The most difficult skill?
Having seen lots of posts on social media and received a number of messages about how to improve listening skills (especially since the release of the latest GCSE results), it seems really clear that this is the skill that both teachers and students alike struggle with the most. So, how can you improve your listening skills, either to pass an exam or simply to be able to understand real-life conversations in a foreign language? How can teachers help their students to develop their listening skills, without simply doing ‘test’ after ‘test’ – i.e. describe the task, play the recording, repeat the recording, go through the answers, rinse and repeat – which, let’s face it, is pretty boring for everyone!
Ideas for good practice
I’ve reflected on my ideas for good practice in this area and what follows are some of the things I do to help both myself and my students become better listeners in a foreign language. The tips here are intended as practice in lessons, rather than what to do during the exam, but if activities like these are done regularly, an actual listening exam should be a doddle!
OK, so you might not be quite as excited as these kids… but you get the idea!
Tips for deeper understanding of a listening text
I’m going to use the first question from the Higher French AQA Sample Assessment Materials for the new specification GCSE as my example:
- Find the vocab for the possible answers in the question, but be aware that these words will almost certainly not be mentioned in the texts! Crosswords are a fun way of finding and learning vocab, vocab matching activities are quick and simple (either cut up and match the key words, or have two columns on a page with the answers in the wrong order and match up the words), or for more independent learners, use a dictionary to look up the words. Then, think of other words that are associated with each answer. For ‘road accident’, add ‘car’, ‘driver’, ‘injury’, etc.
- Listen to the recording all the way through. Scribble down in English or French as much as you have understood for each speaker. Then, chat to partners about what you’ve understood and/or feed back to the whole group. This helps everyone get a ‘gist’ of the texts. At this point, some people will want to answer the questions, but try to refrain from jumping to any conclusions and filling in the answers, thinking you’re all done and dusted!
- Transcribe the texts as you listen to them. This is a great way of really paying attention to the language, picking apart each separate word and thinking more deeply about the meaning of the text. You will need to pause, rewind and replay each sentence a number of times until you’ve got the whole transcript down on paper. Ideally, this is done on computers/MP3 players with headphones, so everyone can go at their own pace, but it is possible with a whole class or group. Here is the transcript of the 4 texts in my example question:
- Translate the transcripts of the texts. This ensures full understanding of the texts and is also useful practice for the translation element of the reading exam!
- Do the task from the exam. By this point, it should be so straightforward that everyone gets 100% right!
More tips and tricks to improve listening skills
- Translate as you listen. This is similar to transcribing, but you write the English meaning of the text. This is particularly helpful to practise answering questions in English.
- Listen to texts that are harder than your current level. This can include AS or A Level texts (I’d recommend the old specification rather than the new one as it’s a bit easier) or even authentic news items or videos (my favourite website for French learners is 1jour1actu). Do vocab activities before listening, look up key words, pause and rewind as many times as you need, discuss your understanding with partners/a group, listen again and then have a go at the question. I wouldn’t recommend transcribing something that is more difficult, though.
- Read the transcript as you listen. Most online videos these days have subtitles so we’re all much more used to reading and listening along at the same time. ‘Brut‘ is brilliant for French videos with subtitles and most videos on youtube have the option to show subtitles as well. Reading along helps our brains recognise the relationship between the sound and spelling of a word, which can be half the battle when it comes to listening, I find!
- Lastly, listen to something fun like music, a podcast or watch TV/a film in the language you’re learning! Motivation to pay attention is so important, so find something you actually want to listen to, and try any of the above ideas and see how it improves your listening skills.