Communication, Growth mentality, Listening

12 key questions to build listening skills in a second language

When language learning is divided into its four core skill areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing, listening is often an area where students struggle the most. Listening to an authentic speaker or watching a video in the target language feel overwhelming to them, and they need specific instruction in how to do it.

If you can communicate in a second language, you’ve learned how to do this. For me as a teacher, this was an area where I struggled to articulate how I had learned to do it. In order to support my students, I needed to figure that out.

The event that forced me to really dig into this area of my practice was preparing my French 12 students for the DELF exam. Our students are not required to take these exams, but they have the option to do so and to earn a DELF certificate. Being a practical skills-based exam, it assesses student ability in each of the four language skills, and as part of my preparation to teach it, I sat in a room full of other experienced teachers, and we did the exam with the same time and resource constraints as our students would.

In a DELF level A2 exam (which most of our students do), the listening portion is approximately 25 minutes long, and is comprised of 3 sections. Students listen to 3 recordings, each relating to a different set of questions, and there is also some supporting information in the form of pictures or a short document such as a schedule or an ad. There is a 30 second pause, before and after each listeningFor each recording, the process is as follows:

  • students have 30 seconds to read the questions and supporting information
  • students listen to the recording the first time
  • students have 30 seconds to write their answers (usually in multiple choice, checkbox or one word formats)
  • students listen a second time
  • students have 30 seconds to check their answers and then move on to the next section

Each section has a different purpose for listening, with a range of difficulty. (Details and examples here.) Based on the practice exam experience, I developed a list of things my students would need to be able to do before listening:

  • identify the purpose for listening
  • identify the situation and context
  • read or scan any supporting documentation
  • identify key words in the questions that would help listen for or pick out answers
  • do all of the above within 30 seconds independently and without a dictionary or other reference

For students, the secret to doing well on the actual listening task was in knowing how to prepare and use the questions and supporting materials. For me as their teacher, the secret to getting them there was in scaffolding the practice. I started working on practice listening exercises with them. We started practicing, and I taught them to identify three things as quickly as possible: the purpose, context, and key words. Instead of giving them 30 seconds to go through the list, I didn’t give a time limit initially. We talked our way through it together, asking and answering questions related to purpose, context and key words. Once students were successful in the actual listening tasks, then I introduced the time limits, and gradually reduced the time down to 30 seconds.

After the experience with my senior class, I realized I had learned just as much about teaching listening skills as my students had learned about how to do it. I also realized that the place I actually needed to start building student capacity in these skills was grade 8 (the lowest grade that I teach). At that level, there was no value or purpose in teaching to the test that a limited number of students would take in grade 12, but there was real value in taking the skills I had learned there and adapting them for younger students. As time has gone by, I have learned to do much more than scaffolding.

