Teaching listening skills is possibly the hardest part of our job as EFL teachers. It is much harder when you teach listening to Young Learners (YLs) in a non-English-speaking environment. With very little English exposure at home or in mainstream schools in countries where English is not widely spoken, YLs need thorough guidance in approaching listening, particularly, to authentic language. In an English-speaking-environment, where English is everywhere, it is still crucial to teach learners to be effective listeners. YLs need to be engaged and have a good reason for listening and understanding what is being said. Listening plays a key part in the YLs’ language development, simply because it is their main source of sample language and it constitutes the springboard for language acquisition and, hence, their future spoken production (Krashen, 1981). In this article, the focus will be on teaching listening to YLs aged 8-11 at A1 level (though some points made are transferrable to other age groups).
What Does It Take To Teach Listening Effectively?
In current ELT practice, listening skills are more often tested or practised than taught (Field, 2008). This is something I have noticed over the years when talking to newly-qualified teachers and many colleagues in a variety of teaching contexts. I admit I have been doing that for a long time myself with frustrating results. I used to pre-teach new vocabulary, to get learners to ‘recognize’ the words pre-taught and offer some sort of practice extension through listening comprehension questions and that was it. It took me a while before I realized that it’s not sufficient to play a CD track to get your learners motivated to answer a list of (rather unchallenging) comprehension questions about a fake conversation, in which one of the interlocutors sounds like a YL. Teaching listening effectively takes a lot more than that.
YLs love visuals, animations, games, fun things to watch, listen and do. Their main motivation is expressing their world to others and sharing experiences with peers. Listening tasks and materials should raise learners’ interest and keep them engaged while they are doing things with the language they hear. Listening in class also has to be a chance for YLs to use all their imagination, creativity, curiosity and energy to learn.
b. Engaging Listening Tasks
What makes a listening task engaging for YLs? YLs are in the stage of their life in which they are gathering information from their world experience. They are gradually developing the abilities to listen carefully to get something done or just get the gist of what has been said for a purpose. In other words, learners are learning to decode messages purposefully and manage information with confidence. The teacher’s job is to create real-life conditions in the language classroom, as much as possible, in order to ‘train’ YLs to develop effective strategies for understanding oral messages that have some connections with their world. Listening tasks must therefore clearly reflect YLs’ real life experiences and everyday new discoveries.
How can teachers make listening tasks more engaging? Think of all the different situations when YLs listen carefully to people around them. In which situations would they listen up for important details? Possibly, when they need to follow instructions to make something, e.g. crafts, or to do something ‘fun’, e.g. playing a guessing game. In these situations, there is a clear purpose for listening and extracting key information. This is called transactional listening (Richards, 1990). In this case, YLs’ language knowledge can help them understand and select the information needed, which is called ‘bottom-up processing’ (ibid.). There is a lot YLs haven’t experienced first-hand yet, but, while carrying out realistic tasks, they can still activate the world knowledge they have gained through games, books, stories or simply from parents’ or teachers’ talk. This is called ‘top-down processing’ (Richards, 1990): the context and the listener’s background knowledge will help understand the message. New things will easily attract YLs. Selecting or designing materials that can feed YLs’ endless curiosity and spark their imagination is just vital to make tasks engaging. While keeping learners motivated, listening tasks also need to create the opportunity for meaningful language exposure and life experience.
c. Appropriate YL Materials
Teaching listening involves providing a fair degree of motivation, purpose and engagement to a range of listening tasks that YLs can relate to their real life or their world experience and that will provide training for effective listening. Listening tasks need to be manageable in order to avoid demotivation or information overload for YLs (Brown & Yule, 1983). Authentic materials can offer a chance for real language exposure though task grading will be necessary, e.g. through visual aids or pre-listening tasks, not necessarily vocabulary pre-teaching. For instance, you could choose to use an example as a pre-listening task with an immediate response as to build learners’ confidence before approaching the actual task (Lynch & Anderson, 1988). Listening materials surely need to feature motivating tasks, but also they need to provide interesting content and be visually attractive to a child aged 8-11. Selecting listening materials can be hard. You need to walk in your learners’ shoes and see the world with their eyes not your own. Talk to your YLs as much as you can to find out about their interests and make a list of topics that are age and culturally appropriate to your class, not YLs in general. Materials should always have a fun and competitive element to make the exposure to real language more enjoyable.
Five Practical Classroom Ideas
Having outlined what makes listening tasks effective, here are five classroom ideas based on these principles.
1. Listen & play
Topic: Weather/Countries Functions: Understanding key information Aims: Developing listening skills for details using icons, maps & weather report video Learning new weather words & countries around the world through listening
Activity: Listen to the weather forecast around the world Match the weather icons to the flags/countries
Pre-taught vocabulary: none
Follow-up activity: Make a video about your local weather today using weather flashcards
2. Listen & make
Topic: Making things Function: Following instructions Aims: Developing listening skills for live detailed instructions to make a fish origami Learning craft vocabulary e.g. fold, unfold, turn around, press
Activity: Listen to the teacher giving live instructions to make a simple fish origami
Pre-taught vocabulary: none
Follow-up activity: Listen & watch 3D Animation video ‘Once I caught a fish alive’ nursery rhyme https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w49MQ6Wrqes
Resources: Square coloured paper
3. Listen & respond
Topic: Fruit & Veg, Food Functions: understanding requests Aims: Developing transactional/top-down listening skills in the context of shopping Learning quantifiers e.g. some, a lot of, and measures e.g. Kilo, a dozen
Activity: Listen to a customer (teacher) who recorded a message (video/audio) for the greengrocer (learners) asking to do the shopping for her and collect the items from the shelves (rows of desks in the classroom) Sample: ‘Hello there! I’m very ill today. Sorry, I can’t do my shopping. Can you please help? Can I have two kilos oranges, please? Then, I need some onions and a dozen eggs, please!’
Pre-taught vocabulary: Kilo/Pound; half a kilo; a dozen
Follow-up activity: Learners make their shopping lists in turn and get partners to do the shopping
Resources: Realia, toy fruit & veg
4. Listen & guess
Topic: Appearance Function: describing people Aims: Developing listening skills for selecting relevant information Learning new vocabulary and phrases to describe people through semi-authentic listening (different accents are featured in the text)
Activity: Listen to six people describing 6 other people they met in different situations Ignore irrelevant information. Focus on their appearance and match the description you hear to the face in the pictures
Pre-taught vocabulary: Beard, moustache, freckles. Other new items are taught in context through visual/aural input
Follow-up activity: Play ‘Guess who?’ game – one learner at a time describes a person from class/school/local town or celebrities. Other learners guess who they are
5. Listen & tell
Topic: Positions Function: describing places Aims: Developing listening skills and predict key information using visual and aural clues Learning basic prepositions of place and describing places
Activity: Watch the video. Listen to the conversation. Tell where Hero was/is now
Pre-taught vocabulary: None New items are taught in context through visual/aural input
Follow-up activity: Play ‘Treasure hunt’ – Teacher hides small cuddly toys or nice kids’ stuff in the classroom/school and sends learners on a treasure hunt. Learners in groups ask the teacher for clues. Good listeners usually win
Listening is one of the key language skills for YLs’ language development. The YL listening classroom needs to relate listening tasks and materials to YLs’ experiences in real life and help develop strategies to decode messages effectively. In order to teach listening (not testing or practising) effectively, teachers should re-think what they do in the classroom and make choices: use authentic materials as input, design motivating tasks not comprehension questions, make use of textual and contextual resources, make listening purposeful and fun (Field,2008:25).