Listening makes up 45% of the time adults spend communicating, so it’s no wonder that it’s ranked as the most sought after skill by English language learners. What is surprising is how little ESL teachers spend on listenings, especially considering learners often rank it as the most difficult skill to master.
ESL textbooks provide listenings, but the quantity and variety of curricula-based listenings alone is not enough for learners to acquire sufficient listening proficiency. Teachers should add supplemental listenings from a variety of sources to increase listening skill acquisition.
Why is listening so hard for learners?
Listening is an extremely complex skill that demands great cognitive effort. The main moving parts that contribute to the mental complexity of listening are pronunciation, time pressure, and cultural knowledge.
The pronunciation of a word can differ wildly from it’s spelling. Just because learners recognize the written form of the word doesn’t mean they will recognize the spoken form. Furthermore, spoken language lacks the punctuation of written language. When listening, learners must also distinguish the ends of words, phrases, and sentences through sound alone.
Spoken information must be processed and understood in real time as it is received. Unlike written texts, learners cannot linger on difficult words or passages, nor can they usually return and listen to the same text again. The speed at which the information must be processed is determined by the speaker, not the listener and in many cases, especially with native speakers, can be quite fast.
Besides the pressure to understand the words being said as they are spoken, listeners must simultaneously also determine which sounds to keep and which to throw out. Beyond the information itself within the text, which will be more or less relevant to the overall message, listeners must also contend with the natural hesitations, repetitions, throwaway phrases, disorganizations of natural spoken language.
Learners’ cultural backgrounds and cultural knowledge can heavily influence their aural comprehension. Learners expectations of how conversations flow, organization of ideas, and even which topics are appropriate for certain types of interactions all inform how they listen. General knowledge of the foreign culture helps learners better predict the information they will hear, filling in gaps in comprehension with contextual expectations.
How can I teach listening?
To help learners acquire English listening skills, teachers should address the above difficulties through variety, practice of listening techniques, and building anglophone cultural knowledge.
Listenings for ESL learners should be varied. Learners should listen to talks on a variety of topics using a variety of vocabulary, in a variety of accents, and in a variety of formats. By all means, feel free to give more time to the accent(s) most frequently heard where your students live, but do not forget to expose them to more, including non-native accents. This is especially important in monolingual classrooms since learners will not have exposure to other foreign accents through their classmates.
Just as teachers teach reading skills, so should they teach listening skills. Students must practice skills like prediction, inference, listening for gist, listening for detail, following organizational markers, time management, and keeping calm. Resources for teaching these skills is beyond the scope of this article. For now, I recommend the British Council’s summary of skills and framework for planning a listening lesson.
While gaining cultural knowledge of the target language should not be the sole focus of language teaching, teaching learners about significant historical events and cultural phenomena can greatly increase their ability to predict and infer while listening. Knowing that the Beatles are a famous band and not a type of insect or that Washington state and Washington, D.C. are two different places can make a world of difference in listening comprehension.
American English Listenings Resource List
To help teachers get started on teaching with supplemental readings, here are four of my favorite sites for authentic American accent listenings. All come with complete transcripts and are free to access.
VOA’s Learning English section is organized by level, making it very easy to find listenings appropriate for your learners’ levels. All of their news articles come with audio versions and some come with videos. The videos are easily downloadable which is great for teaching with limited internet access.
One of my favorite VOA videos to use with intermediate learners is The People Along Route 66. This series of video interviews is easily broken down into sections. Students can listen for gist by determining who each interviewee is and what they do, but all the interviews have very specific details for listening closely. The interviewees are also just normal people so it’s good practice for filtering out extraneous information and filler phrases. Melba the Mouth always grabs students attention and freaks them out a little bit. She’s a great reminder that you don’t have to understand everything someone says in order to understand who they are.
NPR (National Public Radio (USA)) is an excellent resource for advanced learners. NPR offers a variety of lengths in their clips, from 2 minute short clips to length podcasts and interviews. The text level of NPR is quite high, and for this reason I find it most useful for upper intermediate and advanced learners. Many of their topics are great for preparing for proficiency exams and final secondary school exams. All audio files are downloadable.
Story Corps collects interviews from people across the US. All are interviews, but they can be between one, two, or more people, including children. All interviews come with a photo which is great for pre-listening prediction. Some also come with animations.
My favorite Story Corps interviews are John and Carol Matlock on their computer dating story, and Sharon Long, the forensic artist.
TED-Ed is a phenomenal resource for teachers. Registering for the site is free, but if you don’t want to the lessons are also searchable on YouTube with a link to the TED-Ed lesson. To access the transcript, open the video in YouTube, click the three dots (“…”) below the bottom right corner and click “Open Transcript”.
The strength of TED-Ed lies in their animations and lesson plans. Although the lessons don’t come with comprehension questions for the video, the “Think” and “Dig Deeper” have great discussion topics and reading and writing extensions. For comprehension questions, I just watch the video and write them myself.
One of my favorite TED-Ed videos is Where Do Superstitions Come From? The discussion questions in the TED-Ed lesson for the video are great for teens and adults and easily spun into a complete lesson.
I hope these resources will help English teachers around the world incorporate more listening into their classes. Variety, listening techniques, and cultural knowledge are key to building aural comprehension.