  1. What’s the purpose? It’s critical for students to know what the purpose is and is not for a listening exercise. The purpose is never to understand every word that is spoken. The purpose can be varied, and can range from identifying objects or details to figuring out relationships between speakers, understanding background information about setting or time of day, and so on. Students need to know what they are listening for. Before they listen, they should make predictions about key words or other aspects of communication they can listen for that will help them find the answer. I ask my students to write these directly on the page where they will record their answers. This limits how much paper they need to look at during a complex activity, and also gives a visual representation of their thinking.
  2. What’s the context? Depending on whether we are listening to a speech, a song, an interview, or a casual conversation, students can predict things like how many speakers they will hear, what the relationship between the speakers will likely be, where the interaction takes place, and more. They don’t need to write this down, but thinking about it helps set expectations for listening, and they tend to understand the interaction much better.
  3. What’s the topic? Knowing this can help students predict how complex is the communication is likely to be, and they can connect to their prior knowledge around that topic. I often get my students to write a small amount of background vocabulary that they already know related to this topic on their page, and to make predictions about words they think they might hear.
  4. How fast will it be? Do I have control over pausing or rewinding? Pacing can feel overwhelming to students sometimes, especially if the topic is more complex than what they are used to. Reminding students of the purpose for listening is helpful here. They don’t have to understand every word they hear, and if they know they can pause, rewind or repeat the listening, they are more likely to engage with the new information and experience of learning.
  5. Can I break it into chunks? What’s the order of information I can expect? This is closely related to the purpose, context and topic, but knowing this can help students figure out key parts of a task to focus on, as well as figuring out what order they should answer the questions in.
  6. What supports are available? This can include things like dictionaries, partner work, asking the teacher for help, using a short piece of text or a picture for information, brainstorming words to use before listening, using notes from other tasks or lessons, etc. Knowing what the resources are in advance helps students to be strategic in when and how to use them.
  7. Is there body language (for a video) or intonation that can help me understand? is there an unusual accent or slang that I need to know? These aspects of communication will not necessarily be a part of every listening task, but they are helpful to students in understanding the communication. Slang words or cultural expressions are helpful for students to know. For example, I recently completed a listening exercise with my grade 8 class in which they needed to know that the word “garçon” was used to refer to a waiter, not a boy.
  8. What vocabulary do I need to think about? This includes key words used in the questions and/or listening task itself, as well as vocabulary they can generate in advance as they make predictions about what they will hear.
  9. What do the questions/key words/vocabulary sound like? This is a critical piece of understanding for students. Just looking at words on a page does not help them understand a listening task unless they can associate spelling patterns with sounds. We practice together before listening – I say the words, they highlight or make notes on anything that has a sound they’re not familiar with, and then they repeat the words back to me and practice with a friend or in a small group before listening.
  10. How do I use sentence structure if I don’t understand the whole thing? Knowing what type of listening task students are engaging them will let them know whether they will likely hear a question and answer format, lengthy descriptions, or other information about the structure of the information. They can think about what words would likely go around the ones they are looking for, or whether there is a lead-in they can listen for. For example, if the word they are listening for is a noun, there will usually be a word that precedes the noun that will help cue them for the information they need. Knowing standard question structures will also help them identify where in a conversation they might hear relevant information.
  11. What should students know about the actual listening they will do? Students need to know how many times they will have the opportunity to listen to or view a track, and whether they will have the opportunity to pause, rewind, or repeat the information. Depending on the experience and proficiency level of my students, I also use strategies like having them put down their pens or pencils and just listen the first time through, or just watch a video without sound to get a sense of the other aspects of the situation they might need to be aware of. I remind them of their purpose for listening before each time I play it, and guide them through the process of answering questions and verifying information.
  12. Once I can be successful in these tasks, what else can I do? Although my learning around how to teach listening started with my experience in practicing an assessment that my students would do, the primary purpose for doing so is not centred around testing and assessment but rather around building a set of skills that extend into other areas of communication. In pre-recorded listening tasks, students are listening for information, but they can use a very similar set of strategies in listening to interact, and listening for intercultural understanding. In an interaction with another person, the experience of having developed their listening skills will help them to hear what the other person is saying and to respond more effectively. They will have a wider range of experience in listening to a variety of speakers and will be less likely to be thrown off by a missing word here or there, a different accent, or a new topic. In learning to look at context, they will develop the ability to notice cultural aspects and contexts that will support their understanding of expressions, gestures, and ways of communicating.

In order for me to develop my abilities as a teacher in this area, there were a number of things I had to do.

  1. I had to build a repertoire of tasks, often a challenging thing to do especially at the junior level. I wrote a blog post here about some of the ways I’ve done this, listing examples of resources near the bottom.
  2. Next, practice often. Listening should not be a special event, and students need to get used to practicing their skills.
  3. As a teacher, I model my thinking, especially at the junior level or at the beginning of a course. Very few other courses that my students take ask them to do this type of listening and there aren’t a high number of cross-curricular skills they can tap into.
  4. I’ve also learned not to dumb it down, in spite of the level of challenge involved.
  5. I use some listening tasks as practice and formative assessment pieces. Sometimes students correct their own work to get immediate feedback, and I just collect it at the end to see how it went and where they can go next.
  6. I ask students to talk with a neighbour and co-build understanding, rather than having all listening tasks being high stakes events.
  7. I talk explicitly about the skills they are learning and the growth they show, as well as the connections from listening to understand to listening to interact, listening for intercultural understanding.

Photo credit: Photo by Jonas Mohamadi from Pexels

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