Listening with Pleasure

Listening with Pleasure

By: Heather Kretschmer

Picture this. You’re sitting in a classroom learning a foreign language. It’s listening comprehension time, and you glumly watch your teacher pass out the ominous-looking worksheet. Your heart sinks as you glance at the worksheet that’s bursting at the seams with comprehension questions on an uninspiring topic. Uh, oh! You’re still plodding though the questions when your teacher starts the audio file. Now you’re frantically trying to understand what’s being said and keep up with the questions and scribble down the answers. You’re surrounded by your classmates, but you might as well be all by your lonesome as you struggle to comprehend.

After playing the audio file twice, your teacher goes through the listening comprehension questions one by one, asking for volunteers to read their answers aloud. You listen carefully and correct your wrong answers. Since your teacher only heard students give correct answers, he transitions to the next part of class: reading comprehension. Internally, you sigh with relief. Listening is arduous and—at least for you—a fruitless endeavor.

Listening doesn’t have to be such a frustrating, meaningless, isolating experience. Certainly, it can be useful to have students sometimes answer comprehension questions, especially if this is how their listening skills will be assessed. But we need to remember that we don’t normally run around, pen and paper in hand, scrambling to answer comprehension questions in real life. Instead, we listen to understand other people and to interact with them. So, what kinds of listening practice can we have students do that are closer to the real listening we do and make spoken language easier for our students to understand.

Ways of listening in the foreign language classroom

Luckily, there are many kinds of listening activities that support students’ developing listening skills and that are closer to authentic listening situations. We can place foreign language listening practice into two broad categories: intensive listening and extensive listening. In intensive listening, we ask students to listen to a text closely to understand the content as fully as possible. Often, the level is at or slightly above or below the students’ language level. We might play the same recording multiple time, asking students to focus on different aspects each time, such as global meaning, followed by details, and finally language forms. Sometimes, part of intensive listening is devoted to strategy instruction in which the teacher gives students tips and has the students practice different techniques to help them understand what they’re listening to more easily. Without a doubt, intensive listening practice is valuable, but it’s not the only kind of useful listening practice.

In extensive listening, teachers give students a choice of texts to listen to. Generally, the purpose of extensive listening is for enjoyment or finding out information. In fact, learners can use extensive listening to expand their knowledge on topics that interest them. If students don’t like what they are listening to, they can stop listening and select something different. And students generally find having a choice of materials very motivating. The aural texts students choose from are below their language level so that they don’t struggle to understand the content. This has the added benefit that students only need to listen once. Another key aspect is that learners listen to lots of audio or audiovisual materials over an extended period of time (a few months, a semester, a school year, the duration of a language program, etc.). Intensive and extensive listening can complement each other nicely in a foreign language course. Since other authors in this issue are writing about intensive listening, I will focus on extensive listening in the rest of this article.

Extensive listening has many potential benefits for language learners. Listening to comprehensible, enjoyable aural texts over time can increase learners’ confidence in their listening skills (Ivone & Renandya, 2022). As time passes, students become more used to faster speech rates, connected speech, word recognition, and typical expressions used in spoken language (Renandya & Jacobs, 2016). Extensive listening can help students become more proficient in the target language beyond the skill of listening, including improvements in vocabulary, speaking, and reading (Renandya & Jacobs, 2016). Finally, extensive listening fosters autonomy as learners select listening materials and monitor their learning progress (Ivone & Renandya, 2019), and learners may continue to listen to materials in the target language even after the language course has finished.

So, how can we integrate extensive listening into our classes?

Start with backwards design

Teachers can weave extensive listening into their classes in many different ways. Therefore, it makes sense to think about things from a design point of view. Backwards design means moving from your objectives to evaluation to the tasks and materials. Start by determining what your objectives are. In other words, what do you want students to be able to do by the end of the extensive listening program? For example, do you want to students to become more autonomous listeners? Do you want them to be able to understand a variety of accents in the target language? Your objectives will depend on your teaching context and your students.

