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Fecha: 21 de octubre de 2015

Building language skills. Part 1: Listening

By Elaine Gallagher, PhD This begins a 4-part series on “Building Language Skills”. We’ll begin by looking at Listening, the first language skill that humans acquire. This topic will be followed by three more articles about: Speaking, Reading, and Writing.   LISTENING The first language skill that humans develop is listening. LISTENING is considered to […]

By Elaine Gallagher, PhD

This begins a 4-part series on “Building Language Skills”.

We’ll begin by looking at Listening, the first language skill that humans acquire. This topic will be followed by three more articles about: Speaking, Reading, and Writing.



The first language skill that humans develop is listening.

LISTENING is considered to be a RECEPTIVE skill, something humans can do with little effort on their part. Someone speaks, or music is played, or a noise occurs…and the receiver hears it. That is why it’s called a receptive skill, because it is received by the person, not produced by the person.

Scientists and doctors now can prove that babies inside their mothers’ wombs respond to sounds such as soothing classical music, singing or humming by the mother, or loud noises. As a biological reality, listening occurs naturally by the baby even before birth. Once born, the baby responds to all kinds of sounds, and can sense the tone of voice by adults around him / her, such as calming, loud, or angry voices.

There are some studies suggesting that these early sounds can affect a baby’s emotional development and personality. There are many adults who believe that a new-born baby is just a baby, not understanding anything until months later, when he/she is able to respond to the spoken word.

Studies, however,  have shown that babies who are spoken to continuously from birth onward, as if they could speak themselves, develop speaking skills and vocabulary levels much higher than if they were just treated as “baby dolls”, incapable of understanding.

When applied to language learning, whether a first, second, or third language, there is a biological rule that must be kept in mind:


What does that mean?

It means that babies, or even adults, learning any language will be able to recognize the meanings of many things before they can actually SPEAK the language.

If you say a baby’s name, he or she will recognize it, and respond in some manner, even before he/she can say a word. If you say to a small child, “Please bring me my book that’s over there on the table”, (pointing and gesturing as you speak), the child will go get the book, bring it to you, recognizing what you had wanted, even though he or she cannot yet speak in phrases, perhaps only able to say, “Mama” or “Daddy”.

It’s important to know three essential facts about developing listening skills:

  1. The more a person is exposed to the spoken word (and to music with lyrics) the greater will be his/her listening vocabulary and speaking ability. Babies should be spoken to in the crib, from infancy onward, with a rich vocabulary, not in “baby-talk”.
  2. Listening and hearing are two different skills. HEARING is a physical ability: sounds going to the ear, passively received in the hearer’s brain. LISTENING is an active mental skill, a thinking skill. Listening is for a specific purpose….. to answer: “What did he/she say? Why? What is the message? What does it mean? How should I respond?”
  3. No language skill is taught or learned in isolation. SPEAKING cannot occur without having listened to someone speaking. Listening and speaking are so closely related that it is almost impossible to separate them, although educators and biology experts everywhere agree that hearing precedes listening, and listening precedes speaking.

Because of the three previous essential facts, we know that people learning a language (LL) must have months, maybe years, of listening before they can produce words themselves. There is no rush, nor should there be an urgency or pressure to speak.?As you know,  RECOGNITION PRECEDES PRODUCTION.

What we are emphasizing here is that listening ability depends on language INPUT. The more input, the more a LL hears, the more he/she will begin to understand, and the greater will be the development of listening skills.

The more someone listens to vocabulary, phrases, and sentences, the better listening ability the LL will have, and eventually, the better speaking ability the LL will develop.

Listening is the first skill that a child learns in his/her native language (L1). It is also the first skill a person learns in a second language (L2) or third language (L3). Language learning is very natural. Children in Europe learn three or more languages with little difficulty, being exposed to them from primary school or before, and beyond, so that by age of 18, they have acquired fluency in several languages.


  1. “Comprehensible Input” (Krashen) means that the student must have a reason to use the language being learned. The INPUT is what is received and assimilated by the learner.

If the teacher says, “Let’s go outside for recess.” and does NOT translate to the student’s native language, the students will quickly learn what it means by watching the actions of other students or the teacher.

