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Enjoying sounds (3)

This is the third and last post in the series about teaching listening. Like the others it is adapted from the forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher. I am grateful to Gianfranco Conti who provided many of the ideas presented in this post and which have featured in posts on his blog The Language Gym.

This blog looks at how to develop listening and grammatical skill at the same time and suggests questions you can ask yourself regarding why your pupils may be struggling with listening tests. I also suggest some tech sources which can enhance the development of listening skills.

Teaching grammar through listening

One way to integrate listening within the teaching of other skills is to teach grammar through listening tasks. Here are three examples which involve listening to bite-size chunks of language.

Sentence puzzles

Sentence puzzles (see Figure 1) 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.

Figure 1 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

Personal pronoun
Past participle

Sorting tasks

Read aloud a number of sentences each containing a specific structure that you want students to notice. As they listen, 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. A second example could focus on adjective endings in French. 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. Sorting tasks are easy to improvise and use as starters, fillers or plenaries.

“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. Figure 2 shows an example grid.

Figure 2 “Find someone who” 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 computer games?
Do you go out with your parents?
What do you do at the weekend?
Do you watch much TV?
How often do you go out?

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

What if my classes seem to be struggling with listening tests?

A common concern expressed by teachers is that their classes struggle with listening tests. This perception is partly due to the fact that, as we’ve seen, listening is a fleeting task, where students usually only get two chances to decode a lot of information. Panic can set in, minds go blank. Here are ten deliberately challenging questions which may suggest how to improve your students’ listening performance (with acknowledgment to Gianfranco Conti).

  1. Do you devote enough lesson time to some form of listening practice (including oral interaction tasks with you or a partner student)?
  2. 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?
  3. Do your students perceive listening as crucial to their learning? Do you encourage them to practise listening independently?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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 major challenges?
  7. 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?
  8. How much do you focus in your lessons on training the students in bottom-up processing skills, especially decoding skills (how to turn a combination of letters into sounds) and any other skills which help students interpret the sound stream?
  9. 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?
  10. 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.

Tech tips

Try the interactive video quizzes provided by Ashcombe School, England (available at the time of writing). These are a series of simple interviews with native speakers, pitched at low-intermediate to intermediate level, along with associated gap-filling activities which you can do online. Languages covered are French, German and Spanish.

Audio Lingua ( has a large bank of audio clips spoken by native speakers. Languages covered include French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Portuguese. You can listen online or download the files.

A smartphone is now a good source of audio material. At a simple level students can converse with their digital assistant, e.g. Siri (iPhone and iPad) or Google Assistant (Android/Google). Amazon devices and their assistant Alexa perform the same function. You can set students a series of TL questions to ask their phone or tablet the answers to which they can transcribe. 

In addition advanced level students can download the app TuneIn Radio, or similar, which will let them listen to TL speech radio. You need to make sure, however, that students are aware that radio broadcasts will seem very fast so they’ll have to persevere. 

The News in Slow French site, and its equivalents for other languages, offers reports at a slower pace together with transcriptions.

The brilliant Lyrics Training site links to pop videos in various languages. You listen to the song and complete a gap-fill task at the bottom of the page. As you write the most recent line of song repeats itself to give you time to check before you move on. I’d recommend this strongly for advanced level classes who wish to do enjoyable independent work.

Text-to-Speech apps allow students to copy and paste or type in texts which can then be listened to. They are useful when students have to prepare presentations or memorised answers to questions. Voki is a well-known app of this type.

Set a listening task from the internet, preferably with a specific worksheet. You choose the source based on interest and language level. You can check the task is done by issuing a paper or electronic worksheet.

Concluding remarks

It’s worth noting that the very best way to see a quantum leap in your students’ listening performance is if they have the opportunity for an immersion experience, preferably in the TL country. The best teachers try to make this possible whenever circumstances allow. You nearly always see significantly improved listening test scores from students who have recently spent time on a family exchange.

Let’s be clear: listening skills can’t be quickly fixed; you can’t teach them like a point of grammar or a list of vocabulary. They take years to develop through masses of exposure, carefully graded input, practice at strategies and interaction. But if you focus on them from the start it’s more likely your classes will perform well in the future.


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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You 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!

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