You have just been assigned your first ESL listening class.
Yes, you heard right (pun intended): a focus on listening, just listening, not conversation and pronunciation as well, which is usually the case: that is, listening is usually incorporated in the larger context of a speaking skills class. So a major question is: “What do we even do all term?” And maybe even “Why this class?” (Your students might actually have this concern as well.) Not to worry: there is plenty of rationale for an ESL Listening class, and there is much to do to keep you busy all term.
Reasons for Focusing on Listening Only
There is a rationale for an ESL class focused on listening, besides just a desire to round out the ESL program and hire more teachers.
Most people have a need to improve listening skills: native and nonnative speakers of English alike, and there are academic, professional, and personal reasons to develop good listening skills. People take phone messages, follow directions, and listen to customers, friends, and coworkers talk all day long, face to face and on the phone. Not listening well and therefore not understanding can damage relationships.
In a broader speaking skills class, there is a tendency to focus on teaching conversation and pronunciation—which all relate to listening, of course. However, because it tends to be harder to assess and teach, the attention to listening can get lost. And courses designed to teach pronunciation, or accent reduction, and conversation and speaking skills are actually pretty common. Courses with a focus solely on listening are rarer, although as necessary.
The standardized testing students need to do well on for admission into an American university, such as the TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language, are in part based on listening skills: as part of testing their conversational and academic English skills, students are required to listen to recordings of speakers engaged in conversation or giving a lecture and respond to the tape in such a way that the test raters can determine listening comprehension took place. So test preparation in a pre-university ESL course on listening skills is appropriate.
So now that we’ve seen that a focus on listening for an ESL class is important, the question becomes how to teach such a class: what are appropriate strategies and materials?
Methods and Activities for a Listening Class Assessment
To conduct a successful listening skills class, the teacher will need some information about the students: levels, needs, and areas to work on. Are students more at an intermediate level, or are they definitely advanced? Do students have mostly academic, professional, or personal needs in improving English? Should they work more on listening for the telephone or face-to-face situations? Are students more interested in listening for a classroom, work, or personal environment? All demand different listening skills and therefore different strategies. For example, there is more focus on specific details and following directions in a work situation than in personal relationships. Academic listening usually requires the ability to take notes while listening to a lecture.
The instructor should be prepared to administer at least two assessments at the beginning of the term: a skills assessment and needs assessment. These can be informal; two such assessments for listening I usually give are having students fill out a short questionnaire regarding what they would like to learn in their ESL listening class and why as well taking notes on a short news story I dictate to them which gives me a rough idea of how well they understand main ideas and details.
Teaching General Listening Skills
So now that you have some rationale for your class and understanding of what your students need to learn, the question becomes how to teach it. There are a number of good strategies for teaching ESL listening skills.
Listening for Main Ideas
Listening for the main point is mostly what we do in our everyday conversations, of course. We get the main idea of what our friend is telling us about her family problem, or we understand the main concern in a news report about the economy.
How can we teach students to understand what the main ideas are? To begin with, it’s important to teach listening for stressed words and phrases as they signal main or important ideas. In addition, teach listening for key words and phrases as these also signal important ideas. Often the speaker will use these key phrases the main ideas, even in informal discourse: e.g., “The point I really want to get across—” or
“Here’s the thing—” In a more formal speech or lecture, the speaker may signal a main idea with “The main point to take away here is—“ or “I’d like you to in particular note that—” Being able to follow the main points of a discussion or speech will go a long way in listening comprehension skills.
Listening for Details and Specific Information
Of course it is also important to be detail-oriented in listening, as in listening to someone’s directions for operating something or for getting driving directions. Sometimes the specifics of a news report will be important: when a storm or other weather event is expected and where or details of an accident that may affect traffic routes. To teach specific details of a news report, for example, I find it helpful to have students listen for the journalistic “who, what, where, when, and how”: who the report is about, what it’s about, where it took place, and so forth. For taking note on directions, listen for numbered points other key words as speakers use these to signal the important details: “first you grind the coffee beans, second you pour in water…” for making coffee, for example. Understanding details as well as main ideas are important for overall listening comprehension.
Dictations are traditional to the ESL/foreign language classroom but problematic in that they’re not “authentic.” They can, however, be useful in teaching note taking skills: the instructor can give a minilecture on an academic topic, and students can take notes on it as they would an actual lecture. This is of course also a chance to teach note-taking skills: listening for and noting the main ideas and key details, effective use of outlines, and use of special symbols and abbreviations for notetaking, all of which are valuable in an academic setting.
The instructor can also dictate a phone call and have students either take a message for a third party (does anyone do this anymore with extensive use of voicemail?) or, again, the students can practice notetaking skills related to the phone call—we do take notes during our own phone conversations, such as names, dates, times, and topics associated with an important meeting.
Most of students’ listening will go on in face-to-face conversations with peers, of course. There are specific listening skills related to this task: listening for specific social cues, for example, such as a signal to start a conversation (e.g., “Can we talk?”), to change topics (“Oh, by the way, I did want to mention…”), and to close (“I should let you go now.”)
The instructor can also conduct periodic interviews—at course beginning, midterm, and final, for example—to get acquainted with students, note individual skills and learning needs, and observe student progress. Interviews can be on both personal topics, such as open-ended questions about hobbies the student enjoys or more specific questions about families, to get an general idea of everyday listening skills; questions can also be asked about the student’s professional goals, again to get better acquainted with the student but also to find out student understanding of academic and workplace vocabulary.
Listening skills can be among the most challenging to teach in an ESL classroom because of the difficulty in assessing students, maintaining focus on listening, and developing a sound curriculum.
However, there are a number of assessment and instructional strategies for listening that will keep students busy and progressing all term long.