Understanding Other ELLs: An Overlooked Listening Skill

With so much attention on understanding fast speech in movies, TV shows, and other authentic sources, there’s an area of listening comprehension that may not receive the attention it deserves: the speech of language learners. Students tend to focus heavily on listening to native speakers and non-natives with advanced proficiency. As a result, they may not expose themselves to a broad range of non-native speech.

Working on a platform that allows for large live streams, I’ve heard from individual students who complain they can’t easily understand their peers during interviews and group discussion. Varied accents and different proficiency levels are key factors.

As experienced ELTs, we’ve had years to become accustomed to English spoken as a global language. I’ve heard hundreds of students speak, so my ears now easily receive variations, and my mind quickly deciphers awkwardly worded statements. But these are skills that learners can develop too. In fact, they must. Why? Because not everyone they interact with will have clear, articulate speech. This is true even beyond the ESL/EFL classroom.

I’ve begun to format some live streams that require close listening, not just to me, but to one’s classmates. It’s a test of comprehension and retention. A request came for practice with paraphrasing. We’d already done some paraphrasing of written statements. This week I had one person hop on camera to answer a fun or thought-provoking question. I usually tagged on a few follow-up questions to extend the answer to a full two minutes. Then a new student hopped on to recall what had just been said before answering a new question.

The results were mixed. Some students proved to be very good at recalling information. Others readily admitted they either couldn’t follow the Q&A or had been distracted by the live text chat. But more fell into the first category. The text chat itself became a source of support. Those who were able to focus and understand during the Q&A, typed their summaries, which the student on camera could then read aloud in order to restate the original answer to my question.

In the course of having about fifteen students hop on one after the other, we accumulated many useful expressions that introduce a restatement or interpretation of what had been said. Those who used these expressions elevated their speech. I felt like a proud mother hen as I listened to such natural paraphrasing! If you’d like to recreate this task, please consider sharing the following handout with your students.

Related posts:
Practice with Paraphrasing (2020)
Puzzling Paraphrases: A whole language activity for upper level students (2010)

Featured photo by Couleur retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/sculpture-bronze-the-listening-2209152/.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Aguraka says:


  2. Geri Lawhon says:

    Very interesting observation. Thanks.

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