Of all of the skills ESL students need to develop to improve their overall English fluency, listening is probably the most frustrating.
Think about it. They can take as long as they need to read or write. They can carefully choose what to say when they speak, if they choose to speak at all. But weak listening places students in the most frustrating situations. Fortunately for them, there is a way to slowly but steadily improve their listening skills, and you can guide them every step of the way!
How to Improve Weak Listening
When students have to work on a particularly weak area, it is best for them to focus their efforts on improving this specific skill. I’m not saying they should neglect the usual homework and do something that is tailor-made just for them. They should complete the planned coursework, just like everyone else, but in addition to this, they should work on improving the skill that needs work – in this case, listening. I cannot emphasize enough that the strategy I will outline below is for students to implement after school and in their own time.
Will they have to work harder? Of course!
Will it take up more of their time? Naturally!
Simply remind your students of the popular saying: no pain, no gain!
So if you want to guide your students towards better listening, here’s what to do:
Step-by-step Guide Towards Better Listening
Instruct Them to Start Easy
Choose short audio or video segments that are appropriate to your student’s level. Do not encourage them to attempt to listen to and understand a CNN news story or a movie right from the start. This is the biggest mistake ESL students make. It’s too difficult. So they get frustrated. It takes them hours to get a small part of the conversation. So they give up altogether.
The best type of audio or video component they should work with at first is the very same audio included with the coursebook, and very likely the same one you hear in class. They should start with a short listening exercise. They should listen to it as many times as they want. They can listen only. They can listen and read the script. But they should work with this material until they start noticing some improvement in their listening skills.
Move Towards Something That’s a Little More Difficult
Again, it will depend on your student’s level and vocabulary, but could they possibly tackle a longer conversation? Maybe an extended listening from the book? At this point, they should still stick to material that has been created for students, with vocabulary they are familiar with or included in their book.
Repetition and Timeframe
Depending on the student, they may have to listen to the same audio file several times. Tell them that this is the best way – repetition gets results, no matter how boring it gets. Picture someone who’s learning to play tennis. He or she stands in the same spot hitting one ball after another, till they get the technique right. It’s the same with any skill. Also, this type of listening helps students incorporate set phrases and expressions, which they’ll be able to recall and use when the opportunity arises. It also helps them learn correct pronunciation and intonation. To sum up: repetition gets results!
Use the Scripts
Coursebooks include the audio scripts for a good reason. They help students with weak listening learn. If the scripts are available in the teacher’s book and not the student’s, copy them. You can instruct your student to do this:
- First listen to the audio and read the script at the same time
- Then, listen to the audio without reading
- Repeat as many times as necessary
- The goal is to gradually wean the student off the scripts altogether and have them just listen for comprehension
Suggest Special Material
There are magazines or monthly publications that are specifically targeted to ESL students and come complete with reading material, exercises and CDs. They often provide interesting articles and are very similar to any Time or Newsweek, but are specifically published to give ESL students exposure to more “real-life” material. Some of the most popular are Speak Up and Today in English. Check out your local newsstand for similar publications that you can recommend to your students.
Time for the “Real” Stuff!
Finally, after months of hard work, your student should be ready to tackle real life audio and video material. They should start with shorter audio and progress to longer material. For example, business English students can listen to the short videos available on CNN.com before sitting down in front of the TV and listening to the full news broadcast. Students who want comedy or more casual conversations should first watch a couple of sitcoms (most are 20-minute episodes) before moving on to feature-length films. With TV series and movies on DVD, they also have the option to turn the subtitles on or off (see the strategy above for audio scripts). When choosing series or movies, guide the student towards selecting those where the actors speak clearly and without too much slang.
Above all, there should be a natural progression, and your student must understand this. Some are too eager to pop in a DVD and are terribly disappointed when they don’t understand a thing.
They should try one particular strategy for a few weeks or till they notice improvement. Don’t forget to monitor their efforts. This could also realistically take years to accomplish if we’re dealing with beginners. But you will have started them on the right road.
Which strategies have you given your students to improve their listening skills? Any success stories to share? Share them below!