Listening Strategies for Beginning Language Students

February 4, 2011

In my adult Spanish first class of the semester, we listened to the recording of an introductory conversation. Students had the script of the conversation in their book. We followed these steps:

  1. Students read the conversation individually first, reading for meaning and context. They used pictures, their knowledge of cognates and the glossary to help them.
  2. We listened to the recorded conversation on the CD.
  3. Students practiced the conversation in pairs.

This is all pretty typical stuff. Then I challenged my students to practice active listening. I told them we were going to listen to the conversation again and their job wasn’t to listen for meaning. They already understood the conversation from the first few activities. This time I challenged them to:

Listen to the pronunciation of particular consonants and vowels. I modeled the consonants I wanted them to identify and listen to.

Pay attention to the native speakers’ intonation of both sentences and questions, as well as the tone they used. Some of them weren’t sure what intonation was, so I modeled it by raising my voice by saying “You like chocolate ice cream” as a sentence and then by turning it into the incredulous question, “You like chocolate ice cream?!” by changing the intonation and emphasizing the word “chocolate”. I pointed out that the words were the same, it was just my voice that was different. I asked them to listen to how the speakers used their voices in the conversation.

Focus on how the native speakers link words together. I pointed out that one thing that makes people sound fluent is the way they link words and phrases. Beginning language students often sound choppy and unsure of themselves. Learning how to link words together early on builds both skill and confidence.

We listened to the recorded conversation again. I asked them if listening actively made any difference. They nodded. We shared observations and then continued with our practice.

Tips for active listening activities

  1. Ensure they already understand the main idea of the material so they won’t focus on the content.
  2. Give specific instructions on what to listen for.
  3. Model the sounds or language yourself to be sure they understand what to listen for.
  4. Give a limited number of things (3 or 4 are enough) so they don’t get overwhelmed.
  5. Have them share their own observations.

We did this in our first class of the semester. My plan is to incorporate active listening into every class to help them build their communicative skills early on.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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