In the first instalment of his brand-new series, Nik Peachey looks at podcasting and how it can be used to help students develop their listening and speaking skills both inside and outside the classroom. Nik provides a comprehensive overview article on podcasting and a downloadable lesson plan.
Using web-based audio for speaking and listening skills
If the idea of using a computer to create digital audio for speaking and listening tasks for students seems difficult, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s very easy – you can create podcasts in just a few minutes using a range of free websites and software. There are a huge number of podcasts freely available on the web that your students can listen to, but the focus of this article is on student- and teacher-created materials and activities. All downloadables relating to this article can be found in the ’Related files’ section on the top right-hand side of this page.
What is podcasting?
The word podcast is a combination of the two words iPod and broadcast. Podcasting has been compared to radio broadcasting because it usually has a single producer (or group of people producing it) and the audio transmission is sent to lots of listeners. What’s different about podcasting is that, unlike radio, the person listening doesn’t have to listen to it at the time of broadcasting. Instead of a radio transmitter, a podcast is stored on the web as a digital sound file and this sound file can then be transferred to any computer or digital device, such as an iPod or MP3 player. The listeners can then choose when they listen.
To listen to a podcast you need:
- a computer or mobile device capable of playing digital sound files
- some speakers or headphones
To create a podcast you need:
- a computer or mobile device with a microphone
- some form of recording software
- a place online to store and distribute the audio you produce
The second and third items on this list can be found free online – so if you have a computer or mobile device that has a microphone, then you should be able to create any of the activities described in this instalment of the Tech Tools for Teachers series on onestopenglish.
Why is podcasting useful for language teaching?
- Finding authentic listening texts that really suit your students’ needs, interests and levels can be very difficult – but there is a huge range of podcast material available online, which is both free and easy to access.
- Podcasting tools enable you to create your own listening activities and texts which suit your students and these can be specifically developed around your syllabus content and coursebook.
- Podcasting tools give students the opportunity to create audio texts that they can share with you, each other or the online world. This act of creation gives students the opportunity to use language freely and creatively, and to listen to, self-evaluate and improve their performance.
- It’s often hard to listen to students in a crowded classroom and really assess how well they are speaking – but once they have recorded podcasts, you can listen to them and really assess their abilities and understand where they need help.
- Being able to listen to themselves encourages students to reflect on and try to improve their own performance, so students are often more willing to push for greater accuracy.
- Creating a podcast, or a series of podcasts, can be extremely motivating for students and creates an authentic purpose for using their language skills.
- Podcasts can enable you and your students to create mobile learning materials which they can access outside the classroom, at a place and time convenient to them.
- Mobile podcasting tools can also enable students to do speaking activities outside the classroom and create texts that are relevant to and express their real-life interests.
- Try to get a reasonably good quality microphone to create the podcasts with. The quality of the sound will have a big impact on the motivation of your students to both create and listen to the podcasts.
- Think about the ‘ambient’ or background noise in the room. If there is very little noise and echo in the place you record your podcast, the end results will be much better. This is a good reason for getting students to try to do their recording at home rather than in a computer room or classroom where lots of people are speaking.
- Using a web-based tool to create your podcast can save a lot of work but you will need to have good connectivity if you are getting lots of students to record or listen at the same time. This is another good reason for getting students to do this outside the classroom.
- Privacy and safety has to be a serious consideration when producing any kind of web-based content with students, especially with younger learners. Always make sure that students don’t publish any personal contact information. You should get permission from your school and from parents if any student work is to be published in the public domain. Also make sure that students are aware of how to deal with any kind of negative feedback or harassment. Issues of cyberbullying can sometimes be over-exaggerated in the media but it is wise to educate students on how to deal with this in case it happens at some point in their lives.
Teaching suggestions and activities
Standing at the front of the class and drilling example sentences is something most teachers feel they need to do from time to time to help students develop good pronunciation and confidence in forming the structures we are teaching. One of the best things about drilling, is that students get the opportunity to hear you model the pronunciation of the target structures. You can use a podcasting tool to record your example drill sentences and then students can download the example sentences, listen to them at home and practise repeating them. You can also ask students to record themselves saying the sentences once you feel they have had enough practice and then listen to see how well they are doing.
Reading and listening
Motivating students to read can be quite challenging but you can increase the learning gains of reading activities by recording the texts as audio podcasts, so that students can hear an audio version alongside them. This can help them to hear the pronunciation of words they are reading. You can also ask students to record their own version of the text using podcasting tools. This is much more productive than reading aloud in class, as students can do it at home where it is less stressful and they have the chance to really listen to themselves, re-record and improve their own performance and develop their awareness of how they sound. You also get the chance to listen to the students without any classroom distractions.