Studying a subject or topic in the language to be learned is the BEST way to master a second language. Learning subjects, such as science or geography in the target language, helps students to bring “comprehensible input” (Krashen) to the language process. Better input leads to better output by the student.

Long-term studies of over 35 years, by Dr. Virginia Collier have proven that of all the various methods used in bilingual education (early-exit, pull- out, transitional, total immersion, etc.), the one with the highest achievement level for language fluency, over time, is the DUAL BILINGUAL MODEL, (Dr. Virginia Collier) whereby students study subjects in a second language for half day, and different subjects in their first language a half a day.

Collier’s research of 35 years shows that students in dual bilingual programs, at the end of 12th grade, score higher on achievement tests than any other methods…surprisingly, even higher than students who did not study a second language!

Some psychologists and educators theorize that the process of acquiring a second language stimulates neuron connectors, making the brain more agile, and therefore, students perform better in some language tests. (Dr. Tomás Ortiz, Diamond, Hull, et al)    It is said that if you only know ONE language, you don’t REALLY know it. The process of learning a second language strengthens your knowledge of the first language, too.

  1. Recognition precedes production. Humans are able to recognize spoken or written words, and know what they mean, before they have the words on the “tip of their tongues”, ready to retrieve at will. It takes a while, as many as eleven exposures over time, for a word to move from short term, recognition memory to long term, production memory. Practice and exposure are the keys to language acquisition.
  2. “Learning” a language is a conscious effort to study, memorize, and to learn. It is NOT as effective as “acquisition”. “Acquisition” of a language occurs through exposure to input that is slightly above the learner’s current level of competence. It comes through games, sports, songs, subjects, conversations, and frequent contact with speakers of the target language.
  3. The affective filter MUST be down so that the “input” can enter. Students must be relaxed and unthreatened.
  4. Use lots of visual aids, and opportunities to speak, listen, and use the language. Learners need active tasks and opportunities to “pick up” the language.
  5. Language should be natural, not artificial. Rote sentences, models, patterns to copy are not natural. Asking and answering questions about a movie, a sport, a book, or ordering food in a restaurant, or planning a vacation are examples of natural language use, even if the situation is a role play activity.

The following activities are in no special order. They can be used by children, adolescents, and adults to practice and to strengthen listening skills.

You can adapt any of the activities to reflect the vocabulary and the degree of difficulty that you want to reinforce. Be flexible. Be creative. Be enthusiastic! Keep the activities “fun” for your students. Don’t prolong them too much, or even the best activity can be boring. The key is that students should WANT to continue the activity when you are ready to stop it. Usually ten to fifteen minutes is enough time to keep the activity interesting but not tedious.

If students ask to continue the activity, firmly but politely tell them, “We’ll do it again another day. I am so glad you enjoyed it. Little by little you’ll be super-fluent in English! I am so proud of your enthusiasm!”



Activity 1

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a well-known activity to practice the ability to listen and actively demonstrate the word(s) you hear. It’s not a new concept, but is as effective today as it was thirty years ago. It’s used mainly to teach vocabulary, and is especially useful with younger children as they need physical expression, and enjoy moving around. It also helps to develop their gross motor skills. You can ask your students, from children to adults, to do many movements, simple to complicated.

“Stand up.”? “Sit down.”? “Raise your hand.”? “Raise your left elbow.”? “Go to the chalkboard and write your first name.” “Stand by the door with your face to the door.”

The more language the students learn, the more you can?ask them to do. One advantage of TPR is that immediately the teacher wil l?be able to see if the students understand the instructions or not.?Another advantage is that if a few students do not understand the instructions, they can see what other students are doing.

Activity 2

Simon Says is another veteran activity that helps LL (Language Learners) practice their listening abilities and their speedy reaction to verbal instructions. In this game, the LL are supposed to perform the activity only IF the leader precedes the instruction with, “Simon says…”.

For example: ?“Simon says stand up”.?“Simon says run in place.”? “Simon says put your hands on your head.” “ Sit down.”

Those who sit down after this last statement, are “out” of the game because the leader did not first say, “Simon says…”?  The last one standing wins the game, and becomes the leader for the next round of “Simon Says”.

Activity 3

Listen and Color is a game to use when children are learning their colors and numbers. Give them a plain sheet of paper, and tell them to fold it in half, and then in half again. (Show them as you say this.)?    Have them number each section, 1 to 4. Again, show them your model.?   Then invent things for them to do, simple at first. As you do this activity on various occasions, you can add to the difficulty. When the students hold up the papers, the teacher can check immediately to see if the students understood the instructions.

For example:

“In rectangle one, draw 3 bananas. Color them yellow. Then hold them up so I can see them.”

“In rectangle two, draw 5 balloons. Color 3 red, and color 2 green. Then hold them up so I can see them.”

“In rectangle three, draw 7 balls. Color 2 blue. Color 2 orange. Color 3 green. Now hold them up for me to see them.”

“In rectangle four, draw one tree. Color the leaves green and the trunk brown. Then draw one bird in the sky above the tree. Color the bird blue.

Now hold up your drawing so I can see it.” “THANK YOU, students. You did a GREAT job!!”

Activity 4

Listen and Repeat is an activity with simple or advanced levels of words, phrases, or sentences to listen to….and to repeat in the same intonation and pitch as the teacher or the class model. Children are great imitators. Adult language learners, too, can learn to imitate and use the correct tone and rhythm of the words or phrases.

Do NOT translate.  The idea is simple repetition, with a tone, and pitch as the model. The teacher can use happiness, sadness, fear, anger…Any emotions can be exhibited simply by a change in the tone of voice. Students can learn this skill easily by imitation. They can identify an emotion by the tone of voice, not by the words. The words and spoken vocabulary will come later.

Even something simple, such as, “Sit down”, can be exhibited as an angry phrase, a happy one, a sad one, or a fearful one…depending on how it is voiced.

Examples:    “ Listen to the radio.” “ Go to bed.” “ Help your grandmother.”

Activity 5

Mime sentences is played by having the teacher or game leader take a sentence from an envelope, say it aloud, and ask a student or a group of students to act it out. The audience claps if they believe that the student(s) acted it out clearly. They do NOT clap if the student(s) did not clearly act out the sentence.?Examples:

I have a headache.  I’m hungry.?   What time is it??    My foot hurts.  I am so tired!?      Do you want to dance with me? I have a stomach ache. I ate too much.? I’m talking on my cell phone.? I love you.

Activity 6

Listen. Can you say it? is a game/practice activity where the teacher or a student, makes a sound, or says a word twice. The others in the class have to repeat.?Starting with short sounds, and then, moving onto more complicated words, the participants say exactly what they hear. The goal is to improve listening and repeating skills.


Mmmmm ah,    ah oh,     oh cat,      cat elephant,       elephant me me,

hippo,  hippo hippopotamus,  hippopotamus see,  see super-duper,  super-duper


Activity 7

Elbows Up is a game where the teacher says a list of numbers or letters or words in a pattern or a series. When the teacher leaves out a word or something in the series, the students lift up their right elbow. That way, the teacher can see immediately which students recognized the missing item. This activity builds listening skills.

Another way to play the game is to recite a series and have the students identify what the series is.

Examples of series: (numbers in order) ?1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10? Say: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 (After “ 7 “, elbows should be up when students recognize that 6 was left out).

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L?(alphabet letters)? Say: A, B, C, D, E, G, H….. (After “ G “ elbows should go up when they recognize that F was left out.

SAMPLE SERIES…You choose which one to leave out.

1st letter is in alphabetical order: apple, ball, cat, dog, elephant, frog, giraffe, horse, igloo, jaguar, kangaroo, lion, mouse, nut, ostrich, pig, queen, rabbit, skunk, tree, umbrella, violin, wolf, xylophone, yellow, zebra.

Rhyming words (You can put in a word that does not rhyme.) book, look, cook, shook, rook,            cat, rat, fat, mat, at, sat, tat,            it, hit, mitt, bit, sit, fit

Activity 8

Red Light, Green Light is a game where the children have a red circle and a green circle, glued back to back on a popsicle stick. They hold up the stick with the RED side facing the teacher if the answer is NO…They show the GREEN side if the answer is YES.? The teacher will be able to tell if the students know the answer right off because of the response style. Plus, all students get to actively participate.

Sample questions:    Do most dogs have a tail??      Are whales and dolphins fish??         Do whales and dolphins live in water??        Do red and blue mixed together make purple? Is the sun a planet?   ?Is the sun a star?    Can cats talk?   Can cats meow?  Should you brush your teeth every morning and night? Is your mother a woman?   Do you eat breakfast at night?  When you meet people should you say “hello”?   Do you eat books? Do you write with a fork?

With older students, these questions could lead to discussion….to defend answers that are not usual. For example: DO CATS TALK?  This is worth arguing about,,,because “TALK” does not have to be human talk…..A meow could be “cat talk”….When kids have arguments about such things, encourage them. It indicates critical thinking…and can build English skills, too.

Activity 9

Stories should be read aloud to the students every day. Nothing builds listening vocabulary as stories do. Stories play a vital role in language development. Establish a story-telling routine, where you sit, perhaps in a rocking chair or a beanbag chair. The students should be relaxed and comfortable…on the floor, with pillows, or at their desk, relaxed. Lower the lights. Set the scene for pleasure.?The good thing about reading aloud to the students is that you can read the same story over and over again to them if it’s one they especially like. Students love the repetition and after time, they will even join in with you to say words from the story. STORY TELLING OR READING ALOUD IS NOT ONLY FOR YOUNG LEARNERS. EVEN TEENAGERS LOVE TO LISTEN.

This activity is for fun and pleasure! This is not to be taught as a lesson, or tested. Just relax, read, and let kids ENJOY!

“Fee, Fi , Fo Fum…I smell the blood of an Englishman,” says the Giant several times in “Jack and the Beanstalk”.?“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down”, says the wolf repeatedly in the tale of “The Three Little Pigs”.

Students will join in as if they are part of the story chorus to repeat lines from the story. They love it, and when they do, the teacher knows that the students really are listening and getting involved in the story.

Do NOT make the grave error of translating the story or groups of words. The students NEED to have a reason to learn English. To comprehend is the reason.

Listening regularly to stories provides children with the opportunity to use their imagination, and to create pictures in their brains. They accept giants and witches, animals that talk, and people who can fly. Stories can help students to come to terms with their own feelings about an issue. They can learn to identify with story characters and the dilemmas they face.? Fact or fiction stories provide lessons to the listeners. The structure of many stories helps children when they eventually come to tell or write their own stories. The best and most creative writers are people who love to read! Learning to love to read occurs when adults read to kids from early childhood through to the teen age years!

Traditional fairy tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” are great stories to tell or to read for younger learners. . “The Secret Garden”, “Heidi”, “Sherlock Holmes”, and “Green Grass of Wyoming” are stories that interest older learners. These kinds of stories have clear structure, easy for five year olds to understand, or 15 year-olds to enjoy. They have repetition, so that children can see a pattern to various phrases. Fairy tales have interesting characters, with identifiable traits so students can get a feeling of what is right and what is wrong. They have a setting, and a series of events that lead on to other events. Consequences predictably follow some events, making the story a lesson of life. Stories can lead to drawings, sequencing, vocabulary growth, basic discussions, and to a love of stories, setting the base for eventual reading enjoyment.

Activity 10

Animal sounds is a game for pre-school children, where the teacher (or a student) makes the sound of an animal, and the class has to say the name of the animal. The reverse can also be played with the teacher saying the name of an animal, and the students make the animal’s sound.

horse…………………. a whinny             cat……………………. meow

pig…………………….oink, oink             dog……………………woof, woof or bow wow

cow …………………….moo moo           bird…………………….whistling or peep peep

turkey………………….gobble gobble    sheep…………baa baaa

Later, as vocabulary builds, you can use other things like a car, a train, a truck, an airplane, a bus, etc.

TEACHERS: You’ll be able to find many ideas for listening activities in the Internet or from your colleagues. Use listening activities frequently to develop a strong base for speaking.