5 Benefits of Using Podcasts to Teach Academic Language to ELs

Educators use multiple strategies to teach academic language to English language learners. However, listening is often overlooked as teachers work towards helping students develop skills in the other domains of language.

Listening to academic language is a critical part of the language acquisition process for all students, especially ELs.  Podcasts are an excellent resource for teachers looking to develop their students’ listening skills and academic vocabulary. Using podcasts to teach academic language to ELs is a great way to grow their vocabulary while building listening skills. With over 2800 high-quality podcasts, Listenwise has a wealth of content to help students and teachers alike.

Below is a list of 5 key benefits of using podcasts to teach academic language to ELs.

1. Exposing listeners to diverse, discipline-specific vocabulary in context

Listening to stories on a variety of topics provides students with exposure to a wide range of academic language. Research indicates that incidental exposure to academic vocabulary through listening to stories helps students learn the meaning of unknown words. 

Tier 1 words can be acquired through social interactions and in academic settings; however English language learners can struggle with Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary due to less frequent exposure. While there are many resources for teaching Tier 2 and 3 words through reading, there are fewer tools designed to teach academic vocabulary through listening. 

Providing EL students with opportunities to listen to discipline-specific vocabulary in context is critical, even for those in the pre-production stage of language acquisition. Research has shown that students’ receptive vocabularies can be at least two grade levels higher than their expressive vocabularies. When students listen, they can be exposed to more difficult vocabulary to stretch their receptive abilities. This also helps them develop a personal context for the academic vocabulary and retain the meanings.

Sample Podcasts:

Cotton Candy Lobster is Star Attraction 

Academic vocabulary examples: pigment, crustacean, genetic, measuring, “star attraction”

Major Volcanic Eruption in Tonga  

Academic vocabulary examples: estimate, tons, volcano, underwater, process, produces, reservoirs, magma, caverns

2. Providing background knowledge on complex topics without the mental load of additional assigned reading

Dozens of studies have documented the importance of two key areas influencing reading level: vocabulary and background knowledge (Shanahan, 2018). Students with larger vocabularies can read and understand more complex texts. Having background knowledge in a subject area is directly tied to students performing better on reading tests, even if they are lower level readers (Recht & Leslie, 1988).   

Teaching with podcasts allows students to focus on developing their use of academic language without the cognitive load of decoding.  As they listen, students can make inferences and connections to their prior knowledge that will benefit their comprehension when reading and listening in the future.

One type of Listenwise story that teachers have reported works particularly well with their English learners are Weird News podcasts. These 30-second podcasts can be filtered to include only stories appropriate for elementary and low Lexile audio levels. By slowing down the audio speed and replaying as needed, ELs have an opportunity to develop their academic vocabularies while building background knowledge in a quick, engaging way.

Sample Weird News Stories:

Space Tacos

Artist Sells Invisible Sculpture

Bakery Uses Cookies to Catch Burglar

3. Exposing listeners to idioms and cognates in the context of authentic language

One of the most challenging stages of learning another language is identifying and understanding idioms. Imagine the confusion felt by an English language learner upon hearing a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush for the first time! Teaching idioms through storytelling and conversation is a highly effective way to integrate idioms into lessons. 

Conversely, cognates can be a multilingual learner’s secret weapon to decoding. For a Spanish speaker, learning to identify words they already know because of the shared language (group/grupo, energy/energia) is an important skill. Identifying and celebrating students making connections to cognates in their native language makes learning more meaningful and personal. 

One listening exercise idea is to have students practice decoding cognates and identifying idioms while listening to a podcast together. Ask them to raise their hands when they think they hear a cognate or idiom. As a group, you can then create a class dictionary that can be displayed and added to throughout the year. Providing opportunities for students to gain exposure to idioms and practice identifying cognates within the context of content area-specific academic language is another benefit of using podcasts to teach academic language to ELs.

Sample Podcast:

Celebrating Poetry 

Idiom examples: “kick off,” “up in arms”

Cognate examples: poetry/poesía, introspection/introspección, technology/technología, history/historia

4. Providing built-in supports for listening comprehension

Teaching that employs scaffolding and other supports designed for one group often benefits others. Case in point: subtitles. Several controlled studies have revealed that captions contribute to word recognition and word comprehension skills. In other words, listening to English while reading English subtitles helps students decode words and comprehend texts.

Listenwise podcast players provide interactive transcripts of audio stories that make it easy to read along while listening. Combining reading and listening together allows the listener to track and pause to identify new academic vocabulary. Additionally, Listenwise podcast players allow the listener to slow down the audio. This provides a level of control that supports listening and learning academic language at students’ own pace. Listenwise podcasts include these supports and many more, including text-to-speech Spanish translation, graphic organizers, and tiered vocabulary. 

Quizzes are one of our most popular offerings, allowing teachers to easily and quickly monitor student progress. Listenwise quizzes are automatically scored and include drill-down reporting at the student, class, and school levels.

Research on Language Subtitling:

Brij Kothari et al (2002) 

Linebarger, Piotrowski & Greenwood (2010)

5. Exposing listeners to meaningful academic language in authentic contexts

Creating opportunities for students to regularly practice listening to academic language is an important part of the acquisition process. Listening to podcast stories is a great way to do this. 

Podcasts expose students to academic use of language within the context of natural speech, which includes different rates of speech and various accents. Podcasts can provide current informational audio texts making them an engaging tool for connecting academic language to news of the day that is relevant to students. Learning exercises requiring students to build their academic vocabularies include summarizing and sequencing.

Using podcasts to teach academic language to ELs provides them with an opportunity to make meaning out of academic language spoken in authentic, meaningful contexts. This kind of active listening practice prepares students for more complex academic conversations in the future.

Sample Podcast for Summarizing:

Researchers Bring Lab Animals Home

Sample Podcast for Sequencing:

Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars

Did we miss any benefits of using podcasting to teach academic language to English learners? Let us know— you can tweet at us to share your favorite tips and tricks.