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Selecting Online Videos for Listening Practice & Assessment

I was inspired to write this post because of the complications with my program's current practices with using online videos to help students develop their listening skills and to assess their listening skills. I've had conversations with my current and previous classes, which range from the intermediate-mid range of English language proficiency (as a whole, not just listening) to the lower advanced range. I initiated these conversations as a result from my first class at the program (our highest level for students intending to enroll in undergraduate courses), in which the majority of students complained about how difficult and inappropriate the online videos were compared to their expectations and academic needs.

In my current and previous classes, I performed a low-stakes informal (not controlled well) experiment with their full knowledge that this was an experiment.  I compared my students' reactions to videos from TED Ed to videos from the Sci Show You Tube channel.  I'd like to share some examples from each of these sources.  Because the Zika virus is making the headlines during the time of this writing, I'll share two videos about mosquitoes.  Please watch them and think what English language learners at a university would think about these in terms of a class activity and as a "text" for a listening quiz or high-stakes exam.

TED Ed's Video - "The Loathsome, Lethal Mosquito"

Sci Show's Video - "What If We Killed All Mosquitoes?"

Student Reactions

What did you think?  If you thought students would like the first one more, you are correct.  But why? In both classes, the main reason was the speed of the speaker. Ted Ed's speaker was much slower and also a little clearer. They didn't struggle as much to catch many of the main points.

Secondly, the Ted Ed video did not use as much informal, idiomatic, or vernacular speech as Sci Show. In this way, the Ted Ed video's speech is probably closer to academic speech, which is the listening aim for many of our students. However, I don't know how many TAs or professors infuse a lot of idiomatic and vernacular speech into their lectures and guided discussions.  The Sci Show video may have an advantage to expose English language learners to both formal and informal types of speech and vocabulary in speaking texts, however my students are greatly intimidated by how quickly Hank Green (Sci Show's host) speaks.

My previous class commented that Hank Green's speech seemed unnatural and even "unhealthy" like he drank too much coffee and couldn't calm down.  Although this high-energy speaking keeps my seven-year old daughter's attention (she's a fan of Sci Show), it seemed to have the opposite effect on my most of my students. However, I had one student from East Asia that was not bothered by this intense speaking style. I don't have enough evidence if students from certain cultures or backgrounds prefer one type of speaking style over another for academic purposes.  Sounds like an interesting research project! (It could very well much be likely individual differences rather than cultural.) 

Most of my students said they would not like me or other professors to lecture to them in the fashion of Hank Green, who most likely doesn't talk like this.  I told my students that this fast-paced speaking is mostly an effect of editing. Most of the pauses (and mistakes and fillers) in speech were most likely edited out of the video. I told my students that most people need not aspire to talk in the same fashion as an edited high-paced YouTube video, but it appears to attract more followers on YouTube.

Lastly, some of the students in my current class liked that Ted Ed had its own set of comprehension and discussion questions so they could practice on their own at home.  It's not often that I have these types of highly intrinsically motivated students, but it's very helpful and encouraging to hear this feedback from students. These questions can also help inspire the teacher to use and supplement them in class or as homework.

L2 Listening Practice & Assessment

Online videos are becoming a more common way for students to learn more about a subject and to entertain themselves, so I believe they are worthy of listening practice in English. I support online videos as one of the many genres of listening texts students should listen to.  Both of these videos are educational, but don't seem to be meant for university students. If you are teaching intermediate students, I think these videos are more appropriate than those who are just a semester or two away from enrolling full-time in university classes.

I'm critical of how our program has used online videos for listening assessment. When using online videos for assessment, the exam writer has to consider the purpose of listening. When students watch online videos, they are able to pause them at any time and use captions when available. The students can monitor their own listening but pausing and replaying difficult sections of the video.  They can also use captions (if they are accurate) to catch certain words or phrases that they were not able to catch.  This type of practice helps build metacognitive strategies for listening. In a computer lab, we can provide this opportunity for students for practice and assessment.

However, if the teacher is solely in control of the online video for the whole class, the listening purpose is less authentic. In most university courses, a professor may play an online video to show an example or to help students visualize a very abstract concept.  The professor may pause the video to make or emphasize a point, but rarely to ask students to identify key words or repeat what has been heard. Cloze listening activities have their place in second language listening but not at a more advanced stage of language learning.  Students should be prepared to engage in discussion and to ask their classmates or the professor about segments they could not understand or catch.  With many online videos, there is a good chance that the reason a student did not understand a portion of the text is because of the video and not the listener.  Students must be able to clearly explain what made a portion or portions of the video. This is more important than completing a cloze activity, especially for the more advanced students. Many of my views in this paragraph are informed by the metacognitive approach to second language listening (Vandergrift & Goh, 2011).

What Do Others Think?

The famous Larry Ferlazzo provides eight ways to use videos for K-12 students, but I think many of these can be applied to higher education.

Macmillan Education's OneStopEnglish site also provides similar suggestions at

I thought more ELTs would be writing or blogging about this, but I can't find many at the moment. I've only scratched the surface with this topic, and I'd like to write more if and when I get the time. What do you think about using online videos for listening practice and assessment?


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