Tricks and activities for improving FCE students' listening!

A massive percentage of FCE students fail because of listening. Listening is hard for English language learners, and rightly so. In the real world, when do you have to listen to recordings and answer complex questions, which deliberately try to trick you?
I feel sorry for English students who struggle with listening. How many times have you heard your students say “Why do they speak so fast?” or “That is impossible to understand!” In the real world we can normally see the person we are listening to, we can ask them to repeat words if necessary, and we can ask for clarification.
Know the feeling in the listening exam?
Photo by rileyroxx

That’s not so in an FCE listening exam. So what can we do to help our students? Here are a few tricks and activities I’ve picked up on my DELTA, while researching, and also some of my own ideas on how to improve students’ listening skills.

Part 1
Multiple choice – 8 questions – short unrelated extracts of about 30 seconds each – 3 options.
This question is all about the distractors. The three options are normally mentioned in one way or another, but two try to trick the students.
  • Get students to underline the key words in the questions before they listen. This helps them focus on what to listen to, but also allows them to build up an image in their mind of what to expect when the listening starts (activate schemata). If students have an image in their mind they can relate better to the recording and also what they hear is less of a shock.
  • Let students read the transcript before they listen to the first question and discuss where the distractors are. Get students to discuss exactly why they are distractors. After listening to the next questions students discuss their answers and why the other two options were distractors.
  • Alternatively, you could let the students listen first without the options. I find this helps them concentrate more on the main content and they get less confused. I’ve also tried this where half the class listen without the options, and the other half do, and then vice versa. I find that most students then prefer to listen the first time without looking at the options.
  • Ever noticed how sometimes two of the actual options are mentioned in the recording? For example, the other day we had a question where the three options were A- confused B-annoyed C-disappointed. In the recording the words ‘confused’ and ‘annoyed’ were said, but as distractors. So it’s normally when the word is not actually mentioned when it’s the answer.
  • Students can also chat about the options before they listen and try to work out which ones are similar so they can be prepared for the distractors. For example, a question the other day had the options A-tennis, B-basketball, and C-football. They are all ball games, but basketball and football are team games. By helping students notice similarities in the options can help because the correct answer is normally between those two.
Part 2
Sentence completion – 10 questions – one or more speakers for 3 minutes – write a word or phrase.
  • Students have time to make some predictions in this part. At least they should scan the answers and make a note of whether they should be listening out for a noun, verb, number, date etc.
  • English is an end-weighted language, which means that often the most important words (and often the answers to the questions) are at the end of sentences. In an average recording, I’d say about 7 or 8 of the answers come at the end of sentences. How can you show this to your students? After the listening, get them to underline the answers in the transcript and elicit that they are at the end of the sentence.
  • Also, if you listen carefully, there is normally a short pause after each answer; again because that’s the way English native speakers speak; we pause after the important words. Train your students to listen out for the key information and these important pauses. I’ve tried this with my class this year, but some of them are not convinced and they say it’s too complicated to listen for pauses and when they come up. Some have found it helps though.
  • Another activity is to make students aware just how we speak. Normally the key words are stressed when we speak – verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. You can devise activities where students have to underline the stressed words on a transcript as they listen, or predict which words will be stressed when they listen. By making students aware how we speak can help with their listening.
  • Another important aspect of this part is to make students aware of aspects of connected speech. Often words join together, and sounds disappear or change. By making students aware of how words combine when we speak can improve their listening too.
Carry a pot of these in class…
okay, I’m running out of listening photos!
Photo by free-stock

Part 3

Multiple matching – 5 questions – five short monologues – common theme – match the extracts to prompts.
Students generally hate this part. It’s hard
because, again, there are a lot of distractors and students need a wide range of vocabulary to be able to deal with the answers.
  • First get your students to identify the common theme. By reading the question and underlining key words they can start to build an image in their mind about what the five monologues will be about.
  • One activity I’ve tried is cutting up the transcript and giving each student (or pair) one recording. Students read their section, identify which person they have and then prepare themselves for reading it to the class. I get them to underline the key words that they need to stress, draw a line where they need to pause, and try to spot where words join or sounds disappear. Each student (or pair) reads their part and the others and do the activity. This is obviously much easier than listening to the recording, but at least it shows students what to look out for in the real one.
  • Again, getting students todiscuss distractors after the listening is a useful activity so they are aware of how they might be tricked in the real exam.
  • As mentioned above, sometimes the speaker uses the exact words in the options, these are normally distractors too.
Part 4
Multiple choice – 7 questions – one or more speakers for 3 mins – 3 options per question

This is very similar to part 1, so you can use all the ideas above. The main difference is that because it’s a longer recording students tend to get lost or miss an answer. By getting them to underline key words in the questions they can use this as a guide as when to move on in case they miss an answer. 
Final comments
As mentioned in my last blog Top ESL Listening Classroom Activities, one tip that has come out of my DELTA is to spend more time on going over the answers and why they got things wrong, rather than doing a massive warmer, lead in, brainstorming vocabulary, and then running out of time to really go into the answers. Use the transcript so students become aware of just how different spoken and written forms are. Encourage extensive listening – songs with lyrics, films with subtitles in English, and set listening for homework.
I’m sure there are loads more ideas out there too, so leave a comment below if you have a decent activity to improve FCE students’ listening skills. Cheers.

5 thoughts on “Tricks and activities for improving FCE students' listening!

  1. Great post and very practical tips, I appreciate having such a useful approach on the matter, after spending weeks trying out different strategies to help my frustrated students to improve their results in the listening part. Thanks a lot!

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