Have you ever thought about running a course focusing exclusively on listening? How would it help them if you did? Would your learners like it? In this second part of her Authentic Listening series, Chiara Bruzzano explains what initial activities she used on her course, and reveals how she analysed students’ needs, encouraged her students to consider their difficulties and introduced the concept of authentic listening to them before starting out.
In the first part of the authentic listening series for the English Teaching professional blog, I started to tell you all about my latest course. I confessed to being a huge listening nerd and discussed why students need to deal with real spoken English and real listening difficulties. I also got into the technical side of it, describing how developing metacognitive knowledge and strategies helps learners with their listening.
But now it’s time to get into the practicalities: in this post, I am going to tell you about the introductory (intro) lesson of the course, the activities I used and the rationale for them. The intro lesson is a hugely important one and the activities I used exemplify most of the principles I followed to design the course.
In the next blog post, which will be the final one in this series, I will walk you through the principles of course design and give you some more sample activities.
A few caveats before we begin
Just to make sure you get a bit of context: the course was a series of ten online, weekly two-hour lessons. The students’ level was B2 (on the CEFR) and they were all adults who were fairly motivated.
I am specifying this because some of the activities I used in the course may not be appropriate for all age groups and proficiency levels, especially because they are only feasible if students have some learner autonomy. Having said this, the rationale and design principles of design will still be applicable to many other contexts.
Starting off on the right foot: the intro lesson
You know how sometimes the intro lesson can set the tone for the whole course?
Well, before starting the course, I thought that my Authentic Listening course was probably going to be a bit different from most of the English language courses my learners had attended previously. That is why I thought very carefully about the intro lesson, in which I mixed eliciting, explaining and engaging students.
Here is my intro lesson breakdown:
1. Getting to know each other
You always need have to have a few lesson ideas for day one in place (or up your sleeve)!
I started with one of my all-time favourites: I showed pictures, names and numbers that had some kind of connection to my life and asked students to guess their meaning. Then, I asked them to do the same thing in small groups using breakout rooms. This is a very simple activity; however, it was useful not only to create rapport, but also to start gauging the students’ oral skills, as I silently monitored their work in the breakout rooms.
2. Needs Analysis
As Chia Suan Chong reminded us back in 2018, doing a needs analysis shows your students you care. I may have had my own ideas about the students’ needs, difficulties and interests before the course, but actually asking them allowed me to see what they actually wanted and needed, and showed I was willing to adapt my lessons to suit them.
So, using interactive slides through slido.com, they answered five questions:
- What things do you do in English in your life?
- What things would you like to do (better) in English?
- What are the topics you are most interested in?
- What kinds of materials do you normally listen to/watch in English?
- What makes listening difficult for you?
This started to give me an insight into their thoughts and experiences about English and listening more specifically. I would recommend discussing English more broadly first, then going into the listening side of a needs analysis because students may feel more comfortable if they are eased into it. I know from experience that thinking about listening comprehension beyond ‘They speak too fast!’ (more on this below) can be difficult for students!
The needs analysis was very useful. For example, given what I knew about them, I originally thought my students would want to learn to understand academic lectures better. However, I then found out that they actually all wanted to deal with non-academic English, because they were already competently understanding lectures! I consequently modified the videos and audios I chose for the course.
3. Input on listening
For this course, I wanted learners to be aware of what listening means in the context of language learning. Research shows that students often feel that listening is unpredictable and uncontrollable (Graham, 2006), so, giving them some insights into how it works may help them feel more in control.
I briefly explained what top-down and bottom-up listening meant and how language learning works broadly speaking – as I normally do when I start a course. If necessary, this type of explanation can, of course, be done with the help of the L1 in monolingual classes.
Below, you will find one of the slides I used for this part of the class. To illustrate the point, I played a short extract from Let it be by The Beatles. There a line that advises the listener to let someone into their heart, and the words ‘let her’ may be ambiguous for students. I used this extract to illustrate how one may try to understand this in different ways. On the on hand, students would decode ‘let her’, that is, they would hear the sounds, words and phrases and then translate them into an abstract idea. This way, they may hear a number of things for ‘let her’, including ‘letter’ or ‘leather’. On the other hand, students would use their knowledge of the world, the speaker and what was said before in the text to interpret the meaning in a top-down fashion, which Field (2008) calls meaning-building.
4. Engaging students with their difficulties
From the very beginning, I wanted students to start thinking more deeply about listening difficulties. How many times have you heard students say that a recording was just too difficult because ‘They spoke too fast!’?
The truth is, though, listening difficulties are far more complex and numerous than just speed of delivery. Further, according to the Attribution Theory, ascribing one’s listening problems just to this external, uncontrollable factor may not be conducive to better language learning in the long term.
One idea to get students to start thinking about their difficulties is to show them a short video without subtitles (one–two minutes in length) a few times and ask them to make notes about everything they find difficult. And yes, speed will inevitably be one of those things! However, you can then give them the transcript of the video and ask them to identify more thoroughly which sections were difficult to understand and try to explain why.
To do this, I used an extract from the interview Jimmy Fallon did with Barack Obama. After giving my students the transcript and discussing the difficulties they could identify, I showed them an annotated transcript. Here is a short extract of it:
As you can see, I did not just identify some potential difficulties: I also categorised them. For example, the circled words are difficulties related to background knowledge (e.g. without knowing who Michelle Obama is, one cannot make sense of the utterance), while those underlined in blue refer to hesitations and repetitions, which can make comprehension harder. This is one initial step to get learners to think more deeply about why listening can be difficult and what they might be able to do about it.
5. Course objectives
After giving the students some input and engaging them in reflecting on their difficulties, I ended the lesson by giving them an overview of the course objectives:
- Understanding their listening difficulties
- Developing strategies to overcome those difficulties
- Learning to deal with different genres and different speakers
- Planning their listening development beyond the course
This was helpful to manage the expectations of students who may be much more used to thinking about language learning as ‘studying’ in a linear fashion and it gave them an opportunity to ask questions about what we were going to do in the course.
So, here are the activities I used in my first lesson – I hope you found some of them interesting! In my next blog post, I will talk you through some more activities from the course and the principles of design behind them.
Have you ever done something similar in your classes? How did it go? Let me know in the comments section or on the Pavilion ELT’s social media.
Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Graham, S. (2006). ‘Listening comprehension: The learners’ perspective’. System, 34, 165-182. Amsterdam: Elsevier.