What makes an effective listening activity?
Here are 7 points to consider when selecting listening tasks for the language classroom
- How authentic is the abstract our students will listen to?
Is the listening abstract authentic or semi authentic? Does it seem to have been rehearsed/prepared?
In many EFL contexts learners do not get enough exposure to the L2 outside the language classroom. Using authentic TL input for our listening activities should therefore form an important part of our lessons. The world wide web can be a great ally in our quest for authentic audiovisual resources. YouTube videos and certain podcasts can offer great real life listening material as long as they are selected with caution.
Variety in language input is also equally important to authenticity. Listening tasks in the EFL classroom should not just focus on conversations among native speakers. The options are endless: news broadcasts, radio programs, listening to an interview with a famous politician/actor/singer, announcements at a train station/airport etc. can all be used as the basis for effective and innovative EFL activities.
For Penny Ur (2012:115), authenticity in listening tasks mainly has to do with real-life listening, with material that has not been produced for language speaking purposes. As she points out, the degree of authenticity and whether or not we will be giving out a specific listening task to our students will depend on our learners’ level and needs. Younger students with limited exposure to L2 input could benefit from semi authentic materials that are not very demanding and are ‘adapted’ to a lower level with clear, low rate of speech. More advanced learners will need more exposure to real, authentic examples of speech. As teachers we therefore need to evaluate the effect the listening materials will have on our students and whether they will help our learners develop effective listening skills in the target language.
2. Is the topic/context meaningful to our learners? Will it boost their motivation?
Nobody wants to listen to something they do not find interesting or relevant to their age and needs. It is important to always remember that we need to keep our learners’ motivation levels up at all times. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are equally important here. Our learners need to find the activity stimulating, focus on it and carry it out with success.
We must also keep in mind that, in real life, listening mainly serves functional purposes. When we listen ‘naturally’, we listen for a reason, for a purpose. We then either retain (or skip) the information, we use it to interact with others or we take some other sort of action. Our listening tasks must serve these same functions. We must design these activities with a ‘purpose’ in mind, that will trigger our students’ interest and make them ‘tune in’ and focus on the listening task in order to achieve something. This sense of purpose will greatly enhance their motivation levels and will make them eager to participate in the lesson.
3. Is the listening task adapted to our students’ level, age and needs?
Anderson and Lynch (1988:13) stress the importance of comprehension in constructing effective listening tasks. As they point out, teachers need to carefully examine the types of knowledge their students must have in order to successfully carry out a listening activity.
When constructing a listening task, it is important to keep this information in mind in order to adapt the activity to our students’ specific level and needs. Listening tasks that are too difficult to process may not be effective. We must examine the degree of contextual and linguistic knowledge our students have and decide whether or not we need to activate our learners’ schemata and introduce certain key elements during the pre listening stage or to adapt our materials in order to address their needs.
The tasks should always be adapted to our learners’ level, age and specific needs. We need to carefully examine their level of difficulty and what the purpose behind each listening task is. In exam oriented classrooms for example listening activities should provide adequate practice for the upcoming language tests, whereas with adult learners (who learn the TL for communicative purposes) the focus should be shifted to real-life listening tasks.
4. Is the activity itself authentic? Will it trigger learner interest?
Will the listening tasks be ‘authentic’ enough in order to support and develop our L2 learners’ listening skills? What listening skills and strategies do we want to teach through this task?
We must check whether the type of listening activity we choose will be effective enough in order for our learners to listen for example for gist or for specific information. Task authenticity is important here since through the use of a variety of different tasks we do not only address our learners’ different learning styles, but we also trigger their curiosity.
Listening can be followed by a hands on activity, by note taking, by a game, a quick role play activity, a group task, a matching task or even a writing task that will boost our learners’ creativity (ex. listen and write down what happens next). The selection of these activities will greatly depend on our specific language classrooms, our students’ L1 background and the difficulties they may face when listening to an authentic L2 conversation. It will also depend on whether or not our classroom is exam oriented (which will mean that we will have to focus on specific task types and topics that will help our students in their language exam preparation).
5. Will our students face any difficulties during the listening task?
We need to carefully examine the abstract our learners will be listening to and decide whether or not we need to pre teach certain vocabulary items or grammar structures or whether our students can deduce meaning from context. The key is somewhere in the middle. The activity should not be too hard for them and at the same time it should allow our learners to learn how to discover information on their own by using contextual clues and their ‘selective listening’ skills in order to extract the information they need.
6. The importance of strategy teaching
For Vandergrift (1999) listening strategies are conscious means by which learners can guide and evaluate their own comprehension. He divides these strategies into metacognitive (selective listening, monitoring), cognitive (making deductions, using one’s own knowledge on the subject) and socio-affective (asking for clarifications, cooperating with others). Keeping these in mind, it is important to make sure that the listening tasks we give to our students are designed to help them use such listening strategies and will consequently boost their overall communication skills.
7. The importance of clear instructions and activating our learners’ schemata
In order for our students’ interlanguage and listening skills to develop we need to provide them with a lot of L2 input and give them opportunities for practice. Previous to the listening activity, we must make sure our instructions are clear. We must always remember to give them some thinking and reading time before the task begins. Our students need to be trained to quickly read the task instructions and grasp the meaning of what they need to focus on during the listening stage. Activating our learners’ schemata and previous knowledge on the listening topic is also important. Through the use of realia, brainstorming or whole-class discussion on the listening subject, we prepare our learners for what comes next and provide the adequate guidance they need in order to successfully carry out the listening task.
Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1988) Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press
Vandergrift, L. (1999) ‘Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies’ in ELTJ 53/3, pp 168-176