Next, consider how you will evaluate to what extent your objectives are being met. How will you know if your students are developing their listening skills? This does not have to involve boring worksheets or anxiety-inducing tests. Instead, students can do short, engaging tasks, which you check and give feedback on. Students can complete these tasks during class, outside of class, or both. Finally, consider how extensive listening will fit with the other components of your course. For example, in my courses, I alternate between extensive reading[1] and extensive listening. One week the students do extensive listening, and the next week extensive reading. I also use extensive listening and reading as a springboard for writing and speaking tasks. I will return to extensive listening tasks in a later section in this article.

[1] For an excellent overview of extensive reading, see Richard Day’s article “Extensive reading: Learning to read by reading” in the June 2019 Think Tank issue.

Curate sources

Another key part of preparation involves curating interesting and relevant sources for your students. Before starting an extensive listening program, it’s important to check whether you have enough sources for your students to listen to at their level. For English, there are plenty of audios and videos on the Internet that can be used for extensive listening. For my advanced Business English students, I simply use open-access Internet sources, for example, This Working Life, BBC Business Daily, or IMF Podcast. For students learning English at lower levels, there are suitable listening materials on a variety of topics on many English learning websites.[2] For other languages, it’s advisable to check that you can offer students some choice of materials at their language level.

Once you ensure you have enough sources, decide how you’re going to organize the sources in your course. You can simply give students the entire list of sources at the beginning of a course. Alternatively, you can make the sources available week by week. I prefer giving my students a list of websites at the beginning of the semester and then directing them to certain sources every week. Some weeks I give my students a list of websites they can visit to find podcast episodes and videos that interest them. Other weeks I ask my students to choose from a links to specific podcast episodes and videos. Students may need some help selecting materials to listen to. They can be encouraged to choose something, just listen to it for about a minute and if it’s too difficult or doesn’t interest them, to simply try out a different one.

[2] Ivone & Renandya (2019) include a list of useful websites for extensive listening on page 245. A few useful websites with lower level listening materials include VOA, elllo, and Breaking News English. Finally, younger children (native speakers and non-native speakers) might enjoy listening to children’s books read aloud on Storyline Online.

Create engaging tasks

Giving students engaging tasks can enhance their listening experience. These tasks can take a wide variety of forms and can occur as students listen and afterwards. During listening, Ivone and Renandya (2019) identify five activities students can do:

  • Simply listen
  • Shadow or overlap while listening
  • Read the transcript while listening
  • Watch a video and listen
  • Combine listening, watching the video, and reading the captions.

After listening, it’s a good idea to have students do one or more follow-up activities. Follow-up work might involve students writing a very short summary of the content or responding to the content in some way. Lower-level students may summarize and respond to the content in their native language. Or the task might involve finding a photo that relates to the content in some way. If students are listening to stories, the teacher could ask the students to change the story in some way. This is also a good opportunity for students to reflect on how the listening experience went and if they tried out any strategies, they might have learned during their intensive listening training. I have my students keep a listening log in which they do a variety of short, individual after-listening tasks. I check students’ logs regularly and give them feedback.

After-listening tasks are also particularly useful to build community. My students bring their logs to class so that they can share with each other what they listened to and whether they liked it. In my experience, students generally enjoy hearing about what other students listened to. I’ve also noticed how they listen to each other with empathy and even sometimes give each other advice on how to improve listening skills. A supportive atmosphere among peers allows the listening experience to become a much less lonely one. It is also far closer to the actual listening we do outside of the foreign language classroom.

Torch tedious worksheets

Intensive listening might be the traditional way to teach listening, but we don’t have to bombard our students with mind-numbing worksheets on topics that bore them to tears. And intensive listening is useful when students apply what they learn from intensive listening practice to what they listen to for fun and what they listen to in real life outside of the classroom.

Recommended reading

Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *