Improve Listening Skills for ESL Students
Aug 15, 2008 Speaking/Listening 2981 Views
Most students will say that listening is difficult, if not actually admit that this is their weakest skill. The problem comes down to two main points. The first stems from the fact that the pace, choice of vocabulary, phrases, and grammar, and the inflection or intonation is completely determined by the speaker. The listener has only one chance to catch the meaning of a word or phrase. Comparisons can be made with reading, because the writer similarly determines the language. But students can easily re-read passages, consult a dictionary, and generally work at their own pace. There aren't any (or at least, many) re-dos when listening.
The second problem students usually have is related with how teachers use listening exercises. Most listening-focused activities involve a scripted monologue or dialogue. The students begin with some prep-work. They listen once or twice to the tape, then answer comprehension questions. Because this approach feels very much like a test, with right and wrong answers, all the baggage normally associated with tests--the negativity, fear, and sense that "I'm being graded!"--gets carried along to the skill as a whole.
So what can you do to focus on listening in a lesson, but also give ESL learners greater confidence when it comes to the skill?
First, prepare the students with an activity or two. Set aside some discussion time, with several questions that deal with the topic. If the listening exercise deals with vacations, give the students several questions related to vacations to talk about. This gives them some background ideas, thereby gearing up their thoughts towards the upcoming content. With lower-level students, use more basic questions.
Next, establish the subject and purpose of the monologue/dialogue. If the students have a general description, the reason for the conversation, and who will be speaking, they can jump right in and focus on the tasks you've assigned. In other words, they won't lose any time orienting themselves with the speakers and the purpose of the conversation. You should also explain exactly what the activity requires to be done. For example, will students need to answer questions? Will they need to follow a set of directions? Will they need to complete a task, like filling out a calendar or diary? If necessary, walk the students through the instructions step-by-step, and confirm understanding. This guarantees everyone fully and correctly participates in the next step.
Third, do the task. Students listen to the passage or conversation, and then do something with that information (e.g., answer questions, fill out a schedule, etc.). With more difficult passages, it's perfectly all right to let the students listen once, but not take any action apart from becoming familiar with the accent and intonation, and to just catch the gist of it.
Lastly, confirm and discuss the listening task. Was it easy, or difficult? What did the class miss? Why? This gives everyone the chance to talk about the listening exercise in a positive environment. Follow this with answer checks, either as a class or in pairs/groups. Then wrap up the exercise with an opportunity to reuse the information that they just heard in combination with other language skills. Discuss specific questions in pairs or groups, for example, or debate the information. With lower-level students, have them reuse phrases, vocabulary, or ideas in another activity such as peer interviews, or a similar dialogue.
By employing these steps, some of the sting and test-like atmosphere of traditional listening exercises will disappear, ensuring a more positive and productive exercise.