Adrian Tennant provides tips and ideas for activities that focus on the process of listening and aim to encourage the learner to become more than simply an eavesdropper.

An introduction

When we ‘do’ listening in class there is often a fairly standard approach: introduce the topic, pre-teach some vocabulary, set a gist task, play the recording, set a comprehension question task, play the recording again and finally check the answers. This standard approach is a rather superficial way of dealing with listening. Firstly, it relegates the listener to the role of a passive eavesdropper (simply overhearing a conversation, etc), and secondly it focuses on the product (i.e. the correct answers) as opposed to the process(es) of listening.

Here is a collection of 10 ‘listening’ activities that focus more on the process and aim to encourage the learner to become more than simply an eavesdropper. The activities also require the bare minimum in terms of material and preparation. A copy of the recording and/or the transcript is all that is needed for most of the activities – and the others require even less than that! 

1. Who’s speaking?

Choose a dialogue from your coursebook. Ask the students to look at the transcript (usually at the back of the book) and cover the names with a notebook/piece of paper. Ask the students to read the transcript and guess the following: who is speaking – their age, gender, relationship, etc. (You could also check what they are speaking about and why they are speaking: e.g. to invite someone, to give directions, to tell a story, etc). Elicit the ideas and write them up on the board. Play the recording, and then ask the students if they’ve changed their minds.

Rationale: Who is speaking and the relationship between speakers will influence the language used. Getting students to think about these things will help their overall listening skills and their speaking, choice of vocabulary, etc.

2. Add a third

Choose a coursebook dialogue between two people. Play it and get the students to think about who the people are and what they are talking about. Then ask the students to think about the dialogue and imagine what it would be like if there was a third person involved/speaking. Get the students, in groups of three, to turn to the transcript and rewrite the dialogue adding the third person. Finally, ask a few groups to read out their new dia(tria)logues.

Rationale: Coursebook dialogues are often ‘neat’ in a way in which real life conversations aren’t. Getting students to add a third person demonstrates a deeper understanding of the material than standard comprehension questions ever could.

3. Listening Bingo!

Ask the students to draw a grid/table with six boxes. Let them know you will play a recording, and tell them the topic of the recording, e.g. You will hear two people talking about their plans for the weekend. Before you play anything, ask the students to write a word or phrase in each box. These should be things they think they will hear during the recording. Monitor and check they have completed their grids. Now play the recording. Every time a student hears a word or phrase in their grid they should cross it out. If they cross out all six, they should put their hand up in the air (or shout ‘Bingo’).

Rationale: Predicting vocabulary based on the topic is a skill that we all employ in our L1, both before and while we are listening.

4. And the next word is …

Choose a recording. Tell the students the topic of the recording. Play a short piece, and then click pause. Ask the students to predict the next word (they can do this by whispering their ideas to the student sitting next to them). Click play and let the students hear the word. Don’t make any comments at this point. Play another piece and repeat the process. Do this with the whole of the recording. At the end ask the students how successful they were in predicting the next word. 

Rationale: Predicting vocabulary based on the topic is a skill that we all employ in our L1 before and while we are listening. It is important NOT to check or comment on the accuracy of their predictions while the activity is going on. The aim is not to get it right, but rather to concentrate on the content and vocabulary in order to make it possible to guess.

5. Finish my sentence

Read out a number of sentences (these can focus on language recently taught), but don’t finish the sentences. Ask students to whisper (or write down) the endings. Possible sentences include things such as: What’s your …? Can you pass me the …? Be …! Where are you …?

Rationale: This is a low tech version of the previous activity and one that can be very useful for functional language.

6. Listen to each other

Ask students to think about a topic they are interested in, e.g. a hobby, favourite film, a friend, etc (this can be set for homework if you want). Ask one student to speak (you can set a time for them to speak, e.g. three minutes). The other students should listen and write down at least two questions they want to ask. When the student finishes speaking, the other students should ask their questions. Note: In large classes this can be done in groups.

Rationale: One of the best sources of listening texts is the students themselves.

7. We often interrupt

Choose a dialogue from a coursebook, e.g. a phone conversation. Read the first line of the dialogue. Ask the students to take on the other role, but without referring to the transcript. Once they have heard your line they should respond. Continue the process (either by using the next line of the coursebook dialogue – this then forces the students to readjust their thoughts – or simply by responding to what the students have said). Finally, if you want, you can get everyone to look at the original transcript.

Rationale: Most coursebook listening activities put the students in the position of eavesdroppers. This is actually a very unnatural state of affairs. One aim of this activity is to make the listening activity much more realistic by making the listener take on an active role.

8. What do we stress?

Choose a text. Ask a student to look at the text and to read out the first line, stressing every third word (you might want to demonstrate this, making sure you overemphasize every third word while keeping the other words unstressed). Next, get a different student to read out the same sentence, stressing every second/fourth/fifth word, etc. Finally, ask a student to read out the sentence, stressing the words they think would actually be stressed. Now, put students in pairs and ask them to repeat the process for the whole of the text. Monitor and help where necessary. At the end you can play the original recording if you want. However, the aim is not to get the stress correct, but rather to become aware of how stress influences meaning.

Rationale: Teachers often tell students about the way in which English is a stressed language, and we often get students to listen to and practise the ‘correct’ stress patterns. But, by getting students to try out the wrong stress patterns we might actually make them more aware and tuned into the importance of stressing the words that convey the message.

9. Fill in the blanks

Choose a text. Read/dictate the text but only saying the stressed words – i.e. the unstressed words should not be said at all, but you should leave gaps where they would be (one practical way to do this is to say them in your mind!). Ask the students to write the complete text, including the unstressed words.

Rationale: This task is similar to the previous activity, but this time focuses on the unstressed words.

10. No questions

Choose a recording from a coursebook. Play the recording once, and then tell the students you want them to write some questions about the recording. They will ask other students these questions. Play the recording a further two or three times (more if the students ask), and get them to write their questions (this could be done in pairs or small groups). Finally, swap the questions around and play the recording again so that the students can answer each other’s questions.

Rationale: This activity gets the students to focus on what they think is important in a listening text and not what the coursebook or teacher feels is important. It is quite interesting to compare the questions the students write to those in the book.