I hated listening activities when I first started teaching. I had no idea what to do with them besides just listening and answering the questions. That’s the point of listening, right? You hear it or you don’t. Check the answers and move on.
My students’ weaknesses in this particular skill discouraged me more than it did them. Only a few of the students were able to hear or understand anything. The gap between their abilities and what was being taught in the book seemed insurmountable. I got through the exercises as fast as possible and moved on to speaking activities which were far more manageable, productive, but most of all, fun.
I was slow to learn the answer to this problem, and we both know you’re lost in the weeds, so I humbly offer my hard-earned lesson as a bit of direction out of the morass:
Make your listening activities speaking activities.
Let’s be honest, listening is boring. Few of us in everyday life can listen for more than a few seconds before we have to commence our own blathering, particularly you, as if you had something interesting to say. So you can imagine how difficult it it is when you’re attempting a three-minute-long listening activity about a boring topic in a language that isn’t your own.
Break it up.
If you ever hear of the term ‘scaffolding’ in an EFL context, just know that it’s a stupid word that was invented by an armchair academic to make himself feel smart. It means nothing more than breaking difficult tasks into small, more manageable parts.
Have a look at the following listening activity:
The coolest thing about this exercise is that it’s made for pairs; students A and B listen for different information in the same conversation. This instantly turns into a Q&A speaking activity, but more on that later.
What you don’t want to do is just play the audio and have students start filling in blanks. That is precisely the opposite of scaffolding. Start small and simple and go slow. Let’s see how many different mini-activities we can make out of this one listening exercise.
Activity 1: Pre-teaching vocabulary
Vocabulary is always a good lead-in. Don’t assume your students will know every word in the recording or even the questions in the book. Identify a few of the more difficult ones you think your students will struggle with and teach them the meaning beforehand, remembering of course to show rather than tell. For more advanced classes, this activity can be done first in pairs by asking if the partner knows the meaning of a particular word.
Activity 2: Predicting Answer Types
Newer teachers give predictions short shrift, if any notice at all, yet this is one of the few ways students can actually improve exam-style listening activities. Even elementary students can begin learning this all-important skill.
Start with Student A. Ask them what they can predict about the answer. Given that this is from an elementary book and skills are weak, they’ll need a lot of modeling and prompting.
- He works for a ____________ company.
Ask them if the answer will be a noun, verb or adjective. Here, it could be an adjective or a noun collocation with ‘company’. Perhaps write a few examples on the board. (e.g. ‘big’ company; ‘insurance’ company etc.).
2. He has ___________ daughters.
Ask them what the answer could be. A number, perhaps. Or an adjective.
For lower-level or weaker classes, you may need to walk through each question with them as a class, making predictions together. Pre-intermediate students and above, though, should be able to work in pairs, making predictions together. A minute or two should suffice.
Activity 3: Predicting the Language
In listening activities such as this, each of the statements appears to be the answer to a question. Why not try to anticipate what those questions will be? Again, for pre-intermediate and above, this is another pair activity. Give them five minutes to write out the questions together (writing alone is boring and uncommunicative.) For beginners, do the activity together as a class.
1. He works for a ____________ company.
A question might be, “What kind of company does he work for?” Write it on the board.
2. He has ___________ daughters. “How many daughters does he have?”
And so on.
Activity 4: Drill
Don’t let a good drilling opportunity go to waste. You’ve just written some questions on the board. Drill them chorally and individually and in groups. Clap or tap the stressed words. Above all, make it quick and keep it natural.
Take notice — students haven’t yet begun the book exercise and we’ve already done four activities. Boom, scaffolding.
Activity 5: Listening
We’re finally at the objective — listening and filling in the blanks. Listen twice, minimum. Be responsive to students who may want another crack at it.
Activity 6: Checking Answers
After your students have listened and completed the gap fill, you check the answers as a class and move on, right? Of course not. That’s just what new (i.e. bad at teaching) teachers do, like you. You’re missing another short speaking activity. Why not have students check their answers together in pairs? This is a bit harder to do in activities like the one above where students A and B listen for different information, but we’re not so unimaginative we can’t make it work, are we? I’ll speak for myself I guess.
One easy way to do it is to swap listenings. Just trade books and listen again. Student A now listens and checks B’s information and vice versa. They discuss together for a minute and then you can check it as a class.
But wait. Rather than just having students call out the answers, listen again and have them tell you to stop when they hear the answer. You stop the recording, then they tell you what the answer is.
Activity 7: Q & A
Remember those questions you had your students write in Activity 3? Let’s come back to those. Have students swap questions, so that Student B is asking about Student A’s information and vice versa.
Student B: What kind of company does he work for?
Student A: A marketing company. Where does he work?
Student B: In London.
At this point we’ve squeezed seven listening activities out of one, and our short little book exercise is all of a sudden at least half an hour long. Of course, not all of this needs to be done for each listening, but some does, otherwise picture your students perched atop rickety scaffolding, holding on for dear life in your disaster of a lesson.