Ten Tips to Accelerate Academic Listening

 By Michael Rost

Academic listening is a special kind of listening. It is listening in order to encounter, understand, learn, discuss, and remember new ideas. No matter what your teaching situation, helping students become better academic listeners is an important part of language teaching.

Over the years, through teaching, observation, and research, I have come up with ten teaching tips that can accelerate academic listening.

Tip 1: Use great content

Academic listening is really about content learning. You want the content to do the teaching! Your goal as a teacher is to get the students excited about the new content and about sharing their perspectives. It is easiest to do this when the content itself is compelling, when there is substance that is really worth trying to understand. Whether you are teaching history or math, biology or art, literature or physiology, try packaging and presenting the content in ways that make it more interesting and provocative. Try supplementing the content with different forms of multimedia (audio tracks, video clips, web pages) and activities (tasks, games, experiments, surveys) in order to make it more engaging and more motivating for your students. (See Philp and Duchesne, 2016 for a clear summary on the interaction of engagement and motivation.)

But what about the language teaching aspect? Don’t we need to teach the language? Of course, yes. But it is well established that the most effective way to teach the language is through the learning of content in the target language — provided that there is sufficient language support (See Cenoz, 2015 for discussion of the role of language support in L2 content instruction.)

Tip 2: Teach “academic conversations” as a social learning tool

Academic listening is also about exploring, negotiating, and sharing ideas and learning new perspectives. Classroom learning of academic listening depends crucially on the learners having frequent collaborative “academic conversations” with one another — and with you, the teacher. Learners need to feel safe brainstorming, sharing personal thoughts, questioning ideas, reacting emotionally at times, and working out problems understanding one another and the course content.

But trying to have meaningful academic conversations often runs into a wall. Left to their own devices, most learners, regardless of age, will settle on minimal verbal and non-verbal interaction in the classroom, often attempting to finish learning tasks as quickly — and with as few words — as possible. The challenge for learners is that academic learning involves making our thinking explicit, so it is necessary to teach and reward the use of explicit gambits in order to develop this elaborated style of thinking (Crawford and Zwiers, 2011; Zwiers and Soto, 2017).

Implementing this tip involves two practical steps: (1) presenting conversation prompts, interaction models, and academic phrases and (2) promoting “positive regard” for others. Presenting interaction models is best done by identifying specific critical thinking skills as “focus points” for learning. The most commonly recognized critical thinking skills are: identify main ideas, comparing similarities, contrasting differences, attributing facts to sources, evaluation of validity, inferring missing information, explaining results, and applying information to solve problems.

Here is an example of displaying the relationship between focus, conversation gambit (for posing questions), and language frame (for responding and formulating ideas).

Focus Conversation Gambit Language Frame
Describe the main idea.

 

What is the gist of the lecture?

What do you think is the central idea?

What was this part of the lecture about?

The presentation was mainly about…

The speaker is basically saying…

The main idea of the talk was…

The second aspect is promoting “positive regard,” which means seeking and acknowledging each speaker’s contribution. Positive regard can be achieved through active listening to one another’s ideas, supporting each other’s efforts to learn, and respecting alternate points of view. Teachers assist through modeling and monitoring of conversational interaction to be sure that “positive regard” is systematically practiced (or at least aimed for!) in all classroom interactions (Singer, 2018).

Tip 3: Shift responsibility to the learner

The essential insight behind this tip is: It is the learners themselves who decide whether or not they want to understand. Set up optimal learning conditions — and let the learners do the work. This suggestion may seem obvious, but I have often seen learning get short-circuited when teachers try to guide or help their students too much. Think in terms of letting the students take the lead, in whatever ways you can. Have the students run the technology, let them select content supplements and decide on activities when possible, have them lead group discussions, have them give presentations, even have them design the tests.

But are we being too “harsh” if we really think learners decide whether or not they want to understand? Shouldn’t we be making the content easier for the students to understand if they are having difficulties with the language? Well, yes and no. The paradox is that by setting high expectations and allowing the students to struggle to succeed, we are actually empowering them with the skills and strategies they need outside of the classroom (See Ferlazzo, 2016 and Asgedom, 2014 for powerful discussions of this issue of teachers challenging students with high standards.)

Tip 4: Teach “active listening” as a reliable learning strategy

 Active listening is more than the notion of “being animated when you listen.” It is actually a broader range of cognitive and emotional activity that could be described as “engaged processing.” Active listening starts with a mindset: an open-mindedness, curiosity, and a “positive regard” for the speaker and his or her ideas — a supportive intention to try to understand without judging. Beyond these intentional aspects, active listening involves the specific teachable behaviors of paying full attention, asking clarification questions, paraphrasing, reflecting, summarizing, and asking creative follow-up questions to probe further into the speaker’s meaning (Rost and Wilson, 2013).

For all of these behaviors, there are specific gambits we can teach students to help them adopt an active listening mindset:

  • Asking clarification questions: “When you said …, did you mean…?” “I’d like to ask if you can explain more about…”
  • Paraphrasing: “What I hear you saying is…” “Let me see if I understand you correctly. I believe you said…”
  • Reflecting: “That is very interesting to me. It reminds me of…” “I see a parallel between … and ….”
  • Asking follow-up questions: Is there another way to think about this? For example, is it possible that…?”

I often talk with teachers who believe that active listening is way beyond their learners’ abilities. After all, their students may be struggling with basic vocabulary and grammar issues. Don’t they need to master the language more fully before they can use these “advanced” academic formulas and interaction gambits? Research has shown that teaching this type of “metacognitive thinking” actually helps students, even lower-level students, handle new and complex language more readily, without simplification of content. It empowers learners to engage gradually with more complex ideas (Goh, 2018; Vlach and Ellis, 2010).

Learning to use structured academic language can also create more meaningful interactions — “learning conversations” — between the students. This language provides students with “islands of reliability” for interacting in pairs and groups in ways that promote more “comprehensible output” — that is, speaking or writing output that challenges the learner to use his or her maximum language capacity (Keene, 2011; Graf and Birkstein, 2007). And in my own experience, teaching active listening strategies makes listening more enjoyable for the students!

Tip 5: Provide a clear purpose for listening

 One my own mentors in language teaching, Joan Morley, used to say, “The only way to improve aural comprehension is to spend many hours practicing listening…. However, a directed program of purposeful listening can shorten the time.” What she meant was that improvement of listening skills can be accelerated by immediate task completion along with feedback on accuracy (Morley, 1990). Morley claimed that this type of instruction provided “an urgency for focusing attention.” One clear way to convert this advice into instructional practice is to create selective listening tasks so that the students know what to listen for before they begin listening.

Common selective listening tasks include:

  • completion of a chart or table with specific words or numbers
  • notation of specific words or facts
  • completion of a text (such as lyrics of a song) with certain words blanked out
  • confirmation that a speaker said or did not say specific things
  • drawing a picture to conform to a speaker’s description
  • following physical commands (like “stand up, walk to the door,” etc.).

Tasks of this type can greatly improve students’ confidence in listening to longer or complex inputs because they need only focus on specific sequences. Many teachers argue that this type of task doesn’t really test students’ general listening proficiency, but that is precisely the point. We want students to get acclimated to listening to difficult passages by giving them the opportunity to selectively focus on parts of the text they can understand (Kanaoka, 2009). This type of practice has a scaffolding effect, allowing students to gradually understand more, improve their working memory, and listen for longer stretches (Bransford and Johnson, 2004). 

Tip 6: Use short segments to focus on skill building

Academic listening can be overwhelming for students because it involves sustained listening, sometimes up to 30 minutes or longer. Once a student becomes overwhelmed and fatigued, learning efficiency — engagement and enjoyment, as well as memory function — obviously diminishes. What I like to do to counteract this is to punctuate a class with intensive work on shorter listening extracts: cuing an audio or video track to just 30, 60, or 90 seconds of input. I may play the track three or four times, each time with a new task:

  • “Listen and write down just the verbs.” (Drawing attention to the need to identify key words.)
  • “Listen and write the full forms for these reduced forms.” (Drawing attention to reductions and assimilations.)
  • “Listen and tell me which of these words or expressions you hear.” (To develop selective listening. I write several words on the board, only some of which are actually in the passage to be played.)
  • “Listen and summarize the main ideas.” (Orally to a partner or in writing.)
  • “Listen without taking notes. Then at the end, try to reconstruct exactly what the speaker said.” (I may provide a partial transcript to facilitate this process.)

You might object that this type of activity doesn’t resemble true academic listening – as in a university lecture or a business presentation. That is correct, but in order to effect transfer of skills to academic listening contexts, students also need the training opportunities to build up the sub-skills of word recognition, phonological discrimination, extracting key information, and building short-term memory (Field, 1998; Goh and Aryadoust, 2013; Wilson, 2003). Working with short extracts also helps the teacher and students diagnose specific decoding problems and take concrete steps to remediate, rather than relying entirely on inferencing in order to guess “the missing pieces” (Cross, 2009).

Tip 7: Teach listening strategies through specific tasks

Listening strategies are cognitive and social techniques for “how to understand,” deliberate plans to construct meaning more deeply. Some have argued that effective strategies are a by-product of motivation and emerge in learners naturally without being taught (this is the “soft skills” theory), and others argue that listening strategies d o not emerge unless they are demonstrated explicitly, and that direct teaching of listening strategies improves motivation (Graham, 2017). The realized benefits may be a matter of individual differences and cultural learning styles. I have found that most learners will benefit from some explicit instruction in “how to listen,” particularly if it is done in the immediate context of a listening task.

