How can the combination of two receptive skills have a productive outcome? What are the benefits of focussing on improving our students' listening fluency? How can we carry out extensive listening sessions in the classroom?
One of the most difficult tasks for any language learner is feeling comfortable in a conversation. If you ask students about their objectives in language learning, you are likely to get responses about understanding a film or a song, travelling abroad and conversing with people in English. If your students are not exposed to extensive listening sessions, they cannot feel comfortable in an English-speaking environment. The more they listen, the more they will understand. The more they understand, they more comfortable they will feel. The more comfortable they feel in English, the more they will speak.
In the language classroom we usually teach strategic listening using short listening tasks. We listen to a dialogue for a gap-fill activity, we listen to an interview for an exam task, we listen to a short speech to fill in a chart or a form. We rarely have time to do listening sessions which are longer than ten minutes. Students often feel frustrated because they would like to hear more English without having to worry about giving the right answer to a multiple-choice exercise or listening for a particular word to fill in a gap in a text.
Solution: Use graded readers with audio recordings of the whole text.
We often talk about ER programs as excellent opportunities for students to read for pleasure. Extensive Listening (EL) programs are equally beneficial. Ware, Yonezava, Kurihara and Durand (2012) investigated the benefits of EL and reported that 'all of our survey data indicates that extensive listening activities are some of the most helpful activities students can do to improve their English. Our qualitative data confirms the usefulness of having students listen to and shadow GR-CDs (graded reader CDs)'. A similar reserach with similar findings was carried out at the University of Quintana Roo by a group of researchers. You can read their study here.
Differences between reading and listening
In order to plan a successful EL program, it's important to focus on the differences between reading and listening. Listening seems to be a greater challenge because we don't always have the chance to ask for repetition. Reading is a more protected zone, we have time to go back and forth, skim the text, check the meaning of words, use the context to contemplate the meaning of an unknown word. As Brown puts it, when our students listen to something, 'language comes rushing at them', and 'listening must be done in real time' (Brown 3).
We also have to consider the difficulty of accents and unknown words. Most of the time students don't understand what they're listening to because they don't know the words and their correct pronunciation.
In this list Brown summarises further differences:
- speed of input
- use of cognates
- reductions and blending of sounds
- false starts and hesitations
- presence of back-channel cues. (Brown 4)
Ways of Extensive Listening
How can you help your students and what tasks can you offer to them?
1 Watching films is a classic. It works well. Explain challenging dialogue with the help of subtitles. If you use subtitles in English, your students will improve their listening skills, and if they use subtitles in their L1, they can focus more on the meaning of the words. Ask them to choose their favourite episode from a TV show. They can do this 32-minute exercise:
Step 1: Watch a 8-minute clip in the original language, without subtitles.
Step 2: Add English subtitles, and watch it again.
Step 3: Add L1 subtitles, and watch it again.
Step 4: Remove the subtitles and watch it again in English.
2 Listen to the radio. Being surrounded by English is important. Ask your students to listen to an English radio station (BBC Radio offers a wide range of stations). They can listen while they are doing something else or just for relaxation.
3 Watch interview in English with your favourite celebrities. This exercise has to be the most inspiring opportunity to listen to English.
4 Listen to your favourite song and read the lyrics.
5 Use graded readers with audio CDs.
Your students can use graded readers at home or in class. However, just asking them to do it without a long-term plan or an initial program won't be enough. Here are some ideas for you.
Two important principles:
- Freedom of choice is as important in EL as in ER. Let them choose a reader.
- Choosing the right level: when you choose a reader just for listening, pick a lower level. One level below your student's reading level is safe. Studies have shown that students should understand 95% of the words for a successful extensive listening experience. (Ware 165)
A Your students choose a graded reader that seems interesting to them. Ask them to read some chapters in class or at home. For more ideas on ER in the Classroom, read our post here.
B When they have read the story, they can pick a chapter and listen to it for about 10 minutes without using the book for support.
C They should listen to the same chapter once more, but this time tell them that they can read along. This will help them improve their reading speed too. The CD will work like a treadmill for a runner, it will set a reading speed and assist the reader in keeping to it. It is especially good for students who have difficulty concentrating on reading for an extended time.
D You can move on to speaking and vocabulary activities you find in the readers.
Of course you can extend this 10 minute-session to 15 or 20 minutes. Ideally your students should choose books they listen to and read at the same time.
Alternatively, they can listen to the stories without the book while travelling and then read the story in a comfortable place.
Visit the Helbling Readers Catalogue for Graded Readers and resources.
- Borges Ucán, J.L. Benefits of using extensive listening in ELT. Memorias Del VI Foro De Estudios En Lenguas International (FEL 2010), pp. 36-44.
- Brown, Steven. Myth 1: Listening is the same as reading. Listening Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Michigan ELT, 2011.
- Ware, Jean L., Yonezawa M., Kurihara, Y, & Durand, J. Investigating Extensive Listening using graded reader CDs. Extensive Reading World Congress Proceedings, 1., 2012
- Ware, Jean L. Doing Extensive Listening and Shadowing using Graded Readers with CDs. Extensive Reading World Congress Proceedings, 1., 2012
- Waring, Rob. ''The inescapable case for extensive reading'