Audio learning journal
You can use podcasting tools to get students to create a learning journal. This is quite simple to do. Just ask students to go home and record a short audio clip about what they did in class and what they learnt. Ask them to include any new words they learnt and tell them they can also mention anything they were confused or unclear about. This can help to give students some genuine speaking practice, as well as being a useful revision activity. You can also reply to their entries, which makes the whole activity much more communicative. It can often be much quicker than getting students to write text-based learning journals that you have to reply to.
You can ask students to keep their own audio-based personal journal. This can be a more open activity and you can ask them to just record things about their daily lives, cultural activities or the kinds of things they do each day. Make sure these are things they feel happy sharing with you or other listeners and also be aware of the tips on privacy and e-safety.
Record a story
Stories, jokes and anecdotes form a considerable part of our everyday lives. They are also a great source of listening material. Students can become very engaged by stories, especially if they are from or about people they know. Using storytelling in class has become increasingly popular recently and you can use podcasting to collect stories that students can listen to outside the classroom and at home. Getting students to record their own stories can be quite motivating for them and is great speaking practice. The stories students record could be their own personal anecdotes but they could also create stories or retell stories they know from books. Try to avoid getting students to actually read the stories as they record – spontaneous and natural storytelling helps them to develop their speaking and communication skills in a more authentic way.
Dictation activities that require students to listen to a text and write it down can be extremely useful in testing and developing their ability to really listen precisely and break down the stream of sound into individual words. This can be very demanding on students and doing listening dictation in class can be demotivating for weaker students who need to listen more times or to particular chunks. If you record your dictation texts as podcasts, students can listen and do the dictation activities at home where they have control of the audio player and can listen as many times as they need to.
You can make dictation activities easier for lower levels by dictating descriptions of pictures and asking students to draw the picture rather than write down the text. Again, using podcast audio in this way can enable students to do the activities at home and at their own pace. You can also give students images and ask them to create their own picture descriptions, so that they dictate the pictures to each other and get some extra freer speaking practice.
You can start using audio for general out-of-classroom communications. This is more effective with classes that you don’t see every day. You can post audio reminders about homework or set homework and give instructions by sending a podcast. This makes the act of listening more genuine and communicative as students will need to listen in order to understand the tasks.
Audio project reports
Instead of getting students to write reports, you can ask them to send you audio recordings of their reports. This could be used for any of their homework tasks, such as book reports, film or concert reviews and research projects. This gives students extra speaking practice and, unlike text-based reports, copying someone’s audio report is much more difficult.
Radio news broadcast
You can get your students to create their own radio news broadcasts. This could be a regular show that they produce together in small groups. They could collect the news together, decide what items they will include in their news broadcast and then script it. This could include interviews with imaginary eye witnesses or guest experts giving their opinions about what’s happening in the world. If you make this a regular feature, you could get the students to change roles so they all get speaking practice. This would be a good project to use with an exchange class from another country, as each group of students would be able to find out more about the country of the other school. See the ’Creating a news broadcast lesson plan’ which accompanies this article at the link on the top right-hand side of this page.
Many podcasts, like radio shows, are based around specific themes, so you could get your students to choose a theme they are interested in and create a series of shows based around that theme. This could be something like their favourite sport, what’s on TV, a celebrity gossip show, a history show or even a show to help lower-level students learn English.
Voxopop – www.voxopop.com
This is a free service which can be used to create asynchronous audio discussions. Unlike many podcasting sites, it is interactive and it enables listeners to record a response to the audio they hear. This is especially useful if you want to create discussion around your podcast topics, or if you use it to create sentence drills and you want students to create their own recording of each drill. The discussion threads can be downloaded to mobile devices. Click here for an example of Voxopop being used to create a chain story.
VoiceThread – www.voicethread.com
This is a premium service with a free option which can be used to create interactive presentations. It was designed for educational purposes and enables teachers to register students. Students can then leave audio, text or video comments on the presentations.
Podomatic – www.podomatic.com
This is a free service for creating podcasting channels. Podomatic is quite a good tool to use if you want your students to create a regular themed show. It enables them to create a web-based homepage for their shows and they can record directly into their web browser without downloading additional software. The sound quality can be variable on this site, however.
Audacity – www.audacity.sourceforge.net
This is a free software tool that can be downloaded to any computer. The advantage of this software is that once you have downloaded it, you don’t need an internet connection. You can use it like a traditional language lab and get students recording themselves and saving the files on their computer’s hard drive. It also has a good range of editing tools, so you can speed up and slow down recordings and crop them too.
Audio and Podcasting
A set of training videos showing how to find good podcasts and create your own.
Poems for Pronunciation
This is a student activity that encourages them to use Audacity to record themselves reciting a poem.
Introduction to Tech Tools
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Tech Tools for Teachers: Podcasting