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Teaching Listening Skills: What is it & How?

How to Teach Listening Skills

Listening comprehension is an area that many students feel they need improvement in. They feel lost when they have to deal with English outside the classroom and don’t always feel that they are making progress fast enough.

How Can Teachers Help?

First, teachers need to encourage students to recognize that listening is a skill that takes practice. Students will not make significant progress unless they are willing to listen to English outside of the classroom, even though it is challenging for them.

Teachers need to provide practical listening lessons that help students gain confidence and learn strategies that they can apply in different situations.

Are You Testing or Teaching Listening Skills?

In the communicative classroom, teaching listening skills should be approached in the same way as the other skills – with a communicative purpose.  Communicative TESOL is different. Often, listening is introduced with a linguistic purpose first and foremost – to improve and develop listening skills in the target language (this applies to other language skills as well).

This is, of course, a key goal of most listening lessons; however, in the “real world,” how often do we listen with this goal in mind?  Do your students go to the shopping mall on the weekend to buy a cell phone, and then listen to shoppers and store workers intent on improving their listening?

In the shopping mall, we listen because we need to get certain information, whether that information includes specific prices and options on a cell phone, or another shopper telling you why she prefers shopping at one store instead of another.

Testing Vs Teaching Listening Skills

In the ESL classroom, simply playing a recorded dialogue and then asking students to correctly answer pre-cast comprehension questions based on that dialogue strips listening of nearly all of its real-world communicative context.

You are left with a mainly linguistic exercise, which may give you some information about your learners’ current listening proficiency, but does not allow for the actual development of listening skills.

A cycle of listening/answering questions / checking answers/listening/ etc. is really just testing listening skills and doesn’t help students learn how to develop their listening skills and improve their listening comprehension.

Developing Listening Skills

Good listening lessons will provide pre-listening activities to help students better predict what kind of information they will hear by creating a context and a purpose for listening.

Better listening lessons will also help learners to clear up misconceptions and miscues as they listen.  In other words, developing listening skills requires that students are provided with feedback and support in the process of listening, not just based on their comprehension after they have finished listening.

When listening is approached in this way, effective strategies for listening can be discussed and applied during the process of listening, making it easier for students to understand the relevance of those strategies and how they apply.

What Are The Steps in an Effective Listening Lesson?

For a general lesson, the following steps provide a useful format:

Activate student interest and background knowledge with a relevant introduction

Keep the introduction fluency-focused to encourage more engagement with the topic. This helps warm students up to the topic. In the real world, we don’t usually listen to information without having some idea of what we are going to be listening to, and when given a choice, we don’t usually listen to things that aren’t of interest to us.

Pre-teach vocabulary

Pre-teach vocabulary that is necessary for understanding the text, but doesn’t turn this into an exhaustive pre-listening activity. The goal is to move into the main focus of the lesson, not to get bogged down with a huge list of new words. If you have to pre-teach too much vocabulary, it’s possible the material or task is too difficult for the level.

Give students a purpose for listening at each stage of the lesson.

From the students’ perspective, new listening is often a wall of words from which they are able to glean small bits of meaning. Help them break through by giving them specific tasks for listening, especially at the lower levels. The first time they listen to a new text, give students 2-4 gist questions to ensure they have got the general idea of the listening text before you begin digging in more deeply.

Read for more detail

After you are sure students have a grasp of the main ideas, you can begin to focus on reading for a more detailed understanding. There are many different activity types you can use, but as for the gist stage, give students a specific task for each activity.

Focus on language

After students have worked with the listening text, you can focus on a grammar or vocabulary point that is featured in the listening. This stage in the lesson can expand beyond the themes of the lesson. And It can help students build on the language they have worked on within the lesson. You can also focus on specific features of connected speech. So that students learn the ways that language changes when spoken naturally.

Ask higher order questions

Give students an opportunity to use higher-order thinking skills in English by including an opportunity for discussion on the ideas or themes addressed in the listening. Expand the topic beyond the strict limits of the listening text. And also encourage students to make connections to their experience and to the world around them.

Encourage Extensive Listening Outside of Class

  • Have a regular ‘In the News’ focus in class. Encourage students to share information that they have learned from current newscasts.

  • Have students keep in a journal in which they note words and information that they have gleaned from their sources.

  • Encourage students to listen to English for at least 15 minutes a day. Even if they have difficulty understanding what is being said. Regular listening will help habituate their ears to the rhythms of natural speech, which will help in the long run.

Teaching listening skills presents a series of challenges. It is perhaps the most ephemeral of language skills, hard to understand, teach, and assess.

