The subject of an excellent Penny Ur book, Teaching Listening Comprehension, listening is the most commonly used communication skill, yet the least explicitly taught in many classrooms.  Listening is a skill often taken for granted and overlooked by teachers, so I hope that this article (and part book review) will help you and your students reach those learning goals a little easier.

What is Listening Comprehension?
Before we start, it is important to know what listening comprehension is. Listening comprehension is everything from speech perception and word recognition (think baby sounds and first words), up to inferring implied meaning and intention (think compliments with sarcastic tones).  But this level of comprehension takes years to develop, and can be very difficult to teach.

Listening Activities Should Reflect Real Life Listening (RLL)
To make listening tasks meaningful, they need to reflect real life listening (unless you are specifically preparing students for listening test).  To make your listening activities reflect real life listening (RLL), we must consider the characteristics of RLL.
Firstly, we almost always have a purpose for listening, whether learning something in a lecture, or finding out gossip, there a purpose.  And this gives us an expectation of what we will hear, like a saucy story about your best friend’s partner’s granny, or an answer to a question you just asked.  
Once we get our expected response, we always respond.  It can be an obvious physical or verbal response like clapping or asking a follow up questions, or not so obvious such as an emotional response.

Visual and Environmental Clues in Listening
A characteristic of real life listening that really helps us are visual and environmental clues.  When facing the person we are listening to, we can often tell a lot about what they are saying from their body language or facial expressions.  Our surroundings always help us to add context to help our listening comprehension.
Finally, in RLL, it’s important to consider how English is heard as opposed to seen.  Colloquialisms, pace, pitch, tone, formality and so on, all change how individual words may be heard.  Spoken prose can be vastly different from written prose.

Common Listening Problems in ESL Students
Now that we’ve considered RLL, let’s look at some common problems faced by students learning a second language.
To start, simply hearing the sounds is difficult.  Hearing a sound like 'th' in (thing), which doesn’t exist in several languages, forces the listener to attribute it to the closest known sound they have; in Chinese this is /s/, in French, it’s /z/. Homophones and homonyms (saw – bear/bare) are more obvious obstacles, and then there’s intonation and stress.  My favorite example to use is, “Did you steal my red scarf?”.  If you change the stress to a different word it can change the question entirely.  

Listening to Every Word is Often Unneccessary
Redundancy and noise are also difficult problems that learners have to overcome. Redundancy is when a speaker uses too many words.  In native listeners, we are quite good at tuning out until we hear what we need to, kind of like scanning texts, the rest of the information is redundant.  The same thing happens in listening, but for second language learners, all languages included, there is an innate desire to understand every word that is heard, which can be very difficult, and often unnecessary.  This is why instruction giving is so important to plan.

Colloquial Speech in Listening is an Additional Problem in ESL Listening
Noise is when a word isn’t heard, either due to a background noise, the listener not knowing a word, or too many words being said too fast.  You may have just been teaching the sentence “I don’t know.  Where do you think he could be?”, but it may sound more like “I dunno.  Wej’thinkeeknbee?” when said in a colloquial manner.
Colloquial language is another problem and something all teachers should be acutely aware of.  Usually colloquial language is unplanned, jerky and spontaneous, delivered at a tremendous speed and varies in tone, pitch and speed.  Not to mention that we regularly leave letters out (comfortable, vegetable), or even whole words (where you going? What you doing?).  Being aware of this will help you and your students and is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Listener Fatigue and Accents
Listener fatigue and accents can also cause problems, however the latter is an important element of learning English and more exposure to different accents, but not too often, will help students in the long run.

Teacher Tips for Planning Effective TEFL Listening Activities
Remembering what you have already read, here are some tips for planning an effective listening activity.
1. Focus listening around a task:  this helps to make sure students have a purpose to listen.  It could be a TPR response, ticking a box, following directions, but be careful not to make it too writing intensive.
2. On-going learner response:  as we learned earlier all listening requires a response.  On-going responses in the classroom work much better than a few questions at the end, which could make it a memory test and not a comprehension exercise.
3. Motivation and success:  One of the biggest factors in motivation is success. Make sure the task is challenging but not too difficult.  Once a student succeeds they will be motivated to go again.  Provide opportunities for students to complete written answers, or listen a second or third time if it will help successful completion.
4. Simplicity:  Be wary when using additional environmental or visual clue that you don’t stimulate too many senses at once.
5. Feedback:  Give it immediately or as soon as possible.  Students will quickly forget what they heard if you give feedback a day later.
6. Visual materials:  invaluable in setting the context and will likely provide heightened motivation and interest.  You can also throw in some acting or miming instead of the usual audio recording.  
If you would like to learn more you should definitely pick up Penny Ur’s Teaching Listening Comprehension and for even more classroom ideas, try out Simple Listening Activities by Jill Hadfield.