What are listening strategies? In my own research tracking and interviewing learners (Rost, 2016), as well as through the research of colleagues (e.g. Vandergrift, 2007), we have identified eight recognizable categories of listening strategies.

1. Planning

Developing an awareness of the steps needed to accomplish a listening task, anticipating content that may be introduced, coming up with an “action plan”

Advance organizing: Clarifying the goals of a task before listening

Self-management: Rehearsing the steps to take to deal with a listening task

 

 

2. Focusing attention

Concentrating on the input and task at hand, avoiding distractions and disruptive thoughts, reminding oneself of the plan

Directed attention: Attending to the listening task, consciously ignoring distractions or any tendency to give up

Selective attention: Attending to specific aspects of the listening input, such as key words or ideas that have been anticipated

Persistent attention: Attending to broad meaning, keeping flow of attention even if temporarily distracted by unknown language

Noticing attention: Attending to new language, specific language, rhetorical forms in the input

 

 

3. Monitoring

Verifying or adjusting one’s understanding or way of understanding during a task

Comprehension monitoring: Checking how well one is understanding, identifying problematic aspects in the input

Double-check monitoring: Verifying one’s initial understanding and making revisions in understanding as needed, during the second listening to the same input

Emotional monitoring: Keeping track of one’s feelings, encouraging oneself to keep listening, finding ways to counter negative emotions and anxiety

 

 

 

4. Evaluating

Checking the outcome of one’s listening process against a standard of accuracy or completeness

Performance evaluation: Checking one’s overall attainment of the task goals

Problem evaluation: Identifying what specific issue needs to be solved or understood or what part of the listening task still needs to be completed

Revision evaluation: Choosing a second listening to assist understanding or selecting an alternative way of accomplishing a listening task

 

5. Inferencing

Using information in the input to guess the meaning of unfamiliar language, to predict content, or to fill in missing information

 

Linguistic inferencing: Using known words to guess meanings of unknown words or blurs of sounds

Contextual inferencing: Consciously using knowledge of the setting and extralinguistic features (items in the environment) to create or amplify meaning

Speaker inferencing: Using the speaker’s tone of voice, paralinguistic cues (stress, pause, intonation) or guessing intended meanings, facial expressions, body language, and baton signals (hand and arm movements) to guess intended meanings

Multimodal inferencing: Using background sounds, visual cues, supplementary text, and intuitive sense of the input to infer meaning Predictive inferencing: Anticipating details in a specific part of the input (local prediction) or anticipating the gist of what is coming in the input (global prediction)

Retrospective inferencing: Thinking back over a large chunk of input to fill in gaps and consolidate one’s understanding

 

6. Elaborating

Using prior knowledge from outside the input and relating it to content in the input in order to enrich one’s interpretation of the input

 

Personal elaboration: Connecting with prior personal experiences

World elaboration: Connecting with knowledge gained about the world

Creative elaboration: Making up background information to contextualize the inputs, generating questions that relate to the input, or introducing new possibilities to extend the input

Visual elaboration: Using mental visualizations to represent aspects of the input

 

7. Collaborating

Cooperating with the speaker, other listeners, and outside sources for assistance with improving comprehension or enriching interpretations

 

Seeking clarification: Asking for repetition, explanations, rephrasings, or elaborations about the language just heard

Seeking confirmation: Asking for verification that what you have said has been understood

Backchannelling: Showing the speaker that you are engaged, following the input and ready to continue listening

Joint task construction: Working together, with the speaker or with another listener, to solve a problem or complete a task

Resourcing: Using available referencing resources to deepen language and idea comprehension

 

8. Reviewing

Condensing, reordering, or transferring from one modality to another, of what one has processed to help understanding, memory storage and retrieval

 

Summarization: Making a mental or verbal (oral or written) summary of information presentation

Repetition: Repeating or paraphrasing part of what was heard as part of a listening task

Noting: Writing down key words or ideas in another form (abbreviated verbal or graphic form) to assist in recall or performance of a task

Mediating: Rendering ideas from the input to the listener’s L1, orally or in writing

 

(From Rost and Wilson, 2013)

But how do we teach listening strategies? And is it important for students to learn all of these various categories? Much of the language used to describe the strategies (“metalanguage”) is very abstract and unfamiliar to our students. Will this really help them? The key to helping students learn and adopt these strategies is in designing tasks, or steps in an activity, that focus on one specific listening strategy. For example, to promote “advance organizing,” we might give a series of images related to an upcoming lecture to the students, and ask them to come up with a list of ideas that might be included in the lecture. For “joint task construction,” we might play a segment of a lecture or presentation and have students work in pairs to complete a cloze summary of the section. And because listening strategies are conscious plans to improve understanding, it is important for students to reflect on their utility. At the end of an activity, we may simply ask, “What did you think of that activity? Did it help you listen better? Why or why not?”

