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Language educators would be well aware that there are four core language skills: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Oxford, 1993 argues that listening is ”the most fundamental” of these, particularly when we consider that it accounts for about 45% of the time adults spend in communication. This is significantly more than speaking, which accounts for 30%, reading (16%) and writing, which accounts for only 9%. (Lee and Hatesohi, 1993)
Yet, despite the obvious importance of listening, developing this skill set often receives less attention from students and language teachers. As Osada (2004) identifies, the other three language skills frequently receive direct and tailored focus from educators, who “often expect students to develop their listening skill by osmosis and without help.”
Developing strong listening skills is obviously vital in foreign language learning - the ability to listen is “the gateway to understanding.” (Mannion and Mercer, 2020) As the authors argue: “If we explicitly taught listening skills to every child, we would likely see benefits in terms of their ability to acquire knowledge and skills in a range of contexts.”
So having outlined the rationale of developing students’ listening skills, this blog post outlines how educators can put in place specific, practical strategies to help improve their students’ ability to listen.
Get planning and preparation right!
Before starting to think about developing specific lesson interventions for teaching listening skills, it is vital to get the basics right. It’s therefore worth beginning by thinking about and addressing some of the difficulties that a foreign language learner might have in fully understanding a conversation, a film, or a podcast in their target (or even their first) language. As the British Council identifies: “The speaker, the situation and the listener can all be the cause of these difficulties.” So before seeking to teach listening skills, it’s vital that educators ensure that the right environment is established in which listening can take place.
- Do any of your students have a physical limitation that makes listening difficult and which requires extra support?
- Are there lots of external or background noise which makes audio content difficult to hear?
- Is the audio equipment used to play or to listen to the audio material of sufficient quality?
- Does the audio material meet the lesson requirements in terms of quality, content, and vocabulary? Is the speaker clear?
- Are there cues that enable students to pick up what they can without trying to translate every word?
It’s also important to try and provide some context for the audio material before any exercise begins. Are students listening to a weather bulletin, a conversation at the supermarket, or an argument between friends?
Students’ confidence (a key element of listening comprehension in a target language) will obviously increase if they have a clear understanding of the task’s aim or objective. If they have a clear idea of what to listen out for, then the exercise will be more engaging and purposeful for your students.
If these considerations are not addressed, then there’s a danger that students will simply zone out and just stop listening. It’s not their skills that need addressing in this instance, it's their motivation to learn!
Building listening skills in foreign language learning
Having created the foundations for success, let’s now focus on how educators can help students rapidly develop high-quality listening skills. Dawes (2008) is clear that this can and should be integrated into everyday language classroom activities. But what classroom-tested activities are most effective for the purpose? Here are four strategies that every language educator can deploy!
1. Go beyond fact-based questions
Understandably, the majority of listening exercises focus on recognizing factual information from a speaker: What time does the train leave? How do I get to the town hall? Where does Simon’s sister live?
But there’s a wealth of information that learners can capture and share to demonstrate their understanding beyond simple comprehension. Ask context-based questions about the setting for the conversation and the emotions involved or get students to consider what might have happened next. This all helps students to be more active participants in the conversation and to identify deeper levels of meaning and understanding.
2. Support better note-taking
Help students develop a listening organizer so that they can focus on the key details when listening to the audio content. This helps them to collate and curate information around key themes rather than just a random collection of thoughts and information. Such techniques allow learners to scaffold their understanding, focus their listening, and therefore improve their overall understanding.
3. Don’t just press play!
To build confidence and experience, it can be highly beneficial for learners to listen to the audio track more than once! The first listen gives an overall picture of what’s going on - this can then be followed by top-level questions. A second listen provides an ideal platform to ask more detailed, specific, follow-up questions.
There may also be occasions where it could be more useful to play the content in chunks and to ask tailored questions on what students have just heard. This can help students to build up a detailed picture of what’s happening and provides more time for them to process the information contained.
4. Springboard into other activities
The listening exercise is, of course, of significant value as a stand-alone piece of work. But do bear in mind how it could be used as a lead toward other language learning activities. Students could, for example, answer questions orally or in writing in their target language. The context-based questions outlined above could generate powerful conversations with partners, in small groups, or as a whole-class discussion. Alternatively, students could record themselves speaking their responses as a useful homework exercise after they’ve had time to gather their thoughts and responses.
How can Sanako Connect help educators to teach listening skills?
Sanako Connect is a powerful browser-based language lab software that helps educators to improve students’ listening skills. It enables teachers to:
- Create engaging listening exercises using a wide variety of media including sound files, podcasts, presentations, videos, and other digital content.
- Assign exercises for students to demonstrate their understanding. Connect offers an easy way to create exercises for model imitation, gap-fill exercises, and much more.
- Easily divide students into pairs or small groups for conversation practice. After all, an effective and enjoyable conversation can only occur if both sides are listening to each other!
- Give students access to the exercise/resources from any physical location with internet access, at any time and using any device, including laptops, Chromebooks, or tablets.
- Provide detailed feedback via Connect’s feedback functionality. Students can immediately see where improvements need to be made and can relisten to the original audio material to see where they went wrong.