Podcasts

How to Use Podcasts for Listening Comprehension

Jason White

What is a podcast?
The Internet is a learning tool that can no longer be ignored by ESL instructors without forsaking an interesting, effective teaching resource. There are near endless teaching materials on the Internet, most focusing on reading and writing. There are significantly fewer listening resources, but one that I have used to great success is the podcast. A podcast is a media file (.mp3, .wma, .mp4) uploaded to the Internet by an individual, radio station, or any company or organization that wishes to disseminate information by audio format. Podcasts are usually free and can be downloaded and saved directly to one's computer.

Podcasts for everyone
Podcast quality (both file kilobytes-per-second and production values) varies from amateur to professional. The spoken English on some is slow and easy to understand, while others are spoken quickly, with liberal use of slang and idiomatic expressions. An ESL instructor can find a podcast to suit any student's level or interest. A student is interested in sports? Direct him to a sports-oriented podcast in which news about professional leagues and players is discussed. There is enough variety in podcast content to appeal to any ESL student.

Because of its media file format, a podcast can be downloaded to a student's computer, portable .mp3 player, or portable storage device. After the file is saved, one can burn it to a CD if one wishes. Students can use this dynamic learning tool to practice listening comprehension at home (from their computers or CD players) or on the go. ESL instructors can use podcasts in the classroom, accompanying them with worksheets to help their students focus on key words, points, and grammar structures, all the while couching their lesson in podcast content in which the students are interested.

For large classes, it might be best if the instructor took a survey to find out what students are interested in, then designed the podcast lesson around those interests, devoting one lesson to a certain field of interest, then another lesson to a different one. If student interest is too widely varied, the instructor can use news podcasts, focusing on current issues and events.

How to use a podcast in the classroom
Using a podcast in the classroom gives the instructor a great deal of freedom. He may use the podcast simply for listening comprehension, or he may use it as a basis for an entire lesson. For this article, let us look at how a podcast can be expanded into a full lesson.

Choosing the podcast
Finding out what the students are interested in is the instructor's first task. Once interest is ascertained, a podcast can be chosen. Finding a podcast is easy. One can use an Internet search engine or download free software which searches for and interfaces directly with the podcast media files without going to any Web page. One of the best podcast sites is National Public Radio (NPR). All of the podcasts can be downloaded for free, and they have an extensive list of various topics, ranging from environmental interest to controversial issues, from current events to music. For a variety of topics all in one podcast, I recommend "NPR Shuffle," a daily sampler from different popular NPR programs.

Using the podcast in the classroom
Practically speaking, the instructor must decide how he is going to play the podcast for his students. If he has access to a CD or DVD player, then he will have had to have burned a CD before class time. If he has a television in the classroom and a laptop, he can use an audio cord to connect his notebook computer to the TV and play the audio file directly through the TV's speakers. Laptop speakers probably are not loud enough or of good enough quality to be used in the classroom.

Using a Worksheet
It is best to design a worksheet that accompanies the podcast. This provides structure and focuses the students' attention on what the instructor wants them to get out of the lesson. Engage the students. Elicit their opinions. Make a worksheet that has different kinds of exercises. Here is the conceptual design of a podcast worksheet I designed.

  1. Topic. The topic, taken from an NPR Shuffle podcast, was about discount wedding dresses sold on the Internet.
  2. Warm Up (Vocabulary). I listened to the three-and-a-half minute report at home, picking out key vocabulary I thought the students probably did not know. I put these words in the first section of the worksheet and gave the students 10 minutes to look these words up in their dictionaries. Any words they already knew they could skip. I allowed them to work alone or in small groups. This is a pre-listening exercise.
  3. Warm Up (Think!). In this next section, the students read a question related to the podcast theme of wedding dresses: What do you think is the most important item in a wedding? This is a discussion and writing exercise. The students had 5 minutes to write their answers. They could work alone or in small groups. Then I elicited answers from randomly-chosen students. This is also a pre-listening exercise.
  4. Content (Listen and Answer). Now it is time to actually listen to the podcast. Give the students a minute or two to read through the questions. You may make them short answer or multiple choice, depending on the level of your students. For this podcast, I made them multiple choice. There were 9 questions, so that worked out to about one question every 23 seconds. You do not want to rush too many questions too close together. That will frustrate the students. You also do not want to space your questions at too long of intervals. That will bore the students. One questions every 30 seconds or so has worked well for me. My multiple-choice questions for this section ranged from location questions to negative questions, from reason questions to intent questions. I had the students listen to the podcast twice, encouraging them to try their best, to listen for key words from the vocabulary section above, but above all else, not to be discouraged if they did not understand. This podcast is, after all, not like a textbook. The English is natural and not designed for ESL students. After listening twice, the students compared answers in small groups and decided which choice was correct. There were often discrepancies, and the students had to discuss among themselves what they heard and defend their answers. This exercise really helped the students understand the content of the podcast. Then we checked answers together as a class. Once everyone had the correct answers, we listened again, focusing on those points where the answers came up.
  5. Content (Exercise). The class did not end with the correct answers. We wanted to apply some of what we had learned. In this next section, the students has to think about the podcast overall (not individual questions) and answer this question: What is this radio program about? Since the title of the worksheet was "Wedding Dresses," the students thought the answer was evident. But I gave the students a hint, telling them that the answer was not "wedding dresses." This threw the class into a tumult, and they worked together in small groups, looking over the content questions of part 4, diligently trying to find the answer. In the end, most students picked up on the nuance of the podcast, that it was about the price of wedding dresses, not wedding dresses in general. This is a post-listening exercise.
  6. Content (Opinion). I have discovered in my years as an ESL instructor that students enjoy expressing their opinions, and allowing them to do so in the classroom creates a more pleasurable learning environment. This last section allows the student to comment on the podcast's content in his own words. The question was: Would you pay discount prices for wedding goods? The answers were a catalyst for a class-wide debate, because some students believed saving money was important, but others claimed that saving money was important but not in the case of one's wedding. This is also a post-listening exercise.

Taking it with them
An ESL instructor can use a podcast as-is if he wishes, engaging the students in more of a classroom discussion, but a worksheet designed in the style detailed above focuses the students' attention, provides a clear pedagogical structure, and gives the students something to take home with them. If you are using your laptop to play the podcast, as I do, invite your students to take the podcast home with them as well. All they need is a USB storage device (a memory stick, an iPod, or a Walkman). That way they will have the worksheet and the media file and can review the lesson at their leisure.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Jason White 2007
An American in his 10th year in Japan, Jason teaches TOEIC preparation classes as well as mythology, religion, writing, and literature at university.