Learning to Listen


When we do listening activities in the classroom it is often little more than listening practice. While this is certainly of benefit to the students, it is not the most effective way of helping them to become better listeners. Practising listening will allow students to see some improvement in their listening comprehension, but they also require the sub-skills to allow them to become better listeners. So, what sub-skills can we teach our learners?


Prediction is something that we naturally do when we listen in our L1. If we walk into a bus station or a train station, we think about what kinds of things we are going to hear, such as departure times and delays or prices of tickets. However, when we listen in our L2 this stage is often forgotten. Most coursebooks will include some kind of prediction activity before a listening task. It is important we do not skip over this as it has been proven that thinking about a topic and discussing it can help improve comprehension.

Working out meaning from the context

Often, when students hear a word that they don’t know while listening, they can get blocked. They focus so much on the word that they don’t know that they forget about what they do know. Students can, however, work out the meaning of these words from the context in which they are uttered. As teachers, we need to demonstrate to our learners that they are able to do this and give them techniques to help them do so, such as replacing words in audio passages with nonsense words and asking them to work out what they mean.

Ignoring unknown words

At other times, there are words in a listening passage that students can ignore and still successfully understand the text and answer the questions. However, they often still get blocked by these words. Again, we can demonstrate to them that they can ignore these words by replacing them with a nonsense word and asking them to complete the task associated with the listening passage. Hopefully then they will see that despite not knowing all the words, they were able to successfully complete the tasks you set them.

Be aware of discourse markers

In many listening exams, discourse markers are used to indicate the correct answer to questions. Words and phrases such as however, in fact and what I like best about are used to show that the answer to the question is coming up. It is therefore important that our students are aware of these and can recognise them. We can do this by listening to the recording again or looking at the audio transcript. By doing so, students can highlight the correct answers and discover for themselves the discourse markers that are used to indicate the correct answer.

Be aware of the effect of intonation

Intonation can have a huge effect on meaning. Changing the word stress can change the meaning of the word and changing the sentence stress can have a big impact on the meaning of the sentence. We therefore need to demonstrate this to our learners to help them recognise the change in meaning. This can also help them with listening exams as often the correct answer is indicated by greater stress on a certain word or phrase.

Context is crucial

Without a context, listening to someone speaking can be difficult or even impossible to understand. If we don’t know the topic, we don’t have anything to which we can relate the information we are hearing. Therefore, setting the context is an important part of a listening lesson. We should discuss the topic with our students and make sure they are aware of the topic of the listening passage. This will allow them to complete the tasks much more successfully.

Don’t neglect teaching pronunciation

Teaching pronunciation is something that some teachers dislike as they feel uncomfortable doing it or think that the students don’t like it. However, teaching pronunciation and improving listening skills go hand in hand. If students don’t know how a word is pronounced, they will not be able to recognise it in spoken form. They may well be able to recognise it on paper and be aware of the meaning, but not when they hear it. This means that teaching pronunciation along with grammar and vocabulary is essential if we want our learners to be successful in the listening tasks we do with them.


As you can see there are many ways we can help our students learn to listen better. By incorporating these sub-skills into our lessons, we can make the listening practice that we do in our lessons more meaningful for our students and help them to improve their listening. Give it a try and hopefully you will see some improvement in your students’ listening.

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