Enhance Your ELLs’ Listening Skills with Listenwise

Research shows that if you are not a good listener, you won’t be a good reader. And since students can generally listen 2-3 grade levels above what they can read, we can use the power of listening to introduce more complex language, vocabulary and topics.

This is why Listenwise, a website that offers teachers free access to curated public radio stories and podcasts, is perfect to engage ELLs and improve their listening and vocabulary skills.

The platform, founded by former public radio journalist Monica Brady-Myerov, also provides teachers with supporting materials that have a special emphasis on current events as well as other content areas.  Listenwise also includes resources that are particularly helpful for ELLs, such as interactive transcripts, tiered vocabulary lists, graphic organizers for active listening, and reduced speed audio.

The following article written by Listenwise’s founder shares what she has learned about teaching and assessing listening for students, particularly ELLs.

A Question That Changed My Life

For many years, I reported on education as a public radio journalist. My career was in audio storytelling, and I had experience covering politics and religion as well. But I was also a mother with two young kids. And it was one morning at breakfast when I was listening to NPR with my children as we still do every morning that my daughter asked a question that changed my life — and I hope the lives of many students.

“What is waterboarding?” she asked. She was in the 3rd grade at the time, only 7 years old. I didn’t think she was listening to the story about the CIA torture method, let alone understanding it and having questions. I wrongly assumed she was tuning it out. But she was absorbing it at a higher level than I could have imagined. If I had given her the transcript of the story to read, there was no way she could have understood it. But she listened and understood. That was the moment I realized that there’s a wealth of amazing content on public radio that just needs to be unlocked for middle and high schools students, and it was the moment that Listenwise was born.

Listenwise in the Classroom

Helping ELLs Improve Their Listening Skills

As we built Listenwise into a library of public radio stories around ELA, social studies, and science curriculum themes, we were developing a resource that gave teachers an engaging way to teach topics such as the start of World War II, Black History, or Women’s History through audio stories. But we were also building something bigger: a tool that helps teachers focus on and improve the skill of listening. I soon learned there was a real desire on the part of teachers to help kids improve their listening skills, but they had very few resources available to help them in that effort. For example, if you Google “listening skills”, you get about 7 million responses, and most of them are about building better listening skills within your sales team or among business executives. But there’s very little about students improving their skills — especially for English language learners (ELLs) who want to improve their language skills through listening.

For ELLs who are at an intermediate level and above (for example, WIDA level 3 or higher), these public radio stories are a great way to expose them to conversational English and advanced vocabulary. Listening is a great equalizer, allowing ELLs to access the same content as native speakers while they are improving their language abilities. Students’ receptive vocabularies can be at least two grade levels higher than their expressive vocabularies. So when students listen to stories with more difficult vocabulary, they stretch their receptive abilities. This also helps them develop a personal context for the vocabulary and retain the meanings.

In many schools, teaching listening as an important skill falls away after students learn to read, but we have seen more schools starting to pay attention to this core language development skill. The Common Core has recently given Speaking and Listening more attention as an Anchor Standard and focuses on these skills on the SBAC tests in many states. Yet there have been no K-12 tools devoted to building listening skills…until now!

Tracking and Testing Listening Skills

To improve a skill, you must first be able to test and track it. And I quickly found that, just as there weren’t many resources to teach listening skills, there was no online listening measure that could track key listening skills as identified by research.

We began research to create formative assessments to integrate into our curriculum collections for easy integration into instruction without additional testing time. Our curriculum team established a listening skills matrix to identify the eight key elements of listening that we wanted to assess and how they align to the Common Core State Standards:

  • Literal
  • Main Idea
  • Vocabulary
  • Speaker’s Purpose and Point of View
  • Summarizing
  • Inferencing
  • Analyzing Speaker’s Reasoning
  • Finding Evidence

These elements are seen in reading assessments and are useful skills to master when listening as well. For example, when students are able to hear a speaker’s voice, they can pay attention to the tone, emphasis, and pacing of the speech to make inferences and identify the speaker’s point of view. The kinds of natural speech found in these stories is not organized as a well-written essay, with a topic sentence or linear progression of ideas, so students need to practice identifying and summarizing the most important ideas in the audio.

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