Podcasts: Another Source for Listening Input
The advent of podcasts on the internet has given the language teacher a goldmine of materials for teaching listening skills. This article covers the subject of podcasts on several levels. It will first deal with the question of what podcasts are and what their advantages are. Next, the article describes how podcasts can benefit students and how to determine which podcasts would be the most beneficial. It also discusses how to maximize learning from podcasts. Lastly, the content of ESL/EFL podcasts will be described so that the reader can take advantage of the new wealth of materials available for teaching.
What Is a Podcast?
A podcast is the name of a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program. Podcasts are published on the internet as MP3 files. Interested listeners are able to download these MP3 files onto their personal computer or personal MP3 player of any type The files can be listened to at the convenience of the listener. Learners can listen over and over to any material that is of interest to them. To be useful in a school setting a teacher would need internet access, a computer that can play audio files or an MP3 player.
Podcasts can be as short as two to three minutes and as long as an hour. Teachers can subscribe to a podcast through an RSS subscription (Really Simple Syndication). The advantage of this practice is that as new episodes become available they are downloaded to the computer automatically. Also, they come at no cost to the subscriber. Because podcast content is free, teachers now have a way to build up a big listening library for their students on contemporary and relevant topics. Teachers can also encourage students to download podcasts on their own so that they have more listening input.
Advantages of Podcasts
In thinking about podcasts, teachers might ask themselves what the benefit would be for their students. Even at the beginning levels, learners can benefit from global listening even if they only listen from three to five minutes a day. Beginning students will be exposed to the new language “with its own distinctive sound system, intonation patterns, pause system and word order”. (Patterson, 2001, p.93) The intermediate learner has a need for authentic texts and to be exposed to a variety of voices. By the time learners reach the advanced stage, they must be able to learn from listening. Most students in a foreign country rely heavily on reading, writing and vocabulary to learn. It is critical for them to be able to recognize “organizational markers, cohesive devices and definitions in context.” (Patterson, 2001, p. 97)
How to Decide What Podcasts Are Beneficial
There are at least two concepts that teachers must focus on in choosing a podcast for the students to hear. The first has to do with relevance. In order for students to benefit from listening to a podcast the content must be relevant to the learner. When a topic is relevant, it holds the attention of the learner and thus increases motivation. (Morley, 2001) Other researchers have also commented on the need for authentic language and contexts. By providing these tools, students will see the relevance of the activity to their long-term communicative goals. (Brown, 2001) The desire for relevant content is personified through such courses as Business English. In this past year, podcasts for Business English have appeared on the internet. They deal with practical topics such as socializing, telephoning and meetings. Teachers who teach overseas now have the opportunity to access such materials and pass it on to their students.
The second concept that a teacher must consider in choosing a podcast is that of transferability. Actually, relevance and transferability are often connected. If students feel that the content is relevant, there is a strong possibility that what is learned can be applied to other situations whether it is at school or out in the real world. “Best listening activities present in-class activities that mirror real life.” (Morley, 2001, p.77) For instance, students can listen to a news broadcast with topics that can later be used in a real life conversation.
Listening Techniques to Enhance Learning
Students will gain the most from podcasts if they employ strategic listening techniques to consolidate their learning. Mendelsohn (1994) offers seven techniques that will help the listeners focus on any listening activity.
- Listen for one crucial detail.
- Listen for all the details.
- Listen for the gist
- Listen for mood and atmosphere.
- Listen for the main idea.
- Listen to form hypotheses and make predictions.
- Listen to make an inference.
Have an Outcome in Mind
As students listen to a podcast, there must be a purpose for this activity. In other words, what will the students do with the information they gained through listening? Will they take notes, summarize the gist of a story, fill out an outline or fill in a gap story? (Morley, 2001) One can quickly see that a listening activity can involve more than one skill. Writing can be utilized as well as speaking. Students can discuss what they heard on the podcast. For instance, students’ can compare their life experiences with those reported on a podcast.
What Type of Content Is Offered on ESL/EFL Podcasts?
Trying to find information on the internet can sometimes prove to be very frustrating. However, a quick search on an internet search engine will uncover a number of new ESL podcast sites that have been developed for different purposes. The following are just some of the topics that are covered.
- Grammar Topics
- Idioms and Slang
- Business English
- World News and Current events
- Limericks and Jokes
Teachers can also take advantage of mainstream media institutions that offer free podcasts such as Voice of America and National Public Radio. Podcasts are not just for listening. Often there is a transcript provided along with worksheets. Some podcasts even provide cultural notes. A number of websites interact with the students and ask them to write in with questions or comments. Often the comments of students provide the material for new programs. One innovative uses of podcasts is to have a student listen to a podcast and read along with its transcript. Then the student will make a recording of the material on a cassette tape and turn it into the teacher along with a written journal. The teacher then listens to the student’s recording and gives appropriate feedback to the student. This type of activity helps the students to develop fluency in reading, to improve pronunciation, and to acquire new vocabulary words.
My interest in podcasts developed because of the desire to find new materials for teaching listening skills. In teaching listening, a teacher can fall into the bad habit of using the same listening materials over and over again. Podcasts can supply fresh ideas and motivation. With any new idea, a teacher must also examine the reasons for using it and the purposes it can serve. Students in an EFL setting need to be exposed to new voices and relevant content. Podcasts can meet this need. But, a teacher must also be committed to teaching good listening techniques such as listening for details. At the end of the day students must be able to do something with what they have heard. As students respond positively to listening tasks, they will be motivated to learn more. After all, the goal of every teacher should be to help students gain confidence in hearing and understanding what is spoken in their new language.
- Brown, D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Longman, Inc.
- Madden, M. (2006, November). Podcast downloading. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Available at http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Podcasting.pdf.
- Mendelsohn, D. (1994). Learning to listen: A strategy-based approach for the second language learner. Carlsbad, CA: Dominic Press, Inc.
- Morley, J. (2001). Aural comprehension instruction: Principles and practices. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language, (pp.69-85). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
- Peterson, P. (2001). Skills and strategies for proficient listening. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language, (pp.87-100). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.