The neglected skill?
Buckingham University PGCE/IPGCE Feb 2017
Developing confident listeners
• Teachers tend to think listening is most neglected skill
• Pupils often say it is the activity and test they fear most.
• Challenge of building listening skill over 3-5 years to GCSE.
• No easy fixes, no silver bullets.
Enjoying sounds (1)
Drill isolated sounds, linking them to spelling, e.g. in French use the phrase un bon vin
blanc to practise the four nasal vowels; explain how you make a French and German u
sound by trying to say ee while rounding your lips; explain the mechanics of making a
uvular r sound in French and German, or a rolled r in Spanish.
Show students a side-on diagram of the mouth with the main articulators and how they
work to create specific sounds. Give them some basic phonetics terminology to get
them interested in the science of sounds, e.g. the terms plosive, voicing, fricative,
bilabial, uvula, dental, alveolar and palatal.
When doing choral repetition exaggerate sounds a little and encourage students to do
the same; show them clear mouth shapes.
Group words together with the same vowel sounds, e.g. when displaying words on
PowerPoint slides for repetition work. Point out how different letter combinations can
produce the same sound (notably in French).
Enjoying sounds (2)
Be acutely aware of the sounds which will cause difficulty to English native speakers, e.g. all
French vowels, r sounds in all languages, German fricatives (ch) and diphthongs, Spanish bilabial,
sibilant (s) and fricative (j) sounds. Focus on them and have fun making them.
Link gestures to sounds and spellings, e.g. raising your arms or fingers for certain accents.
Use reading aloud to reinforce good habits, but do this sensitively and in short chunks. Reading
aloud helps embed sound-spelling links and aids vocabulary retention.
Model correct stress and intonation, explaining how it works in the TL and draw slanting lines
above written sentences to illustrate it.
When using slides to highlight sound-spelling links, highlight key sounds in a different colour.
Talk about different accents in English, and contrast native language and TL sounds.
Top-down and bottom-up listening
Over dinner, a friend tells you a story about a recent holiday which went
badly wrong. You listen with interest and make comments at
appropriate moments, maybe to express surprise or sympathy.
The next day, a partner calls to ask you to buy some items at the
supermarket for a meal. You listen carefully and make notes on a piece
Developing bottom-up listening skills (1)
• Key question: How do we help students recognise words and pick
them out in the stream of sound?
• Make sure you teach vocabulary, words both in isolation and in
context. Use the spoken word to do this, not just the written.
• Do transcription tasks, e.g. dictation of words, phrases and longer
chunks, filling in letter gaps in words, completing notes on a grid
while listening to instructions.
• Read aloud to students as they follow the written transcript.
• Recycle previously learned words and chunks as much as possible.
Developing bottom-up listening skills (2)
• Work intensively on short audio and video listening texts (see below,
including a range of task types you can use).
• Listen to short statements and translate them into English.
• When doing question-answer work and other types of interaction,
include the opportunity for pupils to write down answers to oral
• Exploit the concept of “narrow listening”, whereby the students are
exposed, through different activities, to four or five short texts on the
same topic and containing very similar vocabulary.
You are the main and best provider of input. Why?
1. You can tailor the pace and content precisely to your class.
2. You can provide interactive listening through QA and other
3. You can provide facial expressions, gesture, repetition, pauses,
cognates, checks for understanding.
4. Pupils may listen harder to real people than disembodied voices.
Why do pupils often find listening exams hard?
• Fleeting nature of material.
• Concentration issues.
• Sound quality issues.
• Poor preparation or lack of practice.
• Lack of vocabulary.
Questions you might ask yourself (1)
• Do you devote enough lesson time to some form of listening practice (including oral
interaction tasks with you or a partner)?
• Are listening skills a main concern in your planning, both short and longer term? Do you
put most of your effort into teaching vocabulary and grammar at the expense of building
a bank of resources and a repertoire of strategies for listening?
• Do your students perceive listening as crucial to their learning? Do you encourage them
to practise listening independently?
• Are you aware enough of the cognitive challenges your students face while listening or
learning to listen? When your students perform really poorly at a listening task, do you
ask them what was hard?
• Do you just stick to the textbook, pick tasks and press the play button following the
teacher’s book recommendations? Or do you adapt text book tasks to make them better
learning opportunities? Do you plan for any pre- and post-listening tasks?
