Using technology to help learners develop listening skills on their own

Using technology to help learners develop listening skills on their own

Richard Westby Richard West, TESOL Instructor

Listening can be one of the hardest skills to help your students develop, especially as many materials and curricula focus on a fairly narrow set of tasks and methods. Luckily, there are a wide number of new technological tools that can help any language learners you work with develop listening skills. I thought this was a promising path to help learners with, so I did some research and compiled some best practices. Using these technological tools benefits from the right training in strategies, self-awareness, and process.

Having explicit strategies is key to dealing with new listening materials because most authentic listening materials don’t come with handy vocabulary lists or warmup materials or comprehension questions. Learners have to figure out for themselves what they’re listening for! Learners often get the advice to just turn on the TV or radio and do their best, but that constant stream of hard-to-contextualize language gets overwhelming quickly. Explicit learning strategies can be integrated at several points in the process, including:

  • Pre-listening expectation and goal setting, followed by assessment
  • Metacognitive awareness of comprehension
  • Research strategies for understanding new vocabulary or grammatical structures
  • Social strategies for getting understanding from other people
  • Recording and reflecting on progress over time

Self-awareness is a key part of this process as well. Learners need to make sure that they’re in the right mindset while listening. It can help to set a goal for comprehension that is less than 100% so that there’s less stress to catch every word or pressure to listen to it dozens of times. Throughout the listening process, they need to check in with themselves to make sure that they’re sitting squarely in the zone of proximal development, where the material is challenging enough to be understood, but with some effort.

Giving learners a picture of how this process works is key. Doing an in-class walkthrough of this process can be valuable, especially with the instructor modeling and thinking aloud throughout. I like to do think-aloud demonstrations to show metacognitive process with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions to show how an expert listener engages with new materials so that the learners have something that they can mimic. Here is a walkthrough of the process that I use with students as they’re encountering new listening materials so that they’re prepared to do it on their own:

  • Preview it (look at the title, context, source, etc.) and brainstorm the topics, vocabulary, and information you might be about to see.
  • As you listen, revisit your expectations. Were you right or wrong?
  • Also, as you listen, check in with your emotional state. Is this getting stressful or is it going smoothly? Adjust the listening materials (speed, pause and restart, add captions, or choose something new) to make sure you’re being challenged, but not too much.
  • After you’ve listened to it a couple of times, make a plan for how you’ll fill in the gaps. How will you find the vocabulary that you didn’t know? How will you understand points that you missed?

This process can be very effective, and using technology can greatly augment it. Using the tools that people already prefer to use in their daily life is a great way to help learners develop an easy, comfortable routine to their language development. Podcasts, online video, and media outlets that offer audio or video versions of their stories have some of these same features, but I’ll focus here on YouTube. YouTube offers a few excellent features that give learners a lot of support in their language development:

  • You can adjust the speed of a video. 75% is usually the best for making speech understandable, but not too distorted. You can do this by clicking the Settings button (⚙), Speed, and “.75”.
  • You can add closed captions for many videos by clicking the “CC” button. Some of these are transcribed by people, but most are done by machine, so there might be some issues, especially with proper nouns or fast, casual speech.
  • You can also see the closed caption text compiled into a transcript by clicking the Extra Options (···) button and then “Open Transcript”.

Each of these features can help learners to adjust the video quality to better suit their listening experience. I typically advise learners to listen to it once at full speed without captions or transcript, and then use those tools to go back and listen again and fill in gaps.

Building learner autonomy is a satisfying way to help learners toward their goals, and these are some tools for getting learners more comfortable with those skills. I hope these ideas and resources are helpful for you and I would love to hear about your feedback on them or implementation of them; please email me at For more information and references, you can see the presentation I put together on this or the handout that accompanied it.