By Kasia Piotrowska

03 May 2018 - 08:05

Woman and man talking on a park bench
'In real life, we do not usually focus on language but on the message.' ©

Alex Holyoake used under licence and adapted from the original.

Kasia Piotrowska, winner of the British Council's TeachingEnglish blog award, has collected her favourite listening tasks, games and online resources. 

More than half of the time we spend communicating is devoted to listening, according to Chris Battel and his book Effective Listening (ASTD Press, 2006). That makes listening one of the most important language skills to master.

My learners often say that it is challenging for them to follow news, songs, or TV series in English. This is because of the speed of speech, unfamiliar accents, the length of the listening text, or unfamiliar vocabulary.

Here are a few ways to help your students become better listeners, by focusing on the general meaning of a listening text:

An easy way to extend any listening activity 

Personalise a listening activity by asking learners to express their opinions about the topic in pairs or groups, before you play the recording.

For example, if the topic is `risk´, ask the learners to gather in small groups or pairs and discuss the meaning of a quote like: 'Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.' (T.S. Eliot)

Encouraging your learners to consider their prior knowledge of a topic means they will associate any new information with what they already know. This is known as 'opening their schemata'. It also prepares them for what they are going to hear. Your learners will then be able to use this strategy independently in the future.

Predict a soap opera plot 

We often ask learners to recall numerous details about a listening text. But in real life, we do not usually focus on the words, or language (bottom-up processing) but on the message, or what is being said (top-down processing). Listening comprehension questions in coursebooks often expect too much from learners, and do not encourage active guessing.

Record a short excerpt from a television show, like a soap opera. Play the first few minutes of the programme, then stop it and have the learners predict what will happen next. This will give learners a reason to listen.

Here is a listening lesson idea that encourages active guessing.

Summarise the news 

Record or cue a short version of the news, in which brief headlines of the main stories are given before longer versions of the same stories. BBC World News and BBC One-minute World News are good resources.

In her book Listening (OUP), Goodith White suggests the teacher start by asking the learners to predict what they think will be in the news that day. Next, play only the headlines (about one minute of speech). Ask learners how many news stories there are. Play the headlines again, and ask them to write any words they recognise. Pool the words and ask the learners what they think the news stories will be.

Practise clarifying what a person has said 

Tell the learners that they are going to hear a story (you can choose any text, depending on your learners´ level and interests). Tell the learners that you are feeling a bit under the weather and therefore they may not be able to hear some words clearly because you´ll mumble, whisper in a croaky voice, speak too quickly, have a difficult English accent or a sore throat. When this happens, they have to either ask you to repeat, speak more slowly or try to guess the word.

This exercise encourages learners to ask questions to clarify what you are saying. They will then feel less anxious when faced with this situation in real life.

Use a mix of standard and non-standard English

In most real-life listening situations, we can see the speaker. But in most listening activities in English language course books, the learners' only resource is what they hear. This is unrealistic, and can reduce learners' confidence because too much is expected from them.

For lower levels, you can provide the learners with some authentic listening materials where there is only one speaker who is using standard English. You can find ten sources for real listening practice here, which do not rely on listening alone.

Use non-standard accents in listening activities

For higher levels, you could challenge your learners with a listening text where a regional accent is used, there is more than one speaker and people speak quickly. You can find plenty of useful links in Sandy Millin's blog.

Establish a listening routine

Have learners develop a routine, such as listening to the news in English every day. You can use the procedure in the 'summarise the news' above, or you can simply start each class with a summary of the daily headlines that learners discuss in pairs.

Make your listening tasks authentic and practical for learners

You can base tasks on real-life situations, such as making a video call, making an appointment, following directions or filling in a form. Have learners listen to each other. This way they see the speaker, and take an active part in a real-life listening challenge.

To practise making telephone calls in English, Goodith White suggests this activity (adapted) in her book Listening (OUP):

After practising language for opening and closing telephone conversations in English,  ask the learners to create a temporary Skype ID for use with the class. The class decide who each learner is going to call: for example, the person below them in the list, or the person three lines above them. The class decide on the topic they would like to discuss: their opinions on the textbook, hobbies or current news. Help them choose a subject suitable for their current level of English. The learners make their calls at home and note down their partner´s answers. Start the next class by asking the learners to tell each other what they have learnt about their partner.

Try using TED talks with your learners

There are lots of videos from expert speakers around the world on education, business, science, technology and creativity. You can easily find one that best matches your learners' interests and adapt it to their level. TED4ESL offers ready-to-use activities for learners of all levels.

Kasia Piotrowska teaches English as a second language (ESL) and blogs at Get creative.  

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

You might also be interested in