One morning last week I had a lesson with an Italian manager who needs to improve his English rapidly before a series of meetings coming up later this month.
His particular concern is listening. There’ll be an interpreter at the meeting he’ll be attending, but he has a senior role and so would naturally prefer to be as autonomous as possible.
His level is intermediate, that would be a B1 or a B2 (see ‘What’s my level in Italian?‘ for more about levels.)
He’d asked me about improving his listening before the holidays.
Given that he’ll need to be up to stream on business and management topics, I’d suggested getting a subscription to The Economist, which is costly but includes a free audio edition.
Subscribe he did, but for reasons best known to himself, the holiday period passed without him actually making use of the available texts + audio to work on his listening comprehension skills.
Perhaps he didn’t know where to start…
So that became the subject of my lesson.
HOW exactly to use text + audio material (you’ll find loads of it here.)
Turns out there are lots of different approaches. Which one you choose will depend on what your objectives are.
For the purposes of this article, I’ve chosen an example at random from our listening page.
It’s on ‘agricultura biologica’ (level B1, the same as my student’s).
Click this link to open the exercise in a new window, so you can follow along as we discuss it.
At the top, you’ll see the Soundcloud.com plugin. All our listening material is hosted on their site for technical reasons.
The plug-in you see on our site should work fine with computers, tablets and smartphones.
It will allow you to access and control the relevant track (you need to be connected to the Internet.)
Underneath the plugin, there’s the listening task.
Not all of our material has a task, but if you see one, it’s definitely worth having a go.
This one is multiple choice.
Always read the questions before you listen, as that will give you some idea of what you’re about to hear and make it easier to extract at least some meaning from the flow of sounds.
Having made sure that your computer, tablet or smartphone has the audio switched on and turned up, press the little triangular arrow in the Soundcloud.com plugin.
Listen and answer the questions if you can.
If not, just chill.
If B1 is below your current level in listening, you should get some or even all of the answers.
If the material is above your current level, you may be able to answer just a few or none of them (it also depends on the type of task. Multiple choice and true/false tasks are easier as they restrict the options for you.)
If you get some but not all of the information the first time you listen, well then the level is about right.
Dropping down a level should make the going noticably easier, while going up one will feel harder.
Normally you’d want to listen a second or third time to have a reasonable chance of completing the task.
The more often you listen, the better. The task serves as a guide, and helps you measure your progress.
When you’re done with the task, scroll down to check your answers with the transcript.
Matt’s new listening tasks will have a specific ‘answers’ section, but he’s only done two of those so far, so you’ll need to read to find out if you’ve understood something. Meno male.
OK, this brings us back to my student and The Economist, which doesn’t have listening comprehension tasks.
Once you’re done with the task, or if there isn’t one, how should you approach the audio + transcript material?
Usually I’d suggest you begin by listening while reading the transcript.
You may not understand much but at least it’s over quickly that way.
And the text will support your listening to some extent.
Next, though, take some time and read the text without the audio.
Use a dictionary if necessary.
But be discriminating.
If your objective is to improve your listening skills, you want to be doing as much listening as possible and not worrying about the difficult words.
Life is short, and looking up words is time-consuming.
The words you don’t know may anyway be infrequent or irrelevant, so feel free to ignore them.
Finally, go back and listen again, this time without the transcript to support you.
It’ll be hard, but easier than if you were hearing it for the first time.
Repeat this stage as often as you like.
To summarise, with a text + audio you have these options:
1.) Listen & read together
2.) Read only
3.) Listen only
But you can do them in a different order. For example:
Read first > Listen and Read > Listen Only
This would be the easiest approach for anyone with poor listening skills, but also the least effective at improving them.
Reading first gives you the chance to see the topic/vocabulary/grammar before you hear it.
Only then do you listen, at first with the text support, then finally without the text.
This way there’s a gradual increase in difficulty.
Listen Only > Listen and Read > Read
You can see that this is more of less the opposite of the previous approach.
It starts with only the audio and ends with a chance to read the text.
This one’s for masochists!
But is also the closest you’ll get to real-life listening situations, such as listening to the radio, watching TV, or going to a business meeting…
Feel free to change the order and especially to repeat stages until you find an approach that suits you:
Read first > Listen and Read > Listen Only > Listen and Read Again
Listen Only > Listen and Read > Read > Listen Only Again
Takeaways from this article:
- With just an audio + transcript you have many ways to build your listening (and reading) skills
- With regular listening practice, you should notice material at ‘your’ level getting easier, and so be ready to move up
Talking of which, if there is ‘graded’ material available, one approach I often suggest is that you start BELOW your current level.
Suppose I’m A2 in Turkish and would like to improve a level, to reach B1?
What I’d do is to start with the A1 stuff.
Doing that should boost my confidence and help me consolidate what I already know.
I’d expect to get solid results, maybe 80% on a given task.
Only when I was bored or had run out of A1 materials would I start on the A2 texts, that is to say move up to my acutal level.
These should be harder, but not too hard.
I’d hope to be getting 50% or more of the task correct, then gradually improve over a period of perhaps a month or until I’d run out of suitable A2 material.
By then I’d expect to be getting at least 60-70% correct on any tasks.
Finally, I’d move up to my ‘target’ level of B1.
I’d expect to see an immediate drop in my task scores, maybe down to 40-50%.
But no matter, I’d be feeling ‘ready’ and with regular practice would expect to get used to the harder B1 material.
Of course, if you’re in a hurry, like my Italian manager, this type of gradual approach would not be suitable.
In which case, just dive straight in at the level you want to reach.
Sure, the water’s cold, but swim a bit and you’ll warm up!