Tip 8: Teach note-taking as a review tool

Note-taking is widely viewed as one of the most important macro-skills in academic listening, but there is little agreement on what constitutes effective practice. Different techniques have been taught, including the Cornell Method (columns and indenting to show relationships), Mind Maps (graphic connections to show associations), and Key Words (noting only key words and phrases to show sequencing and prominence). However, no one method has been shown to be superior to others, although there is evidence that certain modalities of note-taking represent deeper levels of information processing than others (Bohay et al., 2011; Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

So does it matter if we have students take notes? Yes! Even though there is no consistent correlation between specific types of notes or quantity of notes and comprehension scores, as a teacher I have consistently seen a positive effect of note-taking instruction on student participation and an increase in student responsibility in trying to understand. I have seen advantages of providing interventions while students are actively engaged in listening to academic lectures — not just before or after. Interventions — short instructional episodes during a language processing experience — provide a way for students to focus their attention and learn specific note-taking strategies that promote comprehension. And as other researchers have found, I also believe that the note-taking interventions improve long-term memory during and after listening, particularly if notes are used for collaborative tasks and review for tests — or even if notes are allowed to be used during tests (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).

Tip 9: Provide stimulating out-of-class listening homework 

Because accelerating academic listening involves nurturing a full-time active mindset, it is important to have productive outside homework assignments between classes.

For each course I teach, I try to curate a set of at least ten topically related YouTube, Vimeo, or TEDTalk or other videos, or FreshAir or other short interviews that are in the public domain. (I ask students to provide suggestions to add to the list as the course progresses.) This is a technique for keeping learning alive for students between classes and for “flipping” the roles of classwork and homework as needed (Jensen et al., 2015).

As a safety procedure, I recommend watching the videos all the way through or listening to interviews from start to finish first, to be sure the content is appropriate for your students. In a typical eight-week course for me, the homework for the students is to listen to at least five videos and complete a short task — usually some variation of “Summarize in your own words.” “What is one thing that you learned in this presentation?” “What is one follow-up question that you would like to ask the speaker?” “What are five words or expressions you learned in this video?” If the class has a discussion board in its learning management system, I may require that each student comment on each video they watch, and respond to one other student’s comments for each video. If the class has time for presentations, I may have students prepare a presentation in pairs, related to the ideas in one video they have watched together.

Tip 10: Demonstrate to learners how to “get an A” in your course

The concept of academic listening — and academic study generally — may be unfamiliar to your learners at first, so it is helpful to “gamify” the concept by demonstrating to students the specific active behaviors they can use to “win the game.” For example, in one of my CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) classes, I give the students guidelines that include a number of “active listening” ideas:

How to Study and Earn an A in This Course

These guidelines are the best way to master the material in this course and earn an A:

  • Come to class on time, listen actively, and participate. Take good notes and participate in the discussions and in-class exercises. Be certain that your comments improve on the silence.
  • Participate in the online discussions and make use of web resources, especially the videos.
  • Take notes as though you will be explaining the content to a friend who missed the class.
  • Communicate with the instructor — about possible absences, late assignments, or anything else that will affect your performance in class.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand something! Just because others aren’t asking questions doesn’t mean they understand. If something isn’t clear to you, it may not be clear to your classmates. Do them a favor and raise your hand.
  • Summarize, rewrite, and review your notes between classes. Don’t wait for the night before an exam to re-familiarize yourself with the material covered.
  • Take some action to personalize the material. Develop your own set of study notes, summarize each lecture or reading to a classmate (learning partner), or write out what you think would be a likely essay question on the test.

But aren’t these guidelines too strict? Don’t we need to be sensitive to learner differences? Don’t we need to modify course expectations to fit a range of cultural learning styles? To an extent, yes, but we also need to allow students to understand and modify their own study habits and to clarify cultural differences (between their home culture and the target culture) for themselves. By showing the “rules” of the system, we are helping them succeed, both in content learning and cultural learning (Hattie, 2012; Hofstede et al, 2010).

So those are the ten tips that can accelerate academic listening. Using them is no guarantee that all students will immediately increase their listening ability, but trying them out in your classes may well trigger some fresh energy for students to improve. I hope you will try them.

References

Asgedom, M. (2014). The 5 powers of an educator. Chicago: Mawi Learning.

Bohay, M., Blakely, D., Tamplin, A., and Radvansky, G. (2011). Note taking, review, memory, and comprehension. The American Journal of Psychology, 124, 63–73.

Bransford, J. and Johnson, M. (2004). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. In Balota, D. and Marsh, E. (Eds.) Cognitive psychology: Key readings. New York: Psychology Press.

Cenoz, J. (2015). Content-based instruction and content and language integrated learning: The same or different? Language, Culture and Curriculum, 28:1, 8–24.

Crawford, M. and Zwiers, J. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Cross, J. (2009) Diagnosing the process, text, and intrusion problems responsible for L2 listeners’ decoding errors. Asian EFL Journal, 11, 31–53.

