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Pre-listening activities

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Listening skills are hard to develop. Students can do a variety of work before listening to help them understand.

Pre-listening activities - listening article


  • Why do pre-listening tasks?
  • Aims and types of pre-listening tasks
  • Selection criteria

Why do pre-listening tasks?
In real life it is unusual for people to listen to something without having some idea of what they are going to hear. When listening to a radio phone-in show, they will probably know which topic is being discussed. When listening to an interview with a famous person, they probably know something about that person already. A waiter knows the menu from which the diner is choosing their food.

In our first language we rarely have trouble understanding listening. But, in a second language, it is one of the harder skills to develop - dealing at speed with unfamiliar sounds, words and structures. This is even more difficult if we do not know the topic under discussion, or who is speaking to whom.

So, simply asking the students to listen to something and answer some questions is a little unfair, and makes developing listening skills much harder.

Many students are fearful of listening, and can be disheartened when they listen to something but feel they understand very little. It is also harder to concentrate on listening if you have little interest in a topic or situation.

Pre-listening tasks aim to deal with all of these issues: to generate interest, build confidence and to facilitate comprehension.

Aims and types of pre-listening tasks

  • Setting the context
    This is perhaps the most important thing to do - even most exams give an idea about who is speaking, where and why. In normal life we normally have some idea of the context of something we are listening to.
  • Generating interest
    Motivating our students is a key task for us. If they are to do a listening about sports, looking at some dramatic pictures of sports players or events will raise their interest or remind them of why they (hopefully) like sports. Personalisation activities are very important here. A pair-work discussion about the sports they play or watch, and why, will bring them into the topic, and make them more willing to listen.
  • Activating current knowledge - what do you know about…?
    'You are going to listen to an ecological campaigner talk about the destruction of the rainforest'. This sets the context, but if you go straight in to the listening, the students have had no time to transfer or activate their knowledge (which may have been learnt in their first language) in the second language. What do they know about rainforests? - Where are they? What are they? What problems do they face? Why are they important? What might an ecological campaigner do? What organisations campaign for ecological issues?
  • Acquiring knowledge
    Students may have limited general knowledge about a topic. Providing knowledge input will build their confidence for dealing with a listening. This could be done by giving a related text to read, or, a little more fun, a quiz.
  • Activating vocabulary / language
    Just as activating topic knowledge is important, so is activating the language that may be used in the listening. Knowledge-based activities can serve this purpose, but there are other things that can be done. If students are going to listen to a dialogue between a parent and a teenager who wants to stay overnight at a friend's, why not get your students to role play the situation before listening. They can brainstorm language before hand, and then perform the scene. By having the time to think about the language needs of a situation, they will be excellently prepared to cope with the listening.
  • Predicting content
    Once we know the context for something, we are able to predict possible content. Try giving students a choice of things that they may or may not expect to hear, and ask them to choose those they think will be mentioned.
  • Pre-learning vocabulary
    When we listen in our first language we can usually concentrate on the overall meaning because we know the meaning of the vocabulary. For students, large numbers of unknown words will often hinder listening, and certainly lower confidence. Select some vocabulary for the students to study before listening, perhaps matching words to definitions, followed by a simple practice activity such as filling the gaps in sentences.
  • Checking / understanding the listening tasks
    By giving your students plenty of time to read and understand the main listening comprehension tasks, you allow them to get some idea of the content of the listening. They may even try to predict answers before listening.


Selection criteria
When planning your lesson you should take the following factors into account when preparing the pre-listening tasks.

  • The time available
  • The material available
  • The ability of the class
  • The interests of the class
  • The nature and content of the listening text


The choice of pre-listening task also gives you a chance to grade the listening lesson for different abilities. If you have a class who are generally struggling with listening work, then the more extensive that the pre-listening work is the better. If, however, you wish to make the work very demanding, you could simply do work on the context of the listening. Thus, the same listening text can provide work for different abilities.

Personally, I feel it is important to devote a fair proportion of a lesson to the pre-listening task, should the listening warrant it. For example, the listening about an ecological campaigner lends itself well to extended knowledge and vocabulary activation. However, a listening involving airport announcements may only need a shorter lead-in, as the topic is somewhat narrower.

Overall, training your students to bring their own knowledge and their skills of prediction to their listening work can only help them when listening to the language outside the classroom. These skills are as much a part of listening as understanding pronunciation or listening for details.

Gareth Rees, teacher and materials writer

This article was first published in 2003

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