by Grant Fraser

Grant Fraser

Grant is from Scotland and has been living and working in Suzhou, China since 2011 teaching English to young learners. He is keen to share his experiences and ideas with other teachers throughout China and the rest of the world. If you would like to contact Grant please click here
Tuesday, 02 February 2016 12:12

ESL: Teaching Reading to Young Learners

Reading is 'dreaming with your eyes open'. Teaching reading to young learners activates their imagination and enables children to master intonation and word stress from a young age. Reading also passively teaches punctuation and grammar. These skills are very important in achieving near-native English skills.
Using Technology to Teach Reading

I teach reading to young learners aged 7-9 in my English corners. As a modern teacher, I use my iPad and free online fairy tale books from my (Chinese) App Store. I have found a variety of free interactive books from TabTale.
Before we start reading, we play a ball game to review what we read during the previous English Corner. This allows them to physically warm up (it's winter), and to get ready for an hour of English only. I do not have an assistant teacher in these reading English corner sessions, so a good warm-up activity is essential.
Interactive Fairytales: Repeated Listening

Once our heart rate is up and our lungs are filled with good laughs, it’s time to listen to a fairy tale. The fairy tales are interactive and during the first listening they enjoy moving the characters and copying their voices. (I encourage them to go crazy – I believe children learn best when they don’t feel boxed in)

The first listening is for them to make out what the story is about and for them to settle down from a hyped-up warmer. The second listening is often calmer, as they know which characters move and they are aware of what is going on. During this session they listen more intently to the words in the interactive story and the sounds of the reader.

New Words in the Story
Inevitably there are new words they learn with each fairy tale; we play an interactive counting game to practice the new words e.g. 1 Witch, 2 Huntsmen, 1 Huntsman, 2 witches.  an apple, 2 oranges. etc…
Our third and final listening/reading is easy on the ear for them because they know the full story and understand all the new words. I read to them and ensure I stress each syllable and repeat each word and ask them to repeat after me as I read along. This helps the young learners greatly with pronunciation and correct word stress. 

Get the Students Reading Themselves
We then activate “read to myself”. I pick my strongest student to read the first page while the others listen, fairy tales from TabTale are often 15 – 20 pages long. Because each page is interactive, the reader has exclusive “rights” to the iPad. We each take turns reading. I encourage silly eyes and faces while they are reading. This allows me to see which student understands the story and which one doesn’t; a handy tip for teachers teaching reading to young learners! 

Teaching Reading: Difficulties in Pronunciation

Difficulties in word pronunciation come up while reading and I encourage them to correct each other. I only step in when none of my students know how to say the word. Fairy tales usually have simple language but occasionally words such as “conscientious” pop up and I step in, but aside from that, I encourage the kids to help each other read.

Doing Puzzles After the Relay Reading
After relay reading, that is, the students assisting each other to read and teaching reading in repeated steps, we do a jigsaw puzzle of the characters from the fairy tale. Each student relays the part of the story the puzzle refers to. There are a few good jigsaw puzzle programs you can use to make your own jigsaw puzzles online.

Read Once More a Little Faster
After the puzzle, we read once again, this time at a slightly faster pace than before. They enjoy it because they try to reader faster, louder and better than I do. After our third reading, we do a colouring activity in which each student gets to color in their favourite book character and say why they like that character.

The Final 10 Minutes of the Reading Class
By now I have about 10 minutes to the end of the reading class and I ask a volunteer to read. I usually have a child who is ready to show off their reading skills. They read and everyone reads and repeats after them. Then, each student has a sentence each and we read the book from start to finish. 

