logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Teaching listening: the essentials


If you have followed the first part of this guide, you will be aware of the range of strategies that good listeners deploy in a foreign language to understand what they hear.  We use these strategies in our first languages, too, but we need to focus on them explicitly if we are to help our learners be aware of what to do when listening and get the chance to practise each skill in isolation.
Just as we don't try to teach all the grammar and lexis of the language at once, so we can break up skills in order to focus on what's realistically learnable.  We also need to recycle the data because once is not usually enough.

bottom up

Bottom-up skills

check list

What do we need to teach?

Here's a list of bottom-up subskills (adapted from Field 1998):

Discrimination listeners need to be able to distinguish minimally different words such as fifteen, fifty, six, sex, want, won't, plan, plane etc.
Segmentation listeners need the ability to identify where one word ends and the next begins in continuous speech.  This is particularly difficult in a language like English because of its timing.
Extrapolation learners need to be able to make logical guesses at the spelling of unknown words.  Spelling in English is not the irregular mess it's often accused of being.
Anticipation learners need to be able to guess what comes next.  For example, So I went up to him and ... will normally be followed by something someone said or did.  By the same token, It was a really stunning ... can only be followed by a limited number of items (event, film, picture, view etc.) but they will all be things you perceive.  Much of this is knowledge of likely collocation but there's more, of course.
Reference learners need practice in matching references internally in what they hear.  For example, in the sentence He opened it and out of the box came ... learners will need to know that the pronoun it refers forward to something that is to come in the sentence (the box) to make meaning clear.
Monitoring for information learners need to be practised in the skill of listening out for key words in long listening texts and then applying themselves to understanding what is said about them.
Relevance learners need practice in identifying if and how far points made are relevant to what they need to know.


How do we teach it?

These are all skills that we can practise in isolation and only later put together to give our learners a realistic exercise in real-life listening.  Take a look at the list above and think of ways that you might be able to practise each subskill separately.  Click here when you have a list of 7 ideas (one for each skill).


Top-down skills

It's perfectly arguable, of course, that we don't need to teach these skills because we all use them in our first languages.  However, there is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that these skills are not easily transferred because learners are distracted by the difficulties of listening in a foreign language.  We have, therefore, to make sure they get some explicit practice in deploying what they know.

check list

What do we need to teach?

As we have seen, top-down skills are mostly to with activating what the learner already knows but there are different types of top-down knowledge:

Knowledge of the world in general
We all have varying amounts of this and the younger and less sophisticated your learners are, the more you may have to teach content as well as language.  For example, if learners are told that a listening text is of an interview with a zoo keeper and they know nothing at all about the topic, the information is unlikely to be of much use.  If, on the other hand, they know what a zoo keeper does and are acquainted with the topic of zoos, it may be of great use in decoding what they hear.
Knowledge of the structure of texts (generic knowledge)
When we are listening to a text, it is very helpful to us to know what the structure and staging of the text is likely to be.
For example, an anecdote is likely to have Orientation (Where, when and to whom did things happen?), followed by a Complication (What was the issue? What went wrong? etc.), a Resolution (How was the problem resolved?) and a Coda (How does the teller feel about what happened?).
On the other hand, if we are being given instructions, the normal staging will be Goal > What we need to reach the goal > What the steps are in reaching the goal.
If the listeners know all this, it is going to be a great help in understanding the content because people will know what to listen for and at what stage.
Cultural knowledge
Simply knowing, for example, that sports coverage comes at the end of a news broadcast (cultural, generic knowledge) or that in the USA the Foreign Minister is called the Secretary of State and in Britain the Finance Minister is called the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a great help in certain circumstances.  Equally, of course, knowing that tea time means 4 o'clock (or thereabouts) in Britain may be crucial to understanding a text.

How do we teach it?

Just as you did for bottom-up skills, make a few notes about teaching the various types of top-down skills and then click here for a commentary.

Before you present a listening text to your learners, it is worth focusing briefly on three aspects that are shared by all texts:

  1. Subject matter (the Field)
    All texts have a topic and we usually know what the topic is before we even start to listen.
    Make sure that learners are aware, by questioning, elicitation, informing etc.
  2. Style (Tenor)
    All language is produced by people and for a reason.
    Take the time to consider with your learners who is speaking, why they are speaking (what goal do they have in mind?) and what the relationship is between the speaker and the hearer which will determine how organised and how formal the language is likely to be.
  3. The medium (or Mode)
    Spoken texts may be pre-recorded, publicly announced, whispered, spoken in small groups or one to one and so on.  How the language is delivered is important because it often determines what language is used.

There are a few listening exercises for learners on this site that may be of interest.

Related guides
listening for the overview guide to what listening is
genre for the guide to a crucial area
pages for learners click through to some listening exercises.  You can incorporate the materials into your own lessons
inferencing for some help with how we figure meaning from context and co-text
assessing listening for the in-service guide to how we may evaluate and measure our learners' listening abilities
teaching vocabulary for the in-service guide to teaching meaning
essential skills index for the overview guides to the four main skills
context for a guide to the essentials of context and co-text

Click here to take two short matching tests.

Field, J, 1998, Skills and strategies: towards a new methodology for listening, ELT Journal Volume 52/2 April 1998 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Other references you may find helpful:
Anderson, A & Lynch, T, 1988, Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Brown, G, 1990, Listening to Spoken English, Harlow: Longman
Buck, G, 2001, Assessing Listening, Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press
Field, J, 2009, Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lynch, T, 2009, Teaching Second Language Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rost, M, 1990, Listening in Language Learning, Harlow: Longman
Rost, M, 2002, Teaching and Researching Listening, Pearson
Underwood, M, 1989, Teaching Listening, Harlow: Longman
Ur, P, 1984, Teaching Listening Comprehension, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
White, G, 1998, Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wilson, JJ & Wilson, JJ, 2008, How to Teach Listening (1st Ed.), Harlow: Pearson Longman