Ferlazzo, L. (2016, September 9). “Why we teach now”: An interview with Sonia Nieto. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2016/09/why_we_teach_now_an_interview_with_sonia_nieto.html

Flowerdew, J. and Miller, L. (2005). Second language listening: Theory and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goh, C. (2018). Metacognition in second language listening. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 1–7. New York: Wiley.

Goh, C. and Aryadoust, V. (2013). Examining the notion of listening sub-skill divisibility and its implications for second language listening. International Journal of Listening, 29:3, 109–133.

Graff, G. and Birkstein, C. (2007). They say/I say. The moves that matter in persuasive writing. New York: Norton.

Graham, S. (2017). Research into practice: Listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting. Language Teaching, 50:1, 107–119.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., and Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Jensen, J. L., Kummer, T. A., and Godoy, P. D. d. M. (2015). Improvements from a flipped classroom may simply be the fruits of active learning. Life Science Education, 14:1, 1–12.

Kanaoka, Y. (2009). Academic listening encounters. New York: Cambridge.

Keene, E. O. (2011). Comprehension instruction grows up. In H. S. Daniels (Ed.), Comprehension going forward: Where we are/what’s next (pp. 111–127). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Morley, J. (1990). Trends and developments in listening comprehension. In J. Alatis (Eds.). Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics (pp. 317–337). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Mueller, P. and Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25:6, 1159–1168

Norrick, N. (2008). Negotiating the reception of stories in conversation: Teller strategies

for modulating response. Narrative Inquiry, 18:1, 131–151.

Philp, J. and Duchesne, S. (2016). Exploring engagement in tasks in the language classroom. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36,50–72.

Rost, M. and Wilson, J. J. (2013). Active listening. New York: Routledge.

Rost, M. (2016). Teaching and researching listening, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.

Singer, T. (2018). EL excellence every day: The flip-to guide for differentiating academic literacy. New York: Sage.

Vandergrift, L. (2007). Recent developments in second and foreign language listening comprehension research. Language Teaching, 40, 191–210.

Vlach, R. and Ellis, N. (2010) An Academic Formulas List: New methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics, 31:4, 487–512.

Wilson, M. (2003). Discovery listening—improving perceptual processing. ELT Journal, 57:4, 335–343.

Zwiers, J. and Soto, I. (2017). Academic language mastery: Conversational discourse in context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fueled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco. Michael is the author of critically acclaimed works on second language development, including Teaching and Researching Listening (Routledge) and Active Listening(Routledge), Dr. Rost’s interests focus on spoken interaction and listening. He is also author or series editor of a number of successful EFL/ESL courses, including the global series Worldview and English Firsthand, as well as the academic listening series, Contemporary Topics (Pearson).

The Power of a Good Story: Using Stories in the Classroom

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com

 By Jeremy Schaar

In 2007, I saw first-hand how powerful stories are for getting students excited about learning English.

I was teaching at a language academy in Chicago. It wasn’t a great school. There were never enough working CD players, and we bled each board marker dry. The teachers and students all knew it was a temporary gig/school until they could figure out something better. Still, we had fun like you have fun at a train station or a summer camp. The impermanence of it all was freeing, and the diversity of people was exciting.

One of my favorite students was an environmental lawyer from Poland who was a bartender in Chicago. He was irate when I met him. He’d signed up for Business English only to find himself in my Short Stories class. (They were both in a rotation of “advanced” classes, but never at the same time.) Business English was something useful for him. Short Stories was a waste of his time.

He showed up late and said he would leave early. (He had to work.) Then something remarkable happened. We read Can-Can by Arturo Vivante. In it, a man regrets setting up a rendezvous with a lover. The story is just a page or two long, but it’s full of rich material. The class talked about the language, the literary devices, and the themes. Then we started debating things, and while I can’t remember the Polish lawyer’s points, I’ll never forget the image of him standing halfway out the door, his arm waving in the air, shouting one last point about infidelity and marriage before he left to go to work… and then reappearing a minute later to make his last last point. He was hooked.

Pearson’s A World of Fiction, features “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante and 15 other great short stories

In the end, we had a great class. Every lesson was full of passionate debates built around powerful stories.

I learned how great stories are for motivating the unenthusiastic student.

Now, let’s look at four more uses of stories as well as some good activities to do with stories.

Stories are a great jumping off point for a mixed-level classroom

One of the great uses of stories is to solve the problem of a mixed-level classroom. You start with the story and then let everyone fly as high as they can. The hardest part is finding the right story. You’ll want something that’s full of interesting images and ideas but not too hard to explain. Take 20-30 minutes to help everyone understand the story. Then do activities that work across levels.

Consider using Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. There’s some hard language in it, but it’s short, so you can explain the ideas to students within 30 minutes. If students really struggle, encourage them to read a translation online.

Once the students have a basic understanding, the sky is the limit. Here are some activities you can use to deepen their understanding. You can do one activity as a class or let each student choose one they’d like to try.

