Teaching Listening: What To Do About Boring CDs And Cassettes

There’s been a good deal of debate (well, okay, some) in the EFL world about listening in class: how can teachers incorporate more modern methods of listening, like podcasts or authentic audio material, into the curriculum, and should they dispense with the outdated book-accompanying CD’s or cassettes altogether?

Authentic audio materials, such as songs, films, or even adverts, provide realistic examples of English in use and are often intrinsically motivating for students. They want to listen because they’re interested, not because the teacher sticks in a cassette, presses play and says “listen to this”. Also, they hear natural accents and dialogs much like those they’ll hear in the real world.

Listening to someone besides you, the teacher, or other students is valuable as well – many experienced EFL teachers regularly grade their language (all the time, not just in class) and may have lost many of the native speaker mannerisms that make communicating with a native speaker difficult for learners. Learners may find themselves speaking to other non-native speakers, but likely not with people who speak their own language as they do in class. While it’s still good practice speaking and listening, learners with the same L1 will tend to pronounce words similarly and make similar mistakes. So both of these facts are reasons to incorporate listening activities other than those you generate yourself.

My argument would be that while it is good to incorporate authentic audio material into class, the CDs or cassettes that accompany the book students are often required to buy and follow are not total losses. Are some of the conversations “fake”? Of course, and sometimes even to the point of being funny. And I’m sure there are some truly ridiculous examples of listening exercises, but in general it’s part of the teacher’s job to raise interest in the topic and make the listening bearable. Recorded material can offer relatively good examples of things like intonation which is connected to something already in the curriculum. Also, unless the teacher is lecturing, most of the teacher’s speech will be with the students in class, so something recorded – authentic or otherwise – allows students to observe relatively real dialog between native speakers. Finally, if you’re following a curriculum and don’t teach the same level class often, it can be time consuming to nearly impossible to regularly find authentic materials connected to the curriculum in the same way the accompanying cassette is.

Keep an eye on An ELT Notebook for two more posts on listening following this initial post entitled Why Don’t They Understand?