In our first language, we rarely have trouble understanding listening. But, in a second language, it is one of the hardest skills to develop – dealing at speed with unfamiliar sounds, words and structures. This is even more difficult if we do not know the topic under discussion, or who is speaking to whom.
Why do pre-listening activities?
Asking the students to listen to something and answer some questions makes developing listening skills a hard process. That is why second language learners are fearful of listening and can be disheartened when they listen to something and don’t understand it. Pre-listening tasks aim to deal with all of these issues: to generate interest, build confidence, and facilitate comprehension.
Aims and types of pre-listening activities:
1. Setting the context & predicting content.
This is perhaps the most important thing to do – even most exams give an idea about who is speaking, where, and why. We normally have some idea of the context of something we are listening to. Once we know the context for something, we can predict possible content.
> Try giving students a choice of things that they may or may not expect to hear, and ask them to choose those they think will be mentioned.
2. Generating interest.
Motivating our students is a key task for us. If they are to do a listening about sports, looking at some dramatic pictures of sports players or events will raise their interest or remind them of why they (hopefully) like sports.
> This is not always possible, but personalization activities can help. Encourage a pair-work discussion about the sports they play or watch, and why. This brings them to the topic.
3. Activating and acquiring knowledge.
‘You are going to listen to an ecological campaigner talk about the destruction of the rainforest’: This sets the context, but if you go straight into the listening, the students have had no time to activate their knowledge. Providing knowledge input will build their confidence in dealing with a listening activity.
> Try initiating discussions by asking questions such as: What do you know about rainforests? Where are they? What are they? What problems do they face? Why are they important? What might an ecological campaigner do?
4. Activating language.
Activating the language that may be used in the listening is a very important step. Knowledge-based activities can serve this purpose, but other things can be done too.
> Get your students to role-play the situation before listening. They can brainstorm language beforehand, and have a natural conversation. By having the time to think about the language needs of a situation, they will be prepared to cope with the listening.
5. Pre-learning vocabulary.
For students, large numbers of unknown words will often hinder listening, and certainly lower confidence.
> Select some vocabulary for the students to study before listening, perhaps matching words to definitions, followed by a simple practice activity such as filling the gaps in sentences.
What to think before preparing pre-listening tasks:
- The time available.
- The material available.
- The profile of the class (age group, interests, language level, abilities.)
- The nature and content of the listening activity.
It is important to devote a fair proportion of a lesson to pre-listening activities, should the listening warrant it. For example, the listening about an ecological campaigner lends itself well to extended knowledge and vocabulary activation. However, a listening involving airport announcements may only need a shorter lead-in, as the topic is somewhat narrower.