to share information that they have learned from current newscasts.
  • Have students keep in a journal in which they note words and information that they have gleaned from their sources.
  • Encourage students to listen to English for at least 15 minutes a day. Even if they have difficulty understanding what is being said. Regular listening will help habituate their ears to the rhythms of natural speech, which will help in the long run.

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