Listening to what we know: nine tips for student comprehension


Understanding what we hear depends on a number of abilities: being able to decipher sounds and attach meaning to them; interpreting the rhythm of what a speaker is saying, as well as the stress and intonation she puts on certain parts of a sentence; and associating with the context in which a conversation is taking place.


All this, in turn, relies on different kinds of knowledge. In the first place, the learner needs to understand the way the language works – in other words, its mechanics: grammar and syntax. Next, she needs to know the background to a monologue or dialogue. All writers, all speakers assume that their readers or listeners share a knowledge base with them. (I can remember an essay submitted to me when I was teaching at the British Council in Sri Lanka, which started “All mothers are women.” That’s tantamount to nonsense, not because it’s wrong, obviously, but because it does not need to be stated – and probably would not be in the writer’s mother tongue.) Finally, listeners need to know the setting, who the participants in the conversation are and why they are talking about a topic. It’s the reason teachers elicit background information from their students before beginning a listening or reading exercise.

It is, of course, a complicated process and a lot can go wrong along the way. But it’s important that we, as teachers, keep encouraging our students to listen. There are so many advantages to extensive listening! First and foremost, the development of a student’s listening skills follows fairly much the same pattern in L2 as it does in L1. Next, around half of human communication takes place through listening. Compare that to writing, which comes in at less than 10%. Then again, students, given an understanding teacher, will also not be asked to explain everything they have just heard. This allows them time to process meaning in their short-term memories. And, finally, the sense of achievement when a learner can understand what someone has said to her in the target language is immense. Perhaps no other skill inspires us with such confidence when we get it right.

But the difficulty comes when teachers need to choose suitable texts! In real life, listening is an interactive skill because we usually need to reply but it can be difficult to reproduce that in the L2 classroom, if a teacher relies on audio recordings. This difficulty is compounded by others: learners usually cannot see the person speaking and so can’t pick up on visual clues, whether these are mannerisms, gestures or environmental ones. Then, the text often goes on quite a long time. It does not greatly matter if it’s a monologue or chat. The fact is that in real life outside the classroom, people speak in chunks and we respond to them in other chunks. That’s not the way listening often happens in the classroom. But most importantly, there is sometimes no purpose behind the listening, except for one manufactured by the teacher, such as: “Answer questions 1 to 5”.

How then can a teacher select texts which are as close as possible to authentic listening situations? Obviously the best solution is to leave choice of material to the learner herself, but that’s easier said than done with lower level learners. So, if teachers must select on behalf of their students, what characteristics should a listening text have?

Here are a few things that facilitate understanding:

  1. The recording must be of true interest to students, something they would like to listen to in their own language. What about instructions for a virtual game?
  2. There must be environmental clues as to what is going on in the conversation: distress at unrequited love; anger at unfair treatment by a referee, parent or teacher; and so on. Clearly, the situation must be one that’s familiar to listeners.
  3. But not just the situation. The vocabulary and grammar should be easily comprehensible because it is, for the most part, familiar. We are, after all, hoping they will understand.
  4. Prosodic features – the ebb and flow of whole sentences – should guide learners as to the mood of the conversation.
  5. The speed of delivery may need to be slowed down, not so that each word is enunciated separately and the rhythm of the sentence is thereby lost, but there should be slight pauses between chunks of language to allow learners time to assimilate meaning.
  6. Vocabulary will, ideally, be repeated so that students get a second chance if they miss out on the meaning the first time round.
  7. Points too need to be made a second time in different words so that learners’ understanding of what is going on is reaffirmed. This creates confidence.
  8. Ideally, learners will be able to watch a conversation at the same time as they are listening to it so that visual clues come to their aid.
  9. Finally, listening extracts should be brief.

This may seem a tall order but it’s not hard to create conversations on our smart phones these days and, hopefully, collegiality will demand that a fellow teacher will take part too, so that learners are exposed to different accents and voices. After all, you can return the favour!

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

Image: Giovanni Francesco Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons