Helping teens to listen

Listening can be a challenge for teenagers, but there are reasons behind this and steps we can take to help.

Helping teens to listen - listening article
  • Why teenagers find listening difficult
  • Making listening more engaging for teenagers
  • Helping students understand spoken English
  • Making predictions
  • Conclusion

Why teenagers find listening difficult
Some teachers find that their teenage students are often so busy chatting amongst themselves that the teacher has to make an effort to gain their attention and help them focus on the English lesson.

  • I find that the level of motivation of teenage students can vary enormously. Some teenagers are of course very keen to learn while others are in class because they are forced to be there, not because they want to be there.
  • I seem to see more and more teenagers who have problems of short attention spans which makes the discipline of listening to reasonably extended discourse in English much more difficult.
  • There is also the problem that confronts all students of English and that is the way that individual sounds change in connected speech (i.e. assimilated, elided and weak forms). This can mean that students simply turn off when listening to English being spoken as it seems too difficult to follow without a high level of concentration.


Making listening more engaging for teenagers:
Many of us will rely on course books for the listening material we use in the classroom and this material may or may not be suitable for our teens. I think it is important to consider ways in which we can supplement listening material in course books with material which will motivate our students.

  • One possibility is to ask students to bring prepared songs or any other listening material in English to the classroom. When I have done this I have often been very surprised to see how much work students put in to prepare the material if asked to do so.
  • Students often seem to enjoy bringing a song on tape to school with the words suitably gapped. Apart from anything else, in this situation the students decide themselves what they are going to listen to instead of having a listening activity imposed on them by the teacher. I believe that this is a key to motivating our students.
  • Another idea that has worked well in the past for me is to record a short interview with one of my fellow teachers. I find that I get a lot of mileage out of a 10-minute interview with an English-speaking colleague and that students are really interested in hearing about the life of one of the other teachers at school.


Helping students understand spoken English
I always give my students a transcript of tapes they have listened to after we have completed the listening tasks. Even if students only read and listen to part of what they have heard, it should allow them to become more aware of the difference between how spoken English sounds compared with how it is written.

  • After using a tape where students have to listen for the gist then pick out detail, I always pick out a tricky sentence and do a piece of intensive listening. Here students listen several (maybe ten) times to the same sentence and have to work out how many words there are in the sentence then what the words are exactly. I find my teenage students enjoy doing this and a competitive element can be introduced by putting students into teams.
  • A complex sentence such as "I asked him what the time was" can be analysed after the students have worked out what the words are. The teacher can point out that the 'k' in 'asked' and 'h' 'him' sounds disappear in this piece of connected speech and that this is an example of elision.
  • Sometimes I simply dictate a sentence like the one above at the beginning of a class as a warmer and follow the same procedure.


Making predictions
It will certainly help the listener to make predictions about what they are about to hear before they listen.

  • I try to turn prediction activities into a game by putting my teenage students in groups before they listen and asking them to try to predict the answers to listening tasks where they have to pick out detailed information. For example, students could try to guess the missing information in sentences such as "The city of Glasgow is always………". My students always seem to enjoy this competitive element and it's always interesting to see who has made the best predictions. I always point out that good listeners are often good at predicting.
  • In an exercise where students have to identify who someone is speaking to on the phone (e.g. a landlord / an architect / a builder) I would draw a grid on the board and ask students to predict the vocabulary, situation and tone of voice for each of the three possibilities. Again, students could do this in teams and a competitive element could be introduced.


I believe that it is important for teachers to prepare thoroughly for a listening activity if the activity is to be successful and I think that this is especially true with teenagers. As motivation is so important when dealing with young learners, doing some pre-listening activities that are designed to raise interest in the listening task at hand can often make the experience more engaging and enjoyable for everyone.

Kevin Thomson, British Council, Barcelona

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