Updated: Jul 10
Have you ever tried talking to someone on the phone in another language? Even if you are pretty fluent in a second language, talking to someone without being able to read their body signals or track with their mouth makes understanding what they are saying that much harder. As I was reflecting on my own teaching with ELL students, I was hit with these questions... why did I not spend more time working on listening comprehension? Why didn't I see it as a skill to practice and develop, instead of a skill that will evolve naturally through immersion?
These questions drove me into a more in-depth research about listening comprehension, and it's importance into learning a language. I pulled out my textbook from my ESL classes and began to search and scour to answer this question... how important of a role does listening comprehension play in student's learning a new language? Of course, I know that it is important, but why does it get such little focus and attention when compared to the other domains?
Did you know that many studies are showing the connection between strong listening comprehension and reading abilities? So, if your ELL students are struggling with reading and writing, it could because they are not working from a strong listening comprehension foundation.
Unless you have learned a second language, it is tough for us to understand what it is like to have a weak listening ability. In our first languages, we naturally learn from birth how to hear when one word begins and ends, what different stresses on words mean, and gain an understanding of phonemic awareness. This is not the case when you learn a second language. Have you ever tried to watch the news in another language? Even after years of taking Spanish, I would practice my listening comprehension by watching the news, and for months it sounded like someone speaking a mile a minute, and I would try to pick out a few words I knew. I had no idea overall of what the news story was about and become frustrated because I could not understand. One day though, my brain flipped a switch, and I could begin understanding more and more words, sentences, and all of a sudden realized I was just listening and not translating to understand. Our second language students are going through the same process. Over time, their brains will flip that switch and be able to listen and comprehend without much effort, but as their teachers we need to be providing activities to help train their brain on making that switch sooner because it really does play a huge role in the success of all the other domains in learning a language.
"Building a strong listening vocabulary base through listening is a decisive competency needed for later reading tasks. A strong listening vocabulary allows students to recognize many words once their decoding catches up with their listening vocabulary" (Lems, Miller, and Soro, 2010).
Listening Comprehension is too critical to overlook. We need to begin to plan purposeful and engaging lessons that develop active listeners in our English Language Learners.
So, what is listening comprehension?
Before we dive deeper, we need to define this word: oracy. Oracy is the listening and speaking skills of a learner. In other words, the groundwork to be able to eventually read, write, and succeed in the new language.
ELL students obviously get tons of practice listening in English throughout the day, but our goal should be to teach the students how to become active listeners and provide support to succeed in tuning their ear to understand English.
3 Ways to support listening comprehension in your classroom:
1. Audiobooks or online stories.
There are countless websites out there for students to be able to listen and read along with stories all for free!
Some of my favorite are:
For a challenge, have students only listen to the audio of a story and then have them draw their favorite part or a character to give you a quick check in on their listening comprehension.
2. Create a check-in system.
There are so many ways to establish routines with your students that allows you to check in with them to see how their comprehension is going during an activity or lesson. It can be as simple as teaching them to give you a thumbs up/thumbs down or holding up 1 finger, 2 finger, or 3 fingers to quickly share with you whether they are getting it or needing some extra guidance. There are a ton of other ideas on Pinterest, so find a system that works for you and implement it with your whole class. This way it won't make your ELL students feel that they are the only ones needed check-ins and will learn to give you honest feedback on how they are doing.
3. Give students activities that are of high interest but lower their affective filter.
They need ample opportunities to practice listening, but it's important to remove the fear of having to answer in the class or any other fears that may block the actual listening from happening. There are so many pieces at play when students are developing listening skills, so make sure to create activities that lower the stress and anxiety.
I have become so passionate about helping teachers find fun and engaging ways to promote listening comprehension, that I created Listen and Learn: Independent Listening Comprehension Activities for ELL Students.
These activities focus on different vocabulary each week and allow the students 4 different opportunities to work with the vocabulary in different ways. Each page has a QR code so it can all be done independently! There is also a focus on the main idea and sequencing skills to help the students transfer these essential comprehension skills into reading.
This activity is available in both digital and printable. Want to try out the first week for FREE?
Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to English language learners: Insights from linguistics. New York: The Guilford Press.