How can you be sure that someone understands you correctly if you don't ask "Do you understand?" after every sentence? (In addition, children are frequently instructed to say "yes" even when they did not.) This issue may also apply to reading, the other "receptive" language skill, in that its focus is largely on comprehension of another speaker's production; however, while the teacher has some understanding of how to teach someone to read in English by teaching context clues, for example, to help students comprehend text, how do you really teach someone to listen better (especially when even many native speakers of English frequently struggle with this)? While teaching listening may appear confusing, there are a number of concepts that apply in teaching listening skills in general.

Principles for Good Listening

Following are a number of listening skills, most of which not only benefit the ESL student but also the native speaker.

  1. Basics: Pay Attention

    Even fluent speakers require assistance with this. Observe the speaker closely. Look at them because their body language and facial emotions may convey just as much information as their words. For instance, if what the speaker is saying is significant to him or her, there will often be more interaction with the listener in terms of eye contact and hand movements. Additionally, it's simple to misinterpret what someone truly said if you are not paying attention to them and are preoccupied with something else, like reading or texting.

  2. Practice Active Listening

    When you don't understand or simply want to make sure you understood what was said, ask the speaker to speak more slowly or to repeat themselves. Restate what you believe you heard the other person say since there is frequently a discrepancy between what we believe we heard and what the speaker intended. By letting the speaker know what you heard, for instance, "So what I'm hearing from you is that you would like more calm and less distractions after 9 o'clock so that you can study," the communication gap may be closed. This is known as "active listening," in which the listening portion of a conversation becomes as active as the speaking portion in communicating a message. This not only aids the speaker in organizing his thoughts and making clear what he wants to communicate, but also aids the listener in understanding what the speaker is saying. For instance, the speaker may be sputtering something about the late hour and her test the following day without consciously realizing what she is trying to ask for.

  3. Pay Attention to the Structure

    In a formal lecture or speech, the speaker will typically let you know how the discourse will be structured in advance: "Today we will discuss the two types of diabetes, Type One and Type Two, although as we will see, there is some overlap—" and what will come next is a description of Types One and Two, with the overlap likely addressed at the end. These things, referred to as "discourse markers," genuinely assist the audience in following and comprehending the presentation. Speakers may frequently organize their speech even in less formal meetings, especially if they want to be sure they are understood: "Okay, there are a few problems I need to raise with you. The speaker emphasizes the significance of what follows with the use of the casual marker "there are a few—" and the phrase "problems." It should be emphasized that the phrase "a few" is ambiguous, and the concerns that follow might range from two to five or six. When the speaker stops, the audience might get further information about when the "problems" have been addressed by asking, "Is there anything else?"

  4. Listen for Key Words

    Which phrases does the speaker highlight? The speaker will often inform you by emphasizing the key issue, such as "Let's talk about the TIME we will meet tomorrow." The essential point is the time of the appointment tomorrow, as indicated by the emphasized term "time" and the marker "Let's speak about—." Additionally, certain words denote significance by themselves, such as "problems," as seen above: everything that comes after "issues" is significant. Other important keywords are "concerns" and "points."

  5. Key Phrases or Markers

    In formal lectures, the speaker will frequently use words like "The essential point is..." or "On the other hand, some individuals have an opposite opinion...." to "mark" important topics. But even in casual discourse, the speaker frequently employs less formal punctuation. For instance, the phrase "I think what I'm trying to communicate is—" is frequently used before a key idea.

Teaching Principles of Listening

  1. Make it Explicit

    Even native speakers who regularly employ markers or key words may not have given these devices much conscious attention. Making explicit how to interpret and handle interactions, which may have been unclear (for example, why a buddy becomes angry at your student for neglecting a voiced "problem"), is typically welcomed by introducing certain crucial indicators and words. Key concepts like "active listening" and "discourse marker" should also be defined and shown.

  2. Model

    A model is required for novel ideas, such as active listening. Both traditional print example conversations and movie clips, as well as instructor modeling with willing pupils, can supply this. For instance, the instructor may instruct Gina, "Tell me something that is important to you, and I will actively listen." Pay attention, the remainder of the class, and then let's talk about what active listening entails.

  3. Practice

    As we are accustomed to either sitting quietly while a speaker finishes his or her speech (or diatribe, if he or she is angry), or interrupting, when we think he or she is wrong, or sitting and planning what we will say in response, etc., this might be particularly important in active listening, which few people, native or nonnative speakers, really know how to do. Active listening requires work, but it pays off in terms of better relationships and listening abilities.

Since it is so challenging to describe and demonstrate effective listening skills, it can be challenging to teach them. Even native English speakers struggle to do it properly.

However, by explicitly defining the characteristics of excellent listening and then practicing it, our ESL students may become proficient English listeners—often better than their friends who are native speakers.

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