Comprehension Building Activities:

  • Read the story to each other out loud, compare/contrast intonation
  • Retell the story to each other in their own words
  • Illustrate or act out the story
  • Write what happened just before or just after the story
  • Cut up the story into pieces, then reassemble the pieces from memory
  • Circle any new words, then find two synonyms for each new word

After your students have a deeper understanding, consider going further with these critical thinking activities.

Critical Thinking Activities:

  • Debate the meaning of ambiguous language/ideas
  • Guess why the author made some choices (e.g. why a wood and not a river?)
  • Find a story with a similar theme (in any language), compare/contrast the stories

Stories help you address challenging issues

There are any number of important issues we might like to address in the classroom. Issues like racism, sexism, and native speaker bias are important, but we can think more broadly. Consider family issues like disciplining children or an overbearing in-law. Or how about issues around making a career change, dealing with an illness, or breaking bad news?

They’re all hard to bring up. They are also a big part of our students’ lives, and we do them a disservice when we ignore them altogether. Stories let us all live in the challenging area for a minute without being overbearing or too personal. Here are some activities you can try after reading a story featuring a challenging or sensitive subject.

Sensitive Subject Activities

  • Identify empowering language. Our students often lack the language they need to stand up for themselves, but they can find it in stories. Have them circle useful language and describe situations they might use it.
  • Role-play the issue. It’s not nice to push students to talk about their own challenging issues, but role plays let everyone explore the issues in a detached way.
  • Describe how friends and family would react to the story. What would your friends back home think? How about your grandma? Why?

Stories show off the interconnected nature of language

We often think of language in terms of isolated things like definitions, grammar rules, and sounds. Language, however, is as much about the connections between things as the things themselves. For example, a word isn’t just its definition, but also all the words and grammar and ideas we associate with it. From this perspective, stories are a goldmine of connections. They show how the isolated bits add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

Activities for Seeing Connections in Language

  • Find the words that go with other words. Identify some words that are repeated several times in the story. Then have the students list the words that come before and after those keywords.
  • Learn the importance of verb tense. Choose a new primary verb tense for the story and have the students list all the things they’d have to change to make it work.
  • Tell similar stories. Choose the ten most important words from the story. Then ask the students to imagine other stories they could tell with those same words.

Stories let everyone have some fun!

Finally, sometimes a story is just plain fun. That’s reason enough to share it with your students. Here are a few more fun activities you can do with your students using stories.

Fun Story Activities

  • Watch the movie! Graded readers especially are often based on movies. Enjoy the story. Then enjoy the movie.
  • Create a talk show with the characters. Imagine the characters are on a talk show. One student can be the host. The other students can be characters from the story.
  • Make a soundtrack. Ask each student to find and present a song that matches the story. Then make a playlist the students can keep forever.

* * * * *
Finding good stories is a challenge. Consider using these resources.

Pearson Graded Readers
A World of Fiction
True Stories
Classic Short Stories
Poetry in Voice

From classic stories to blockbuster film titles, our huge range of graded Readers features some of the world’s best-loved authors and the greatest stories ever told.

Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar

Using Movies in the ESL Classroom

 Joe McVeigh

With Academy Award season upon us, ESL teachers may wish to think about how they can use movies in the classroom. Movies provide a wonderful source of language input for students. They can provide valuable exposure to language and also to culture, as well as being an excellent source of new vocabulary along with slang and idioms. They can be used to help students work on many language skills including listening, reading, speaking, and pronunciation.

Film selection criteria

Some teachers choose to use short excerpts from movies. If you have a class in which you meet with students for several hours a week, you may be able to use entire films with them. There are several criteria to consider when selecting films for use with students. First off, consider the level of interest and relevance for your students. A group of 18-year-old students in an intensive English program may have different interests in movie than a group of fifth graders or a class of adult immigrants and refugees. Be sure that the actors in the film speak relatively clearly, and that the storyline is not too difficult to follow. Analyze the language to ensure that it isn’t too difficult. Consider the content of the film to make sure that it’s appropriate for your students in terms of the language and themes involved. If you wish to use an entire film, check on the availability of a written script, which can be extremely helpful.

Practical considerations

Carefully preview the film in advance, so that you are aware of potentially difficult language or challenging themes for your students. Also check your equipment to make sure that everyone in the room can see the screen clearly and that the sound quality is adequate. If you want to find a particular section in the film, note the time on a counter so that you can access the right spot easily.

Classroom activities

Most films these days are available with closed captions that you can turn on or off. You can choose whether or not to turn on the captions. After viewing the film or an excerpt from the film, you can select comprehension questions or discussion questions to use with your students. You may also wish to pull out various bits of vocabulary, slang, idioms, or new expressions.

If you obtain a complete script of the movie for your students, you can assign them to read it either for homework or in class. You can ask them to act out scenes from the movie, or give them writing assignments based on the film.

For speaking practice, choose a scene from the film that contains a lot of activity. Put students in pairs with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. Turn down the sound, then play the excerpt. Ask the student facing the screen to describe what’s happening to the student who can’t see. Then have the two partners change positions.

To really give your students a reading workout. Choose a film in a language other than English that has English subtitles!

General Discussion Questions about Movies

Here are some questions you can use with your students for a general discussion about movies.

  1. Generally speaking, what kind of films do you like? Comedy? Drama? Romance? Other?
  2. Often, at the end of the year, American film critics like to put together a “top ten list” of the ten best films of the year. If you were going to put together a top ten list for yourself, what movies would be on that list? Give reasons for your selections.
  3. Who is your favorite actor? Why do you like him or her?
  4. What qualities should a good actor have?
  5. Many people believe that the American (Hollywood) film industry has too much influence on the way that people think about the United States, about men and women, and about fantasy and reality. Do you feel that Hollywood has a distorted image of the U.S.?
  6. Some people think that studying film is not very helpful for learning English, it is only entertainment. What is your opinion? Has studying film been helpful for your English ability?  How could it be more helpful?

Sample Post-Viewing Discussion Questions for a Movie

  1. What is the meaning of the title of the film?
  2. How would you describe the mood, feeling, and story of this film to someone who was not familiar with it and who had never seen it before?
  3. What was your favorite moment in the film?
  4. What was your least favorite moment in the film?
  5. Who is your favorite character in the film?
  6. What part did you think was the funniest?
  7. What part did you think was the most special for you?
  8. List three new vocabulary words or expressions that you learned from this movie.

Instructions for Students to Practice Acting out a Scene from a Movie

  • With 1-3 other students, choose a scene from one of the films that we have watched to act out in front of the class.
  • The scene that you select should be an important one in the movie (not something trivial).
  • The scene, when enacted, should last about two minutes (or less), so choose your scene carefully.
  • It is not necessary to memorize your lines or to bring or use props or costumes, though you may do this if you wish.
  • Do not improvise new dialog for the scene. Use only the written dialog from the film.
  • When acting out the scene, use the same actions as the characters in the movies. Do not read directly from the script.  Remember, you are supposed to be speaking, not reading.
  • Try to use the correct pronunciation. Be as fluent and as accurate as you can.
  • Speak loudly and clearly so as to be heard by everyone.

Movie Vocabulary Homework Assignment

  1. For the next class meeting make a list of vocabulary words which are new to you from our film script. Your assignment is to find words and expressions from p. ______ to p. ________Your list should include at least ___________ words and expressions.
  2. Using a dictionary and consulting others, find an accurate definition or meaning of the word or expression.
  3. On your list include:
  • the page number in the script where it is found
  • the word or expression
  • whether the word or expression is commonly used or not
  • whether the word or expression is polite to use or not
  • the meaning

Example:

Page Expression Common? Polite? Meaning
17 Put his foot in his mouth somewhat OK Say something embarrassing or foolish
  1. You may work together with others who are working on the same pages.
  2. Make enough copies of your worksheet to class for everyone in the class. 

Sample Vocabulary from the film When Harry Met Sally

Here are some vocabulary terms and expressions from When Harry Met Sally that you could assign students to learn:

time to kill; to fix someone up with someone; there is no point (in doing something); to come down with something ; affront; to hit it off with someone; to bump into someone; I couldn’t agree more

Successful Films

A couple of films that I have used successfully in the classroom with students in an intensive English program include The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. What are some films that you have used successfully in the classroom? What activities did you use with them?


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Pearson’s University Success: Breaking It Down and Dishing It Out into Bite-Sized Chunks for EAP Student Success

By Mary Kay Seales, University of Washington

Note: This review was first submitted to the TESOL Higher Education Interest Section in December 2017.

Lockwood, R.B., Sokolik, M. & Zwier, L.J. (Eds.) (2017) University Success Series. Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Abstract

Pearson’s University Success series for EAP students brings together, and skillfully breaks down, the complex skills needed by English language learners at the university level.

Full Text

Anyone who has taught university-level English language learners knows that no matter how well they may have performed in their English language courses, they are usually not prepared for the shock of the real university classroom, which includes massive amounts of reading, competing in a classroom of native speakers, listening to hour-long lectures, and writing papers without their helpful English teachers nearby. How to help EAP students bridge this gap has been a subject of research and experimentation by English language teaching professionals for the last several decades, myself included. Delineating, and then breaking down those necessary skills that native English-speaking students take for granted has been a struggle for those of us working with this student population.

So here’s some good news. University Success, a new three-level series from Pearson, gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to helping students cross this bridge between their English language courses and life in a real university classroom. Each of the levels – Intermediate to High-Intermediate, Advanced, Transitional – is divided into Reading, Writing and Oral Communication skills, so three separate standalone textbooks at each of the three levels.

