Practising Listening

There are two possible approaches to dealing with listening in the classroom. The first, which I’ll call practising listening, is based on the idea that if students are constantly exposed to the spoken language, their comprehension will naturally, though gradually, improve. The second – let’s call it teaching listening - suggests that we need to take a more active approach to improving listening abilities, by focusing on the specific problems that the students have and planning listening activities which will help to resolve them.

When we think about a “listening lesson” we are probably thinking of the second approach. What your objectives are for this type of lesson, how it should be staged and what activity types you should use, will be the topic of another article. Here, however, I’d like to look in detail at the first type of activity : practising listening.

Every time the teacher speaks in English in the classroom - whether to give instructions, to explain a grammar point, or just to chat as the class starts to arrive - the students are in effect practising listening. This opportunity for constant exposure to the spoken language is one of the main arguments for using English rather than the L1 in the classroom - although, as the article Teacher Talking Time : Part One discussed, there may also be arguments against it.

Teacher talk may also be built into the lesson in a more conscious attempt to provide listening practice, and the third part of the Teacher Talking Time series suggested a number of ways that this can be done. Notice however that in all these activities, the students’ task is simply to listen for the gist of the conversation and to respond in some way. The activities may teach strategies to cope with non-comprehension, such as asking for explanation, but do not attempt to improve the students’ comprehension itself. It is the exposure in its own right which is seen as valuable.

Teacher Talk Listenings tend to be quite short, and are often broken up into even shorter chunks – as in interactive story-telling (described in TTT3) or TPR - described in the article Receptive Practice Activities. What about using longer stretches of recorded material for listening practice?

One of the problems here is time – with course time limited and a full syllabus to get through, we often don’t have the space for this sort of unfocused practice. It can however be usefully done for homework. I ask my lower level students to buy a simplified reader with an accompanying tape, and my more advanced level students to choose a DVD with an English soundtrack and subtitles, to work on one section at a time as the course progresses. The sections, which may be a chapter or sub-section of the book or a scene from the film, shouldn’t last longer than about two minutes. The students first listen to the tape/soundtrack without reference to the text/subtitles, and try to understand as much as possible. They then repeat the section while at the same time following the text/subtitles to see if their understanding was correct . On the third listening, they pause to check any unknown words or to replay phrases which they found particularly unclear. They then listen to the same section a final time, this time without the text/subtitles, concentrating on “hearing” the words they know are there.

If they are using this technique students must realise that the text is only as an aid to hearing the words. If they understand simply because they have seen the written form, they are not practising listening at all, but reading. The written form is used to give them confidence and to help them relate the sounds they hear to the words they know must be there. They also need to realise that to be successful, this technique has to be used frequently – the whole premise behind the “practising listening” approach is that gradual improvement results from constant exposure.

If there is time, this technique can of course also be used in class. It is, in any case, useful to use it once at the beginning of the course to demonstrate the technique, but it can also be used regularly:
  • In classes where for some reason you cannot ask students to buy extra material
  • In classes where you are looking for a fairly relaxed activity to provide variety of focus – perhaps as the day’s final activity in an all-day intensive course, or in a one-to one-lesson where you and the student know each other inside out and are running out of things to talk about.
  • In any class where listening is a prime objective – whether because of the students’ specific communicative needs, or because it is a major weakness – and you want to dedicate extra time to the skill.

Practising listening does not, however, replace the need to teach listening, which will probably take up most of the time dedicated to listening in the classroom. In the next two articles in this series we’ll look at what a "teaching listening" approach might involve, and the objectives, stages and activities that might be included in a lesson aiming to attack listening problems more explicitly and more actively.


Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Susan NYC via

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