Ruda-Peachey Education Ltd

Decoding Language:
Teaching - not testing - Listening Skills


Out of the four (Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing), I have always found listening skills to be the most challenging - not only for me to teach, but also for my students to develop. The most obvious reason is that, as the Latin proverb goes, ‘verba volant, scripta manent’: spoken words quickly ‘disappear’ from our minds, written words are permanent, in front of our eyes, as tangible evidence. However, this is only part of the problem, at least when it comes to language learning/teaching.


Listening - an undervalued skill (slide 1)
For a long time, listening materials were used in the EFL classroom as a means to an end. They were only used as tools to teach other aspects of the language (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation), but listening was never considered a skill within its own right that needed to be taught. As a receptive skill, it was perceived as passive and assumed that it could be learnt automatically. At the end of the day, the listener is passively receiving the information, so any communication issues (e.g. misunderstanding, misinterpretation) are down to the speaker, right? Errr...not quite. Communicating, like tango, takes two - both parties (the speaker and the listener) should take on their fair share of responsibility to ensure a clear exchange of ideas/information. 


Manipulating listening materials (slide 2)
Unlike a reading text, audio is not as easy to manipulate. Imagine this scenario:


During a reading lesson

Teacher: Now read paragraph 1. How does the character feel? Discuss with your partner. 
Student 1: The character feels angry.
Teacher:  I think so too! What words helped you understand that? Underline them and show them to your partner.
Student 2: We’ve found ‘annoyed’ and ‘offended’.
Student 1: I’ve found this word ‘rage’ - what does it mean?
Teacher: Look at the words around ‘rage’. Can you find anything to help you? 
Student 1: Well, it says ‘red in the face’ and ‘feel rage’.
Teacher: Ok. So if we put together all that we have found...


Now imagine the same situation happening during a listening lesson. There are only so many times the listening section can be played before everyone gets bored senseless. 


Reflect! How can a teacher avoid or tackle similar issues? 


This also means that, when it comes to listening, it can be more difficult to become independent learners. Think about something more effective than the usual ‘Watch films and TV programmes in English’…


Reflect! What advice can we give students who want to improve their listening skills in their own time? 


Listening - an essential skill (slide 3)
As children, we develop our listening skills while acquiring our native language. The ability to select, block, and analyse specific sounds is necessary in our everyday lives, especially when we are in an unfamiliar environment. Although these skills can be applied when speaking a foreign language, they aren’t often transferred naturally from L1 to L2. For this reason, and contrary to old beliefs, it is important to incorporate ways of teaching listening in language lessons. However, this isn’t easy and it requires careful planning. It is well worth doing though, because weak listening leads to communication insecurity, with a knock-on effect on spoken fluency.

When putting together a listening lesson, the main challenge is to create materials that teach, not test, the learners’ abilities. Let’s analyse this.


A ‘standard’ listening lesson (slide 4)  


Take a look at the following format of a ‘standard’ listening lesson.


As you read it...Reflect! Do you think it focuses on teaching or testing?

The pre-listening stage often includes:

  • establishing context, because clues given by the environment and the people in a specific situation help learners predict the topic of the conversation. For example, if the context is a train station, they might expect to hear announcements or information requests.
  • creating motivation for listening, e.g. Why would learners need to be able to understand what is being heard? Would it be useful in their everyday life? Is it a topic they are interested in?
  • pre-teaching critical vocabulary, required for the achievement of the task (not the comprehension of the listening) - this seems counter-intuitive, but take a look at this:


Audio: Molly didn’t have many friends because she was a cantankerous adolescent.

Question: What word does the writer use to describe Molly’s personality?

Assuming that the learners don’t know the words ‘cantankerous’ and ‘adolescent’, we would only need to pre-teach ‘cantankerous’ because it is required to answer the question in the task.

P.S. By ‘pre-teaching’ vocab, I mean providing meaning, pronunciation, and part of speech information in context.


The extensive listening stage is often better known as ‘listening for gist’: just one or two questions that check (test???) the students’ general understanding of what they hear. Something like Where is this happening? What are they talking about? Do the speakers sound happy, sad, or angry?


The intensive listening stage often includes:

  •     A set of questions that check (test???) listening comprehension in more detail, like in Molly’s example above. Learners need time to read and understand the questions before the audio is played.


  •     Answer checking and feedback.


Depending on the lesson aims, a range of post-listening activities can be designed to further develop vocabulary and functional language, or practice other skills with problem-solving tasks.


Common issues for L2 students (slide 5) 
Yet, despite well-structured lessons as the one described above, learners often struggle to understand spoken language, and might express their confusion with comments like:

  •  English people speak so fast!
  • I’ve heard this word before, but I couldn’t recognise it in the text…
  • This new teacher is harder to understand…
  • She was talking about the weather, she’s now talking about something else...I can’t follow the conversation!
  • What does ‘firstable’ mean??? (‘first of all’ - true story!)
  • Who are these ‘Beatles’ the teacher keeps talking about?

The students might not be able to pinpoint it, but behind each of these comments, there is an individual language issue to be addressed. 


  • Can you match the learners’ comments above to the following areas?
    Pronunciation - Vocabulary - Context.


  •   Can you think of any external factors that might contribute to their listening comprehension difficulties?

This has made me realise that frequent exposure to spoken language (authentic or not) is not enough to help learners improve their listening skills. First of all (ah!), we need to help them lay the foundations for their learning, like we would do for other skills. Take writing, for example. You wouldn’t expect students to produce a well organised essay without showing them its structure first, would you? Similarly, we have to consider the ‘building blocks’ that support their listening skills.


(slide 6)  There are some factors that are language-related, like pronunciation and vocabulary. To be addressed, however, these have to be broken down into ‘teachable’ and ‘achievable’ chunks, depending on our learners’ needs. There are also other factors that are out of the learners’ control, but can hinder their understanding of the spoken language. 


Listening strategies (slide 7)
By regularly addressing the factors above in their lessons, teachers keep up their end of the bargain. But what strategies can learners apply to their listening practice in and out of the classroom? 


  • Content words
    Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are the words that carry meaning (and the message) in verbal communication. Learners should focus on the content words they know in order to follow the conversation. 


  • Signposts
    Phrases like ‘I’d like to tell you about…’, ‘Let’s move on to…’, ‘In conclusion…’ should help learners understand and navigate through the stages of the conversation. This page provides an exhaustive list of phrases for signposting.


  • Inferring meaning
    This is about combining what we understand of the conversation with prior knowledge of the situation, in order to understand the full picture of what’s going on.
    Imagine you’re visiting a country, but you can’t speak the local language. You would like to buy some food from a market stall. When you show them your bank card, the vendor says something in a very apologetic manner. From their tone of voice and the fact that it’s a market stall (not a regular shop), you might guess that they aren’t able to accept card payments.


  • Active listening
    This communication technique requires the listener to concentrate on what is being said and to show participation and understanding. Learners must be made aware of the importance of non-verbal communication (e.g. facial expressions, body language); short phrases (e.g. ‘Really?’, ‘That’s terrible/great!’) to show interest in the conversation, to ask for clarification (e.g. ‘Did you mean/say…?’, ‘What do you mean by…?’), or to confirm understanding (e.g. paraphrasing or repetition of what has been said).


Reflection point (slide 8) 
Take a closer look at your listening lessons. What do you hope your learners will achieve? If they include a lot of comprehension questions, the end result might be different from what you originally had in mind.


If your objective is to teach, rather than test, listening skills, think about what changes you need to implement in your lessons. Consider:

  • length and type of listening materials
  • removing some (or all!) of comprehension questions
  • specific activities to introduce and/or practice those areas mentioned in slide 6.


Click below for the slides - Download, adapt and use!