Each of the textbooks is also consistently divided into five content areas – Biology, Humanities, Engineering, Sociology, and Economics – as well as three sub-skill areas – Fundamental Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, and Authentic Extended Content. This consistency across textbooks and levels would make this an excellent series for an integrated Academic English Program, and the up-to-date topics, readings, and lectures by Stanford University professors give the series the authenticity they need.

Although there are myriad EAP textbooks, many of which I have used in my thirty-two-year teaching career at the University of Washington, this series brings together the best ideas from those texts into one book.  For example, in the Transitional level’s Oral Communication text, you can find activities covering everything from how to elaborate on a point you are trying to make to creating and communicating a visual, such as a graph or diagram. The critical thinking section of this particular text in the series includes a section on “interpreting and utilizing hedging devices,” something you might not think to teach but extremely useful. Finally, in the Authentic Content section of this textbook, students listen to authentic lectures by one of five experts while they practice using all the note-taking and listening skills they have learned in previous units. Even for experienced teachers, this helps break down the complex mix of skills need for understanding what’s going on in the classroom and taking a more active role as a student.

Another feature unique to this series is the level of attention given to the metacognition of language learning, which again is a nice feature for both teachers and students. Each mini-skill in every unit is explained clearly and succinctly, so students, and equally importantly, teachers can understand why they need to master it.  Although further research into the extent of the value of metacognition in language learning is needed, it has been shown to be a valuable enough tool to warrant adding it to our teaching strategies. “It is very worthwhile for teachers to understand the importance of metacognition in language learning because it helps learners to become autonomous and self-regulated language learners…teachers should focus on both teaching language content and teaching the ways and processes of learning” (Raoofi, Chan, Mukundan & Rashid, 2014, p.45). University Success textbooks operate on this assumption.

One other factor that I always look for in a textbook is the layout and design. I want something that is not too ESL-ish looking when I’m working with students who are serious college-level English language learners. The pages of the Transitional level of University Success are dense, the print is small, and the units are one to two pages in length. There are plenty of visuals to break up the pages – tables, photos, graphs, cultural notes in boxes – all making this, at least for me, a respectable-looking book to bring to the table for my graduate and undergraduate students.

In terms of support materials, the University Success series is accompanied by the online MyEnglishLab, where students go for the listening component of various activities throughout the textbooks, including the lectures and a self-assessment component at the beginning of each chapter.

As usual with textbooks, there is more than enough, maybe too much material. I would be hard put to get through all the activities in one textbook in the ten-week quarters we have in our English language programs at the UW.  Still, as an experienced teacher I would pick and choose from this text, and could put together a solid ten-week course using just this resource. I also think it is an excellent series for a new teacher who is trying to wrap their heads around the how to help their university-level students bridge that gap between their English classes and their university courses.

As one of the three series editors, Lawrence Zwier, an associate director of the English Language Center at Michigan State University puts it, this series provides an “academic onramp” for students, and I think it is definitely worth a look for your EAP courses.

References

Raoofi, S., Chan, S., Mukundan, J. & Rashid, S.M. (2014). Metacognition and Second/Foreign Langauge Learning. English Language Teaching, Vol. 7, (1), p.45.

www.PearsonELTUSA.com/UniversitySuccess


Mary Kay Seales has been an English language instructor at the University of Washington for over 30 years, specializing in instruction for EAP students. She also has extensive experience in teacher training in the U.S. and abroad.

Helping Students with Appropriate Language

 by Joe McVeigh

English language teachers who work with students in the United States know only too well that teaching language by itself is not sufficient. Language learners also need to grasp the culture of the country they are living in, as well as learn how to overcome intercultural differences. These differences often surface in issues such as how to be polite, how to express yourself non-verbally, and how to maintain academic integrity in the classroom.

One challenge for English language learners is discerning the appropriate register  to use in different situations. A communicatively competent person doesn’t speak the same way all of the time. For instance, a teenager would probably use one form of expression with her friends and classmates, but a more polite and formal type of language, or register, with a teacher or principal.

To help students learn about different types of register, try this activity:

1. Write the following on the board:
“Shut the door.”
“Shut the door, please.”
“Would you please shut the door?”
“Gee, it’s a little chilly in here. Shut the stupid door!”

2. Ask students to identify which sentences they think are the most and least polite. Discuss which sentences would be appropriate to use with different people.

3. Write the following on the board:

“What time is it?”
“Hand me those scissors.”
“Bring me a glass of water.”

  • Form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the sentences and write a list of possible ways to express the meaning ranging from very polite to rude.
  • Ask groups for their ideas and write them on the board. Discuss the sentences and the students’ ideas.

You can find more ideas for teaching culture in the classroom in Tips for Teaching Culture, part of the Tips for Teaching series from Pearson.  The Tips for Teaching series covers topics of practical classroom-centered interest for English language teachers. Written in clearly comprehensible terms, each book offers soundly conceived practical approaches to classroom instruction that are firmly grounded in current pedagogical research.


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.