The Internet TESL Journal

Getting the Most from Textbook Listening Activities

Thomas Lavelle
tfl28 [at]

Most EFL/ESL textbooks include a listening component within each unit. It is part of an attempt to provide an integrated skills approach with separate sections devoted to speaking, listening reading and writing. It is unfortunate however that these sections are not really integrated but are isolated. I have always felt an odd sense of unfinished business when I announce to the class, "OK that's the end of the listening practice. Please turn to the conversation on the next page."

The purpose of this article is to show how almost any listening activity in a textbook can be expanded to include an opportunity to work with grammar, an interactive speaking opportunity as well as a chance to broaden lexical, collocational and idiomatic knowledge.

My overall approach to textbook listening activities consists of five phases:

  1. Top-down listening
  2. Bottom-up listening
  3. Grammaticisation
  4. Focus on lexis
  5. Personalization

The Listening Phase

According to Nunan, (1989a) successful listening involves information encoded in the messages we hear combined with a broader knowledge of the world. This process involves two types of listening, top-down and bottom-up.

My listening practice begins with a bottom-up phase. Learners will be listening for key words or phrases to focus on as they listen. There is a worksheet with a list of twelve or so key words or phrases from the listening passage. When they hear a particular word or phrase, they check it off on the worksheet. If they don't hear a particular item, they leave it blank. These items on the worksheet should be the key lexical elements of the listening passage.

The bottom-up phase has the effect of reducing the cognitive load of the listeners. Now they are ready to listen again for meaning. Part 2 of the worksheet contains questions which learners must answer based on their understanding of the whole passage. This will require so- called top-down listening, or taking in the meaning from the flow of passing language. After they have listened again, the teacher can review the answers with the class, calling on different students to answer the questions.

The Grammaticisation Phase

The basic listening task as presented in the textbook is finished but there remains quite a lot of potential with the material just listened to by learners. Next I would like to discuss how to exploit the lexis learners have just met through listening. I apply a method of language production, which uses the processes of grammaticisation. Batstone (1996) proposes this method whereby learners begin with lexis, which, in this case has already been supplied through a bottom- up portion of the listening task. Learners will take these discrete words and phrases then modify and combine them by applying some appropriate grammar to express themselves. The usual procedure is to teach the grammar and then add lexical items but there is a strong case for reversing the process. (Givon, 1979)

The learners, in pairs, are now instructed to prepare the listening passage they have just heard using the words and phrases they have just studied as a speaking cue. They are encouraged to make their formulations as clear as possible but it is their choice as to how they try to combine the lexical items from the listening passage and their own knowledge of grammar. If the listening passage was based on a dialogue, a role-play reconstruction would be suitable. If the listening activity was a narrative, then a brief summary of what was listened to would be appropriate.

Such a procedure widens the possibilities for students to create their own way of expression. Because of this freedom, there are likely to be mistakes in grammar while trying to re-create the listening passage. When this happens, the teacher can help reformulate some of the learners' language.

Another potential benefit of this exercise is that during the struggle to re-create the listening passage, a need has been created by each learner to speak coherently in English and this indicates to them where there is a gap in their knowledge. At the end of this exercise, a public performance by chosen pairs would be possible or the teacher could hand out a copy of the transcript to let learners compare their performance to the native speaker on the tape and learn from the transcript as well as from listening to other students.

This activity is clearly not meant to replace grammar study but is used to exploit the potential for increased learning through collaboration and communication with each other and the teacher. The second benefit of grammaticisation is that it forces the learners to begin using the highlighted words and lexical phrases they have just encountered through listening.

The 'Focus on Lexis' Phase

During the bottom-up listening phase, learners encountered a series of lexical items. During the top-down phase, they attempted to process meaning, and, through grammaticisation, they began to use the new lexical items in speech. Let's imagine that the topic of the listening passage was 'work' and that one of the lexical items was 'get a job'. This could be the perfect opportunity to explore with the class some typical collocations of the word "get." As Lewis (1993:119) says, a major element in being able to use a word,"...involves mastering its collocational range." For example, a non-linear collocational pattern display using the word "get" which relates to the world of work might be presented s in the following example.

Visual displays like this can help students to organize vocabulary and gradually master the range of a word or lexical phrase and help students to see the English language is made up of many chunks of language rather than discrete items.

The Personalization Phase

What started as an ordinary textbook listening activity has expanded in scope and has hopefully increased the learners listening comprehension as well as expanded awareness of new lexical items and their range of uses. The final activity is to try to consolidate the new information by making it personal. Students can be given a series of discussion questions pitched at the appropriate level which will them an opportunity to use, in a personal, meaningful way, any, all or in some cases none of the new language items which were introduced. Discussion questions on the topic of 'work' in my previous example might be, "With your major, can you get a good solid job?" Students can be asked to formulate their own questions based on the language points already discussed. It is important at this point, not to place a heavy demand on using new language. It is better to let it happen naturally, letting students say what they mean and mean what they say with the new language available if they want and need it.


This article has attempted to show how a common listening activity found in most modern EFL textbooks can be exploited in various ways to extract the most benefit to learners not only in terms of listening but also with grammar, lexis, and interactive, meaningful communication. I hope the ideas presented in this article will inspire teachers to explore more creative ways to get the most out of the listening activities in their EFL textbooks.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11, November 2000