Among the many skills we aim at developing in the language class, listening has a special role. It is rarely practised separately without involving other resources such as body language, images or texts, so it is often the most challenging standalone mode of communication for language learners. In the classroom, teachers support their speaking with prompts, the listening tasks are accompanied by guiding questions, and when using videos or films, meaning is made through a combination of images, sounds (including music), and spoken language.
When we start using voice-only listening practice we realise how important it is. Just think how often we are exposed to voice-only communication: announcements at an airport or railway station, podcasts and radio shows, voice messages, and phone calls. These are all voice-only situations. And when we really want to understand a conversation, a lecture, a dialogue in a film, our understanding of spoken language gains more significance.
There is so much knowledge needed for good listening proficiency: lexical and grammatical knowledge, pronunciation, stress, and intonation. At advanced levels, the ability to distinguish regional dialects also contributes to a better understanding of words spoken. What’s more, the way we use language, both in writing and speaking, identifies us with sociocultural values for a listener, which is an interesting area to explore with advanced learners.
There are engaging ways to help learners at all levels tune into the subtleties of spoken language. Let’s consider some of them.
How listening to stories can help
Listening to audiobooks in your first language can be relaxing or challenging depending on your state of mind. When we are tired, we might find it difficult to follow a longer narrative. It is even more challenging for a language learner to follow an audiobook performed or narrated by native speakers. Not only does the speed of the performance demand advanced listening skills, but the difficulty of the language used in the narrative can also exhaust or demotivate learners. Although audiobooks are fascinating materials with exquisite performances that help us relax, it is beneficial to move onto them when our students have reached a confident upper-intermediate level.
Listening to graded readers
Listening to stories that have been graded for certain age groups and language proficiency levels has many benefits. These recordings were created with the needs of language learners in mind, their language complexity is lower, new words and language are recycled in a variety of contexts and the speed is more paced and slow, often with pauses added to allow listeners to 'catch up' or turn the page.
Listening tips for language learners
Remind your students to listen to the audio recording of a story (or a chapter) both with and without looking at the text. They can also switch back and forth, and only read a paragraph when it is particularly difficult to understand without textual support.
Listening allows students to become familiar with the rhythm and sound of the language. At the second or third listening, they can start paying attention to different exercises you give them.
Fine-tuning your ears:
an intensive listening exercise for graded readers
Apart from the comprehension exercises, you find in the Before and After Reading sections in the graded readers, you can also pay attention to pronunciation activities which support both listening and speaking skills development.
Ask your students to listen to this passage from our reader Mowgli’s Brothers (from The Jungle Book) by Rudyard Kipling.
After the first, general listening, students should listen again while looking at the section in their reader, paying attention to the following aspects of fluent speech.
- The presence of schwa [ə]. Schwa is a reduced vowel sound in unstressed syllables. This is the most common sound in English, and students can pay special attention to it.
- Connected speech. In natural spoken language, words that follow each other are often linked. Linking sounds (consonant to vowel, vowel to vowel) is one way of making speech smoother. Making sounds disappear is another way of connecting words.
- Silent letters. In some words (lamb, psychology) we do not pronounce each letter. These words can be difficult to recognize in speech when we don’t see them written down.
- Stress. There can be stress on certain syllables in a word, and certain words within a sentence. Stress gives language its rhythm and often adds meaning.
When students listen for the second time, ask them to mark the presence of schwa, link words that are pronounced together, and cross out sounds they cannot hear. You will see an example in the extract below. By doing activities such as this, students develop a greater awareness of how fluent spoken language sounds. Once you have corrected their marked-up texts, get them to practise reading and recording it for themselves.
Tip: Tell your students to stop and repeat a sentence they find hard to hear. Listening difficulties can often be supported by improving our pronunciation.
Extensive listening tips
With graded readers
Choose the right level for your students. Also make sure that as they make progress, they listen to higher-level readers. Listen to these two examples from a Level 2 (Holly the Eco Warrior) and a Level 4 reader (Great Expectations). Both are performed in an engaging style, and both give enough time to catch up with the passages. However, while Holly the Eco Warrior has shorter dialogues, you will hear longer sentences in Great Expectations.
To support extensive listening, your students can also pick a theme (for example stories about nature, animals or detectives) and listen to several stories which relate to it. This will help them engage in different ways with more language within the same field.
Listen to Chapter 1 from Holly the Eco Warrior by Martyn Hobbs:
Listen to Chapter 1 from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne:
Full recordings of all our readers are available on Helbling e-zone. Access the recordings using the code in the inside front cover of your book.
We record our readers with Ricorda (which means ‘remember’ in Italian). Gianfranco, the producer is also a musician, and having studied Linguistics, knows exactly what our listeners need. The voice actors are all chosen to suit the style of the book they are reading: from fresh and entertaining for our picture books to rich and classical for our classic readers. How would you describe your voice? What type of story would you like to read?