How to Conduct Listening Activities in the ESL Classroom

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Published: 08th April 2011
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Far too many ESL students will say that listening is difficult and is their weakest skill. After all, they can't control the pace, choice of vocabulary, phrases, and grammar, and the inflection or intonation. The listener has only one chance to catch the meaning of a word or phrase. Although comparisons can be made with reading, because another person similarly determines the language, listening is much more difficult. With writing/reading, ESL students can easily go over passages several times, consult a dictionary, and generally work at their own pace.

Surprisingly, teachers are the ones who create the second problem with listening. Most listening-focused activities use a scripted monologue or dialogue. The students begin with some preparation. They listen several times 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!" - is similarly brought along with any listening activities.

So what should a teacher do?

To start with, prepare the students with an activity or two. In other words, warm up the students with some questions related to the topic. If the listening activity focuses on likes and dislikes, give the students a set of questions to quickly discuss their likes and dislikes. This gives them some background ideas, and so directs their thoughts towards the upcoming content.

Next, you want to clarify the subject and purpose of the ESL dialogue or conversation. The students can start the activity once they have a general description and the purpose of the conversation. 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. For example, will students need to answer questions at the end? Will they need to summarize and present the key points later? If necessary, walk the students through the instructions step-by-step, and confirm comprehension. This guarantees everyone fully and correctly participates in the next step.

Now you want to begin the actual listening. Students listen to the conversation, and then do something with that information (e.g., answer questions, fill out a schedule, etc.). With more difficult passages, it's okay to allow the students to listen once, but not take any action apart from becoming familiar with the accent and intonation. Following this step they then complete the questions, etc.

For the final step, confirm and discuss the listening task. How easy or difficult was it? What specific problems were there? This empowers the students because they learn a little more about their strengths and weaknesses with listening. Follow this with answer checks, either as a class or in pairs/groups. To close, you will want to give students the chance to reuse the information. 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.

Although there are more ESL listening activities , these steps will guarantee a more positive and productive set of listening activities.

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