Once upon a time I worked in a school and I thought I taught my students how to listen in English. Oh, I gave them wonderful advice such as: listen to the radio every day, watch DVDs in English, listen to people on the bus and tube…all of it utter rubbish if I do not give them the tools to actually decode what they hear, if I don’t prepare them for what they’re going to hear, which was probably why my students did absolutely awful in all of their listening tests but great in everything else. I wasn’t equipped to actually teach listening, the forgotten skill. Then I discovered John Field and developed a little crush on him and his book and I actually started trying to teach my students to listen.
The following lesson gives you some ideas of how you can start doing this. It’s based on three simple assumptions:
- If students don’t know something is possible, they WILL NOT HEAR IT! Have you ever learnt a word in another language and then suddenly started hearing it everywhere? It’s probably unlikely that people all of a sudden started using the word more often, it’s much more likely that because you no knew it was possible, you were able to hear it.
- If we don’t let students know how words/phrases will actually be pronounced in the real world, they will not understand them. English language learners will often build their sentences one word at a time, however, as native speakers we speak in chunks and use connected speech. By raising our students’ awareness of this fact, they are much more likely to understand an English speaker.
- Skills lessons need to involve one of more reflection stages. As teachers we have a tendency to be very sneaky and practise lots of different sub-skills in one lesson but if we don’t actually raise the students’ awareness of what they’re doing and how it can be applied to their real life, it’s all for nought.
Age: teenagers – Adults
Level: Pre-intermediate upwards.
Time: 90mins – 3hours (depending on your choice of activities)
- Opening discussion questions: do you use English songs to learn English? What makes them difficult? Are there any negative points to using songs? – Aim: to get students thinking about how helpful music can be / to address any worries they might have about songs containing “bad” English / to raise awareness of the fact that songs often contain spoken English.
- First listening: Play the first 26 seconds of the song as a dictation. Prepare students by telling them it will be difficult but to write any word they hear and not to worry as they will hear it a number of times. Play this section as many times as you like, allowing the students to compare with each other after each play.
- Focus on weak forms: Hand out the lyrics and ask students to check their answers. Ask them to compare with a partner and to circle the words they didn’t hear. In pairs, discuss which words they heard and which they didn’t hear, and why that might be. – Aim: to raise students’ awareness of the fact that in English, content words are pronounced in their strong forms and very often the “grammary” words around them are weak forms.
- Focus on weak forms 2: Students listen to the first verse again and listen out for how the words they didn’t hear were actually pronounced. As a class discuss the difference between how students expect the words to be pronounced and how English speakers will pronounce them. – Aim: to raise awareness of the schwa and it’s prevalence in weak forms.
- Practice: Students look at the chorus and, in pairs, mark where they think there will be schwas and weak forms. Students then listen and check. Afterwards they discuss whether or not they were correct and if they were able to hear the weak forms at all. – Aim: to put into practice what students have noticed and to show improvement.
- Raising awareness of context and prediction: Play the 2nd verse for the students without any discussion or preparation. Ask them to fill in the gaps. Afterwards ask them how they did. They probably won’t have done very well. Tell them that what you did was very unfair and you really should have allowed them some time to prepare.
- Preparation: Ask students to reread the song so far, discuss the story, check what types of words could fill the blanks and what tense any verbs would be. As a class, get a list of three to four possibilities on the board for each space. Replay the second verse and students can check their predictions. (Note: I would be surprised if anyone short of upper int or advanced got the first gap – turned – but if they got the meaning and said anything like came or became or was, you can highlight the fact that it’s not important to hear every word as long as you understand). – Aim: to show the importance of preparation.
- Put it into practice: Direct the students attention to the next verse and ask them to do the same as before. Prepare to listen. Students will undoubtedly do much better this time when you play the verse. – Aim: to show improvement
- Reflect: ask students to discuss why they understood the 3rd verse more easily than the 2nd. Ask them if any of the skills they have talked about today could be put into use in their daily lives. – Aim: To encourage students to apply their skills in the real world.
- Engage with the text: Play the whole song for the students. Afterwards ask the students to discuss the story of the song, whether or not they liked it and to write one sentence outlining the message behind the song.
- Optional follow-up activities: See the materials above for optional vocabulary and grammar activities that can be done in class or for homework.
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