Mar 20, 2012

Before you listen, here are some words you may not know

Pre-listening activities: what to focus on?

At last year's IATEFL conference in Brighton I was at a presentation on teaching listening where I got into a bit of an argument with the speaker. I don't know if it was my nerves before my own, first presentation at IATEFL but I wasn't on my best behaviour, which I later regretted. The whole situation was rather ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was the fact that in principle I agreed with the presenter who argued that there is little benefit in pre-teaching vocabulary before listening activities - I wouldn't agree though with his claim the word "prowl", one my favourite words in English, is useless :)

There is an interesting piece of research to substantiate the speaker's argument, which he surprisingly did not mention. Chang and Read (2006) administered a listening comprehension test to160 students who were divided into four groups and received a different kind of support:

1.     Providing background information on the topic (in L1) 
2.     Repetition of the input
3.     Previewing the test questions 
4.     Vocabulary instruction

Which one do you think was most beneficial to the learners? 

The order these four types of support are listed above actually represents their effectiveness according to Chang and Read's findings. Providing topical knowledge ranked as the most useful while pre-learning vocabulary was consistently the least useful form of support across all levels of proficiency. 

Are you surprised by the results?

If you're an English speaker teaching in a non-English speaking country, try setting up your own experiment in your classroom: play a recording or podcast based on a highly local news story about the upcoming elections or some such with lots of names of various politicians. Don't be surprised if your students - say, from intermediate level and up - understand more than you do. I’ve tried it and I stand by the assertion that topic familiarity is much more important than glossing a few isolated vocabulary items. The reason is that a lot of listening occurs... well, before listening. What students would therefore benefit from is pre-task activities which aim to:

activate a topic-related schema (general knowledge about the related domain)
awaken their background knowledge (what they already know)
arouse their curiosity about and interest in the topic through various prediction tasks

So should we banish the practice of vocabulary pre-teaching activities altogether? Certainly not. There are other studies which showed that pre-learning low frequency vocabulary (e.g. prowl) has a (relative) value. For example, Webb (2009) found that it helped learners improve their comprehension when watching TV programmes, particularly if students have already mastered the most frequent 3000 words in English.

Most importantly, teachers rarely teach vocabulary for the sake of teaching vocabulary - although it is perfectly justified - most vocabulary teaching takes place within listening and reading activities. If we do away with pre-tasks focusing on vocabulary, when would you teach vocabulary? So as long as you have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve, vocabulary instruction before listening is clearly warranted.

The template below, which I developed for teachers I was mentoring a few year ago, includes various pre-task ideas including both content-related support and vocabulary instruction.

On a personal note, I’d better look out for the speaker I unintentionally upset last year and apologise to him – the IATEFL 2012 conference starts today!

Listening Activity Template

For an example of this template applied to a song, click here


Chang, A. C-S., & Read, J. (2006). The effects of listening support on the listening performance of EFL learners. TESOL Quarterly, 40(2), pp 375-397

Webb, S. (2009). Pre-learning low-frequency vocabulary in second language TV programmes. Language Teaching Research, 14(4), pp 501-515

Image credit
Lost in the Music by Vox Efx (licensed under CC-BY-2.0)


  1. Leo!
    Though listening is not my field, obviously, the power of general knowledge is a HUGE factor in the classroom!
    Good luck with your apology!

  2. Thanks Naomi!
    I did apologise on the first day - same day I posted this.

    It also turned out that this year the speaker in question was giving a presentation on "live listening", a topic I've presented on a few times in the past at ETAI conferences and wrote an article on a few years ago - another thing we have in common.

  3. Interesting stuff- thanks for the references too!

  4. Thanks, Rachael. I should drop by your blog soon too!

  5. Thank you for stopping by, Camila.

  6. I think your template is very good and useful in listening activities in class because it involves many skills.I'd select pieces of material whilelistening it because many words and collocations could be a great amount of listening to store at same time. Since the aim of teaching is to understand language on spot without any guide, I'add words and expressions not planned before and introduced by teacher at intervals of time to make listening practice more natural. Thanks Luisa

  7. Thanks for your comment, Luisa. You're absolutely right: too many new lexical items to keep track and the listening activity may become unnecessarily daunting. So you suggest feeding in the language as you go along?

  8. Wow!! Very good and helpful! Thank you!!

  9. Hi. I like this article and template a lot. I am writing a report to give it away to my website visitors. I would like to publish this article on my report. What's your contact email so I can send you full details?


    Alex barboza

  10. Hi Alex.
    What's the address of your website?


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