It’s a heady moment of triumph for a learner of any language: speaking to another person using newly acquired words and being understood. Words are, first and foremost, sounds – English learners must be able to speak and listen effectively to communicate well.
We know that English students around the world find speaking skills more challenging than reading and writing. In our global survey of 6,000 English language learners, 44% of respondents said speaking was the most difficult aspect of learning English. There are many reasons why. Lack of practice, limited access to native English speakers and time and resource constraints all contribute to speaking being seen as the most challenging skill. Recently, the British Council released a series of in-depth research papers on English learning in seven of the largest economies in Latin America. In each country, speaking proficiency ranked behind reading and writing. Focus groups run by Pearson English with teachers in the Middle East had similar findings.
So, how can someone overcome this challenge? For those who have taken the time to begin learning English, extensive listening is a terrific tool for improving both comprehension and speaking skills. Using a graded audiobook or podcast instead of, or even alongside, a graded reader helps students improve their spoken English skills by providing the opportunity to listen to the pronunciation and context of words. All the advantages and methods of extensive reading apply: learners can choose to listen to a story that interests them, at a difficulty level they’re truly comfortable with. It’s also about the joy of the story, rather than just the deliberate acquisition of a skill – the focus is on meaning rather than form. Learners can listen to as much of the story as they want to, whenever they feel like it, and climb through the difficulty levels as they start to feel more confident.
There’s empirical evidence that extensive listening delivers real results. Dr Hayo Reinders and Min Young Cho summarise this well:
Extensive listening has been shown to have considerable benefits for vocabulary development, accent recognition, and also students’ productive skills, in particular pronunciation and speaking (cf. Renandya & Farrell, 2010). There are also benefits to developing motivation. Many students report great satisfaction when they are first able to understand a news broadcast or a TV program, for example (Ryan, 1998).
Exam practice benefits from extensive listening, too. Exposure to free-form listening texts helps to iron out early difficulties or common mistakes that may stick around and come out in times of stress – like an exam. Students become more accustomed to listening for longer periods of time. As listening portions of exams are often longer than the average course activity or YouTube clip, extensive listening can help prepare students.
Dr Hayo Reinders and Min Young Cho point out that extensive listening doesn’t always work well in class. It’s better for learners to develop the habit in their own time. Listening to audiobooks created specifically for English learners is a comfortable way to improve speaking and listening skills. Extensive Reading Central explains this well:
First, you need to learn the grammar and the vocabulary and so on…The second thing you need to learn is how the grammar and vocabulary go together to make communicative messages and how they live and breathe as a living thing. The best way to do this is to read or listen to language which you understand.
It’s the ‘understand’ bit that sets extensive listening apart. At Pearson English we’ve published extensive reading and extensive listening resources, aligned to the Global Scale of English, in the newly rebranded Pearson English Readers. There is also an intensive reading and listening series Pearson English Active Readers.
To help English learners around the world develop those good habits and improve their speaking and listening skills, we’re offering a new, best-selling Pearson English Readers audiobook and iTunes podcast for free each Friday for seven weeks, starting from the 8th of September. Titles include simplified versions of Melvyn Burgess’s Billy Elliot and John Escott’s Newspaper Chase, to name a couple. We’ll begin with the Easystart level and go all the way up to Level 6. Please visit https://readers.english.com/freeaudio from Tuesday 8th September to get started – there are free teacher resources for each title as well.
Whether your goal is to pass a high stakes university exam, apply for a job, understand English media or merely get around an English-speaking city, we hope you’ll hop online every Friday and try extensive listening.