2nd May 2017

Solving common difficulties with TESOL listening lessons

By Bryan Holmes

Listening is one of the most problematic skills for an ESL learner to acquire. This is because skills are developed over time and with plenty of practice. As a result, this can be a frustrating experience for learners since significant improvement is difficult to ‘prove’, whereas for instructors they may find it tricky to measure the learners’ progress.

One of the largest inhibitors for students is often cognitive. For example, while listening students may encounter difficulties and conclude that they do not understand what is being said and thus believing it’s an issue with comprehending spoken English. At this point they may tune out or attempt to translate specific words or chunks of language.

Among other problems vocabulary tends to have more than one meaning (e.g. ‘see’, ‘to observe with eyes’ vs ‘referring to something’). Additionally, if there’s an overload of information it may affect their retention as unlike reading learners do not have the option to refer back or control the speed of information. Therefore listening requires learners to process the information immediately, decode groups of sounds that are unfamiliar, map them onto meanings and rules they have stored in their brains and use this to make predictions about what is about to be heard next.

Cultural relevance can create issues with understanding content as one’s culture and language are inseparable (Brown, 1994). The logistics of a classroom may pose problems as well (e.g. the seating arrangements along with the classroom’s acoustics). Also, there could be technical issues with equipment affecting the quality of the recording.

As discussed, listening can be a daunting chore for an ESL learner. This blog will look at parts of problematic language to help distinguish what specific troubles learners confront, the importance of staging, and provide some useful activities from FluentU to use in your class.

Let’s start by looking at what sorts of language can hinder understanding.

  • Colloquialisms – as these tend to be culturally specific there isn’t much of a reference or contextual clues to help understand their meaning
  • Accent, intonation, inflection, and stress - different accents other than standard versions of English pose quite a few problems as accents can change pending on the region. Additionally, intonation, inflection and stress not only perform functions they denote emotions
  • Reduced forms – when native or fluent speakers converse we often reduce or weaken sounds e.g. I’m gonna go to the store. Remember that written language is different from its spoken form
  • Fillers, correction and repetition – fillers improve fluency, but for an ESL learners they generally listen to every word, so umm, actually, well yes, can overwhelm the listener. Reformulating or repeating sounds like a clarification strategy to a native or fluent speaker, but not an ESL learner
  • Word or phrase clusters – phrasal verbs and idioms have literal and non-literal meaning and understanding them in context is taxing for learners, e.g. head in the clouds or get on
  • Content – many course books are Eurocentric so some topics or situations do not relate culturally for the learner. Therefore they are unable to make predictions or personalize the content
  • Directly translating form L1 – translating chunks of language do not necessarily come across the same way or make much sense so the message as they say is ‘lost in translation’

The Importance of Staging

Staging a listening lesson provides the necessary support and scaffolding whilst building the confidence of the learner. Each stage should have a task that provides adequate practice.

  1. Set context – visuals, discussion questions. Activate your learners' schemata
  2. Pre-teach vocabulary - provide a matching task, pronunciation practice. Always establish the meaning before the form e.g. concept, oral, written.
  3. Gist listening – provide a task or a set of questions, table to gain a general idea of the text.  Avoid open questions such ‘What’s it about?’ rather ask a specific question
  4. Detail listening – comprehension questions, such as true or false, short answers, fill in a table
  5. Response to the text - personalize the topic either by providing a speaking or writing task 

Listed below are a few activities from fluentU.com these can help improve your learner’s listening skills.

1. Relay the message

This classic game, otherwise known as “running dictation,” is a great active ice breaker, as well as a natural way to introduce a topic:

  • Put students in pairs or groups of three, assigning one (or two) as runner and one as writer. Sit the writers at tables at one end of the room.
  • Stick pre-printed messages at the other side of the room, one for each group or pair. These messages can be the same or different, easy or difficult, long or short, depending on the level and goals of the class.
  • When you shout the word “go,” the runner runs to the message, reading and remembering what they can. This can be as much as a few sentences or as little as one word. The aim is to be able to relay it accurately to the writer.
  • The runner goes back to the writer to relay the part of the message that they memorized. The writer (you guessed it!) writes it down.
  • Repeat until the message is complete. Teams score points for speed but more importantly for accuracy of spelling and punctuation.

2. Back-to-back interview

What better way to improve listening skills than to listen to each other? This is a great activity for practicing listening without relying on lip reading or actions. It also incorporates speaking practice, thus killing two birds with one stone. You can use this activity to introduce famous people you want to talk about during your lesson:

  • Pairs of students sit back-to-back, one as the interviewer with a list of questions.
  • The interviewee is given a famous person to role play, with a list of answers. (This can also be done as an exercise to learn more about each other. For example, at the beginning of a course when students don’t know each other well).
  • The interviewer asks the questions, writing down the answers as they go along.
  • The fastest interviewer to work out who they’re talking to wins!

3. Follow the directions

This activity provides excellent practice which will prepare students to ask for directions in a foreign country. It allows students to gain audio rather than visual practice with receiving directions, giving them the ability to understand step by step instructions:

  • Provide students with a street map, either a real one or something tailored to the activity and their level. You can even go crazy and create a big one for the classroom floor!
  • Split the students into teams, and have one person go at a time.
  • Read instructions for the student to follow, such as “go straight two blocks”. To win a point, the student must successfully navigate the map until they find the right store, the lost friend or the buried treasure.

4. Telephone

In this game, students are responsible for listening carefully to their peers as well as successfully relaying a message. It encourages students to determine similar sounding words from one other, and can be used as a starter activity to introduce any topic:

  • Create two teams of students and set up both teams in lines. The end of each team line should be at the whiteboard.
  • Whisper a word or sentence to the student farthest away from the whiteboard, and then have them whisper the message they heard to the next student. Each student whispers to the next until the end of the line.
  • The last student writes the message on the board. The winner is the team with the most accurate spelling, pronunciation and content, although bonus points for originality and hilarity may be awarded!

Your students need more help with listening skills. Maybe it's time you got help with your teaching skills.  Contact our TESOL training team to find out about our CertTESOL and DipTESOL courses in Hong Kong.  Accredited to NQF level 5 and 7, for new and experienced teachers.

Bryan is teacher trainer and the part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL , MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.