If you’ve ever used an ESL coursebook (and most ESL teachers have), you’ll probably agree that the listening tasks are often lacking.
Not in terms of audio quality – most coursebooks offer engaging dialogues with native English speakers, conversations which include the use of vocabulary, grammar or functional language the students are learning. The problem, as I see it, is not the audio component but rather the exercise or task that accompanies it. Am I the only one who feels some coursebook listening tasks could be improved? Well, if you’re with me, then read on. Here is a recipe that will not only help you make the most of this type of coursebook task but also maximize your students’ listening and learning opportunities.
6 Steps to Make the Most out of ESL Coursebook Listening Tasks
The importance of warming up before a listening exercise cannot be overstated. It gives students an introduction to the topic; it lets them dip their toes into the conversation so they are better prepared to comprehend what is actually being said. Sadly, a lot of coursebook tasks don’t include the warm up, so be sure to give them one yourself. You can read about some warm up activities here, but some good options include having your students predict what the conversation will be about based on some facts you provide, or having them read a short text that introduces the topic, like a description or relevant background information.
Example: To illustrate these steps, I’ve chosen one of the listening exercises from Randall’s ESL Lab. Let’s imagine that the coursebook audio exercise is a conversation similar to this one: a man and a woman discussing some of the changes he needs to make to improve his health. In this case, a great warm up activity would be to ask students if they consider themselves to be in or out of shape and why.
Listen for the Main Idea
In most cases, it is recommended that you give your class at least two opportunities to listen to the audio, each one accompanied by a different type of task. A good choice for a first listening task is to have the class listen for the main idea. Ask them to supply one or two sentences that summarize the main point in the conversation.
Example: In our sample conversation, the man’s wife gives him some recommendations and suggestions for a healthier lifestyle.
Listen for Detail
Once they get what the general idea is, your class will be better prepared to pick up some specifics. You can go about this a number of ways. You can give them:
- A series of True/False statements
- A gap-filling exercise
- A list of comprehension questions they must answer, including the what, where, how, why
Example: In our sample conversation, the main idea is that the woman gives her husband recommendations for a healthier lifestyle. So, now focus on what those specific recommendations are. Give your class a series of statements phrased as suggestions, i.e. “you should eat more fatty foods”. Tell your class to listen to the audio a second time and pay attention to the wife’s recommendations. Are these statements true or false? Instruct them to correct the statements that are false. (The statement above is false and should be corrected to “eat more fruits and vegetables”.)
Focus on Grammar
Apart from the listening comprehension exercise itself, the audio often gives us a particular grammar structure we can focus on. If the conversation is between two people using the past tense, then practice/review the past simple, for example.
Example: Clearly, this conversation provides a golden opportunity to practice giving suggestions and recommendations with should. Have students make a list of the wife’s suggestions:
- He should have a physical.
- He should watch his diet.
- He should cut back on fatty foods, like ice cream.
- He should try eating more fruits and vegetables.
- He should take up a little weight training.
- He should go to bed early.
Then, divide students into pairs and have them ask and give each other recommendations: what should I do to lose weight?
Focus on Language
In most cases, the conversation features vocabulary or expressions that revolve around a central theme. Take the opportunity to review or teach any new words.
Example: In the conversation, there are several words or phrases that relate to health: get a physical, cut back on, weight training. Have students figure out what each of them means and then come up with different ways of saying the same thing (for example, to cut back on something is to reduce the amount we consume). Brainstorm and expand to include more vocabulary, if necessary.
Let’s Talk About It
Never let a listening task simply end with the completion of an exercise. A great way to end a listening task is to have a discussion based on the topic.
Example: In regards to a healthy lifestyle, a great discussion topic would be: Do you currently have any habits you consider to be unhealthy? What changes could you implement for a healthier lifestyle? This discussion topic also ties in nicely to the warm up question about whether they consider themselves in shape; the listening task comes full circle with a warm up that introduces the topic of being fit and a conclusion that engages students to think about how to improve their fitness/health.
A listening task can take five minutes; it can take 20.
Some tasks are simply not worth the extra effort. But there are others you can take advantage of, that you can use for more than just the “listening practice”. What I’ve tried to demonstrate here is that you’re not obligated to follow the instructions in the coursebook. Do what makes sense for your class. And use those listening tasks to their fullest potential.