If I were to ask you to come up with a unique speaking activity, I’m sure you’d have little-to-no trouble. If I were to ask you to come up with a unique reading or writing activity, I’m sure you’d have little-to-no trouble. However, if I were to ask you to come up with a unique listening exercise, you might struggle a little bit more.
There seems to be almost no differentiation in listening tasks. You introduce the subject, have students listen to the text, and ask a few comprehension questions. Surely there has to be a way to spice up the boring routine of teaching listening.
Before we do so, we have to first dissect the listening exercise, in order to understand what is most important for ELLs. There are two main approaches to comprehending language, and it’s no different for listening. The human brain comprehends sensory data (and language) either through a top-down approach or through a bottom-up approach.
The top-down approach is, simply, understanding the smaller segments of language based on your big picture knowledge. Learners begin with their own background knowledge (schemata). This schemata can either be based on life experiences or previous knowledge, or it can be based on the context of the text. If students know that the text takes place at the bank, they can use their knowledge of banking language to understand the meaning.
On the other hand, the bottom-up approach takes the opposite approach. When a learner is using the bottom-up approach to listening they are trying to understand the smaller segments of language, like words and grammar, in order to understand the general meaning.
When dissecting a language exercise, it can be helpful to distinguish between whether your students are using their top-down or bottom-up processing abilities. However, it’s also important to break down your listening task into the three stages of learning: pre-listening, listening, and post-listening.
The portion of your lesson that precedes the actual listening exercise can be extremely important for non-native speakers. As a native speaker, listening to language is not very difficult, but as a non-native speaker, ELLs need to warm up their language skills in order to get ready. There are a few different variations with pre-listening.
It’s during this segment of the listening task that teachers can help guide their students to a balance between top-down and bottom-up processing. When these two approaches are balanced, students engage in interactive processing. During interactive processing, students aren’t simply concerned with the vocabulary or grammar of the text, but they also aren’t solely concerned with the general message of the text. It’s the way that most native speakers listen, by holding the context and the specifics in balance to allow each to bring understanding to the other.
Introducing the topic of the text to your students can be helpful in allowing them to utilize their top-down processing during the listening portion of the lesson. Before listening I’ve often told my students about the text they were about to listen. I’ve told them where it takes place, who is talking, and what they’re talking about. Another method is to activate your learners’ schemata. Give them tasks to help remind them of what they already know. Ask questions about the topic and have them formulate vocabulary, grammar, or other aspects of language that they may encounter. Both approaches allow them to understand the language based on what they already know.
Some students may benefit from activities that require them to process from the bottom-up. Oftentimes these are “worksheet” activities, but they don’t have to be. Introduce the vocabulary, talk about the pronunciations, or teach the grammar that they are going to encounter in the task. If they understand the definitions of the vocabulary, they won’t get caught up on it during the listening task. This can allow the students to understand the meaning of the task because they already understand the language that will be used.
As you can see, both are necessary and both are important. It really depends on your specific class, but, whether you’re teaching beginners or an advanced-level class, both approaches need to be balanced!
Listening tasks are pretty straightforward. You listen to the text, but it’s important to remember that your English language learners need a purpose for listening. As a native speaker, you almost never (if ever) listen without a purpose. When opening up a newspaper, you have a specific purpose for reading. The same should be true with non-native speakers.
Traditionally, listening exercises end with a few comprehension questions, but without a specific purpose learners are likely to get the comprehension questions wrong. The failure to correctly answer questions is not always a result of a simple misunderstanding. Students may misunderstand the question or the text. Yet it’s also possible that they understood, but weren’t focusing on the section of the text you asked them about. It’s also possible that they forgot, or that there was another issue.
When setting a purpose for listening there are three general variations: listening for specific information, listening for the gist, and listening to make inferences. To set the purpose you could give your students the comprehension question before they listen to the text, or simply tell them what you want them to pay attention to. “What time did Alyssa wake up,” “I want you to tell me what they are talking about,” or “Where do you think they are speaking,” are all ways to set a purpose for listening.
That being said, non-native speakers can benefit from listening to a text multiple times. It’s helpful to set a different purpose for each listening, and to have these purposes increasing in difficulty. Some teachers choose to have students listen first for specific information, then for the general message, and finally to make inferences.
Slowly stretch your ELLs listening skills!
Post-listening activities can be incredibly diverse. Since there is such a wide variation, I’m only going to touch on the topic briefly. There are two main things to remember when planning a post-listening activity: incorporate other language skills and reuse language.
Post-listening exercises can extend much farther than simple multiple-choice comprehension questions, but language skills should not (and often can not) be taught separately. Incorporating speaking, reading, writing, and listening within a lesson or within your post-listening activities is the most natural way to teach language. Some ideas for post-listening are to have students talk about it, write down their own news story, or read the text themselves.
Recycling language is one of the most important parts of second language acquisition. I’ve touched on it before, but remember that if you learn something and never encounter that topic again, you are likely to forget. Using and reusing language helps to cement information in your learners’ brains, but it can also motivate students to use the language outside of class. Activities like role-playing a conversation between a cashier and customer can help to make the language real!
Before we can turn our attention towards creating great, interactive, and motivating listening exercises for our students, we have to first understand the steps to learning listening skills. Listening has to be carefully book-ended by activities that equip students with confidence and help them to balance between their top-down and bottom-up processing systems.
Listening doesn't happen independently. All four language skills of listening, reading, writing, and speaking are connected and work together in order to produce fluent communication. Listening activities don't have to work independently either. Incorporate them into your reading, writing, or speaking lesson plans to help your students begin building listening skills.
I Want to Hear From You!
Have you ever felt lost when planning a listening exercise?
Which aspect of a listening exercises do you need to work on - pre-listening, listening, or post-listening?