Pre-listening: is it worth it?
When teaching receptive skills, a very common approach is to do some preliminary activities to prepare students for the upcoming reading or listening text. This is common practice and it’s also fostered by classroom textbooks, which often include such activities. These might include the following:
- Predicting the content of a text, e.g. ‘Based on the title, what do you think this text will be about?’
- Brainstorming ideas around the topic of a text to activate the students’ background knowledge, such as ‘What are your experiences with XYZ?’
- Pre-teaching vocabulary, especially when the text includes words or phrases that we think will be above the students’ level.
These type of activities will no doubt sound familiar, to the extent that, as Chia Suan Chong suggests in The Dangers of Pre-Teaching, such activities are generally a given on CELTA training courses. They are so common, in fact, we perhaps fail to ask ourselves whether they are worth doing.
Why might we do pre-listening activities?
Intuitively, we want to pre-teach some vocabulary or activate the students’ background knowledge in order to give them some control over their listening, as we know all too well how frustrating an experience it can be (often based on our own learning experiences and student feedback). Pre-listening activities can also be an opportunity to clarify specific language that we already know will be problematic and make learners feel more at ease, decreasing the potential for listening anxiety.
But why could we maybe avoid them?
Well, first of all, our perception of what bits of background information will be useful for learners or what vocabulary they will find difficult is generally based on our own intuition, rather than any real evidence – we might well be wasting classroom time on an activity that won’t really help them and could actually end up hindering their comprehension, especially if they overfocus on what we pre-taught at the expense of general comprehension. One further problem is by preparing (or over-preparing!) students we may end up causing them to be highly dependent on this preparation and then not be able to tolerate any ambiguity in the listening text or perhaps any authentic listening at all.
What do learners think?
And indeed, when asked if they think that pre-listening activities are useful, the learners I interviewed in my research all agreed that they were! However, since previous research also discovered that learners believe things like ‘Grammar is the most important thing in language learning’, it makes sense to delve deeper into classroom evidence that might answer the question: Are pre-listening tasks worth it?
Research shows that pre-listening activities are widely used, sometimes taking up most of the time allocated for listening activities. They are often used to clarify task demands and, especially at lower levels and in school settings, prepare the students as much as possible so as to limit their frustration during listening. Two types of activities seem to be the most common: pre-teaching vocabulary and predicting content.
1. Pre-teaching vocabulary
Pre-teaching vocabulary is a common activity not only because, on an intuitive level, we can see that difficult or unknown words can impede comprehension, but also because many listening scholars have supported the idea that learners need to know a certain number of words in a text before being able to understand it. Although this idea has also received criticism (because knowing a word does not mean the word will be heard when pronounced in connected speech), research by Brunfaut and Révész (2015) consistently showed that lexical difficulties feature highly among students’ listening problems.
It would seem natural then to prevent these issues by pre-teaching vocabulary. And yet, when we look at the evidence, findings are mixed, with studies by Babaei (2019) showing that it’s a useful practice, and others by Chang and Read (2006) showing it isn’t, or that having time to learn vocabulary increases students’ confidence and willingness to finish tasks, but not necessarily comprehension. Even when studies looked at when words are pre-taught with special emphasis on how they are pronounced (rather than their written form), there was no marked improvement in listening comprehension.
All in all, given that the findings are mixed, it would be worth considering the time investment versus the learning gain before setting out to pre-teach extensive amounts of vocabulary.
2. Content prediction
Predicting the content of a text before starting to listen seems to be among the most effective types of pre-listening instruction. It can boost learners’ top-down processing, making it easier for them to use their existing knowledge to make sense of what they’re hearing. Research shows that it can be useful especially when students’ predictions are checked after listening. If predictions are left unchecked, however, students may think they’ve heard what they predicted and fail to revise their predictions in light of what they’ve actually listened to. Also, content prediction is shown to be effective when learners begin to incorporate it into their listening independently, rather than something they do passively because they’re asked to by their teacher.
Overall then, it seems that pre-listening activities can be useful in the classroom with certain caveats and a general rule to remember: listening activities focusing on comprehension should indeed focus on listening, so keeping pre-listening teaching short and sweet is often the way to go.
What is your approach to pre-listening activities? Please let us know in the comments section!
1. Brunfaut, T. and A. Révész (2015). ‘The Role of Task and Listener Characteristics in Second Language Listening.’ TESOL Quarterly 49(1): 141168.
2. Babaei, S., et al. (2019). ‘Comparing the effects of different advance organizers on EFL learners’ listening comprehension: Key vocabularies, previewing comprehension questions, and multimedia annotations.’ Cogent Education 6(1).
3. Chang, A. C.-S. and J. Read (2006). ‘The Effects of Listening Support on the Listening Performance of EFL Learners.’ TESOL Quarterly 40(2): 375397.
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