Same format, different story
The beauty of using the same format for different fairy tales (it’s important to always have a different fairy tale for each session), is they become accustomed to what is expected of them and have fun whilst reading in the class. The first week can be chaotic, as most Chinese students are not used to reading a long fairy tale all at once and mastering it in an hour. I have found that after three weeks of using the same format but different fairy tales, you will start to notice just how much better your students read than when they started. Teaching reading to Young Learners is a wonderful way to improve a broad range of laguage skills and I would encourage all teachers to incorporate reading into their classes.

by Rene Elliott

AC/DC's 'Money Talks' is a great ESL song, which can be used with older teenagers or adults when discussing money and wealth in class. The song is about how the rich and famous blow their money away on useless status symbols and a debauched lifestyle. The song can be used as a pre-text to a discussion about how the rich and famous live and how people change if they become wealthy.

To download the free ACDC 'Money Talks' lesson plan PDF, scroll down to the bottom and click the download link.

What to Do

Before Class

Print, cut and glue/laminate the photo cards. One set for each group of 2-4 students. Put the cards aside for the song activity.

In the class
Ask the students what they would do if they won the lottery. You will likely get some sensible answers such as "I'd invest it" or "I'd buy my parents a house". Try to encourage some more wasteful answers, the more outrageous – the better! Introduce what 'Status symbols' are i.e. limousines, Rolex watches, private jets.

Write the best answers on the board. When you have got some good answers on the board, ask the class if this would be a wise thing to do. Put them into pairs to talk about why buying these things would be foolish. Get feedback after two minutes and have a general chat about student ideas.

Ask the class if there are any people in the world who behave like this. What do the students think about them? Now tell students that they are going to hear a song about how some rich people waste their money, but they don't care, because they can always get more! Give each group the lyrics sheet and a set of status symbol picture cards. Students must listen to the song/read the lyrics and put the picture cards in order.

Following the song, you can have a class discussion about money and what money does to people. I have written some conversation questions to kick you off, or you can use your own material.

To download the full TEFL lesson plan, click on the PDF link below.

Published in Song lessons

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is considered by many to be the Beatles' finest album. 'She's leaving home' was the sixth track on the album and is about a girl who is unhappy at home and so runs away. Her parents do not understand why she has run away.


Activity One (Listening) – students are put into small groups to listen to the song and put the lyrics into the correct order.
Activity Two (Teacher/student talk) - short discussion about the song and why she ran away.
Activity Three (Writing) – students write the letter that the girl left at the top of the stairs for her parents to read.

Before class, copy and cut into strips a set of song lyrics for each group of three students.

Also copy out one blank letter page per student.

To download the free She's Leaving Home song lesson plan, then scroll down to the bottom of this page to find the download link.

Part One

In class, ask students what kind of problems teenagers might have with their parents i.e. homework conflicts, what they are allowed to wear, what time they are allowed to stay out until, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. Ask the students why parents get annoyed; try to get your students to look at the problems from both sides.

Tell your class that they are going to listen to a song about a girl who has trouble sharing her feelings with her parents. Her parents love her, but don't always know how to show this love. Hand out one set of sentence strips to your students and explain that they must listen to the song and put the sentence strips into order. Give your students a few minutes before you start the song to read the strips and lay them out so they can read them properly as they listen. Play the song twice and then check to see if they have put the sentence strips into the correct order.

Part Two

This is your chance to discuss the song with the students and to ask questions about feelings. Ask each group of three to talk with each other about the song and why the girl ran away. Allow the class to chat away and circle around to listen and help with language. As you begin to hear the groups quiet down, stop them and direct the conversation yourself (don't wait for absolute silence!!)
Ask the whole class questions about the song. Here are some sample questions you might ask, although you might think of other questions!

Why did the girl run away?
Why did she leave a letter?
What does it mean when the song says 'stepping outside she is free'? How could she 'live alone' when she was living with her parents?
Do you think the girl was at fault?
Were her parents wrong?

Part Three

Your students are going to write their own letter that the girl left at the top of the stairs!

Ask your class what might have been written in the letter that was left at the top of the stairs for her mum to find. Would it have been a horrible letter or do your class think that it might have tried to explain her reasons for leaving? Will the girl ever come back?

Take lots of ideas from your class and don't rush this part as this will give your students ideas for what to put in their own letter! The blank letter page follows the lyric sentence strips.

To download the full She's Leaving Home lesson plan click below.



Published in Song lessons

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