Listening Tasks

Training listening

Opening Gambit:

"Listen to this (audio recording / video) ... and I want you to pick out ..."

We all have ears, but do we hear? Listening is an undervalued skill, because the basic process is automatic - but listening has two inherent difficulties - it is 'live', and it suffers from 'blur'.

Live action, no re-play  Listening happens in time - words wizz past us in a stream, and we have to decipher them, work out what they mean, and create an instant summary. In a conversation, we can ask for a re-play, in a sense - "Sorry, I didn't hear the last bit ... What did you mean by ...?" - but very often, we make do with the fragments of what we have understood, and fill the gaps as best we can. How much comedy is based on people's failure to understand what the other person actually said ? (For example, look at the Darth Vader script.) 

Blur  We listen to sounds, and sound is a messy medium  - different accents, poor pronunciation, background noise, several people speaking at once. And colloquial language very often fragments grammar and replaces it with little chunks of phrasing - knoworramean?  

These two fundamental difficulties are of course much more marked for anyone learning a language. I have spent the last few years immersed in Spanish, and well recall the sheer effort at the beginning of trying to follow native-speed conversations - and the chagrin of talking to my wife afterwards and discovering that I had completely misunderstood part of the conversation! It seems essential, then, that teachers of English B should devote some time to the methodical training of students' ability to listen accurately.


Here are links to various listening exercises scattered around the site - in addition to the list in the panel to the left. I provide a quick summary of the subject matter, so that you can choose to fit in with your plans.

Migration, facts & fiction  ... a BBC radio programme exploring facts and fictions about immigration ... different sections of the recording are used for cloze, for True/False, for 'cloze notes, and for general discussion...

The English are best  ... witty, satirical song by Flanders and Swann - cloze transcript available

Reporting conflicts  ... a compelling video by a BBC correspondent explains how he reported an atrocity in the Syrian war ... a range of listening exercises are available : 'cloze listening', 'open listening', summary notes, and so on...

Hate speech  ... features cloze listening to an interview discussing 'hate speech' and 'dangerous speech' ... also an exercise in 'cloze notes' which stimulates summary skills

Making money globally  ... short TV interview, with transcript, prompting skim-listening + cloze listening

Globalisation & history  ... short extract from thoughtful lecture on global history - raises the overview perspective ... two cloze exercises to choose from: one for middling ability students, the other for more sophisticated abilities

Technology & reading  ... a short video about how changes in the technology of the written text may change the ways in which we read and absorb information ... short video, which comes with a punctuation exercise, a cloze listening exercise and a task involving cloze notes...

Listening comprehension, tested

With the introduction of a specific Listening Comprehension section in the new Paper 2 (from 2020), this site provides a range of recordings with detailed questions. These questions are designed to exercise the types of questions used in the Paper 2 final exam. To start with, see the page  Listening question types, and the following samples:-

Ex.#1- exploring Britain  ... features the writer Will Self touring the UK by public transport coaches and buses

Ex.#2 - Lord of the Flies  ... review of a recent theatrical adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies - played by girls

Ex.#3 - camel milk  ... Australian radio news report, about the market for camel milk

Ex.#4 - culture shock  ... "After two years in Tokyo, North Asia Correspondent Matthew Carney has just arrived for his new assignment in Beijing. To his surprise, he says, it's been a bit of a culture shock."

Ex.#5 - 'miffed' ... short programme explaining the idiomatic use of the termed 'miffed'

Ex.#6 - dancing ... about a boy who loves to dance - why do people love to dance? ... and what about gender stereotypes?

Ex.#7 - migration ... personal experience of a girl who moved to Australia

EX.#8 - gap years ... short, accessible programme explaining the concept of 'gap years'

Ex.#9 - Antarctica ... quite long and complex interview about recruiting people to work in Antarctica

Listening comprehension exams

The following are full-scale Paper 2 Listening components, written to IB specifications.

Listening exam #1 ...

Text A – 'to pull the wool...' (2'52") ....Text B - Mermaiding (3'51")  Text C  - Fixing globalization (5'00")

Listening exam #2 ....

Text A – About 'big data' (2'49")  Text B - Headphones & hearing (3'13") Text C  - Objects in the classroom (4'01")

Listening tasks, listed 

Let us look at a range of techniques for such training in listening. The list of procedures or exercise types below is arranged according to the degree of structure & support provided - (1) is highly structured and (8) is essentially 'open'.

