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Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about methodology.

1. Target language

Make sure target language use is at the heart of lessons. I’m not talking about doctrinaire 90-100% TL, but a conscious decision that TL is the default position in the scheme of work. Why? Most of the listening students do is what’s called in the literature interpersonal, interactional or two-way listening. This means the listening students do when interacting with their teacher or peers. So interactive, communicative lessons need to be a first priority. This can be in the form of structured drilling and question-answer interactions, or less structured dialogues such as information gap activities and communicative tasks. Students who receive a consistent diet of meaningful interaction will become better listeners. Nature will take its course. Why not tell students about this?

Don’t forget, incidentally, that many of the activities we think of as oral, with the aim of developing speaking skill, involve large amounts of listening. In whole class oral sessions students are most of the time listening, not talking. (This has often been seen as a weakness of whole class, teacher-led lessons, but in terms of listening such lessons are hugely beneficial when done well.) So just think of the amount of listening which occurs as you build a story from a picture or series of pictures.

2. Not just comprehension

It’s been a frequent criticism in the research literature that course books too often just provide comprehension exercises to go with listening texts. You know the sort if thing: questions, matching tasks, true/false/not mentioned. Answers are right or wrong, the exercise is superficial and students feel like it’s a test. No wonder they don’t like it and feel like they are not very good. New GCSEs are exacerbating this feeling.

For at least 25 years researchers have been arguing that it’s better to focus on listening as a process, not a product. Google the name John Field if you would like to read more about this or look at Gianfranco Conti’s blogs. What does this mean in practice? Instead of just doing comprehension, do exercises which develop the ‘micro-skills’ of listening, for example phonological awareness, segmentation of the sound stream, parsing (using morphological and syntactic knowledge to work out meaning), knowing sound-spelling links (phonics), learning words and phrases, learning about how words and phrases sound when they go together in natural speech.

Such exercises would include transcription, dictation, gap-filling, ‘guess the next word’ and intonation practice. Instead of just doing the exercise in the text book, you would get into the text in more detail, showing the transcription, asking questions, doing short term memory recall exercises and translation. You’d take every opportunity to develop phonics skill and alertness to sound by doing specific pronunciation practice, teaching letter to sound equivalents and talking about phonetics and phonology. Instead of writing up simple instructions on the board you might dictate them. Instead of giving a worksheet with TL questions, you might dictate those questions first. In short, avoid sketchy listening for gist exercises and prioritise intensive listening. Better to do a short, comprehensible text thoroughly than a longer, hard to understand text superficially using word spotting and educated guesswork.

3. Listening tasks

We know students enjoy meaning-focused tasks with a purpose so consider building into the scheme of work at all levels specific communicative tasks and games where the focus is on listening. We also know that many scholars believe that hearing and reading input and interacting with it is the crux for acquisition. So balance out your process-focused, nitty-gritty listening work with information gaps, whole class tasks and purposeful games (e.g. Alibi, Detect my Lies, The Price is Right and so on).

Beginners benefit from physical response tasks such as Simon Says. Intermediate students can do acting out as you give an account, e.g. describing your daily routine or what you did on holiday. Make listening social, not passive, whenever you can.

4. Scaffold the listening

At all levels make listening feasible so students feel successful (‘self-efficacy’). This doesn’t mean dumbing down by giving easy material all the time, it means using texts and your own input at or just above their level. And if you do use a challenging resource, scaffold any exercises, working the material intensively so students feel they have mastered it. I think it’s more important for texts to be usable rather than authentic. But occasional use of short, authentic material can be useful - students need to sometimes hear what the real language sounds like.

Evaluate text book listening passages, rejecting those which are inappropriate and adapting others. If you know an exercise is inadequate, change it. Find other material, especially video. Video is usually far more motivating for students, but choose it wisely. Showing a sub-titled film has some value, but for most intermediate classes it’s cultural more than linguistic. For purely linguistic progress it may not be the best use of time in most cases.

Find songs at the right level - clear and not too fast, preferably with patterned input, e.g. repetitions of phrases or tense forms.

Use all the tricks of the trade to make listening comprehensible: gesture, pictures, facial expression, slowing down and so on. Use translation (sparingly), paraphrase, repetition and pausing. Write things up after you’ve said them. All of this supports students in their comprehension and resultant feeling if success.

5. Strategies

When comprehension fails, students may have to fall back on strategies for coping, ‘compensatory strategies’. Without going overboard on this (because time is better spent on other things) help students to think of ways they can work out meaning when they don’t understand the input: their general knowledge of the world, their knowledge of what they might expect people to say, the intonation of what’s said, and other linguistic clues such as verb endings and key words and phrases such as ‘but’, ‘I agree’ and ‘on the other hand’.

Use think-aloud techniques to model to students how they can use these techniques to help them. Have them discuss after an exercise what they found easy or difficult, but make sure they have the tools to do this by understanding a bit about how listening works. (Otherwise they’ll just say it was too hard!)

6. Exam preparation

In terms of, say, the GCSE listening exam, have a planned approach to its preparation. For example, I would be reluctant to set past papers too soon, when students aren’t ready. You could argue that this galvanises students when they see how hard it is. I would argue the opposite. It makes little educational sense to set material which is just too hard. Don’t get overly focused on the exam too soon since will compromise your practice as well as being boring for classes.

So I would leave last papers until late, do as many as possible at that time since practice at specific question types does lead to improvement. Show transcripts, talk about technique, look at individual questions intensively.

When students ask “How do I revise listening?” give them online sources of video listening at the right level or booklets of self-study listening using your school’s resources or the internet.


When I was a Head of Department we talked a good deal about methodology, including listening, but I confess that we didn’t have an explicit overall plan. Maybe you don’t need it written down, but the discussion is worthwhile.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. An excellent post on a topic that still has me feeling inadequate after 20+ years of teaching. Will be doing the digital equivalent of cutting out and pasting in the scrapbook. Merci!

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad it was useful.

  2. Thanks for this post. In addition to John Field and Gianfranco Conti, it's well worth looking up Richard Cauldwell's work for some interesting and creative approaches to teaching (rather than testing) listening.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I have read bits of Richard’s work.

    2. I know they have fallen out of fashion, but at this juncture I'd speak up for the humble language lab. There is an immense amount to be said for giving students a degree of control over the material. Few things scare them more than the idea of only hearing a piece twice. When this is removed, the nervousness goes and you find they engage more. Plus of course, each can go at his/her own speed - the less able can use pause and recap functions extensively, and intercom you if stuck, while the brightest may work under exam conditions, hearing the passages twice. And every variant in between those two extremes! The more individually-tailored the teaching and materials, the greater their effectiveness IMHO.

      This also sidesteps the 'sketchy' nature of comprehension exercises mentioned above, as you can get so much more out of what are usually excellent, graded passages with some interesting vocab. In my experience they tend to be chronically under-exploited in coursebooks and test books as a source of comprehensible input. Of course, this requires some materials preparation on your part, but you can build up a neat little library of thematic passages, with exercises adapted to various abilities, and which could form the basis of discussion or written homework as follow-ups. Old coursebooks can usually become a source of extra listenings.

      As to technology, you don't need expensive IT suites to carry out the above. Even a set of CD/tape players/mp3 players and headphones are usable in lieu.

      Anyway, thanks again for such excellent articles.

    3. Thank you for commenting. I agree with you on all of that. I always thought it was inconsistent that at A-level candidates can rewind, pause etc, while at GCSE they cannot. The reasons are practical of course.


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