How to Teach ESL Listening in Class

At my first teaching job, I asked a fellow English teacher,

“What’s your favorite skill to teach?”

“Listening,” she replied. “Because I don’t have to do anything. Just press the play button.”

Even then, as a completely new teacher, I knew that there had to be more to teaching listening than that.

Use Video

When learners are able to see the speakers, the setting, and other images on the screen, they’re able to make connections and understand much more. In Becoming Fluent, the authors state that learners of a language do much better with video than just audio due to the McGurk effect. It helps to see the speaker even for native speakers, and it’s even more helpful for language learners.

And video is also more authentic than just audio. Even though people still listen to the radio in the car and podcasts are becoming incredibly popular, most language that we hear is still either spoken by people talking to us, or in video.

Some listening via audio only could be helpful for language learners. There might be situations when they want to listen to the radio or a podcast, and they might need to understand an announcement over a loudspeaker or talk on the phone. But more often than not, learners are more likely to see and hear at the same time. So use materials that reflect that.

Activate the Schema

Students perform better on receptive tasks like reading and listening when they know what to expect beforehand. In their own languages, students (and especially adult students) have an incredible amount of knowledge to draw from and make connections with.

Simply put, “activating schema” is just a fancy term for getting students to access this prior knowledge.

The most common way to do this is with a quick discussion or a quick, ungraded quiz about the general topic that the listening will cover. For example, if your students are going to watch a video about Mark Zuckerburg, you might ask them questions like:

  • What is Social Media?
  • Do you use Facebook? Why or why not?
  • How does technology connect people?

Maybe they don’t know the term “social media” in English, but they probably know the concept. This is a good way to fish out vocabulary that is not yet known by the students, but that is important for the listening.

Listen for Main Ideas First

When you do an in-class listening, give your class some questions about the main idea(s) of the listening and play it through without stopping. Again, this is more authentic. When we watch or listen to something, we are usually thinking “OK, what’s the point?” This is a skill that learners should develop as well.

Before you start the video, write some questions on the board or give them out on a 1/2 sheet and ask your students to take notes or just pay attention. These questions should be general. Think about what kinds of questions would elicit a good summary of the content of the video. Some examples:

What is the point/main idea of this lecture?

What is the woman’s opinion about X?

Why are (these people) doing (this thing)?

Because your students might not understand every word that they hear, they’re going to need to decide what is important and what isn’t. Even at the higher levels, it’s easy for students to get distracted by vocabulary words that they know and hear, but that are just specific details or examples, and are mostly unrelated to the main idea. Don’t have them focus on the nitty gritty at the beginning: get them to realize what the point is first.

Listen for Details Second

Then, once you listen through one time and check your students’ understanding of the main ideas, move on to the specific details.

Some details that include easier vocabulary will stand out to the students. But just recognizing vocabulary isn’t enough. Students have to put the details described by the vocabulary in context. By starting with the main idea and making sure the students understand the point of the material, they will them be able to see how the specific details fit into that main idea and why they’re important.

The main idea is the most important thing, but the details are important also. In a combined listening and speaking class, details can be re-used in a student’s speech as support for their own ideas.

Use Segments

As much as you can, you should use authentic listening materials in your ESL classes, which means materials created for native speakers and not modified for learners. Textbooks and materials developers are getting better at this, but as a teacher you might still encounter listenings that get the eyes rolling: super-slow speakers, boring topics, overdone reactions:

Hello…Sally. How…ARE…you….today?

I’m…GREAT… Thank you….And YOU?

Come on. Our students have heard English before. They know that it doesn’t sound like that.

But there is a rationale behind it: compared to authentic spoken English, this type of material is much easier to understand the first time through.

So how can you make authentic English, with realistic speed and language, easier to understand?

You break it down into segments.

When confronted with a difficult scrap of listening, play it through a few times, asking students to listen for specific things. You might be focusing on a specific detail question, or even a main idea question.

