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Listening is one of the most difficult language skills to practice in the classroom, and it can be difficult to find out how to support your students who are struggling. It's way easier to structure a speaking activity well or to type up a rubric for your student's essays. However, listening is just as important as speaking, writing, or reading, and it deserves the same amount of attention!
The best thing you can do for your struggling listeners is to properly scaffold the listening exercises that they'll be taking part in. Scaffolding refers to providing your students proper support in order to successfully accomplish a task or participate in the learning community. Scaffolding can take many forms, such as providing contextual clues, modelling pronunciation, and much more.
To Learn More about What Makes a Listening Task Successful,
Check Out The Three Parts of a Listening Exercise
There are three ways that you can support your struggling listeners and scaffold your listening exercises. The first is to support them through the recording that you choose or the materials that you make available. The second way is to structure your task in a way that will allow them to succeed and grow. The third way to support your struggling listeners is to teach them how to listen well.
Choosing a Recording
When choosing a recording for your class you may be tempted to choose something specifically created for ELLs, something that is spoken slowly and with simple vocabulary. While this can be really helpful for certain skills and goals, it’s not always the best choice or you may not even have a choice.
If you have been given an audio sample to use that is above your students’ level or you want to expose them to more realistic speaking speeds and styles, there are two things that you can do to support your students.
Provide a Transcript: The first thing that I recommend you do is to provide a transcript for all of or part of the task. Sometimes following along on paper can be a hindrance to your students’ listening, but most of the time it will help them distinguish between words and draw lines between the written word and the correct pronunciation.
A transcript can also give you a jumping-off point for follow-up exercises, as students can mark out words that are unfamiliar to them, make notes about intonation, and repeat statements verbally that might be difficult for them.
The Recording isn’t Important: Choosing a recording that will be understood by your students, while still stretching them is important (see: Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Comprehensible Input). However, I want to encourage you to focus less on the input and more on what your students are able to do and are asked to do with what they're listening to.
If you think your recording is too advanced for your students, change your focus. Instead of asking them to listen for the main idea, maybe ask them to listen for the locations that are mentioned or the tense that the speaker is using.
Choosing more advanced recordings can be a great confidence-builder because your students will realize that they are capable of picking up information from a real news clip or a movie trailer that a native speaker would understand.
Choosing a Task
The next way to support your struggling listeners is through the task. I mentioned above that the task is more important than the recording, which is why it’s so important to be realistic with your expectations and to give your students the support they’ll need to be successful.
Be Realistic: If I have a beginner-level class and I play them a segment from Good Morning America there should be no issue. However, if I ask them to listen to that segment and then give me their opinion on the issue that is discussed, I’m going to lose them.
Creating realistic tasks is one of, if not THE most important part of a listening exercise. Asking my students to give their opinion on the segment will require them to understand the words being spoken, comprehend the topic, connect it to their previous experience and knowledge on the topic, and formulate their own thoughts. That’s a lot of work.
However, if I ask my students to simply tell me what is being discussed, it becomes a lot more attainable. They’ll be able to use body language, vocabulary, tone, and visual cues to identify the issue that is being discussed on a show created for native speakers.
Listen for a Purpose: So, you have realistic expectations for your students, now you have to explicitly identify them and communicate them. If you show your students the Good Morning America clip with no context and no purpose, you’ll receive blank stares when you ask your follow-up question.
Listening to something created for native speakers in your second language is an overwhelming task, especially when you don’t know what you’re listening for. Tell your students why they’re listening, so that they’re prepared to extract the data they need!
If you want your students to listen for the main idea (the topic being discussed or the hosts’ feelings), tell them that! If you want your students to listen for a specific detail (the name of the celebrity or the date of the crime), tell them that!
Stay on Topic: If you’ve set a realistic goal and a purpose for listening, then stick to it. No curve balls, especially if your students are struggling with listening comprehension! The goal here is to strengthen your students’ listening skills and provide them with the support they need to be successful.
If there are multiple things that you want your students to identify, split it up into multiple listening sessions. Listen once for the main idea, a second time for a specific detail, and a third time for the way the host pronounces a certain word.
You can prepare the perfect listening task to complement your recording, but without support during the listening process, your students may become overwhelmed and discouraged. Teaching your students how to listen well, and creating an environment in which they can practice this skill is integral to supporting your struggling listeners.
Slow Down: I would say that this is the number one mistake teachers make in the classroom, myself included. Whether it’s listening, reading, writing, or speaking, teachers often rush through an activity and don’t leave enough time for the students to fully comprehend the language and answer the questions.
Even if you choose a great recording, provide the transcript, and create a realistic and clear task, your students will still need to listen to the recording multiple times. Repetition is so important!
I recommend playing a recording at least 3 times for a beginner-level class. Depending on the difficulty of the recording you can set a different purpose for each run through or you may want to focus on a single purpose for the entire task.
Don’t Give Away the Answer: It’s so easy to get frustrated and impatient when teaching a beginner-level course. And there are times when the answer isn’t very important and you can just give it to your class.
However, if you’re working on listening comprehension and your students aren’t able to answer your question that is based on the recording, give them the tools to identify the answer, but don’t give them the answer itself.
For example, if you ask your students a question that they can’t answer, provide some context, reframe your question, or replay that section of the recording until they can answer. Give them the tools and support to work the answer out themselves.
Listening exercises don't have to be overwhelming, and they certainly don't have to be boring and tedious. Provide your students with some interesting, realistic audio input, but be realistic about what they can do with it!
Check out the Listening Resources Below to Continue Learning:
I Want to Hear From You!
What are your favorite ways to build your students' listening skills?
How do you support struggling listeners in your classroom?