Passengers – a personalised listening activity

How can we improve on tasks like 'Listen to the conversation and identify the main topic' to make them more personalised and interactive? Here's one idea.

Personalisation of activities is important in any lesson. Learners tend to be more engaged and motivated if they have a reason for doing an activity beyond just “to find the answers” – if they can interact with a listening text, for example, in a way that reflects why and how they would interact with a similar text in real life.

This may seem an obvious point, but it is very easy to get into the habit of giving our students activities which are neither personalised nor particularly interactive – doing so requires less time, thought and preparation.

So how can we improve on tasks like “Listen to the conversation and identify the main topic” or “Listen and answer the true/false questions which follow” to make them more personalised and more interactive?

Here’s an example of an activity which could easily follow the same non-interactive routine, or which could, just by thinking about why and how we listen to different people in different situations in “real life”, become much more engaging and personalised.

Preparation and set-up

The best way to set this up is to make a recording yourself. Find a couple of friends and give yourself roles of train passengers. You all know each other, but how you know each other is up to you. The subject and context of the conversation is also up to you.

The only limits here are your own imagination and the level of the students you’re aiming the activity at (you’ll need to adapt the conversation accordingly). You could assign one person the role of “interrupter” (not playing a main part in the conversation, just interrupting it from time to time) for some follow-up language work.

With your recording done, you’re ready for the activity.

The non-interactive version

A non-interactive, non-personalised approach would be to tell your students that they are going to listen to a conversation between some people on a train, and ask them to identify the topic of the conversation. You might follow this up with a detailed listening task of answering some comprehension questions about the conversation.

Okay – these tasks practise important listening sub-skills. but can we practise the same sub-skills with the same text in a more engaging way?

The interactive, personalised version

Let’s step back and think about a real-life situation. If you were in a real train carriage with these three people (and were a curious type without a book to help pass the time) what might you do? You might try to guess the relationship between the three people, how they feel about each other based on their body language, and so on. You might then test your theories by listening to their conversation. The topic and some details might confirm or otherwise your guesses about their relationship.

So why not have your students do exactly what they would do in real life?

  1. Start by building the situation. Tell them they are in a train carriage with three other people and show them the seating arrangements of the three – you could use a diagram on the board for this. Now have them predict, based just on the seating arrangement, their relationship (this might be the first thing you do, even subconsciously, when you enter a carriage). Now build it up some more. Tell them that two of the people are men and one is a woman, or one is an elderly gentleman and the other two are angry-looking teenagers, or whatever your imagination came up with for your recording. Now have them predict the relationship again and start to think about why they might be in a train carriage together and what they might be talking about.
  2. Now, and only now, it’s time to play the recording for the first time and have the students test their predictions. (You could add an extra step before this – when making the recording you could start it with a shout, or one of the characters crying, and play just the start of the recording the first time, having them modify their predictions based on what they hear.)
  3. The students are still listening for the topic of the conversation at this point, as with the non-interactive version, but this time they have a personal reason for listening beyond just “to answer the questions”. Once they’ve tested their predictions of the relationship and topic of conversation, have them pick out some of the details, or the outcome of the conversation. Here they continue to have a reason to listen because they have made judgments about how they expect the conversation to progress based on what they know about the people, so they are, out of natural curiosity, interested to know if these judgments turn out to be correct.
  4. You could follow up by using the text for some language work, picking out language used by one of the people to interrupt, for example, if you made the recording in this way.

What you’ve done here, just by thinking about why we listen in real life, is exactly the same listening and language skills activities as you would have done with the non-interactive version, but you’ve given your students a real reason to listen and a motivation to become engaged in the activities and therefore in your lesson. You can do the same with virtually any reading or listening text to a greater or lesser extent.

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