Questions you might ask yourself (2)
• Do the texts you use contain comprehensible input, i.e. where the students already
understand the large majority of the vocabulary and where the grammar doesn’t pose
• Do the large majority of your listening activities consist of comprehension tasks? How
often do you use listening activities to model new language in context, sentence
construction and correct use of grammar and pronunciation?
• How much do you focus in your lessons on training the students in bottom-up processing
skills, especially decoding skills (how to turn combination of letters into sounds) and any
other skills which help students interpret the sound stream?
• Do your students enjoy listening? Do you think of ways of making it more enjoyable, e.g.
by video listening or including purposeful activities such as trying to spot mistakes or
untruths in a message?
• Do your students feel confident that they’ll succeed? Do they say “Miss, I’m not good at
listening”? If you’ve previously raised their own self-belief in this area they’re more likely
to be motivated to do the task.
Zero prep listening tasks (1)
Tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and
that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go
into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about
three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can
always make stuff up!
You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too)
statements in the target language about what you said in your account.
Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into
a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own true/false
statements. This can be further extended by getting students in pairs to
recount your weekend from their notes and/or their own weekend.
Zero prep listening tasks (2)
Would I lie?
Students try to work out which three of six statements are not true by asking you questions. You prepare six
statements about yourself, three true and three false, and write them on the board. For example:
• My brother has twin sons.
• I have three cats.
• If I’d been a boy, I would’ve been called George.
• My family was brought up in Spain.
• My favourite movie is The Sound of Music.
• My father was an extra in Star Wars.
Ask the class how many of the statements they think are false. Then tell them there are three. Tell them they
have to work out which by asking you questions, listening to your answers and watching your reaction. You can
embroider answers, giving the right number of hints depending on how fast you think your class is.
Let students ask questions until they have decided which ones they believe (by a show of hands). Give them
the real answer. You could add an element of competition by putting the class into pairs or small groups, with
each grouping coming up with their chosen two false statements.
An extension to this task is to ask students to write down similar statements for themselves – three true and
three false. Divide them into groups and repeat as above with one person from the group being questioned by
Zero prep listening tasks (3)
Give each student about five minutes to write down a set of statements
about themselves, all of which are true except one. In turn, each
student reads their sentences and their partner has to identify the false
statement. You can make this fit a particular grammar point you have
been working on, e.g. to practise the past tense you could set the them
What I did last summer. Or, to practice the future tense My plans for
A simple variation would be for each partner to have to discover how
many lies their partner uttered, rather than just find one.
Teach grammar through listening (1)
Sentence puzzles are an effective way to teach grammar and syntax
through listening. Provide students with a set of jumbled-up
sentences to unscramble while you say them in the correct order. The
task is to re-write them correctly in the table/grid provided, placing
each element of the sentence under the right heading. After
completing the transcribing task, ask students to work out the rule.
Here are some sentence puzzles in French, followed by the grid.
(Example on next slide)
Sentence puzzles for teaching grammar through listening
1. suis allé stade je au ne jamais
2. rien n’ vu elle café au a
3. sommes ne en nous pas taxi rentrés
4. est restaurant on sorti au n’ pas
5. n’ tu fait rien as ville en
Negative Auxiliary Negative Past
Je ne suis jamais allé au stade
Teach grammar through listening (2)
Sorting tasks: easy to improvise and use as starters, fillers or plenaries.
• Read aloud sentences each containing a specific structure you want
students to notice. Students have to categorise the structure. For
example, you could work on tenses with intermediate or advanced
classes by reading a series of sentences, each one featuring a
different tense. Students simply tick off the tense they hear in each
case from a list.
• Focus on adjective endings. You read a series of statements, each one
featuring the use of an adjective in its feminine form. Students note
down whether the adjective is regular or irregular.
Teach grammar through listening (3)
“Find someone who…”
Each student is given a card with fictitious details and a grid showing
the details to look for. The task is to find people with those details on
their cards by asking questions in the TL. Although it may appear to be
a speaking task, this activity is mainly a listening one as students read
out details in response to questions.
Next slide for example grid.
Find someone who… Possible questions Name on card
never reads What sports do you do?
Do you read much?
How often do you play
Do you go out with your
What do you do at the
Do you watch much TV?
How often do you go
goes out every evening
goes out with parents a lot
never does sport
no longer goes out
does sport four times week
reads every day
plays computer games every day
rarely watches TV
Helping the process along
(11 strategies for helping under-achieving listeners)