Using Voice of America audio downloads for specific university reading or listening courses

Stephen B. Ryan, Yamagata University


Quick guide
  • Key words: Reading, listening, specific purposes
  • Learner English level:  Advanced
  • Learner Maturity: University and above 
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Prepared copies of the listening transcript and audio
Choosing a curriculum for a university reading class that falls within the students’ area of study can be difficult. Textbook material is often outdated or inappropriate. This approach allows students to study from latest topical information, thus increasing motivation and allowing them to learn content as well as English. Students only need a notebook to keep notes and an English dictionary. Specific areas of study can be targeted such as medicine, technology or societal issues. This activity can also be easily transformed into a one semester curriculum for the typical 90 minute, 15 class university semester. 
Step 1: Access the Voice of America Learning English section on the Internet (<>). This section is specifically made for ESL learners, so the speed is a bit slower than normal. 
Step 2: Choose an appropriately themed article you wish to use in the classroom. Articles are typically around 400 words in length.
Step 3: Copy the article onto a Word document and delete extra space or pictures if needed.
Step4: Next, mark in bold 10 vocabulary items you feel are key to understanding the content. Print it. This is the teacher’s copy.
Step 5: Now delete the 10 words you just highlighted, creating a cloze exercise of 10 missing vocabulary words that the students will have to fill in by first listening and after by reading. Print it. This is the students’ copy.
Step 6: On the VOA webpage, download the audio to the article. This is the audio file you will use in the classroom. You can either burn it to a CD or copy it to an MP3 player.
Step 7: Make up five questions regarding the content of the reading and be ready to write these questions on the blackboard.
Step 8: Before you walk into class, make sure you have enough student copies, your own copy with the answers and your audio ready to go. I use an iPod and just plug it into the external speakers available in the classroom. 
Step 1: Write the 10 vocabulary words you chose previously on the blackboard in random order. You may want to go over each word with the students for pronunciation or allow them to look up definitions in their dictionaries as a primer.
Step 2: Introduce the topic that students will be studying that day. This can also be extended into a discussion if desired. Play the audio. A typical audio file will last about 4 minutes.
Step 3: While the audio is playing, it is a good time to write the five comprehension questions on the blackboard next to the vocabulary.
Step 4: Now, go over each of the five questions you just wrote on the blackboard making sure students understand them.
Step 5: Play the audio again, asking students to listen for the answers to the questions.
Step 6: Allow students some time to check with others around them or in small groups for common answers. Now, ask or choose five students to write their answers on the blackboard. If students still have difficulty understanding, you may decide to play the audio again.
Step 7: After the five students write their answers on the blackboard, hand out copies of the audio transcript cloze exercise you have prepared. I usually give the class about 15-20 minutes to read the article and fill-in the missing vocabulary.
Step 8: Play the audio for the final time and have students follow along to check their answers and vocabulary while they listen. 
Step 9: Have students write 10 original sentences based on the 10 words you chose in their B5 notebook. Students usually raise their hands and have me check their sentences for mistakes before the class ends since they will have a quiz on it.
Step 10:  Tell the class they will have a 10-point quiz the following week. For the quiz, choose any of the five vocabulary words and all five of the comprehension questions. Students will need to memorize the comprehension question answers and their original sentences from the previous class.
This activity is flexible for English for specific purposes, provides a weekly goal and achievable assessment of student effort and knowledge by bringing motivating and contemporary topics into the classroom.