Communication, Critical thinking, Curriculum, Differentiation, Growth mentality, Lesson ideas, Listening, Personalized Learning

Skill-based strategies for listening in second languages

One of the big shifts in education in BC has been the transition from a content-based curriculum to one that is skills-based. There are many subject areas that are heavily driven by content (math and science, for example). Second languages are a relatively easy place to make the transition to skill-based instruction, but it is a paradigm shift that takes practice for both teachers and students.

Listening exercises in second languages are a very common way to assess student learning, but they can also be very challenging for students. Typically there will be a conversation, interview or announcement that they listen to, and a selection of questions that they have to answer as they listen to a recording. Most exercises are structured so that the students hear the recording a limited number of times (twice is very typical in the programs I use), and then the exercise is collected for assessment.

Many of my students have told me that they often feel like they have to have some sort of magical ability to listen and get information. I hear complaints about the speed of native speakers, the difficulty level, and so on. Students tend to see these exercises as unconnected, one time events that all use different information and there is little/nothing that they learn from them to improve their performance over time. This can lead to a high level of stress for students, and prevent them from building their listening skills over time. Shifting that mindset can be done with a series of steps before, during and after listening.

Before listening

This is a time that I use to settle some nerves, communicate my expectations, and coach students on how to approach the task ahead. I don’t use all of these all the time, and I try to choose only those strategies that will apply to the task at hand. Some of the things I do at this point include:

  • Start a short discussion in the target language on a related topic, or using related vocabulary. Students will benefit from being actively engaged in talking and will release some nervous energy, and speaking to and listening to their peers (not me as a teacher) will also help focus on sounds and verbal cues rather than written work.
  • Encourage students to “hear voices in their heads” as they pre-read questions. They will tend to focus on printed words as representations of meaning as they read, but they need to see them as representations of sound.
  • Encourage students to make predictions about what they will hear. They can use highlighters to identify what they think will be key words, and help focus their listening by thinking about what that key information will be. For example, if a question asks where something is and they have a number of multiple choice responses giving locations, they can choose one key word from each option that will help them differentiate between locations and listen specifically for that information.
  • Make sure that (to the greatest degree possible) students understand the questions. I use a strategy in which I ask students to find the mots amis (friendly words, i.e. those that have similar spelling and meaning in English), mots connus (the words they already know) and then to focus on the nouveaux mots (new words). If there is a new word that is blocking their comprehension of a question, they can raise their hand and ask for help understanding that word. I use this strategy on a wide range of tasks, and so it has become a familiar routine.
  • Think about synonyms or alternative phrases that you might hear for key information. Many listening exercises encourage critical thinking in students by using questions that are worded slightly differently than the listening track. Thinking about this beforehand activates related knowledge that a student can bring to the table to think critically and interpret the places where the words on the page and the words that they hear are similar.
  • If there is a difference between the order of information on a page and the order of information in the audio portion, I usually let students know. The only time I wouldn’t do this is if this specifically something I am assessing.
  • I ask students to identify anything in the instructions that lets them know what type of audio recording this is (interview, conversation, speech, etc.) and how many people are talking. This helps them set expectations and guide their comprehension as they listen.

During listening

As they listen, students will use the information they identified by the pre-listening strategies they used, and try to find the answers to the questions. In addition to that, they can use a range of other cues to find answers:

  • Tone of voice. If the question you ask requires them to be able to identify whether a speaker prefers one thing over another, often the tone of voice will tell them just as much about that as anything else.
  • Situation. If an aspect of the situation helps make a choice, students need to pay attention to that as they select their answers.
  • Verb tenses. For example, in French there are two past tenses that are often used to tell stories. One is used to indicate one time actions, and the other is used to indicate ongoing, interrupted or habitual events. Knowing this can help students interpret questions and make appropriate choices.
  • Relationships between questions. It happens frequently that questions which follow one another on a timeline will contain related information. Students can use the wording of subsequent questions to help them find answers to earlier ones they may need support with.
  • Relationships between sound and spelling. Students can build their knowledge of pronunciation of a second language by paying attention to the similarities and differences between the sound and the spelling of words as they listen.

After listening

  • Before handing in their work, I ask students to think about the skills they used before and during listening. If there is anything else they can complete before handing it in, they have the opportunity to do so.
  • On some listening tasks, I also include a short reflection at the end. This can be a simple checklist that lists the key strategies they could have used on a given task, and asks them to select the ones they used. From time to time, I also ask them to rate the skills from 1-3 to indicate which ones were most effective for them. This gives them some idea of which skills they should come back to on future exercises.

Growth mentality

The goal of this process is that students should grow in the skills necessary to complete any listening exercise, not just the one they are working on at the moment. We as teachers can show our students the connections between these assessments that will help grow their skills and lead to their success.


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