Do something different with the coursebook listening

When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.

This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.

However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.

Listening from the middle

In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.

Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.

Pausing and predicting

Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.

There are several ways I can think of to do this:

1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.

2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk.  This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English

Pausing and focusing on language

These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills

1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.

E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.

2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.

3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.

E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.

To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.

[ted id=1200]


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening, Teaching methodology

16 Responses to Do something different with the coursebook listening

  1. many thanks for that Madden article link, funny how i’ve never before thought about using a listening from the middle! that along with a 4min video i just found on boing boing will set me up with a 40min activity for some multimedia students tomorrow 🙂

  2. Martin

    Hi Rachael,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while now and think it’s excellent! Packed full of accessible and creative practical teaching ideas!

  3. Sophia

    I want to marry your posts 🙂 And I agree with eflnotes, starting in the middle is a great idea, so simple and so real life – can’t believe I’ve never tried it in class! Loved the TED talk too. Thanks Rachael.

    • Thank you for the support, Sophia. I really do appreciate it. Can’t take credit for the starting in the middle idea though- thanks goes to Frances Eales (Speakout author) !

  4. p.s. John Fanselow link needs fixing

  5. Hi Rachael,

    The idea about starting in the middle also struck me as being so obvious and yet something I don’t think I’ve ever done. Definitely mirrors real-life, which for me is the best kind of task!


  6. Hi Rachel,

    Another blog post, another well deserved carrot cake. I will certainly be using the listening from the middle idea in the near future (as soon as this conference is over). And I have always been a big fan of pausing and predicting. I recently have been using a lot of spoken cloze tests and find that with the right classes, the students seem to enjoy it. I play a recording and then pause it and simply ask a student what they think is the next phrase or word. With higher level students I might collect some possible answers and then after listening to the complete recording, go back over and discuss which answers are different, but still OK.

    Anyway, we have a 1 minute brilliant idea teacher-share scheduled for the day after next, and I will be sharing some of my favorite ideas from your blog and pointing people to your website.

    Thanks again,


    • Thank you, Kevin, that is very much appreciated 🙂
      And I think you make an important point about discussing what answers are different, but still OK. It’s this kind of exploration that really helps to stretch learners, I think.

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