Developing Listening Activities

Teaching listening is challenging because you cannot see what is happening inside your students’ heads when they listen. In order to know what they are hearing and comprehending, you must ask them to show you. When you have them do this by speaking, or by reading and answering comprehension questions, or by writing, you gain insight into their listening proficiency, but that insight is moderated by their proficiency in whichever other modality they are using to respond.

In addition, learners (especially those at lower levels) have limited capacity for holding  aural input in active memory. The more input they hear at one time, the more difficulty they will have in remembering the content. Part of teaching listening is helping your students expand their capacity for holding input in active memory by using listening strategies and prior knowledge.

When designing listening activities, then, keep these challenges in mind. You want to develop activities that are success-oriented and build up your students’ confidence in their listening ability. These will give you a more accurate picture of your students’ true listening proficiency.

Construct the listening activity around a contextualized task.

Contextualized listening activities approximate real-life tasks and give the listener an idea of the type of information to expect and what to do with it in advance of the actual listening. A beginning level task would be locating places on a map (one way) or exchanging name and address information (two way). At an intermediate level students could follow directions for assembling something (one way) or work in pairs to create a story to tell to the rest of the class (two way).

Define the activity’s instructional goal and type of response.

Each activity should have as its goal the improvement of one or more specific listening skills. A listening activity may have more than one goal or outcome, but be careful not to overburden the attention of beginning or intermediate listeners.

Recognizing the goal(s) of listening comprehension in each listening situation will help your students select appropriate listening strategies.

  • Identification: Recognizing or discriminating specific aspects of the message, such as sounds, categories of words, morphological distinctions
  • Orientation: Determining the major facts about a message, such as topic, text type, setting
  • Main idea comprehension: Identifying the central idea(s)
  • Detail comprehension: Identifying supporting information
  • Replication: Reproducing the message orally or in writing

Check the level of difficulty of the listening text.

The factors listed below can help you judge the relative ease or difficulty of a listening text for a particular purpose and a particular group of students.

1. How long is the aural text? Can you insert pauses to give students time to remember and digest?

Over time, as your students’ listening ability develops, you can increase the amount of material they hear without a break.

2. How is the information organized? Does the story line, narrative, or instruction conform to familiar expectations (known scripts)?

Listening texts that follow a predictable sequence or script (such as chronological order or who-what-when-where) and have an informative title are easier for students to follow.

3. How familiar are the students with the topic?

For topics that are unfamiliar or challenging, you may want to have students listen to a related selection in their native language(s) first to establish a foundation of content knowledge. You may also want to review any new or technical vocabulary items that are used in the selection. Remember that misapplication of background knowledge due to cultural differences can create major comprehension difficulties.

4. Does the text contain redundancy?

At the lower levels of proficiency, listeners may find short, simple messages easier to process, but students with higher proficiency benefit from the natural redundancy of the language.

5. Does the text involve multiple individuals and objects? Are they clearly differentiated?

It is easier to understand a text with a doctor and a patient than one with two doctors, and it is even easier if they are of the opposite sex. In other words, the more marked the differences, the easier the comprehension.

6. Does the text offer visual support to aid in the interpretation of what the listeners hear?

Visual aids such as maps, diagrams, pictures, or the images in a video help contextualize the listening input and provide clues to meaning.

Use pre-listening activities to prepare students for what they are going to hear or view.

The activities you use during pre-listening can prepare your students for listening in several ways:

  • Allow you to assess your students’ background knowledge of the topic and the linguistic content of the text
  • Give your students the background knowledge they will need for understanding the listening passage, or activate the existing knowledge that they possess
  • Clarify any cultural information that your students may need to comprehend the selection
  • Make students aware of the type of text they will be listening to, the role they will play, and the purpose(s) for which they will be listening
  • Provide opportunities for background reading or class discussion activities

Sample pre-listening activities:

  • Looking at pictures, maps, diagrams, or graphs
  • Reviewing vocabulary or grammatical structures
  • Reading something relevant
  • Constructing semantic webs (a graphic arrangement of concepts or words showing how they are related)
  • Predicting the content of the listening text
  • Going over the directions or instructions for the activity
  • Doing guided practice

Match while-listening activities to the instructional goal, the listening purpose, and students’ proficiency level.

While-listening activities relate directly to the text, and students do them during or immediately after the time they are listening. Keep these points in mind when planning while-listening activities:

1. If students are to complete a set of comprehension questions or a written task during or immediately after listening, allow them to read through it before listening. Use the questions to focus students’ attention on the elements of the text that are crucial to comprehension of the whole.

Students need to devote all their attention to the listening task. Before the listening activity begins, have them review any questions they will answer orally or in writing after listening. Listening for the answers will help students recognize the crucial parts of the message.

Be sure students understand the content of the comprehension questions or the instructions for the written task before listening begins so that they are not distracted by the need to figure out what to do.

2. Keep writing to a minimum during listening.

Remember that the primary goal is comprehension, not production. Having to write while listening may distract students from this primary goal. If a written response is to be given after listening, the task can be more demanding.

3. Organize activities so that they guide listeners through the text.

Have students listen first for global information such as the main idea, topic, and setting. On the second listening, use selective activities that focus on details of content and form.

4. Use predicting to encourage students to monitor their comprehension as they listen.

Do a predicting activity before listening, and remind students to review what they are hearing to see if it makes sense in the context of their predictions and what they already know of the topic or events of the passage.

5. Allow learners to work in pairs or small groups to answer comprehension questions. Or have each student in the pair/group listen for a specific piece of information, and then have them work together to reconstruct the main content of the passage.

Working together lets students share and reinforce listening strategies that work for them.

6. Give learners ways of indicating comprehension that do not rely on another language modality.

Alternatives include pointing to a picture, performing an action, choosing one from among several objects.

7. Give immediate feedback whenever possible.

Encourage students to examine how or why their responses were incorrect.

Sample while-listening activities:

  • Listening with visuals
  • Filling in graphs and charts
  • Following/tracing a route on a map
  • Checking off items in a list
  • Listening for the gist
  • Listening for specific clues to meaning
  • Completing cloze (fill-in) exercises
  • Distinguishing between formal and informal registers


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