Listening through video: 7 things to keep in mind

A few months ago I was talking to a friend who’d just dropped out of his English classes halfway through the course. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:

“It was not a bad course at all, and the teacher was very friendly and knowledgeable. It’s just that…”


“Well, I got tired of traveling all the way across town, twice a week, to do things I could easily do at home, on my own.”

I immediately thought, of course, of a classroom full of students plodding through dozens and dozens of gap-fill activities. Turns out I was wrong:

“We did far too many video activities in class.”

Wait a minute.

Students love video, right? And they generally regard listening as an important skill – perhaps as important as speaking. It’s reading that they usually dismiss as a waste of precious class time – not listening. At that point, to my friend’s dismay, our casual banter turned into something slightly more exploratory, so to speak:

“But isn’t that a good thing? I mean, watching videos in class?”

“Well, the videos were fun and all, but, hello, I have YouTube on my phone.”

And then his phone rang and we went back to talking about politics.

But my friend’s comments kept nagging at me for weeks and ultimately prompted me to write this post, which begins with a question – now more rhetorical than genuine:

Could it be that we’re still relying too heavily on audio-based / pre-internet principles and techniques to teach* listening through video?


(*I’m deliberately ignoring the whole “Can skills be taught?” debate here.)

So in this post I will try to sketch out a few basic dos and don’ts which I hope will give you some food for thought when you’re devising your own video activities to use with your students. Students who, in their majority, have far more access to listening material outside the classroom than their older siblings or their parents ever did.

1. Be clear about your goals.
Unlike your typical, run-of-the-mill coursebook audio activities, you can use video for mostly anything, so it’s important to stop and ask yourself what exactly you expect students to get out of the video you’ve picked and the accompanying tasks. You might want, for example, to use the beginning of your favorite TED talk to introduce a reading activity. Or maybe spice up a dull coursebook lesson with a snippet from Big Bang Theory or Modern Family. Or perhaps use a short viral video as a springboard for further discussion, role-play, poetry writing, you name it – the possibilities are endless.

Trouble is, depending on the choices you make, students’ learning gains might be only marginally-related to the development of actual listening skills. The web is filled with sites containing dozens and dozens of interesting video clips accompanied by a variety of activities, which are often fun, well thought-out and engaging, but not always conducive to the development of listening as a skill. And this is what this post is concerned with.

2. Begin with a gist task…
Nothing new here, except that students have only one pair of eyes: They’ll be either looking at the screen or at their handouts at any given time, which is not really an issue in audio-based activities, of course. So please make sure your first task is as simple, straight-forward and concise as possible so that students can keep their eyes on the screen for as long as possible. I’ve lost count of the number of video-based lessons I’ve taught / observed in which the students – especially adults – spent far more time looking at a piece of paper than at the video itself. Again, I’m talking about the very first task.

3. …but be sure to go beyond it.
The importance of moving from general comprehension to a more detailed / nuanced understanding of  reading / listening texts is a time-honored ELT principle, of course, and one that applies to both audio and video. Again, nothing new. But in a YouTube-dominated world, this becomes even more acutely important, since – and I’m going out on a limb here – listening for general comprehension is what lots of students will probably do by default anyway whenever they watch a video at home. And our job, if my friend’s feedback is anything to go by, is to make sure they go beyond that – at least in class.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I remember doing a lot of strategy training in class to enable students to process authentic listening material top-down. “No need to understand every word” was probably as common in my repertoire of classroom language as “open your books.” Today, more often than not, I find myself actually having to do the exact opposite – i.e., discourage students from over-relying on contextual clues and strategic competence. Over is the key word here, of course.

The point I’m trying to make is that maybe students are more likely to value class activities designed to help them squeeze the text try, so to speak, since this is something they can’t do on their own, without some degree of guidance, encouragement and feedback.

4. Cut, slice and chop.
When you teach listening, there’s no escaping the old trade-off between depth and length: the longer a video / audio segment is, the less you’ll be able to explore it. If you use a good coursebook, that’s one less issue to worry about, of course, since most listening passages are relatively short and can be played twice: once for gist, once for whichever subskills the authors might want to focus on.

When you use video, however, it gets trickier.

No one in their right mind would play a 20-minute TED talk in a 75-minute lesson, of course, but you may not always be able to condense it into a 5-minute edit either. More often than not, you’ll end up having to use video segments that are slightly longer than what you might consider ideal, however hard you may try to trim them down.

But here’s the good news:

Students don’t have to watch each and every video twice, in its entirety.

After you’ve played the whole segment once for general comprehension, you can simply select very short excerpts from the original passage and play them and again and again, as many times as needed:

“What point exactly is she making here?”
“Watch this bit again. Do you get the joke?” “No? Focus on this expression. Try again.”
“Is this an opinion or a fact? How do you know?”

5. “Grade the task, not the text.” Well, not so simple.
This is another mantra I used to live by in the early 90s. As a novice teacher, I remember taking a lot of pride in the fact that I was able to use clips from Blockbuster-rented (!) movies with my A1 and A2 students. After all, all I had to do was grade the task:

“Listen out for two adjectives.”
“Which color did the woman mention?”
“How many people are talking?” (!!!)

And the (embarrassing) list goes on and on.

Students were able to answer most of my questions, of course, which, in turn, encouraged me to fill my lessons with even more insanely difficult movie clips. I was blissfully unaware, way back then, of how frustrating it might have been for students to get, say, seven out of seven T/F items right and still – in their words – “fail to understand 90%” of what was being said.

Carefully graded tasks will only go so far, I have learned.

So here’s something to keep in mind: Just because a video segment is short, fun, fresh and fits the text on page 73 like a glove doesn’t mean it can or should be used. Some videos are just too challenging and no amount of task-tweaking will change that. Period. From students’ perspective, even more frustrating than a manageable video they could have watched at home is one they can’t understand at all.

6. Focus on connected speech.
When the average B1/B2 student hears a sentence like “I would’ve gone with you guys, but I’m kind of tired of eating Chinese food”, the greyed out words often become nothing more than white noise:

I would gone (go?) with you guys, but I’m kind tired eating (eat?) Chinese food.

Which often doesn’t matter as far as comprehension goes: If students manage to understand that the speaker didn’t go somewhere because (s)he didn’t feel like eating Chinese food, fine. We don’t want them to get bogged down by every word or morpheme they miss.

Two problems, though. One, too much white noise, so to speak, tends to interfere with the general intelligibility of the text and have an impact on students’ overall comprehension. Two, listening plays a key role in long-term language acquisition. If students consistently fail to understand weak forms and other “unimportant” words, these words won’t get noticed and re-noticed, with obvious implications in terms of interlanguage restructuring.

So part of our job is – somewhat paradoxically – also to enable students to listen out for the things we sometimes ask them to ignore. In other words, help them develop what Richard Cauldwell refers to as perception skills:

“Listen to this sentence again. Pay attention to the pronunciation of at.
“Listen to this sentence. How many words can you hear?”
“Did she say should cut or should’ve cut?”

7. Highlight new (and useful!) language if at all possible.
Try teaching a “skills-lesson”, without any sort of language input, and asking students “So, what have you learned today?” at the end. Chances are you’ll get nothing but blank stares.

Students are not linguists. It’s hard for them to describe their learning processes in terms of skills and subskills. They need something more tangible to hold on to. Something they can describe at the dinner table or tweet about. Yes, I’m talking about lexis, grammar and pronunciation:

“We did a listening and she taught us lots of new expressions.”
“We watched a video and learned informal ways of reporting what people said.”

So, when you plan your next video-based listening lesson, be sure to include at least one activity highlighting some aspect of lexis, grammar or pronunciation that you think your students will both profit from and perceive as useful.

Thanks for reading.

By the way, I enjoyed writing this post so much that I actually stopped everything I was doing and put together a video-based lesson illustrating tips 1-7. Click on the photo to access the lesson.


Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

  • Leandro Zuanazzi
    Leandro Zuanazzi
    Posted at 23:06h, 11 fevereiro Responder

    Hi there, Luiz! Thank you for sharing such practical tips. I’ve always had the same kind of thought while preparing lessons/activities based on videos. I mean, students tend to enjoy watching videos in class, but how can we help them focus on certain pieces of language? – there has to be more than just gist+detailed listening with a true or false task. Apparently you’ve shed new light on the matter.
    By the way, I’ll definitely try out the lesson you put together and let you know how it goes.
    Thanks again.


    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 10:34h, 12 fevereiro Responder

      Hi, Leandro!
      Yeah, I agree. There’s got to be more than gist and T/F. The possibilities are endless. But our goal should be, I think, to show students that what they’re doing in class matters and that they’re not wasting their time. In the 90s / early 2000s, video in class was an event in itself, so we could basically get away with anything. Not anymore. Video is part of students’ everyday lives and it’s up to us to make sure the experience has as much teaching value as realistically possible.
      Um abraço

  • Pati Csapo
    Posted at 23:20h, 24 maio Responder

    Hi, Luiz!

    Thank you for sharing this article. I´ve used two of your listening activities in private classes: the one about the Oscars, and the one with Ellen. The latter was a MAJOR hit with teenagers. I had no idea they enjoyed Star Bucks so much- and they thought I was so cool to talk about it in class… hehehehe! The videos are entertaining and the choice of topics is really effective, but the best part is the architecture of the lessons. They are flawless! I got the impression that they loved finding out about connected speech and they also realised that they could apply the use of those sounds whenever they speak. I didn´t have to tell them explicitly to use the schwa, or that a certain letter in word produces a sound that is totally different from what Brazilian speakers would expect- but they got the message. It´s so clear! In the end of the lessons, most of them expressed how much they had appreciated them (the credit is all yours- I let them know!). I must admit that your activities were way better than mine and they apply to audio as well as video. They got me thinking how I could make my listening exercises more similar to yours, with such a clear aim and smooth and coherent transitions between the parts. I learned that having an interesting topic isn´t everything, but I didn´t know how to go about the activities, how to reproduce that amazing architecture, because even if you understand the steps of a lesson, it takes a while to be able to produce something similar. Then, I find this incredible article with your tips… it´s priceless! Thank you so much!!! I have learned so much from your video lessons, they are way better than the absolute majority of coursebook listenings- and B1 and B2 students are definitely tired of them. Not to mention C1 students! They have become jaded, some topics are embarrassingly boring or too far from their realities, and the activities are always very obvious. Learning about the use of schwa, on the other hand, is a surprise and they feel like they are leaving the class with something new. Nowadays, all kinds of audio and video are accessible them: lectures, talk show hosts, stand up routines, series, podcasts. They don´t need boring listening passages anymore. I often look for material that is fresher than coursebook listenings, so I work with youtube videos or podcasts (like BBC´s 6 minute English, You Tube´s Anglophenia channel, TED talks, and This American Life- my favourite, but not applicable to all students). On your comment to the previous message, you said that in the 90s it was possible to get away with anything regarding videos. I think the same applies to audio, and you have shown me a way to improve my activities and my classes. I cannot thank you enough!

      Posted at 11:35h, 16 fevereiro Responder

      Dear Pati,
      For some reason, I’m only reading this reply now, almost two years later!
      I’m so sorry!
      Thank your kind words and I’m glad you found the videos and article useful!

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