Improve the English Listening Skills of Your ESL Students

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Real-Life Listening Situations

In real-life listening situations, most of the spoken language we listen to is informal, spontaneous and can contain many features like slurred speech, colloquial vocabulary and incorrect grammar. Listeners usually know in advance something about what is going to be said as they expect to hear something relevant to the context in which they find themselves.

Speakers usually direct what they are saying at the listener and take the listener’s character and intentions into account when speaking. Naturally, listeners are normally speakers as well as we usually respond to what we are listening to by taking part in the conversation or by answering questions.

A small amount of the listening we do is done blindly through listening to the radio or talking on the phone. However, most of the time, there is something or someone to look at that is linked to what is being said.

Listening in the Classroom

Classroom listening is not the same as real-life listening but is as realistic a simulation of real-life listening as possible. Listening activities should be training students and preparing them for effective functioning outside the classroom. They should also provide students with practice in coping with some features of real-life situations.

How to Improve English Listening Skills

Listening activities based on simulated real-life situations are more motivating and interesting to do than working through textbook comprehension exercises, which quickly becomes boring. Try some of the following listening texts and tasks that are likely to grab your student’s attention.

Listening Texts

  • Informal talk: Listening texts should be based on discourse that is genuine, improvised or spontaneous speech. Written text simply read aloud is likely to be stilted and won’t incorporate characteristics of informal speech such as spontaneity.
  • Direct speaker-listener interaction: Instead of the conventional use of audio recordings, try to write some of the texts yourself or use a video as a positive contribution to effective listening practice.
  • Single exposure: In real-life listening situations, discourse can’t be exactly repeated. So, try to encourage students to develop the ability of extracting the information they need from a single hearing. For students to master this ability, information can be provided more than once within the original listening text. As in real-life situations, students can ask for a repeat or explanation of what was said but the discourse should not automatically be played through several times if students do not ask for repeats.

Listening Tasks

  • Expectations: Giving students an idea of what they are going to hear is the same as putting them in a real-life context where they will know what to expect due to the context they find themselves in.
  • Purpose: Explain what the purpose of the listening exercise is as this helps students to listen selectively for significant information.
  • Ongoing listener response: Encourage students to respond to the information they are looking for as they hear it, and not to wait for the end of the listening text.

Types of Listening Activities

There are three types of listening activities you can use to help improve listening skills in the ESL classroom:

No overt response activities: Students do not have to do anything in response to the listening text. Often students’ facial expression and body language will betray what they have understood. Activities of this type include storytelling, listening to songs or watching movies and videos.

Short response activities: Students don’t only have to give responses verbally but can also respond by performing a task in response to instructions, ticking off items on a worksheet as they hear them being said, ticking off true/false answers in response to statements or writing down missing words from cloze exercises.

Long response activities: Students can engage in answering questions verbally about a listening text, taking notes from a mini-lecture by rewriting what you said in different words to the ones you used or writing a brief summary of a listening text.

If you follow these guidelines you should soon see a marked difference in students’ ability to pick up information from a listening text and to respond to it as if in a real-life situation.


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