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Helping ESL students understand what you say


It is important that ESL students become efficient listeners for two reasons:

Like any skill, the skill of listening can be improved if it is practised under the guidance of an experienced and competent trainer (in this case, the teacher!) The points listed below summarize what the teacher should know or can do in order to improve the ESL student's ability to listen effectively and understand more of what is said.

Points for consideration

1. It is important to be aware of the cognitive processes underlying the skill of listening. Listening is NOT a passive process; it is an active skill of interpreting the verbal and non-verbal output of the speaker in order to understand the message

(The verbal output comprises the actual words used by the speaker, while the non-verbal output includes the speaker's use of intonation, pauses, facial expression, body language etc. and the way he or she organizes the message.)

2. If students are to be expected to listen to long texts or lectures, it is usually desirable to activate their existing knowledge of the topic (by asking questions and making connections with existing knowlege, discussing opinions, making predictions etc.) and sometimes by pre-teaching key words. It is also helpful if students are told what they will have to do after they have finished listening so they can focus on the forthcoming task.

3. Effective listening presupposes that students can hear what is being said, and are not being distracted. The teacher can wait for silence before speaking and ensure that students listen to each other. Teacher repetition of a student's question or comment is often necessary or helpful. The teacher may also consider keeping the door shut to avoid distractions.

4. Beginning learners will find it easier to understand speech that is clearly enunciated and relatively slow. The typical "swallowing" of sounds in English often results in spoken text that is problematic to new ESL students. So, not Dja do your homework? or Djoo come to school by bus? but Did you do your homework? and Do you come to school by bus?

5. Listening comprehension is easier if supported by visual material. As well as the obvious advantages of students being able to see pictures or diagrams of what is being talked about, it is often helpful for them to have key words written on the board.

6. It is unrealistic to expect close attention to material which is boring or presented in a boring way.

7. Teachers can help students develop listening competence if they set tasks that can only be carried out if effective listening has taken place. For example, you could have one student report to the class on how another student went about solving a math problem. Cooperative activities are an excellent way of requiring careful listening.

8. Increasing wait time will give students a chance to process what they have heard and formulate answers in their mind. It is particularly helpful to repeat or rephrase questions that are in complex syntax or require more than simple answers. If you invariably expect 2 students in the class to answer such questions before you give feedback, this will add to the amount of time available for the ESL student to formulate a response, even if that response is a mental one that he or she does not yet feel confident to express aloud.

9. ESL students learn from being exposed to language which is comprehensible to them. It is unrealistic to expect their close attention to large chunks of spoken English which is not modified for their needs or supported by visual material. Idioms, colloquialisms, euphemisms and jargon are likely to be incomprehensible to most ESL students. They will probably also have difficulty with polysemous words.

11. Students listen more carefully if they feel personally involved. You could do this in a science lesson by avoiding the typical use of the passive. So, for example, instead of saying: After being swallowed the food passes into the stomach, where it is further broken down by the strong stomach muscles, you could say: After you swallow your food, it passes into your stomach where strong muscles break it down further.

12. It is often helpful to give a brief summary at beginning of lesson on what you’re going to cover in the lesson, and then to clearly signpost each section. For example: "Now we've talked about some of the effects of acid rain, I want to ask you what we can do to reduce the problem."

13. A short resumee at the end of the lesson may help ESL students finally make sense of some of what they heard during the lesson.

How to make written language more comprehensible

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)