A listening experiment that worked

Some of you may be aware how interested I am in the teaching of listening and my belief that teachers should try to help their learners ‘learn to listen’.

I have tried a number of techniques with a particular class of mine (see class profile at the end of the post), but although they have improved, they still find listening very difficult and are nervous every time I go near the CD player.

I teach in the Czech Republic, and the language has a very different stress pattern to English, and while I keep telling my students to focus on content words (which should carry the stress and therefore be easier to hear), it has been difficult to implement with this class, who try to listen to everything and then get frustrated and say English is just too fast.

So after the last listening lesson (English File Third Edition, file 8A, page 61, listening 51 & 52) which didn’t go quite according to plan, I started thinking about how I could force them into listening to the content words. And then it hit me! I would make them listen to only the content words!

Lacking any better ideas, next lesson I took the tape script and underlined the content words in the next two tasks which we hadn’t managed (listening 53 and 54). There were two characters in the listening but I didn’t let this put me off! I read the first half to my class (in two voices 🙂 ), only the content words, at a normal speaking pace. Immediately, 4 of the students looked at each other in surprise and recalled almost every word when asked! The others were a little slower, and I repeated it for them all to check what they heard the first time.

Then I did the same with the second half of the text, and this time I saw the lights coming on in their heads – they really didn’t need to hear all of the words, as they were building the meaning in their minds!

I repeated this process again with the second (related) listening (54, CD3)

This experiment worked much better than I had hoped, so I put 3 of the sentences I had read onto the board and asked them to fill in the missing words.

Here were the sentences and their guesses:

Original text Content words on board Their guess to complete After a hint from me
since I was a child since child since I was child since I was a child
go to the cinema go cinema go to the cinema
He’ll soon see what’s happening, and stop seeing his ex. soon see what’s happening, stop seeing ex soon he see what’s happening, he stop seeing the ex soon he’ll see what’s happening, he’ll stop seeing the ex


As you can see, these were not bad guesses from my pre-int class! I was particularly happy to see that they could notice what type of words were missing and where they were missing from. They then checked by reading the tape script.

I was especially pleased that their ‘mistake’ in the last sentence gave me the opportunity to show them how their idea was perfectly valid and we practised saying both versions and fitting the small words between the BIG content words as we clapped the content words. We then went through the other examples to show how there is the same amount of time between the content words irrespective of how many words there are. I felt that clapping as we practised helped to reinforce the point of the exercise.

I will definitely be doing a bit more of this, and maybe in the future I will even consider giving them the gapped tape script to complete as a post listening task.



Level: Pre-Int

7 students: 6 women, one retired, two mid-thirties, and three in their fifties. One man, mid-thirties. All are from a small town and none listen to English outside class or have any contact with English outside class (except when doing homework with their children/grandchildren!)

A selection of post listening activities

I have finally got round to posting a selection of the remedial activities I use when my students find listening exercises difficult, although they are all great activities we can use in their own right to try and teach our learners to listen better.

These are listed under the categories listed on my post-listening reflection sheet described in my previous post here. You can find a link to the reflection worksheet here.

I didn’t know the vocabulary…

Activity 1: Listen again with the tapescript and underline any new words. Sometimes learners understand the words on paper but don’t recognize the pronunciation.

– New vocabulary can be taught, or difficult pronunciation practised.

Activity 2: An alternative activity is to read the tapescript.

Both activities above could easily continue into roleplays or pronunciation practice.

The speaker(s) didn’t speak clearly, The speakers spoke very quickly……

Activity 1 (Not using the tapescript):

– Listen for key vocabulary/stressed words.

– Then try to answer the questions.

– After this, learners could try to add the unstressed words.

This should help them recognize the content words in the sentences and to notice that unstressed words are grammar words.

This activity could also be even used instead of the standard listening procedure in the coursebook.

Activity 2: Use the tapescript to underline stressed words.

– After demonstrating that content words are stressed, this can be done as a predicting activity and listen to check.

A logical follow up here would be to do pronunciation practice.

 I couldn’t hear where the words started and finished …….

Activity 1: Listen for words which are connected and elicit when and how native speakers connect words.

Activity 2: The activities described above could also be useful in addressing this problem.

 I couldn’t answer the questions correctly

Check again that they understand the questions. Listen again. Any better?

Ask them to describe what they heard…..

 The speaker(s) had a horrible accent……….

After discussing this problem further, activity choices can be made. Any of the above may be beneficial, or a focus on sounds can be carried out. This could also be useful for other problems too.

A couple of example activities of this kind:

– Identify all ‘ɑː’ sounds (while using the tapescript).

– Learner listens and circles or underlines all occasions of that sound (while using the tapescript).

(These could also be done as prediction activities)

– Is the pronunciation standard? Or does the speaker have a regional accent? I believe it is very important to raise awareness of this

– Listen together, stopping as necessary and practising.

– Read out loud and practise pronunciation.

Activities focussing on intonation may also be beneficial here.

The activities listed above are not activities I have invented myself, but what I have picked up over the years from a range of sources. If you are unfamiliar with any of them, please let me know and I would be happy to go into more detail….

Below are some useful references and resources for further reading on listening and pronunciation:

Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, M. (1993) The Lexical Approach. Heinle.

Ridgeway, T. (2000) Listening Strategies- I beg your pardon? ELT Journal April 2000, 54/2: 179-185

Underhill, A. (2011a) Introducing the pronunciation chart to your class. Retrieved 8 October, 2012, from: http://adrianpronchart.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/how-to-introduce-the-pron-chart-to-your-class/

Underhill, A. (2011b) Introduction to Teaching Pronunciation Workshop. Macmillan Education. Retrieved 5 October, 2012, from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kAPHyHd7Lo

Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations. Learning and teaching pronunciation. Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Ur, P. (2011) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, G. (1998) Listening. Oxford: Oxford

Why was the listening difficult?

When my students ‘huff and puff’ after a listening exercise and I try to find out why it was difficult, my learners usually find it very hard to explain why.

How could I get useful feedback to help improve problems with listening?

I decided that by encouraging them to reflect on what they had listened to, we could gain some useful insights into what areas were difficult for them. This was the main idea behind designing my ‘Post listening reflection‘. (You can download it by clicking on the link).

By using this regularly after listening exercises, I hope to build a better picture of what aspects of listening to focus on to help my learners become better listeners.

Why not give it a try yourself?

In the next couple of days I intend to post some ideas of activities we can do to help improve the weak areas.