  1. ear-training - CLOZE
  2. 'key-quotes' ... write down the precise phrase
  3. question-list
  4. ‘overall summary’ - SKIM
  5. basic SCAN
  6. 'one-sided SCAN' ... selecting with (given) bias > set task / topic / theme
  7. 'minutes' ...  objective, detailed report
  8. 'whatever interests you' ... subjective response

Listening Tasks, listed summarises the range of ways to organise listening exercises

Listening tasks, reviewed

1. CLOZE   The technique is well known - transcribe whatever is to be listened to, edit gaps for the students to fill in, give out the sheet and play the recording. How many times should the recording be played? This will depend on the level of the group (and the difficulty of the task, possibly) - a weak group could listen once to get an overall idea, then once to listen in detail guided by the cloze-sheet, then once again to check the answers. The key issue is which bits of language to choose as gaps - one can select ...

  • difficult-to-hear words and phrases ... for pure ear-training, requiring students to pay close attention to precise sounds
  • grammar points  ... drawing conscious attention to slight variations in pronunciation which may significantly change meaning - for instance, the d/t sounds in forming past tenses. (Let us note that many typical L1-based errors in fact spring from pronunciation errors - it's not that student doesn't know that there ought to be a 'd' on the end of that verb, it's just that she never hears it.)   
  • key-point words  ... terms which it is important that the students grasp and retain, in order to contribute to the following discussion

The value of cloze is that the students don't need to think - they can just concentrate on the basic sound, in order to identify words and spell the sound.

2. 'Key Quotes'   This is a sort of 'guided scan' - you don't give out the whole text transcribed (less preparation - hurrah!), but rather a list of fragments from what is said to act as prompts - like this : "The problem of child labour is the most .....pressing problem of the global economy...."  These prompts should, normally, be arranged in the order in which they appear. This can be seen as a sort of 'extended cloze', but it also involves more thinking on the part of the students - sensible ones will follow the argument and predict that, for example, "we've now starting to mention child labour, so the next gap must be coming up". It also concentrates on phrases, or 'chunks', rather than the simple single word - a step closer to the summary skills involved in SKIM and SCAN.

3. Question-list   A sheet of questions, with space for answers - presumably organised, like a Key-quotes sheet, to follow the sequence of the recording. The questions should require re-phrasing, thus rapid summary and real thinking in response - otherwise, the questions may end up as just another version of Key-quotes. The questions should demand initiative and grasp of meaning from the students, although these will stll depend on accurate listening to the sounds of words.

4. SKIM   The exercise does not emphasise what we might call intensive listening, but rather extensive - students have to gather the general pattern of what is said, rather than concentrate on particular details. Skimming can be guided - "pick out all the arguments both for and against" - or left open for the students to look for the key aspects. The guided form is appropriate while students are being trained in the skill of methodical skimming, and the open form is best when students are practising and strengthening their skills.

5. SCAN   This involves selective listening - paying attention to all of what is said, but extracting and noting down only what has been set as the target of the scan - for instance, "in this debate, note down carefully all the statistics that are used". It is productive to divide SCANs between various students - thus (a) dividing the work of extracting useful ideas from a recording, and also (b) setting up 'information gaps' for the later discussion. Thus - ", you and you will pick out the economic arguments - you lot will look for the historical arguments - and the rest of you concentrate on the sociological ones..." 

6. one-sided SCAN   More or less the same as the basic SCAN - but slightly less structured by the teacher, more left to the student's decision and initiative. For instance - "... in the role play on whaling that we're going to do, you will represent the whaling companies, you Greenpeace, and you the Japanese government - so, SCAN for any material of any sort which you can use to make your case ..."  It will be understood that this degree of freedom is appropriate when students have already reached a good level of competent and disciplined listening skill. 

7. 'minutes' or detailed report   The task is to write a fairly meticulous and detailed summary of what is said. This will demand (a) quite a high level of listening skill (coupled with good note skills), and (b) listening to the recording two or more times. Good source materials would be a part of a lecture, or a debate, or an extract of a drama with detailed discussion (say, a court case scene).

8. 'whatever interests you'   The 'open-ended' task - ideally done with students who can be relied on to listen intelligently, and to SKIM and SCAN as natural normal procedures. Clearly, this is at the least structured end of this range of exercise types - quite opposed to the highly controlled nature of the CLOZE exercise.

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