Podcasts in Class!

What is a podcast and how does it work?
Personal-on-demand broadcasts, or simply podcasts, are a form of digital media where anyone can record his or her voice and talk or ramble on about any topic imaginable (e.g. politics, films, economy, literature etc.) using simply a microphone and an online connection, features included on almost every smartphone. These recordings are uploaded and published online where anyone interested can listen to them at any time and anywhere, even on their mobile devices. Many online news services (such as the BBC or CNN) or academic platforms (such as Oxford University or the British Council) use this medium to discuss important topics, often inviting famous guests such as professionals or experts, depending on the topic.

Online platforms (such as iTunes) serve as podcatchers where podcasts are published and stored in online databases, making podcasts easy to access and find. Therefore, podcatchers should be used as a starting point in finding a podcast, since podcasts are found in abundance online. Many podcasts are episodic, meaning new episodes are uploaded regularly

Privacy concerns
In contrast to the use of social media like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, podcasts can usually be obtained through websites. Those website might use tracking technology provided by big companies like Google (Google Analytics), Chartbeat, or IOAM, which allow companies to track users on all websites which use the same tracking services. This is not to be considered a special risk since almost all commercial websites use tracking services. WordPress, the hoster for this blog, for example, uses the subdomain stats.wp.com to create statistics and most probably user profiles. If you don’t like the idea of profiles on your internet usage you might want to consider using an adblocker or special browser plugins that allow you to block third party content like uMatrix for Firefox.

The companies behind (commercial) podcatchers like iTunes or Spotify most likely create profiles based on the behaviour of users. The upside of these profiles are the personalised suggestions of podcasts and music which can be of good quality.

How can I use Podcasts in the classroom?

A) Classic listening task

A classic way to use a podcast in the language classroom would be to use it as a listening task for the whole class. Nothing special really, the teacher plays the short podcast, or podcast excerpt, and starts a discussion or other activity based on the podcast’s content. Make sure the podcast is adquately embedded in pre-listening and post-listening activity!

B) Listening to podcasts in groups

Prepare several short clips and divide your class, each group gets a clip to listen to. After listening to the podcasts the groups can discuss their clip and afterwards present aspects of their podcasts to the other groups. Rotation methods like placemats or double circles and other forms of mingle are useful for this step.
Prepare a discussion sheet with categories like: style, accent, content, credibility …, which can be used to guide  the discussions.


Focus on… listening!

vgl. Grimm, Nancy at al.. 2015. Teaching English. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, p. 126

Listening is, together with speaking, perhaps the most important skill of all. It is part of our daily interaction and it also the prerequisite for linguistic interaction. A conversation after all consists of understanding what the other says and reacting to it. A huge amount of our daily interaction is spoken interaction whereas only a lot smaller part is done in reading and writing. Which makes listening an extremely important skill to teach.

As with all receptive strategies, listening comprehension is an interplay between bottom-up and top-down processes, meaning that in order to understand a listening text you have certain expectations and prior-knowledge (top-down) that you apply in the understanding process whereas you then make sense of what you listen to and how it fits to your prior knowledge and what new information you might get (bottom-up). This being said, it is obvious that a text should not largely exceed the students’ linguistics abilities (vocab, grammar, background knowledge) nor should the text itself present material that is too far away from what the students can understand. This is now the job of the teacher (though most school material might have done the job for you) to choose the right level of texts. However, texts should after all present something new to the students linguistic- as well as content-wise in order to learn (see Vigotsky’s “zone of promximal development”).

Listening is perhaps the most challenging of the five skills. What makes it so difficult are the following factors:

  • you cannot reread (like in a reading task) something you’ve heard but not completely understood
  • authentic spoken language is usually fast
  • there are few or no pauses and this is beyond your control
  • sometimes background noise, non-standard English etc. make it difficult to understand

It is often tested in class tests (due to its closed format it is quite valid and also easy to correct) but very rarely extensively taught which makes students fear listening tasks a lot.  Thus, to enable students to make sense of what they hear, the teacher should consider the following :

  • expose students to as many listening texts as possible, if possible authentic ones as often as you can but adequate for their linguistic level of competence not to frustrate them
  • make students familiar with different accents, intonation patterns (angry / excited…), gender differences, level of background noise
  • use English as the language of classroom discourse as much as you can, you are their first and most personal language model (do not speak too slowly even with beginners but adapt your vocab and your linguistic structures to the age level)
  • make them do micro-listening activites: i.e. exercises in which students have to distinguish between sounds (bad or bat?) and intonation pattern (question or affirmative sentence?); especially beginner textbooks offer quite a lot of these, don’t skip them!
  • make students aware of their bottom-up and top-down processes by making them make sense of what they understood (even if it is only a little) in the context of the content of the listening text

It goes without saying, that as with all other kind of classroom exercises you should choose material that is relevant to the students and create meaningful listening tasks that could resemble real world listening objectives (listening to announcement, listening to radio shows for information, listening to somebody explaining the way…).

Students require the skill listening for podcasts. Since many podcasts deal with complex and demanding topics, podcasts should not be used in class before 9th grade. Besides, many podcasts suffer from poor audio quality because of a lot of background noise or cheap microphones, and they might even include strong accents or unknown slang, making them even more demanding. It is also important to point out that podcasts usually last for a very long time, usually around 60 minutes, while a normal listening comprehension should not last any longer than 15 minutes. Therefore, the students should only listen to a small extract of the podcast. Podcasts are also demanding due to their rambling, ranting nature. They often lack focus or structure and consequently the students have to extract only the most important points (the gist) from a long and complicated conversation or discussion. For all of these reasons, podcasts should normally be used in year 10 and up.

A typical listening lesson consists of three parts:

  • pre-listening: activate prior knowledge, set up listening expectations, define a reason to read
  • while-listening: focus on what is important for the listening purpose, try to make sense of what you hear even if you do not understand every single word
  • post-listening: draw conclusions, state your personal opinion, respond to the text


In this step the teacher has to inform the students about any unknown information and answer questions about the podcasts including: When and where was the podcasts published? Who is speaking (One person or several)? What is the topic they are discussing? How is this relevant to the topic in class? Also, the teacher should write down any unknown vocabulary and give hints about the podcast in terms of anything significant or unusual (strong accents, key-words to look out for etc.). Most importantly, the teacher should establish a clear objective and create motivation. The pre-listening serves as an activation phase for the students to prepare them sufficiently for the actual listening to the podcast. Therefore, this stage can also be combined with a partner exercise (where two students compare their expectations and hypotheses about the podcast e.g.) in order to prepare every single student. This might be more effective than simply lecturing the students.


It is important not to disturb the students in this phase. Any questions should be discussed prior to or after the listening exercise. Pausing the podcasts disturbs and distracts the students from listening and is not advisable. Due to a successful pre-listening stage, the students should already have notes and a basic understanding of the podcast, including their own predictions and expectations, which they can prove or disprove during the listening stage. Hence, the students can compare their hypotheses and notes of the pre-listening stage with the actual content of the podcasts. Some listening exercises can be listened to twice. However, most podcasts are simply too long to be listened to again. In this case, the prior preparation phase should be done thoroughly and with extra care to avoid any confusion or mental overload of the students.


In this phase all the information about the podcast should be pooled together. The notes and expectations of the pre-listening stage should be compared to the actual podcast and shared in class. Besides, the students should reflect on the podcast and discuss what has been learned and how this new knowledge can be used. It is essential to check if every student has understood the podcast properly and discuss any problems and confusions regarding the podcast to avoid any misunderstandings or frustrations (e.g. creating a work sheet with a cloze text).
This is  a possible lesson plan for a podcast lesson: