You’re not listening! I didn’t hear!!

Having watched a fair few classes over the summer – both trainees finishing off an introductory course we’ve been running part-time for the last year and also teachers working on our summer school at University of Westminster, one thing I’ve realised with ever greater clarity is just how hard it is to actually help students get better at listening. Just running listenings in coursebooks well is an incredibly tricky – and very under-discussed, I feel – area of teaching, and one I’m going to return to in a follow-up post. What I’d like to blog about here, though, is much more to do with the fundamentals of what it is we think we’re doing in class when we DO listening. Here goes . . .

Many years ago, I went to watch a colleague of mine teach. He had been at the university quite a long time and had managed to claim the large 1960s-styled language lab as his own private domain! In the lesson I saw, students worked on their own and listened to some sentences on a tape (which I think came from MEANINGS INTO WORDS). They had to write each sentence down 100% correctly before they were allowed to move on to the next. One poor student must have listened to his first sentence about 30 times and was clearly really struggling. The teacher pointed out that his transcription was wrong and kept telling him to listen harder. So he played the sentence yet again – and again – and again! I put the headphones on myself so I could hear what he was trying to write down. On a word, muffled tape, a voice repeated over and over again:

Tie a knot in your handkerchief in case you forget.

No context, no glossary, no explanation, just that one isolated sentence.
In the end, the student called the teacher over again and asked “What does tyre notting mean?” to which the teacher replied “You’re not listening!” – again.
At this point, the student snapped and screamed out: “I AM listening! I just can’t hear!”

Now, this experience got me thinking about what kind of problems students have when they listen in English – and I have come to the conclusion that the problems are usually much more to do with HEARING (and KNOWING the language they hear) than they are with LISTENING. Our students, to give them their due, generally do actually listen and pay attention to CDs / cassettes in class as best they can, but fail for a number of reasons:
1  They can’t hear words simply because they don’t know them!
2  They can’t hear the correct words because they can’t distinguish sounds.
3  They can hear words, but often only individual ones – and can’t (always) group them appropriately.
4  They can hear words – even chunks and expressions – but can’t process the meaning of what they are hearing quickly enough.

So there are serious issues to do with being able to process the ‘acoustic blur’ of speech as students listen to it. And yet what actually happens in classrooms when we think we’re helping students get better at listening?

I once had a teacher on a teacher training course who already had quite a lot of experience, but who was still struggling a bit. She said it would be all sorted the next day – she was going to “do a listening”. When I pushed her and asked what the aim of the lesson – or what the language focus – would be, she looked at me like I was mad and stated that the aim would obviously be to do a listening! I think that all too often we DO listenings – and our students endure them – because this is what is to be done, because they’re in the coursebook and because, well, we have the idea we should do them, but perhaps we don’t always think why we do them. What are they actually for, from a pedagogical point of view?

There are, of course, those who would say that when we do listenings, we are teaching listening skills. But what are these skills and how do we teach them?

Believers in the concept of ‘skills’ might point to the following, taken from the Common European Framework:

The CEFR claims that learners at a certain level should be able to demonstrate ability of the following ‘sub-skills’:
• listening for gist
• listening for specific information
• listening for detailed understanding
• listening for implications
• listening as a member of a live audience
• listening to audio media

But what actually are these ‘skills’? How do we do them? How do we improve our ability to do them? How do we teach them? Is doing a gist task or doing a task where students listen for specific information enough? Do they somehow learn transferable skills of ‘listening for gist’ or ‘listening for specific information’ through the process of doing listenings in class – and can they take these skills away and thus deal with other listenings better in future?

The dominant way of thinking about all of this has long been SCHEMA THEORY, which stresses what’s called top-down processing. This emphasises students’ prior knowledge and predictions / expectations about what will be said. Often this means that before we ‘do’ our listening in class, we get students to predict content from pictures, context, etc. Now, this is all well and good, but read deeper in the literature on the field and problems soon start emerging, as the following quote makes clear:

“For complex social and psychological reasons, [learners] are less sure they have grasped the topic being spoken of, the opinion being expressed about it, and the reasons for the speaker wanting to talk about it. They are less sure of the relevance of their own experience in helping them to arrive at an interpretation. On top of all that they are less sure of the forms of the language… for all these reasons learners are less able to bring to bear top down processing in forming an interpretation and hence are more reliant on bottom up processing.”
(Brown quoted in Jenkins, 2001 OUP)

What Brown focuses on is the idea of BOTTOM-UP PROCESSING. In short, this says that what is important is HEARING individual sounds, decoding words, decoding chunks, decoding sentences and so on, and that it is through the process of doing this that learners build up a mental picture of what is being discussed.
If you accept this – and I do – there would seem to be some profound implications for teaching listening:

Firstly, simply getting students to predict or use their previous knowledge – so-called ‘activating schemata’ – isn’t necessary. There might be masses of information we have previous knowledge of when we sit and listen to a conversation and yet there may not be anything at all which comes up that we have predicted or which relates to our ‘schema’. Classroom listenings are obviously designed to include more predictability, but in the real world, language in use can be very unpredictable indeed – and the only way to deal with this is to listen to it all and understand it all.

Another point to make here is that students often hear words even when they don’t make sense to them. Failure may occur when they don’t know the words they’re hearing (or, as I’ve said, when they simply can’t can’t hear the words to begin with). On top of all this, words which students may know will often get bunched up in the stream of speech, making them harder to hear. This, in turn, can lead to difficulties for students hearing new words, because they can’t distinguish them from the general mass of sound around them.

So let’s go back to the ‘sub-skills’ outlined by the CEFR earlier. What is really happening when we do these things? Well, firstly, when we perform any of these skills in the real world, we’re paying attention. It’s not that we don’t hear things we’re not listening for. Imagine that your plane is delayed and you have to listen to a long announcement to find out what’s going on. You process and understand everything that precedes the information that is relevant to you, but then afterwards you just choose to forget it. In the same way, after watching a film, you report the gist to friends – not the detail. This is NOT because you weren’t paying attention to or enjoying all the detail. It’s much more to do with what we are able to – or choose to – remember after the event.

Given this, task is of vital importance in the classroom. If you want students to remember specific details, you have to make this crystal clear to them before playing the audio. Listening involves a lot of processing: students have to hear all the words, remember what the words mean and then decide whether or not they will need to remember them. This is a big ask! Clear tasks make this process a little bit easier.

In addition, as well as doing listenings in class, we also need to think more about how to teach what Mike McCarthy has called LISTENERSHIP. One point to bear in mind about listening in class is that in several crucial ways it’s easier than listening outside of the class. For one thing, it’s often better graded and is usually recorded clearly without too much background noise. Most importantly, though, outside class, listening is often connected to conversation, which means learners have to listen, process AND think of what to say themselves. In class, they don’t have this pressure. Listenings in class therefore leave more time and space for students to react as they don’t need to participate and add. As such, it’s easier to learn language from listenings in class. It also means that if students are to cope outside of class, they need language to engage in listenership, which means teaching lots of predictable, typical chunks of language, all of which will both help them process what they hear quicker, as well as also becoming more able to control the conversations they find themselves in. This means learning expressions / chunks to help them manage their discourse. On a basic level, it means things like:

Sorry. Can you say that again?

Sorry, Can you speak slower?

whilst at a higher level, it means things like:

So going back to what you were saying earlier . . .

So what? Are you saying that you think that . . . ?

and so on.

To start to fully appreciate the importance of using listenings in class as a vehicle for bringing useful language to students,  look at what it is that good listeners actually do.

Good listeners:

– know nearly all – if not all – of the words that they hear.

– hear the words when they listen to them.

– process sound in chunks.

– understand words / chunks automatically due to repeated OVER-LEARNING in class.

So from this perspective, how can we help students get better at listening?

Well, firstly, I think we have a duty to simply teach as much typical language as we can – both as part of listening-based lessons and also at as many other times as we can. Secondly, we need to ensure we always teach language – both vocabulary AND grammar – in natural contexts and we need to say / model the things that we’re teaching, so our students get used to hearing them in context and can recognise them when they hear them again. We need to mark on the board the main stresseses of the words that we teach, and to show linking between words. We also need to do lots and lots of drilling.

Generally, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to pronunciation in class – especially pronunciation related to connected speech (elision, assimilation, weak forms, linking sounds, etc.) We maybe need to accept that while it’s nice if our efforts to improve our students’ pronunciation work, the REAL goal of these slots in class is an improved ability to HEAR natural spoken language. As such, we need to help students with problem sounds. Teach the sounds and how to say them, repeat new words with the sounds in them, and then show how these words say within sentences, so students get to hear – and get to practise saying – the way the words change how they sound once they’re within sentences. For instance, with low levels, you may well often work from sound to work to sentence. Last month with a Chinese group, they had problems saying the word WEIRD, so I drilled like this:







and so on.

Other good things to do include doing a listening once for gist, then letting students compare answers / ideas; round up their ideas and see what the class as a whole have; then set a more language-focused task and play the listening again; let students compare ideas again, before rounding up. Finally, play the listening a third tie, but this time let students read the audioscript. This way, they – and you – can see which parts they couldn’t hear because of HEARING problems and which parts were down to LANGUAGE problems. If they read the whole audioscript and understand everything, but didn’t get it when they listened, that’s a hearing problem and the real issue is that they need to read and listen more and get more used to the blur of sound that is spoken language. However, if they read and STILL don’t understand things, that’s a language problem and means you need to teach that new language. Reading and listening at the same time helps bridge the gap between the nice, tidy way language looks written down and the messy, fast way it sounds spoken.

It’s also good to ask students to read conversations they’ve listened to aloud – especially if the conversations are full of useful, everyday language. Let them read in pairs and go round whilst they’re reading aloud and correct and re-model pronunciation for them..

It’s great if you can do gap-filed listenings, where the first listening is for gist; then the students listen again and try to fill in the gaps in an audioscript. They compare their ideas in pairs and you play the listening a third time, pausing after each gap and eliciting the missing words. This works best if the gaps are more than one word. When you elicit the answers, write them up on the board and drill them with the whole group and some individual students.

Here’s a conversation from INNOVATIONS Pre-Intermediate that works like this:


A   You are going to listen to a conversation between Martin and Alex.

They meet while they are abroad.

As you listen, cover the tapescript below and decide:

1.           Why are they abroad?

2.           How long are they going to stay?

B   Listen again and fill in the gaps.

Martin:  What do you do back home?

Alex:      Well, I was working in a car factory, but it (1) . . . . . . . . . That’s why I’m here, really. I got some money when I lost my job and I decided to go travelling (2) . . . . . . . .  to think about what to do next.

Martin:  And what are you going to do?

Alex:      I still haven’t decided. The economy’s in (3) . . . . . . . . at the moment. There’s a lot of unemployment and people aren’t spending much money, so it’s going to be difficult to find a new job. I might try to re-train and do (4) . . . . . . . . .

Martin:  Have you got any idea what you want to do?

Alex:      Not really. Maybe something with computers. I might try to find a job abroad for a while, before I do that. What about your country? Is it easy to find work there?

Martin:  Yes. A few years ago it was quite bad, but the economy’s (5) . . . . . . . . at the moment. I think unemployment is about four per cent, so finding a job isn’t really a problem. The problem is (6) . . . . . . . . . Prices have gone up a lot over the last few years. Everything is more expensive, so the money you earn goes really quickly.

Alex:      Right.

Martin:  Sometimes I think I should move to somewhere like here. I’m sure people don’t get paid very much, but the cost of living is so low, and there’s a better (7) . . . . . . . . . People don’t work as hard; life is more relaxed; the food’s great; the weather’s great; it’s just very nice.

Alex:    Yes, maybe, but don’t forget that you are on holiday. Maybe it’s (8) . . . . . . . . for the people who live here.

Martin:  No, maybe not.

Alex:      So anyway, how long are you going to stay here?

Martin:  Just till Friday. I have to get back to work. What about you? How long are you staying?

Alex:      Till I get bored or I (9) . . . . . . . . money. I don’t have any plans.


As I’m eliciting the answers fro the group and writing things like (9) run out of on the board, I’ll draw the links between RUN and OUT and OF and drill RU-NOW-TOV with the group.

Dictations are also good, especially at lower levels when learners are still developing their ear. Here’s one we built into OUTCOMES Elementary.

A         Listen. Write the questions you hear.

B          Listen again and repeat what you hear.

C          Work in pairs. Ask and answer the questions.


1          What are you studying?

2          What year are you in?

3          Are you enjoying it?

4          How are you?

5          Are you hungry?

6          Are you good at English?

7          Where are you from?

8          Where are you staying?

One other kind of exercises that focus explicitly on HEARING is this, from OUTCOMES Intermediate:

B          Decide which words you heard. Then listen and check.

1          I’m involved in/on designing what you see on the screen.

2          How did you getting/get into that?

3          Vodafone were recruiting people so I applied/replied and I got a job.

4          It’s like any job. It has its boring moments/minutes.

5          It depends if we have a deadline to complete/meet.

6          I do something/anything like fifty or sixty hours a week.

7          That must be stressed/stressful.

8          I sometimes work better under/in pressure.

9          They said I would get a permanent/payment contract, but then it never happened.

Finally, I think, we just need to ensure that we recycle words, chunks, exchanges and conversations over different classes and across different levels, thus ensuring not only language development, but also massively increased opportunities for hearing.

That’s all for now. In my next post on teaching listening, I’ll go into more detail about some of the problems I think we often bring upon ourselves when doing listening in class, and we might begin to rectify things. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.

17 responses

  1. Your “tyre notting” reminds me of a class I had with some Advanced students. A quick listening task I sometime use is One Minute news. They listen without questions (because life doesn’t give you questions!) and over 4 or 5 listens rebuild the 4 or 5 news stories. Always makes for fascinating texts I find and also a great sense of achievement as they go from maybe one word per story to rebuilding everything together. Well, one of these stories was about a female army officer (Australia) who had been dishonorably dismissed following the leaking of a sex video of her and her commanding officer. One of my students was so frustrated by the end. She retold the story perfectly but couldn’t figure out why they were talking about /sɪkskændəlz/!

    1. Hi Sinead –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and to post.

      I hear you on the utility of sometimes just asking students to listen and see what they get. In many ways, I think it’s the most honest task – Listen and then compare what you grasped with the people next to you – as well as a fairly accurate representation of what actually happens most of the time regardless of what task is set beforehand!

      Enjoyed the mishearing tale. Another case in point.
      I’m sure the word sex scandal wouldn’t have been new to this student.
      Hearing is hard!

  2. Enjoyed reading this one and particularly because I’m currently supervising a masters student who’s researching listening skills in EFL. Personally I find the CEFR descriptors very useful as a guideline for defining your listening aims. For (false) beginners scanning for specific information can be very useful (such as your airport example) whereby they are “pre-programmed” to ‘notice’ the words/idioms they know/have learnt. Introducing the listening text in advance (activating prior knowledge) is important in my opinion in the classroom situation as you need to set the scene – they will need to open the “airport vocab” drawer in their chest of drawers as sitting in a classroom you would not generally expect to hear an announcement about a gate change or cancelled plane 😉
    Just a very brief note as I’m actually not supposed to be doing this but something else (procrastinating …… prefer this to what’s waiting for me!).

    1. Hi Louise –
      I have to say, I’m not so convinced that the CEFR descriptors of what students ought to be able to do in terms of listening at any particular level Do actually help either define clear aims or even actually really describe tangible things. Take those CEFR bits I mentioned in the talk . . . I mean, listening for gist is so ludicrously vague as to be meaningless. Listening to WHAT for gist? At B1 level, say, students may perhaps be able to listen to a conversation between two people speaking not totally fast and with relatively standard accents on a fairly general topic they’re familiar with, but obviously won’t be able to listen to an hour-long lecture on astrophysics for gist! In the same way, listening as a member of a live threate auidence watching Ibsen is very different from listening as a live member of a wrestling match audience. I just don’t find all that stuff very helpful.

      In terms of activating schema, etc. I agree that in EFL classes, ELT material does allow it to a degree, as it’s written to be – to at least some degree – predictable, and often ties in with pre-taught vocab and so on, but we need to be clear that this is an artificial construct (which doesn’t, of course, make it a totally invalid one). In the real world, whilst an announcement about what’s happening to your flight may be relatively predictable, many other conversations you might have to participate in simply won’t be, and schema simply won’t help you. You just need to hear the words, know them, chunk them, and process them as fast as they’re coming at you.

      One quick example. I was once in a baker’s in Brazil with a mate who was learning Portuguese. He asked for his bread or whatever it was he wanted in what sounded to me fairly decent Portuguese, but the shop owner then went off on one for a couple of minutes whilst my friend nodded and looked bemused. I later asked when he’d been talking about and was told it’d been something about the preceding night’s local derby game – not in the scheme for conversation in baker’s!!

      1. haha – love the Brazilian baker bit!
        Of course you’re right about ‘listening for gist’ being vague but the idea of gist is that they get what the topic is about and which general direction it’s going. Being able to participate is another level entirely – often we understand a lot receptively but take too long to process it into productive (oral) skills to be able to participate in conversations but then we’re moving off into another realm entirely. As far as the CEFR is concerned if you get the full scales they are fairly precise, for example by B1 listening as part of a live audience (as far as the astrophysics lecture is concerned) you would get: <> Yes, you could ask questions about “follow” but the rest is fairly specific and “a lecture” in this situation could indeed be an hour (but could anyone, even a native, really “follow” a lecture for an hour?).

      2. I’ve still got reservations about gist, I must say.

        In a sense, of course, as I said (I think) in the original post, my favourite kind of listening ‘task’ – and this is simply because I think it’s essentially what more or less happens anyway whatever kind of tasks we set initially – are ‘Listen and see what you get and then compare your ideas with a partner’. So on that level, I’m with you.

        However, if you think about the way we use the word GIST in our own speech . . . we say things like “I didn’t get everything, but I got the gist”, “I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of it was . . . ” and so on. In other words, it’s a sign of INCOMPLETE understanding, which isn’t really something we should be AIMING for. rather, it’s simply a by-product of not hearing and / or knowing enough of what you are listening to!

        As for listening being easier than participation, I’m totally with you. I have my in-laws staying at the moment and am struggling to keep up with multi-person conversations in Indonesian, let alone to chip in as well! This is why classrooms are so great for having time and space around listening to explore new input! If only it could work like that at home as well sometimes.

  3. Spot on. Listening is definitely the most neglected area of EFL teaching, I think, and yet every Monday when I ask new students in their placement interview what they want to improve, invariably the answer is ‘listening and speaking’. I remember fresh of the CELTA being given a pre-sessional course to cover, and told to teach from an old listening book on the syllabus, which contained an 11-minute listening on tin mining in Cornwall. Five minutes in, at least four of my Chinese students were slumped on the desk, asleep, or perhaps just in despair. By the end, I was too! I’m a big fan of live listenings, or recordings done with natural language with a colleague before the lesson. Pick out the chunks we really say, practise them, get to know how people speak, and at least you’re in with a fighting chance in real conversation. And why are so many coursebook listenings a monologue, rather than a conversation? Not sure how often I listen to someone talking about their job as a gardener, or flooding in Prague for three or four minutes, and not sure how many times there isn’t a response of some kind when someone tells you something. I think the insights of spoken grammar are pretty useful here – I recorded a dialogue with a mate from work the other day, which went like this:

    Me: Fancy a beer tomorrow?
    Tom: Sounds good. Where?
    Me: The usual?
    Tom: Cool.
    Me: 8?
    Tom: Great.
    Me: Nice one.
    Tom: Ok, sorted.
    Me: Sorted. See you later.

    Obviously, there are all kinds of listening and they don’t all have to be like this. But the class (Advanced) were totally bemused at first, but by the end were understanding and producing this kind of dialogue.

    Top post, Hugh. Keep ’em coming!

    1. Hi Lewis –
      Many thanks for the kind words – and for taking the time to pen a response.

      I think you’re spot on in noting that the vast bulk of students – especially those doing General English classes – perceive listening and speaking to their main areas of weakness.

      Your Cornish tin mine listening is my 10-minute French bloke who ate an airplane story.
      Coursebooks of the 1990s seemed to contain such insane and sadistic content rather more frequently than those of today.

      The idea of live listening was something we experimented with a lot before writing Innovations, and that whole idea of being alive to – and aware of – how everyday conversation works has long been very much at the heart of what I try to achieve as a writer as well as as a teacher. Even incredibly competent students well versed in educated English can learn plenty, as you say, from listening to – and thinking about – how informal spoken English works.

      Which isn’t to say they don’t also need to work plenty more on how journalese works, or more academic registers, political discourse, etc. works as well, just so I’m clear!

  4. Thanks Hugh, I enjoyed reading this post, and others too.

    Just the other day I’d been wondering whether to teach my students the pronunciation of “gonna” and in the days afterwards I realised just how much it occurs in my speech and other speakers too. I also taught my students the word “cheers” for thanks and one lightbulb went off in the room where a student had been wondering why everyone kept talking about cheese. This made me think how important it is for students to be able to see the words after they listen to compare what they hear with what they understand of it.

    I find that older students have particular difficulty with listening. Do you have any advice/ tips on how to help those students listen better?

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Josie –
      Thanks for the comment.
      Glad you’re enjoying things here.

      With things like GONNA, I think it’s worth focusing on quite simply because – as you say – it’s incredible common in natural spoken English.
      It’s not necessarily that you want them to say it like that; more that you want them to get used to how it’s often said – and to at least have a choice of how to say it!
      We have an exercise on this in Outcomes Elementary, after we’ve presented and got students to do some work on going to + verb that looks at this:
      There’s a short explanation –

      We often pronounce going to as gonna (this is written in phonetic script in the book)

      And there’s then a dictation, where they hear each sentence twice – first quite quickly, with gonna used and then slower where the going to is more pronounced.

      B Listen. Write the sentences you hear.

      C Listen again and repeat what you hear.

      1 I’m going to go now.
      2 He’s going to cook for me tonight.
      3 I’m not going to see you tomorrow.
      4 I’m not going to answer that question!
      5 Where are you going to stay?
      6 When are you going to leave?

      It’s good to get them used to normal speed speech of this stuff from a very early stage, I think.
      Makes life easier later on.
      Stops students getting to the stage your older students seem to be at!!

      The main tips I have for those students are basically just loads of what I’ve talked about in this post: new language, pron, listen and read, listen and fill in the multi-word gaps and so on.

      Here’s the advice we give to students at Westminster about this stuff – may help your students:

      If you are worried about your listening . . .

      . . . learn more English
      Then more words you know, the easier it becomes to listen to English! If people use words you don’t know when they’re talking, it’s obviously hard to understand them. Try to learn words which go together – collocations – so that when you hear these words used together, you recognise and process them as a group. Make sure you learn the language you look at in class, and if you want to do more to boost your vocabulary, try one of these self-study books:
      ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER – Chris Gough (Heinle Cengage)
      OXFORD WORD SKILLS: BASIC – Ruth Gairns & Stuart Redman (OUP)
      OXFORD WORD SKILLS: INTERMEDIATE – Ruth Gairns & Stuart Redman (OUP)
      OXFORD WORD SKILLS: ADVANCED – Ruth Gairns & Stuart Redman (OUP)
      KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY: Pre-Intermediate – George Woolard (Heinle Cengage)
      KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY: Intermediate – George Woolard (Heinle Cengage)
      KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY: Upper-Intermediate – George Woolard (Heinle Cengage)

      . . . read and listen at the same time
      It can be hard knowing if you don’t understand because the language is new or if you don’t understand because you can’t HEAR the language properly. One way to help make listening easier is to read and listen at the same time. There are lots of books in the Mary Ford Library that come with CDs. Use these. You might also want to get the CDs that accompany the coursebook you are using in class. You could try listening first, seeing how much you understand, and then listen again while reading. This way, you can find out which parts you don’t understand because it’s new language – and which parts you understand when you see them written, but not when you hear them. With those parts, listen to them a few times and try to get used to the way they words sound when said together.

      . . . pay more attention to pronunciation
      If you practise pronunciation more, it may well help you sound better in English, but it will almost certainly help you HEAR better in English too. When you learn a new word, look up and note the pronunciation too. Practise saying the new word – on its own and with other words it goes with. Don’t just practise saying difficult sounds and words, though, but also try whole sentences. Pay attention to the way words join together, the linking sounds, the sounds which you don’t say in normal speed speech – and weak forms of words like am, is, are, have, to and so on. If you have CDs that go with books, you can play certain sentences and then practise saying them in the same way. There are also plenty of good books that will help you speak faster and better – and hear better too. For example:
      ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION IN USE INTERMEDIATE – Mark Hancock & Sylvie Donna (Cambridge)
      SHIP OR SHEEP – Ann Baker (Cambridge)

      . . . learn to control conversations better
      If you have problems listening outside of class, try – whenever you can – to control the conversation better: slow it down, make it go back to the bits you missed, etc. Learn and use the expressions that help you do this. For example:
      Sorry. Can you say that again?
      Sorry, Can you speak slower?

      So going back to what you were saying earlier . . .
      So what? Are you saying that you think that . . . ?

      . . . listen online
      Here are a few websites that you might find helpful if you want further listening practice.
      This site has a range of general and business English topics. Choose the topic that interests you. Listen and answer the questions. Focus on any new vocabulary. Audioscripts are usually available so you can read and listen at the same time.
      Podcasts for students learning English. You can listen online or download to your iPhone / iPod. There’s one interesting topic per week usually. No exercises or audio script are available, though.

      Finally, this site is good if you want to practise your pronunciation.
      It contains videos, quizzes and activities to help you practise your British English pronunciation.

  5. Thanks for the excellent post.

    I suspect that listening, esp. to authentic sources, is often overlooked at the lower levels, and then students suffer for it at the higher levels, when they become frustrated that their listening comprehension is much lower than, e.g., their reading comprehension.

    I teach listening/notetaking in an English for Academic Purposes program for international students (mainly from China). Although my students are advanced, they often have weak listening skills.

    This year I’m going to experiment with ‘extensive’ listening – putting aside time for students to bring in their own listening materials and laptops to class once/week, and having them write a brief reflection about it on a blog (did they like it, how much did they understand, did they learn new words, etc.). They’ll be expected to do the same independently a couple more times a week.

    I’ve never tried this before, so would like to hear your (or your readers’) thoughts about or experiences with this form of practice.

    Thanks again for the great blog.

    1. Hi Ellen –
      I have to say, I don’t think the issue is the lack of authentic material at lower levels.

      In fact, I think truly ‘authentic’ materials at lower levels would (due to their difficulty) simply serve to put students off, make them feel even bigger failures and fail to allow teachers to really extract that much useful / graded language to teach around the listenings.

      I do think, though, that students ought to be exposed to a far greater range of authentic ACCENTS from the very earliest stages and get used not only to relatively natural speed speech (albeit in graded / scripted listenings) spoken by a wide range of both native and non-native people.

      That, coupled with a failure to really focus on pron in its fullest sense in any systematic way, and to make the links between pron and hearing clear, are the root of the problem for higher level students with lower level listening capabilties.

      Interested to see how your students get on with your extensive listening project.
      Why not write a report and post it up here a few weeks in?

  6. Another great post!!!
    Another advantage with squeezing the maximum out of Listening Comprehensions is that, if you’re not using a very good coursebook – for whatever reasons – the listening sections may be the one part of your book that provide the most authentic and useful English and should therefore be exploited as much as possible. I’m thinking specifically of the Headway Elementary (3rd Edition) book which I’m using, as well as one called “English for Tourists”, brought out by a German publisher. In both cases, there are distinct advantages to the texts used: they are spoken either by genuine native speakers from various countries, or by actors doing – in most cases – a passable imitation of a given accent; they do contain those useful spoken expressions, such as my all-time favourite, “Well…”; even if the actors slow down a bit in places, a lot of those typical elements of spoken English still appear – the “ch” sound in “don’t you” or the “j” sound in “would you” and so on.
    I can only agree that the key elements behind successful listening are awareness of typical pronunciation patterns used in connected spoken discourse and, of course, knowing lots of words!!! Having read up on teaching pronunciation and also having read the Gillian Brown book you mention has helped me to focus on the former elements, but I am still working on the vocabulary bit…
    I have also found it helpful in my lower level class to focus on words such as “Well…” used at the beginning of sentences and to ask the students – in L1 – to consider what the equivalent phrases might be in their language and what the intention of the word “well” is in the given contexts. (Often it is a disguised ‘no’, which also has typical equivalents in German, too, despite the prejudices about Germans being “too direct”.) In addition, I try to get students to practise using phrases such as “Sorry I didn’t quite catch that/your name/what you said before” so that they are armed for the real world. The opener “well…” – as it does for native speakers – is a great one for giving the speaker a little time to consider their response. It takes time for students to get used to actually using it, but when they do, it makes a world of difference to the overall impression they make when speaking!
    I am feeling fairly chuffed with myself about my abilities to exploit listenings, because I do pretty much the same as you have outlined. One thing I like to do if I have a particularly good text is – once the students have listened to the text at least twice – is to play it again and ask them to listen for a particular phrase. I tell them when exactly the phrase will come and ask them to listen to it very carefully and try to give me a word-for-word repetition of the phrase I’m after. This is a nice way to focus on language that I want them to really take in and not just passively understand and immediately forget again. What I haven’t been so good about is then following up on this and recycling this vocabulary…
    However, thanks to you, I’m now more aware of the need to do this more systematically than I have in the past with this group.
    I have also noted the vocab books you recommended and shall check them out. What surprises me, though, is that they seem to be fairly old publications. Are there really not any newer self-study vocab books? If not, it is a sad reflection on how little impact the Lexical Approach has had on mainstream teaching… The most recent thing I found is that you can download a free pdf of the vocabulary needed for the Cambridge PET exam, which might be useful for my elementary student, but I would love to find something more like a phrase book, something which contains those “chunks” which we use every day, but, so far, it seems that there’s not much out there…
    Anyway, I’m digressing so I’ll call it a day. Thanks once again for finding all the time you do to write these posts; they are a Godsend for someone as isolated as me!

    1. Hi again Amanda –
      Thanks for such a detailed response to this post.

      It’s funny because just the day before you posted, an incident in my Intermediate class gave me pause to think of this one again.
      I was doing a listening in which two people discussed some friends’ new flat.
      Students were listening initially for gist and had to find out where the flat was, why they’d moved and what was good / bad about the new place.
      One student said, when asked about problems, “kids complain“.
      Turned out she’d misheard the part where they talked about a big shared garden “where the kids can play“!!

      Agree that it’s often good to mine the listening scripts for language once you’ve played the CD / tape a couple of times and done a couple of different tasks related to it.
      Students get the chance to notice – and teachers get the chance to try and explain / exemplify all kinds of odd patterns.
      It does obviously depend on the quality of the scripts, but I think you’re right in saying that even very dry books with spectacularly unrealistic examples of usage in most sections, do often have more sane samples in these areas.
      Just this week, after ONE listening with my Intermediate class, I’ve been asked:
      – why do they say round in I went round to Nick and Carol’s the other day?
      – why do they mention the fact the front room is huge
      ? Does the front room have special importance?
      – what does an old block mean?
      – is envy – in I don’t envy them – the same as jealous?
      – I don’t understand this – pointing to the words work done in the chunk it needs a bit of work done on it

      Obviously, being aware of things like your pet fave, Well, help.
      All I’d add is that so does being aware of everything else that’s going on, and the bulk of what causes comprehension problems actually WON’T be things like those little fillers.
      It’ll be meatier content, collocations, chunks, phrases, words, etc!
      Learned one by one by painful one.

  7. Hi again,
    Thanks for responding so quickly to my post! The “kids can play” and “kids complain” mix-up is good!!! If my students read or listen to something and understand – or translate something really nonsensical – I try to ask them if they think it *likely* that the writer or speaker in question would have said something so outlandish, given that the written text will have been edited and the spoken one, in the case of a textbook, also! In the case of your student, though, the alternative they heard is kind of logical, so that one was particularly difficult.
    On your final comment: “All I’d add is that so does being aware of everything else that’s going on, and the bulk of what causes comprehension problems actually WON’T be things like those little fillers.
    It’ll be meatier content, collocations, chunks, phrases, words, etc!
    Learned one by one by painful one.”
    I shall continue to try and get my lower intermediate learners to use the word “well” as I think the confidence it gives them, due to the time lag it provides between thinking and responding, is a huge benefit AND it makes them sound better to their interlocutor (should they be aware of that usage). As a way to make the whole listening experience a little less fraught, I think the value of learning this word is immense.
    In *your* teaching context, with a lot of Chinese speakers, would the pronunciation of the word “well” be problematic and therefore not too useful? Just a thought…
    But you are of course right to say that most comprehension problems are caused by lack of knowledge of vocabulary and the sound of various chunks and common collocations. This is where I need to make my adult learners more aware of the need to do more work in this field: that they have to do more outside of the classroom to expand their range of lexical items. The Philip Kerr blog on word lists is an invaluable resource for that.
    Oh, and by the way, I’ve set up a closed (but not secret) group on Facebook called “English Teachers in German-speaking Countries” and have been regularly posting links to your blog posts. If you know of anybody who would fit that description, let them know about the group and I can invite them to join. It would be great to have more input there!

    1. I hear you on asking students if an utterance they think they heard was likely, but often it either may well have been (as in the kids complain / can play) utterance or else they simply didn’t understand – or hear – what they were should’ve done and so kind of ‘translate’ to the next nearest approximation in the hope that they’re close.

      Oh, and I wasn’t suggesting you DON’T try and get lower-level students to use WELL, by the way.
      I’m just saying there are many many other issues too, and that ultimately WELL is a sort of polished veneer rather than the bulk / meat of what constitutes most messages
      I do accept, though, of course that a pragmatic device that buys students a little bit of time is a very handy thing to have!

      In terms of pronunciation – and contrary to popular belief (!!) – Chinese students generally don’t have problems with /l/ and /r/.
      That’s very much a Japanese issue, and of course WELL is just one of many many words with these sounds in they need to work on.
      This morning we have LOVELY RELATIVES causing a few issues!!
      It’s also the way the word then links with what follows, of course, and the way that throws students who’s focus on pron thus far has only been on individual sounds and words. The way WELL ACTUALLY or WELL I HONESTLY THINK . . . links causes real problems, obviously.

      Glad you’re enjoying Philip Kerr’s blog.
      It’s great, isn’t it?
      You may also enjoy a new MEMORY ACTIVITIES FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING by Nick Bilbrough (CUP), which has plenty more similar kinds of ideas in it.

      Good luck with the facebook group.
      If and when anyone relevant comes into my orbit, I’ll let you know.


  8. […] Shona Whyte:"When we do listenings, we are teaching listening skills. But what are these skills and how do we teach them?" A lengthy post by ELT teacher and trainer Hugh Dellar on the problems of teaching listening comprehension, with references to schema theory and McCarthy's notion of listenership.  […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: