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Podcasts: a multiskill tool


In which ways have you been experimenting with listening to content in class? One popular mode of listening to content in recent years has been the increasing choice of podcasts. Whether you subscribe through iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher or any number of platforms, podcast genres run the gamut for all types of interests, including language and language teaching. Personally, I pay attention to a few to quench my thirst for professional development, for example IATEFL TDSIG’s Developod, Lingthusiasm, and Code Switch.

For learners, podcasts can be very handy authentic listening texts also. In fact, many blog posts already recommend a list of suggestions for the language learner (see Sandy Millin’s two posts here and here for a start). They range in appropriate level, though I’d argue for most Intermediate+ learners, aiming for a podcast within interest area rather than specifically by language difficulty is likely to yield more engagement. With this, speech will definitely be more natural and not something tailored, slowed, or simplified for the sake of the listener, which ultimately can be a common complaint by both learners and teachers. 

With this in mind, I’d like to recommend a few options to consider for these learners, which in my experience are quite digestible in length and content. I personally find those produced by Gimlet Media achieve both these characteristics nicely. 

Science Vs – Host Wendy Zuckerman “pits fact against fiction” in this series. A timely topic is chosen (e.g. CBD: Weed Wonder Drug?, Plastics: The Final Straw?, Ketogenic Diet, etc.) and in the vein of a journal article, she proposes two or three main questions to answer, consults with experts (and includes many citations in the show notes) for evidence, and comes to clear conclusions to these questions within each episode. This clearly logical format makes the content quite easy to follow.

Heavyweight – For a little heartwarming feeling, in this series, you hear about stories of situations people have regrets or memories of that they’d like to resolve. Host Jonathan Goldstein tries to help by connecting people together and talking through some of their feelings. It’s a bit light-hearted and Goldstein interjects with a slow, humorous tone.

Startup – It’s a show about starting a business. Similarly narrative to Heavyweight but more serialised, it’s a meta look at starting up a podcast company, with storyteller and founder, Alex Blumberg. Throughout Season 1, Alex shares recorded conversations including his embarrassingly weak pitches to investors, shockingly red and delightfully positive bank balances, frank bedside discussions with his wife, and matter-of-fact information to applicants looking for work. In Season 2, the story shifts from his own company to another fledgling venture, an online dating service, Dating Ring. It’s an insightful first-hand look at business ventures in a serialised format.

Podcast ELT

A few pedagogical tips on using podcasts

  • Authentic vs scripted: As they are listening texts, you can find ones that are more scripted than others. I find those who have hosts and guests, rather than those that are pure fiction, tend to include a more natural, authentic use of language. The ones I’ve suggested blend storytelling with conversational discussion, which keeps the episode moving without being too overwhelming.
  • Duration: While many podcasts lately have a running time ideal for commutes (e.g. 20-30 minutes), for lesson use, it might be beneficial to break up one episode into smaller chunks (e.g. 2-3 minutes for intensive listening practice; 5-10 mins for note-taking practice, etc.). 
  • Transcripts for lesson planning: Like a reading text, many are accompanied by transcripts. This affords us the ability to pre-screen lexis ahead of time and design follow-up comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, or speaking activities. 
  • Reflective listening journals: An additional suggestion that works well for reflective listening practice is having learners independently source podcasts (perhaps from an initial list you give them), and have them create a listening journal. In this journal, they can discuss what they listened to, a particular language feature they focus on hearing, and reflect on the amount they understood, the areas they found difficult, and the progress they feel they are making in their listening proficiency.
  • Speaking practice: One way you can encourage learners to speak using podcasts is to have them create their own. While technical setup can be a bit of a learning curve, assigning groups to determine their chosen content, publishing frequency, and the dynamics of the group within the podcast can be a rewarding task-based activity to motivate learners to talk in meaningful ways on topics they are interested in. Some genre options include response podcasts to a TV show or movies they watch, discussions on learning language, or topic areas covered in class readings. In this way, teachers get regular recordings to listen to for language and structural feedback. It also creates accountability for the learning when they know others will listen to it beyond just us… the teacher.

Podcasts for reading and writing?

One final podcast suggestion is one I have successfully incorporated into my reading and writing curriculum for teaching EAP. While I’d recommend Science Vs for more academic content (e.g. organisation and citation), I’ve recently used Serial to engage learners in extensive reading. In particular Season 1, with its serialised murder mystery case involving two 1.5 generation teenagers in the United States, is a captivating deep dive into storytelling and exploratory investigation. Host Sarah Koenig separates aspects of the case in each episode carefully, methodically, and engagingly, which is why this series has been labeled as the reason why podcasting has become so popular again. 

But how can a podcast be used for reading, you may wonder. Where reading through a novel can be quite time-consuming and often something learners complain about by focusing on every word, podcasts like Serial can be a multi-modal experience for language learning. While listening is primary, the accompaniment of transcripts means that learners can look through it as they listen or after they listen for more information and clarity of meaning. It also gives teachers a way of creating a type of discussion group based on a reading that can be repeatedly referred to at the learner’s leisure rather than needing to cue to certain areas of a listening to hear a segment over and over again. 

With this particular class, I ran this as a type of extensive reading book club with my learners, where in conjunction with a Facebook group I set up for them, I picked out areas of each episode to start a discussion topic each week. I didn’t monitor the degree to which they chose to listen vs read, but rather engaged with their written responses to create group discussion, give feedback, and sometimes assess. Some weeks I focussed solely on story content; other weeks I purposefully picked out language points to discuss; further weeks I asked learners to make connections between points they found interesting and other material we have used in class. Not only did this give learners an opportunity to listen and read, but also engage in written format about what their comprehension and opinions about what occurred in the episode. Take a look at my materials here.

Next plans

In this coming year, I’ll be teaching an information studies course to EAP learners at the University of Toronto. One assignment will be a instructor/student weekly podcast, where I invite small groups of students after each class to sit with me and chat about the topic for the week and go over any questions they have. I’ll accompany this with an online forum for other classmates to respond to what they hear in the episode. In this way, I hope this type of podcast will encourage engagement with course content, as well as improve my learners’ confidence in speaking about it as a group, plus it might help others, who may in fact have similar questions or ideas about the content themselves, but not feel ready to ask me. I will also be tutoring on the upcoming Trinity DipTESOL course provided by Oxford TEFL during which I also plan to encourage teachers to use podcasts to engage learners and provide a more unique way of developing listening, reading and writing skills.

What suggestions do you have for using podcasts in your classes?

Further reading

Phillips, B. 2017. Student-produced podcasts in language learning–exploring student perceptions of podcast activities. IAFOR Journal of Education 5(3), pp. 157-171. Available here.

Sánchez Durán, L.F. 2017. Student-Generated podcasts and the development of speaking skills in an EFL sixth-grade classroom (Trabajo de Grado). Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia. Available here.

Seburn, T. 2017, October 12. Serial podcast for extensive reading [blog]. Available here.

Yeh, C.C. 2017. An investigation of a podcast learning project for extensive listening. In Kimura, K. and Middlecamp, J. (eds.) Asian-focused ELT research and practice: voices from the far edge. Phnom Penh, pp. 87-107. Available here. 

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