How can you harness online videos for developing the processes needed for effective listening? In this post, Chiara Bruzzano discusses why a focus on the process of listening is important and suggests five simple, no-prep activities that you can use with online videos.
Is it just me or are videos just about everywhere? I mean, you don’t have to sell me on videos: you may remember I’m a bit of a listening nerd so anything that can relate to listening in English Language Teaching will pique my interest.
Working as a teacher trainer, I have noticed that the use of videos is becoming more and more central to lesson planning. The use of video probably increased in conjunction with the pandemic and the rise in online teaching, as well as the fact that young learners (and also not so young learners) are getting used to expressing themselves and receiving information in video form.
But since I am a listening nerd, I also tend to notice how videos are often not exploited to their full potential for listening purposes. In other words, I see what listening expert John Field termed the “comprehension approach", in which listening focuses on answering comprehension questions (i.e. the product of listening) instead of focusing on the processes required to listen effectively.
Developing listening: focus on the process
In his influential work on listening pedagogy, Field maintains that a shift should occur towards the processes that learners need to develop to listen and understand. These include bottom-up decoding (i.e. hearing and recognising sounds, syllables, words and so on), top-down meaning-building (i.e. using one’s prior knowledge to interpret the literal meaning of what we hear) and metacognition (the ability to plan, monitor and evaluate our listening).
By giving learners comprehension questions to answer and not following up on how they got those answers, we limit the potential of online videos as tools to develop the processes of listening. Plus, students are unlikely to have to answer comprehension questions when they watch videos in real life, so the task we are using may not be very authentic.
Five activities to develop listening processes
How exactly do we help our learners develop their listening processes? Here are five simple, no-prep activities you may like to try! I have been using them for years and they are particularly well-suited to online videos on YouTube and similar platforms.
1. Reduce the speed
How many times have you heard “teacher, they speak too fast!” Well, now it’s time to let learners experiment with lower speed: allow them to lower the speed of their video and see whether this improves their comprehension. This can be done quite easily for example on YouTube.
This simple activity has important metacognitive implications: the key part is to reflect on whether the speed of the video was really the problem. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it may not be the speed per se (in objective terms of words per minute) but rather the use of spontaneous speech that makes listening difficult. Plus, you may help them reframe what students perceive as an external, unchangeable obstacle: as we know from Attribution Theory, this can be helpful to make them persevere in the face of difficulty.
2. Activate the transcript, not the subtitles
If your students complain that with subtitles they “just read”, an alternative can be activating the transcript of the video, which comes up on the side of the video, instead of the subtitles, which are superimposed on the video - again, very easy to do on YouTube.
This will help students focus on the transcript more selectively than they would if they had subtitles, which are right on the screen. It helps develop their autonomy, monitor their comprehension while listening and make decisions about when they need extra support.
3. Spot the mistakes in automated subtitles
Ever noticed how sometimes subtitles have mistakes in them? This is because YouTube and many other streaming services offer automated captioning. These subtitles are bound to contain mistakes: listening and trying to identify these mistakes can be an excellent bottom-up exercise for your students, who will have to focus quite intensively on sounds, syllables and words (including word boundaries) to spot and correct the mistakes - not to mention they will probably feel proud of themselves for beating the computer!
4. Decide when to activate subtitles and in what language
In a previous article, I talked about the benefits of using subtitles in language learning, so I think they should not be demonised. What is more, you can help learners develop the ability to make independent decisions (again, by monitoring their comprehension) by giving them the freedom to activate and deactivate subtitles and decide what language they want to use them in. This activity has more impact if students are asked to report when exactly they activated and deactivated the subtitles, in what language, and explain why. It is also a good activity because it develops an ability students will likely find useful in their real lives.
5. Identify word clusters that you struggled to understand and listen to them on YouGlish
What better way to practise bottom-up listening than focusing on students’ own difficulties? Instead of getting them to focus on what they do understand, for example via comprehension questions, you can focus on what they do not understand. These can be short word clusters (2-5 words) that they can be asked to identify: they can listen to these repeatedly to try and work out the sounds and make hypotheses about what the words could be. Then, look up the cluster on YouGlish and listen to a few examples of how the words are pronounced in spontaneous speech.
So how do you develop your students’ listening using online videos? Have you ever tried one of these activities? Tell us in the comments section!