Tuesday, 13 October 2009

What makes a Listening Task motivating, relevant and useful?

The most important and useful tool teachers have to enhance students' listening skills is the quality of listening tasks they are given. But what makes a good listening task? In order for me to try to find an answer to such a difficult question I decided to analyse a listening task randomly chosen from one of the coursebooks I currently use in one of the courses I teach. I will evaluate the listening task against the criteria provided by Tricia Hedge in her book "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom." I believe that while analysing this listening task I will be incorporating the evaluation criteria in such a way that it will help me make well-informed decisions while choosing future listening tasks for my students.

Evaluation Criteria:
  • the extent to which learners are given a reason to listen;
  • whether appropriate contextual information is required;
  • in what ways a pre-listening stage prepares students for the language of the text;
  • in what ways a pre-listening stage activates prior knowledge;
  • the usefulness of any while-listening work;
  • the relevance and range of any post-listening work.
The Listening Task: (taken from the New English File Pre-Intermediate Student's Book. NB I do not own this activity. It's copyrighted by Oxford University Press. I just posted it to analyse a listening task so as to enhance my teaching skills.)

Firstly, I don't really know up to what extent students are given a reason to listen. I mean, the reasons why they may want (or need to) listen to this text are only classroom-bound ones (i.e. created by the task itself -or the teacher- and not because students really want to listen to these two people being interviewed). It is true that through the pre-listening stage students are introduced into the text's topic and that some interest must be created. That is why I will still say that it does give students a reason to listen because of what they are asked to do in the second pre-listening stage. Students are asked to decide if some sentences as regards singing are true or false. They are very general thoughts that will certainly make students provide answers following their own beliefs on singing and singers. Once the students have discussed the sentences, I really think that they will be definitely interested in learning what the true answers are in order to check whether they were right or not and that is the perfect reason for them to listen to text.
Secondly, I think that no specifit contextual information is required for students to be able to sucessfully understand the text and carry out the activity since the text is about a teacher and a student from a music school and the interview is not restricted to musicians or singers (it actually claims that anyone can learn how to sing well in one day without previous training or experience).
Thirdly, as regards the pre-listening stage, I think that it successfully prepares students for the language of the text. When they are asked to decide whether the sentences are true or false they are presented with the core ideas that the teacher and the student will discuss in their interview. This helps students get hold of the language they will encounter (which is, by the way, not very difficult and it's not restricted to a specific grammar form) as well as the main ideas that will be tackled in the text. The seven sentences provided by the second pre-listening activity provides the students with an excellent background for them to be able to understand both the language and the content that will be present in the text.
With regard to the students' prior knowledge, both the first and the second pre-listening activities help its activation. In the first one, students are asked about their own singing experiences which is something useful both to get them involved and to 'force' them to retrieve any language related to music (which will definitely help them to set their minds into the task and to understand the text better). In the second activity, furthermore, students' prior knowledge of certain English structures (such as relative clauses and comparatives) is activated together with their own beliefs on singing which will help them, again, to understand the text better.
When it comes to the while-listening work, I have to say that the two activities provided by this task can be classified into global and specific while-listening ones. The first one, in which students have to listen to the interview to check their whether the seven sentences from the pre-listening task were true or false, is a global while-listening activity because students are asked to listen to the text as a whole and to focus on its main ideas. I think that this activity is very useful because it helps students to learn how to listen to something without concentrating on every single word but just on main ideas. Furthermore, it promotes the need for texts to be listened to more than just one time as well as the belief that students cannot be asked to focus on very specific and detailed information the very first time they listen to text. Listeners need a first listening to become familiar with text's gist and the speakers' accents and voices. That's why I believe that it is always better to ask our students to go first for the core of the text and then to focus, if necessary, on details or specific language forms or vocabulary. In the particular case of this listening task, students are asked to listen to the text for a second time so as to complete some sentences (it's a restricted cloze in this case because students are given three options to choose from in each blank). In this second (specific) while-listening activity students are asked to listen to the text to find specific information and, in this way, they are also helped to developed their "bottom-up"* listening skills (e.g.: their ability to "retain input while it's being processed, recognize word divisions, recognize key words in utterances, use knowledge of word-order patterns to identify constituents in utterances"* and so on)
*'Bottom-up' Listening Skills; Richards (1990) quoted in "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Tricia Hedge.
Finally, as regards the post-listening work, there is no need to say that there is none provided by this task. However, I do believe that post-listening work is essential for student to make a connection between what they have listened to and some aspect of their lives so as to make it memorable. A post-listening activity can be simply to ask them if they think that it is possible for a person with no experience at all to become a good singer in just one day (why / why not?). They can be asked if they would like to go to such a school (why / why not?) and if they think they will become good singers or not and why. They can also be asked to say if they agree or not with what the teacher says and his methods. The teacher could also ask them to think of any other ability they think that can be taught and learnt in one day. The post-listening stage doesn't need to take more than five minutes and it can be a very good opportunity for the students to make a relevant and valuable connection between the text and their lives.

Give them a reason to listen. Help them to succeed in the task: provide them with appropriate contextual information and activate both their prior knowledge of the topic and the language they need to understand the text. Step into your students' shoes: are the while-listening activities useful and relevant? Let them know why they are doing this or that activity. Make it memorable: use a post-listening activity to make a connection between what the students have just listened to and their lives. We always remember better what is related to our feelings or thoughts than what is said by someone else.

If you are interested in the analysis of listening tasks, please take a look at the lesson observation report I wrote in which I intensively analysed a listening activity carried out in one of the lessons I observed in a secondary school.

Discussion Topic taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom," Chapter VII, Tricia Hedge, Oxford University Press.


  1. Quite an interesting analysis, Alez! It'd certainly help us all to make such reflection a routine in our teaching practice.
    Have just one question: what came next in the book? (after the while-listening task, I mean)? Something somehow related to this topic, or something totally different?
    Just wondering!

  2. Hi Gladys!
    Thanks a lot! (:
    I've just taken a look at the book and there is nothing at all after the while-listening activity. It's the very last activity in the file and following it (when you turn the page) there is the following unit (File 5-C). It is something completely different.
    And yes, such a reflection would be ideal! Anyway, It's true that, as time goes by, we end up doing that kind of analysis almost automatically (Is this useful? Is this motivating? It is something classroom-bound or will they do something similar in real life?)


  3. Alez!!!

    Excellent analysis of the activity!
    There is one thing I would like to add/ask... how old are the students this activity is meant for? I'd say that motivation can be possitively or negatively influenced by the contextualization of the activity,therefore how many chances are that somebody younger than 20 years old would remember "Sounds of Music"? And if so, what does that have to do with the purpose for listening? Have you thought of changing the reasons for listening? What about interviewing their music teacher for comparison....

    Just ideas that came to my mind, after browsing some books I have at home, I've realized that their main flaw is contextualizing and giving a purpose for listening!!!!

    It's up to us to deal with modification of activities to appeal our student's minds :)

    It's always a pleasure to read you! Keep blogging...

  4. Yoha: No way I can say I'm under 20, but must confess I'm clueless about "Sounds of Music"... Was that a TV programme, perhaps?

    Anyway, what is its relevance here? Perhaps when you tell me what it was I'll get my "two birds killed with just one stone"....