Listen to learn, learn to listen

I was delivering this session on Developing Listening skills to a Pre-service course at CISJDR and got bewildered, not to mention shocked, at what one trainee brought up in a group discussion. She categorically affirmed that she is not allowed to work on listening skills in her school as it may disrupt the class and bring chaos to the institution. I really feel sorry for her as I see her as potential educator who wants to make some changes to the teaching of English in our public schools. Yet, she is denied the right as an educator to exercise what she judges is best for her learners. One may wonder if this is comedy or tragedy.

  • Methods and Approaches to work on listening


Getting students to listen in English is vitally important for a number of reasons, no matter what teaching environment you are, be it public schools, private schools, language centres, 121, you name it.

First and foremost, listening in almost any setting is the most frequently used language skill. We listen to a great deal of language that either interests us or is useful to us. Consequently, systematic listening exposes learners to the language in a way that helps them acquire language either consciously or unconsciously. As listening requires comprehension, effective listening helps learners sharpen thinking and create meaning.

Listening in class can be used to teach listening sub-skills – predicting, skimming and scanning, deducing meaning from the context. Furthermore, skill and strategy instruction enhances listening development and it is integrated throughout the lesson to enable learners to draw their own interpretive skills, appropriate inferences and comprehend the listening text.

Most of the listening sub-skills are practised by studying passages in general and in detail. There are two traditional basic approaches to listening in a foreign language – extensive and intensive listening. Obviously, they are both necessary and complementary since learners can use different strategies they judge most appropriate to tackle a listening text.

Extensive listening involves approaching a listening text to gain an overall understanding. Therefore, listening extensively is a fluency-oriented activity whose focus is mainly on the informational content rather than over-concentrating on individual words and sentences. It is worth pointing out that a longer listening text  is made up of small bits such as words, phrases and sentences. It is when the small parts are complementary to the general understanding that intensive and extensive approaches overlap.

However, as class time is short and learners have different needs, outside class listening should be promoted as a means to achieve listening proficiency. Therefore, learners should be made aware that extensive listening is instrumental in providing them with a choice of what to listen to, what strategies to adjust to what they hear so as to serve their different purposes effectively, and above all, in a pleasurable way.

Intensive listening requires learners’ focus on the listening text so that they can understand what it means as well as how the meaning is conveyed. It is an accuracy-oriented activity which engages learners in obtaining general and detailed information. Hence, listening intensively demands that the learners pay close attention to the text so that they can make inferences, grasp the ideas relationship in order to close the gap between their current knowledge and that assumed by the speaker.

Intensive and extensive listening differ widely from each other mainly when it comes to class procedures and purposes. Bearing this in mind, we can either use a skill-based lesson whose focus is on a particular skill, say, inferring meaning, or a text-based lesson in which the text itself generates opportunities for learners to use whatever skills necessary to try to understand it to the full. Likewise, an intensive listening approach may give learners opportunities to use the top-down and bottom-up listening processes in which learners may see the overall purpose of the text and also see specific points the speaker wants to make.

A carefully planned lesson may be staged into (a) pre-listening so that the context of the listening is established, (b) while-listening as means of giving learners opportunities to listen, perform the tasks and discuss their responses with partners and (c) post-listening as a way of providing learners with feedback as well as opportunities to integrate the language they heard into a speaking activity. These steps should be borne in mind when teaching listening in class.


  • Problems adult learners may face when listening in a second language


Experience has shown me that listening involves a number of elements and many factors may directly influence its process, especially with so many linguistic and non-linguistic skills to be deployed. Some difficulties may be purely linguistic, say, a listening text which is more syntactically complex may impair learners’ understanding. Other difficulties may be closely related to lexical items, which may prevent learners from inferring meaning from context.

Another point to consider is the fact that the English phonological system is different from Portuguese. Clustering, reduced forms, stress, accent, rhythm and intonation are some prosodic features of speech which may directly affect understanding.

I have also noticed that an inevitable corollary of why learners find listening somewhat difficult is the fact that they might be deficient in their command of English partly due to misdirected listening strategies or lack of listening habits. In other words, the way listening is approached in class might be giving learners the wrong idea of how to attack a text, what strategies should be used and when to use them. I have identified a few potential problems, however, there might be others which I fail to remember. Here is a list I usually refer to:

a)      Poor general level of English

b)      Lack of understanding of what is required

c)      Lack of exposure to spoken English

d)     Lack of necessary skills and the right kind of practice

e)      Low concentration span

f)       Listener’s and speaker’s gender

g)      Learning Style: Global (right-brain) x Analytic (left-brain)

h)     Unawareness of pronunciation features

i)        Affective filter – Panic block (anxiety, failure, insecurity)

j)        Speech delivery speed


  • Possible ways of helping learners to develop listening competence.


Taking the factors above into account, the teaching of listening in class should be approached systematically.

In order to increase learners’ listening potential, it is critical that they are aware of the fact that understanding every single word in a text is not essential and, most of all, that the practice of some listening strategies may be very useful for them. Consequently, training learners to listen to extract either gist or detailed information is a way of minimising this difficulty. Grading tasks from global understanding to more specific understanding is also a very efficient way of building up student’s confidence.  Therefore, providing learners with realistic tasks is instrumental in helping them gain strategic competence to cater for different listening purposes.

One point to be considered is the affective aspects of listening. Providing learners with stimulating, informative and relevant listening lessons as well as making listening an enjoyable experience can raise positive attitudes. Engaging learners in pre, while and post-listening activities that are neither straightforward nor demanding is a good way of encouraging learners to take risks and anticipate what they are to find in a listening text. Therefore, staging the lesson accordingly so that learners can activate their schemata is an effective way of making the guessing process more effective.

Learners should be aware of continuous work at improving their pronunciation. They also need ‘fine tuning’ of difficult sounds, help with sounds / spelling relationships, and to further develop their instinct for sentence rhythm and intonation, word stress and weak forms.

Thus, providing learners with a range of pronunciation activities that cater for problematic features will certainly open their auditory channel, which will build up their confidence in terms of listening and speaking efficiently.


  • Conclusion


Listening is definitely an important skill in its own right, not just an enabling skill. Brown (1994:233) states that ‘through reception, we internalise linguistic information without which we could not produce language‘. Hence, it is vitally important that a systematic approach to listening is adopted in the EFL classroom.

In conclusion, not only is it our role to make learners aware of the purposes of listening in the foreign language but also the rationale behind the process involved in it. If they are made to see that they can get real information from a text and also take pleasure in doing it they will certainly derive great benefit from listening both inside and outside class.





  • Brown, H D – Teaching by Principles – An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy (Prentice Hall) 1994
  • Harmer, J – The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman) 1997
  • Rost, M – Listening in Action (Prentice Hall) 1991
  • Scarcella, C S and Oxford, R L – The Tapestry of Language Learning – The Individual in the Communicative Classroom (Heinle & Heinle) 1992
  • Underwood, M – Teaching Listening (Longman) 1996
  • Ur, P – Teaching Listening Comprehension (CUP) 1996
  • Ur, P – A Course in Language Teaching – Practice and Theory (CUP) 1996
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Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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