Critical thinking, Listening, Communication, Differentiation, Growth mentality, collaboration

8 ways to get more out of listening resources in second language instruction.

In a second language environment, one of the most challenging skills is listening. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence in my school district to confirm that this is the area of greatest challenge for most of our secondary level language students, and I’ve seen firsthand in my classes that it can lead to high levels of frustration.

This article is a good resource for those looking for a way to break down the skills included in second language listening. It lists 6 “dials of difficulty”, or challenges that students face in listening to a second language. These include topic, purpose, complexity, accent/register, pace, and supports. These factors can pose challenges even in a first language – my husband and I were recently watching a British drama with Yorkshire accents. English is our first language, but there were some scenes we just could not understand without subtitles. If just one of those challenge areas is outside a listener’s comfort zone, the task of listening and understanding can become significantly harder.

In a typical second language program, teachers use textbooks and resources that come with some pre-recorded tracks that are used for listening practice. Especially at the beginner levels, these tracks are often short, and there are not many of them. Once you as a teacher use these tasks, it’s not unusual to recognize that your students need more practice or support, but finding new listening tracks or exercises is time-consuming and difficult. That’s why I’ve spent time thinking about how I can do more with what I have, rather than spending my minutes (hours?) looking for more. Given the sometimes limited resources within a program to provide practice to students with listening skills, it’s so important to be able to take each listening opportunity and stretch it out to provide more chances for students to engage with the task in different ways, and to improve their listening skills. I’m using this blog post to share some of the ways I’ve discovered (so far) to stretch those resources!

Use the exercises within the program as inspiration

There are a variety of types of exercises that come with most programs and looking at the actions that students are asked to do while listening can help to inspire similar activities. If you’re making your own, you can use the original questions and adapt them. More listening practice will help students to hone their skills. I don’t make up a lot of questions, but I find that even a little bit of practice can help. Some common types of exercises include:

  • Putting things in order according to what students hear. Elements that are put in order can be objects, pictures, sentences, phrases, characters or plot points in a story, etc.
  • Filling in blanks to complete a phrase or sentence, based on what students hear. This can be done with those pre-recorded tracks that come with your program, but can also be done with song lyrics, news headlines, etc.
  • Choose an option to identify whether a statement is true or false.
  • Choose an option from a multiple-choice question to complete a statement or answer a comprehension question. The more practice students have with simple or familiar question types, the better! Again, options can be objects, pictures, sentences, phrases, characters or plot points in a story, etc.

Of course, adding more practice questions means potentially adding more grading. However, all you’re trying to do here is give your students more practice, so don’t make the grading something that will be onerous for you. Keep the number of questions low and the amount of discussion high to maintain a focus on learning and skill development. A couple of options to reduce grading time and increase feedback include self-grading Google quizzes (there are lots of tutorials for how to make these, but here is one example) or just using this as a formative assessment where you discuss the questions and grade them in class with your students.

Use the transcript as an exercise

Often, a program of instruction will have a transcript of the listening tracks that are published in a teacher resource. You can use this in various ways, and returning to the transcript after students have completed the initial questions allows thinking about it differently. Some options include:

  • Cut the transcript up and ask students to put it in order based on what they hear.
  • Ask students to identify connecting or organizing words used in the audio, comparing them to connecting or organizing words used in another audio track they have heard. Ask students to talk about similarities and differences, and apply them to their work.
  • Remove the punctuation and capitalization from the transcript. Ask students to work collaboratively or individually to add it back in. Encourage them to pay attention to intonation and repeat small portions of the audio as they work.

Connect the listening exercise to unit vocabulary

If you have a vocabulary list or theme, ask students to listen for familiar words from that list. This can be done in a few ways:

  • Ask students to underline or highlight words on a vocabulary list that they hear in a given track.
  • Use a visual dictionary that contains vocabulary from a unit of instruction, and ask students to place plastic tokens on corresponding images as they hear various words used. Ask students to take pictures of the tokens placed on the pictures as a formative assessment.
  • Tell students how many words in total in a given listening task come from their vocabulary list, and create a challenge to see who can identify all of them correctly.

Connect spelling and sound

Accent Signage in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

When learning a second language, students will often have traces of their first language that interfere with their second language. One way to get them to begin to notice and change this is to create exercises that focus specifically on the connections between spelling patterns and sounds. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use song lyrics or recordings of poetry recitals to ask students to identify rhyming sounds. This only requires them to focus on sounds at the end of a line and can be done individually or in pairs/small groups. I have used this strategy while using songs with my students. I play the song first, then the song with the lyrics, and finally just the lyrics on a page while the students recall the song and identify the rhymes. You can use YouTube as a resource for this if closed captioning is available in a video, or other resources within a program if yours comes with songs and video. This exercise can be extended by asking students to create rhyming pairs of words using certain sound patterns and connecting to a given theme.
  • Explore the many possibilities of karaoke-style videos like these.
  • Use rhyming dictionaries like this one to find rhymes with familiar words.
  • Target certain spelling patterns that you want your class to notice, like silent letters. Ask students to identify how many times a given pattern occurs in a listening track.
  • Ask students to identify aspects of context using connections between spelling and sounds. For example, singular and plural forms, or masculine and feminine forms should sound different based on spelling patterns.
  • With more advanced classes, use strategies like these guided noticing suggestions to identify connections between sounds and other skills like narration, questioning, pausing and more.
  • Ask students to read along with a recording to imitate a speaker. They can record themselves while reading the transcript and compare how closely they can replicate the sounds.
  • Use an app to help students practice the pronunciation of key spelling patterns. Available for iOS, the “How to Pronounce” app is a great way to create individual practice opportunities in a range of languages. Students can type in a line from an audio track and play it back at regular speed or slowed down. Advanced students can listen to a line of a recording and then guess what they think the speaker said, listening to the playback for verification.
  • Ask students to create dramatic readings of texts they have already heard in audio form. Imitating an authentic speaker to add emotion and intonation to an audio text is a great stepping stone to authentic oral production.

Focus on context

Although many exercises designed within a program focus on details and comprehension questions, students can learn a lot by paying attention to the context of a listening activity. “Context” is one of those words that students always tell me they know or they have heard, but they find it hard to explain. Knowing what it is and how to use it as a learning support is often invaluable. Students can take a look at these aspects of a task individually or collaboratively, depending on what is appropriate for the task, level, and time constraints. Ask them to identify aspects of context that support understanding: pacing, intonation, vocabulary choice, background information, organization of information, connecting words, and so on. These can be addressed one by one as they are relevant to a particular listening task, or can be combined in different ways. The model below is one option, or another format like a placemat template could also work for this exercise.

Add a critical thinking component

If you can edit tasks that come with your program of instruction, consider adding a few critical thinking questions to your tasks to get students to think about specific aspects of the audio input. Here are some examples:

  • Before listening, ask students to make predictions about an important aspect of what they will hear. This will vary task to task but can be a great discussion tool when they return to their predictions after listening and discover whether they were correct or not, and how they might change their thinking in the future.
  • In a true or false or multiple choice exercise, ask students to provide a word or phrase from the audio that supports their answer. You may or may not want to grade these responses, but students generally appreciate some conversation around them. I’ve found that if I’m grading them, I only look for spelling or accents that are close to what the word should be. That’s generally enough knowledge for the student to be able to use the information to decode a given portion of audio input.
  • Ask students to use the language register to figure out if the situation is formal or informal, whether the people in a situation know each other or not, etc. Ask them to provide more than one example as support for their answer, or extend their thinking by using a similar structure in their spoken or written production.
  • For beginning listeners, use the repetition that is often a feature of their listening tracks, and ask them to create a Venn diagram to explore similarities and differences with words or phrases from the audio. You can even supply some suggestions which students then place appropriately in the diagram, which serves to support a great discussion afterward.
  • Ask students to explain actions or reactions in an audio track. Questions like, “Why do you think Person X responded this way?” or “What makes you think this?” can encourage students to dig deeper into the interactions they are listening to and explore other cues.

Be explicit about goals and strategies

Before beginning a listening task, it’s helpful to preview by talking about what the goals are. For example, if you want students to listen to a track that has a high level of detailed information that they need to follow accurately to understand directions or description, that’s important for them to know upfront. If they need to figure out why two people disagree about something or what a speaker’s opinion is about a topic, they will need to be prepared to listen using different strategies.

Having a master list of strategies is helpful, and I found a great one in this book by Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh. One of the things I love about the list of strategies and tactics is that it transforms a challenging task to one where students feel there are practical steps they can take that will lead to their success. There is a wealth of information in this one book, but one way to begin using it is to ask students to think about two or three strategies before they start a listening task. For example, these three strategies are all ways to prepare for listening:

  • Preview the contents.
  • Rehearse the sounds of potential content words.
  • Encourage yourself to relax. (In my experience, this works best if you teach the class 2-3 specific relaxation techniques, and have students focus on using them.)

In groups of three, students can each choose one of those strategies, and focus only on that one as they are preparing. Then after the task, they compare the effectiveness of the strategy they used. the post-listening discussion is really important, and hearing from a range of students who are willing to share their thoughts and experiences is helpful. Asking why they chose a strategy or why it worked or didn’t work is helpful, as well as asking what they think might happen if they had more practice with a particular strategy.

Alternatively, you can ask all students to practice one strategy, but ask them to each choose a different tactic. Vandergrift and Goh distinguish between strategies and tactics as follows: strategies are a big-picture approach to a situation, and tactics are specific ways in which you can use a strategy. Tactics can be used with more than one strategy.

Here’s an example. Let’s suppose I want my students to focus on the strategy of previewing content. Some tactics that could work with this strategy are:

  • Use contextual clues
  • Use familiar content words
  • Draw on your knowledge of the world in general
  • Apply your knowledge of the target language

I usually ask my students to sit in groups of 4, which makes an exercise like this easy. In this scenario, each student chooses one tactic and focuses on previewing the contents of the task using only their tactic. They then share with the group what they noticed as they practiced it, and help build understanding collaboratively.

Students must change strategies as time goes by so that they develop a repertoire of strategies that work in a range of situations, and become comfortable using them. It’s also helpful to do this type of practice in a formative listening exercise so that students are more willing to engage in a different approach without being concerned about a grade as an outcome.

Talk about listening

Too often, listening is done as an individual task, and because there are so few exercises in a program, there are also very few opportunities for discussion. Talking about what worked and what didn’t is important to help students build their skills, realize they are not the only ones who find something challenging and collaborate on building understanding with a partner. In the example I used in the introduction of my husband and I watching the show with subtitles, we sometimes collaborate by asking each other what a character said. Discussing is a natural part of communication and building understanding, and can be a really powerful tool all by itself. Whether in pairs, small groups, or as a whole class, encouraging students to talk about learning helps give immediate feedback on the effectiveness of a strategy or tactic. These discussions can be recorded and uploaded to digital portfolios as evidence of learning, and students can revisit them as they prepare for their next listening task in future classes.

“Seagull stretch” by DavidSpinks is licensed under CC BY 2.0 
“Reuse Key” by Got Credit is licensed under CC BY 2.0 
“disassembled_keyboard_keys_MG_8586_sm” by willc2 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
“Connect Key” by Got Credit is licensed under CC BY 2.0 
“Accent Signage” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 
“Critical Thinking” by Ben Taylor55 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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