Or you might just ask students to repeat what they heard – “What did she say?”.?? Sometimes, even at higher levels, it is difficult for students to understand the speech stream a quick or difficult speaker even when they know all the words that are being said. But segmenting a short piece of speech and playing it a few times can often help them understand it.

Use Scripts

Avoid scripts as much as possible at the beginning. If you’re teaching listening class, teach listening, not reading. Let your students struggle (in other words: learn) as they listen without any support other than the images on the screen.

Once you have had them listen for main ideas, specific details, and specific language, you can give out the script of the audio.

I’ve used scripts in two main ways:

  • When students can’t understand a piece of audio after repeated listenings.
  • When I want students to pay attention to the overall structure of a speech.

Actually seeing the words can help students finally make sense of a difficult piece of speech. And seeing an entire discourse can help students recognize how all the parts fit together.

Putting it All Together: A Listening Class Plan

So here’s what one of my listening classes might look like:

  1. Schema activation: either quick quiz or quick discussion on the general topic of the listening.
  2. Main ideas questions: give questions, play video all the way through the first time. Check for understanding after.
  3. Specific details questions: give questions, play video through again. Check for understanding after. If needed, play the video one more time.
  4. Segmented listening: if there is a specific piece of language that will help your students with pronunciation/vocabulary/grammar, play that segment again and draw students’ attention to it. If there’s a specific detail question that students can’t find the answer for, play the segment that contains that answer again.
  5. Look at scripts (optional): Look at the script of the whole video. Draw students’ attention to difficult passages or overall structure.

Obviously there are a lot of variations you can do, but I believe this plan really helps students fully understand even very difficult, authentic listenings.

There is so much that teachers can do to help students improve their listening.

Don’t just press the play button and kick back.

Thanks for reading.


EDIT: I’ve been receiving lots of positive feedback on this post and I just realized I forgot to mention the person who taught me most of this stuff: Kristin Bouton was one of my mentors at the Intensive English Institute at the University of Illinois. She’s the opposite of the “just press play” type of teacher.

Featured Image Credit: Dominick

9 thoughts on “How to Teach ESL Listening in Class

  1. Excellent blog post! Very well organized. I especially like the elicitation of vocabulary using unmarked quizzes before the listening segment. Thank you!

  2. Hi Kris. Thank you for reminding us ELT professionals about planning successful listening lessons. It made me reflect on what goes on through the learner before, during and after they listen. In my opinion the most rewarding activities are the ones where students find them meaningful and can relate to their particular context.
    I also noticed that you didn’t say anything about formal assessment. Did you leave that part out on purpose?

    1. Hi Gabriel. Completely agreed – students need to connect with the material in some way, otherwise learning won’t happen as effectively.
      I intended this post to be for in-class activities/practice to be done at the beginning or middle of a unit, so in other words, pedagogy, not formal assessment. Maybe I’ll write a post on assessing listening soon…thanks for the idea!
      I’ve actually done a similar structure as the one in this article for formal listening exams, pre-listening schema discussions included. From there, students get page one of the test (main idea questions) for first listening, and then page two-three/four (specific detail and reflection/reaction questions) for the second time listening through.
      I’ll try to go into more detail about listening assessment in a future post. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I make use of variable-speed playback software (VLC Media Player) because I’d rather have a student segment an elision themselves than me telling them what it is.

    I plan to write and share a macro that can strip a script (.doc file) of structural words and endings (determiners, prepositions, conjunctions, to be verbs, -ing forms, plural ‘s’, etc. leaving content prompts for students to reproduce the dialog with.

  4. Hi Kris, Very well detalied! Your step by step listening plan is similar to a one I learned in a SIT TESOL course; it is called PDP, pre – during and post and we can adapt this framework to listening and reading.

    1. Yes, good point! For any receptive skill (reading or listening), students should be doing something before, during, and after. Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *