How do we process what we listen to in a foreign language?


In my last couple of blog posts on the ways we teach listening, I talked about how we as teachers generally 'teach' listening skills by playing a recording and then asking a series of comprehension questions.

The texts are usually boring and students have no control over what they are listening to. Besides, we are, after all, not teaching listening skills but testing them.

Students listening carefully

John Field (2014), whose work this post heavily relies on, has described the steps in the process of listening by which we decipher meaning. This has clear implications for the ways in which we can present listening materials to our students. Let's take a look at Field's five phases:

  1. The first is a decoding phase, which involves the identification of sounds or micro-skills. Without this fundamental work taking place, it's impossible to identify words. Yet, as Gianfranco Conti (2017) points out, remarkably little attention is paid in the second language classroom to this essential phase in understanding spoken text.

  2. The next phase involves any listener who has managed to identify individual sounds and build these into words in searching her long-term memory for words they know that match or approximate sounds they have just heard (for instance 'approximate' and 'approximately'). The listener hopefully has, therefore, assigned meaning to the words - or some of them at least - in the utterance.

  3. The third phase is parsing - or analysing the grammatical context of individual words in a clause or sentence. In other words, this is where the listener works out what job an individual word does in a sentence, such as showing 'where' something is or what something is doing.

  4. Then comes a consolidating phase, which Field calls 'meaning building', that builds on the work done in the the previous phases by ascribing meaning to the whole clause or sentence.

  5. Finally, in the fifth phase, discourse construction, the listener works out the overall meaning of a monologue, dialogue, paragraph or whatever by linking the meanings of individual clauses and combining these into an understanding of the text as a whole.

Of course, at various stages along the way many of our learners get lost. It's for this reason that Farrell (2011) and others have suggested that listening to the same text as many as four or five times might be a more useful strategy than listening to various different takes on the same situation.

So, with learners at the early stages of language learning, the implication is that we need to start from the very basics and work up until they are capable and confident of managing whole texts. Most of us will recognise that we do not do this in our schools by and large. Too often, we present students with a dialogue and either get them to repeat it (until they have memorised it and can therefore recognise it) or assign them a series of multiple choice questions or 'wh' ones (like 'Who threw the ball?').

In my next post, I will look at some activities that we can use to practise these skills from the lowest levels to the higher ones.

Mark Bartholomew, Co-Founder, Read Listen Learn

Listening texts read at slow to normal speeds are available free of charge on Read Listen Learn, you can sign up free here

Image credits

Students Listening Carefully By Anxhelo Lushka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons