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Concourse 2

Listening and note-making skills for EAP


The following concerns listening skills in English for Academic Purposes but some of the skills required to listen attentively to and comprehend long stretches of fluent native-speaker-level language are applicable beyond an academic setting.  News reports, documentary films, political comment programmes and so on spring to mind.

It is possible to analyse the listening skills EAP students need by categorising them under the settings in which they are deployed – lectures, seminars, one-to-one tutorials etc.  That is not the approach taken here because the skills are often needed in all these settings, although some may be at more of a premium than others.  Here, we look at the settings first and then at the skills, simultaneously considering which ones are most applicable in which settings.



Learners in an EAP setting are likely to find themselves in three situations in which they will be required to listen and comprehend:

  1. A formal lecture
  2. A seminar or individual tutorial where communication can be two way and is often required to be so
  3. A presentation given by a peer which is often followed by a free-for-all discussion

All the skills which are discussed below are applicable in all situations.



We will distinguish here between understanding and comprehending in this way:

involves decoding what has been said, identifying lexis and structure and extracting meaning.  It is a complex of bottom-up processing to identify language items and top-down processing to follow the gist and bring knowledge of the subject and the world in general to bear on the text.
involves understanding but also means extracting the central material while ignoring the incidental and identifying main and subsidiary points.  It will also often involve identifying relationships between ideas and concepts and their basis in evidence or otherwise.  Comprehending also involves the ability to recall essentials and that, in turn, often means good note-taking (or note-making) abilities.  It is, in short, an academic skill.

It is the second of these which is one target of teaching English for Academic Purposes.

Above and beyond the listening skills required by all learners of English, there are some which are of particular importance in an academic setting and it is on these that we shall concentrate this analysis.  This list assumes that the ability to recognise the topic, deduce meaning from context and recognise conjunction etc. are or have been the aims of a General English study programme.  They do not concern us here but are covered in guides elsewhere on this site to which there are links at the end.

Lectures and lessons are not the sole content of a course.  They are, often, an overview of an area which students will be expected to research and read about.


1. the ability to use signposting

Good lecturers and seminar leaders use explicit signposting to keep people informed and let people know what is coming next.  Poor ones don't, unfortunately, but we'll assume here that the EAP learner finds him or herself in the hands of one of the better ones.
Signposts are not really a language category and can't be taught as such but there are some obvious ways that good speakers use them and they perform a range of important functions:

  1. Introducing the topic.
    This can be done in many ways and they are mostly quite explicit.  A few common ones are:
        My topic today is ...
        This morning, we are going to look at ...
        Today, I want to address ...
        The purpose of this lecture / talk / seminar is ...
    Of course, properly prepared learners will not need to know any of these things because they will know what the lecture is about before they arrive.
  2. Outlining the structure (only very good lecturers do this well or even at all).
    It is worth training learners, however, to listen out for expressions such as:
        I'm going to focus on three main ideas.
        This lecture is divided as follows ...
        The first area we have to consider is ... and then I'll get on to ... and ...
  3. Introducing discrete sections.
        We need to begin by considering ...
        Firstly, ...
        Secondly, ...

        Now we can move on to ...
  4. Signalling transitions (more on this below).
        OK.  Now let's move on to consider ...
        We have considered this in some detail so now we can ...
        Now I turn to the third section of this lecture.
  5. Summing up (only the best do this well).
        OK.  Now let me recap the important points.
        Overall, we can see that ...
        In summary / conclusion, ...
        The three main takeaway points are ...

2. the ability to identify major ideas and distinguish them from supporting ideas, examples and hypotheses

The sources allowing us to do this are quite plentiful.  Some of these sources can be used before and some during the lecture process.  Some attention also needs to be paid to what learners do after a session.

  1. Preparation before the event.  Using the background data already available.
    1. the title of a lecture or the stage of teaching programme will often tell us precisely what the main thrust of a lecture or seminar concerns.
      It is not uncommon for learners simply to ignore the lecture title and go in, so to speak, blind.  That's unhelpful, naturally.  EAP learners can, in fact, start their notes before the lecture by predicting content from the title and making headings in a notebook.  It is not difficult to give them a little practice in doing so by presenting a range of appropriate and relevant titles and getting them to brainstorm headings for a note book..
    2. helpful lecturers and teachers often provide an outline of what it is that will be discussed and this will usually contain headings and subheadings to guide the listening process.
      These, too, can be used as a basis for notes by simply transferring the outline topics to a notebook.  However one makes notes, it is useful to have somewhere to start.
    3. the stage in a course can usually be matched to the course syllabus and a good deal of the content of a lesson or lecture can be inferred by looking there.  Syllabus elements can form part of the note-making process.
  2. During the event.  Using linguistic clues to help the learner to listen to what is really important, ignore irrelevance or detail available elsewhere and take / make good notes.
    1. good lecturers and teachers will use clear verbal signals to identify the core ideas.  For example:
      • This lecture concerns ...
      • The main point I want to stress is ...
      • There are two competing theories.
      • By the end of this session we will be able to see that ...
        What follows signals like these will often be the basis for note-making subheadings and headings.
    2. lecturers will also explicitly signal subsidiary points.  For example:
      • You may like to know that ...
      • Incidentally ...
      • A less important factor is ...
      • We are not concerned today with ...
        What follows comments like these can safely be left out of the student's notes altogether.
    3. lecturers will also, if they are any good, signal exemplification which is not central to the argument.  For example (!):
      • For example, ...
      • Another instance of this is ...
      • Another case in point might be ...
        For note-making, it is useful to signal examples by highlighting or indenting them in some way.  See below for more.
    4. prosodic features are important here because lecturers will often signal important information and recognising the signals can help to make headings and subheadings in notes.  These features include:
      • stress on particular words: and THAT is what caused the ...
      • rising intonation across a clause
      • higher key on critical terms
  3. After the event.  Reviewing re-organising and revising.  Good learners will take the time to review their notes and, if necessary, re-write them for future revision.  There are three benefits:
    1. What is clear on the day may be mysterious weeks later when it comes to re-reading notes or using them to write essays, take examinations or prepare for seminars and presentations so clearly re-written notes will help.
    2. Re-writing notes helps to fix salient facts in the mind and dismiss peripheral data to a foot note.
    3. Re-organising notes requires the learner not only to recall facts but to understand and apply them.  Fundamental re-organisation can also require the note-taker to analyse the data and evaluate it.

3. the ability to identify relationships between ideas

It is important that EAP learners are trained to recognise three common devices which signal the existence and the direction of causality and restrictions on the truth of statements.  Two are to do with forms of subordination, the third is semantically rather than syntactically driven.

  1. subordinating conjunctions
    There is a guide on this site which considers subordination in some detail linked in the list of related guides at the end but a short list of these devices which can form part of a training programme is
    1. condition and concession signals: if, providing, unless, but for, assuming etc.
      For example:
      If the material is exposed to heat ...
      But for the king's actions ...
      Assuming the figures are accurate ...

    2. causal connectors: because, as, since, so (that). in order that etc.
      This happened because ...
      So that this can happen ...
      In order for the data to be analysed ...

    3. temporal connections: after, before, now that, once, since, till / until etc.
      The reaction continues until ...
      Once mobilisation had begun ...
      Since the beginning of the century ...

  2. relative clauses
    Speakers often signal the existence of causality by the used of relative clauses as in, e.g.:
    This information which allowed this conclusion was ...
    The experiment which confirmed the result was ...

  3. lexical devices of two types
    1. verbal processes such as:
      The data allow us to ...
      The results of the study led to ...
      This caused ...
      This triggered ...
      The queen's death set off ...
      The rebellion was instigated by ...
      The reaction was initiated by ...

    2. nominalisation such as:
      The root cause was ...
      The result of all these conflicting factors was ...
      The origins of the revolution lie in ...


Prosodic features, too, will play a role just as they do in the signalling of key facts and ideas.
All of these can be taught, of course, but the focus is on comprehension in the first place, not simple recall.


4. the ability to identify transitions

Few talks, lessons or lectures focus on a single topic and, even when they do, there are usually sub-topics contained within the whole.  EAP learners need to be able to recognise the point at which the topic is changing because that allows them to follow and make / take orderly notes.

To be able to recognise transition, some training in the use of adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts is in order because these are the main ways transitions are signalled

  1. adjuncts:
    1. viewpoint contrasts:
      Now, economically, the situation has been described as ...
      Politically, this was an error.
      On an industrial rather than laboratory scale, however, ...
    2. focusing:
      Chiefly, we are concerned to discover ...
      Up to now, we have a purely economic analysis.
  2. attitudinal or content disjuncts allow listeners to see that someone is moving on:
    Obviously, the next step is to ...
    And that, of course, has implications.
  3. conjuncts:
    1. enumerating:
      Secondly, we come to the question of ...
      Step three is ...
    2. rephrasing (to signal that the topic is not changing):
      Put another way ...
      In other words ...
      Better put, perhaps, ...
    3. resultative:
      Consequently, ...
      As a result, ...
    4. recap (to signal that the topic is not changing)
      To sum up, ...
      So, overall, the situation is ...
      To conclude this section then ...


Taking and making notes

Comprehending what has been said in a lecture or lesson is unhelpful unless one has a good way of being able to revise what was said and commit it to long-term memory.
That is one purpose of taking notes but another, equally important one, is that making notes increases focus and attention during a lecture or lesson.
Making and taking good notes is dependent on mastering the listening skills set out above but the two can work hand in hand.
The distinction being made here is:

  1. Note taking describes writing down a paraphrase (or even the exact wording) of what has been said.  It is a form of dictation.
  2. Note making describes writing down the main points you have identified and drawing the connections and identifying relevance for yourself.  It is a creative and focusing activity.

Both have their place.


Approaches to taking and making notes

This is an area fraught with dogma.
For some, there are right and wrong ways of taking notes and that is end of the story.  Many who come to the subject from this perspective assert that linear lists of points are A Bad Thing and diagrams of some sort of A Good Thing.
That is not the approach taken here.


Rule 1: there are no rules

Note-taking (or note-making) is a personal process.  What works for me, won't for you and what works in one setting with one type of lecture (or lecturer) won't work elsewhere with a different lecture, topic or lecturer.


Rule 2: practise and experiment

We can only discover what sort of note-making and taking is appropriate and suits our style by actually doing the task.  Learners need plenty of opportunity to try out various approaches before they settle on one or two that they are comfortable using.


Rule 3: focus and succinctness

Nobody can write down everything they hear, even in a short lecture, so all the listening skills above need to be deployed to focus on the essentials and ignore the peripheral.  Notes are, by definition, succinct.  They are postcards to yourself.


Rule 4: know what you are doing

The lowest level of cognition that is applied to study is the ability to recall facts and many learners are tempted think that this is what the sole or main purpose of note-taking is.
It isn't.
There are 5 levels of cognition above the level of simply remembering facts and they all play a role in good note-taking and note-making:

  1. Understanding
    involves the ability to rephrase, summarise and illustrate ideas.  Learners should be asked, therefore, not just to make notes but to review them and use them to explain what they have heard.  This might involve transferring data from prose to diagrams or vice versa and rephrasing what they have encountered in their own words or their own language.
  2. Applying
    involves the ability to use notes to ask questions, research further and read more widely.  Learners need practice in this skill level so that the road map that a lecture or seminar has given them can be used to investigate further.  That's the application of data, and it's more than retention and understanding.
  3. Analysing
    involves breaking down data into parts and understanding how things fit together.  It is not enough to come out of a session armed with a set of facts.  The facts need to be analysed and organised.  They may need arranging, testing, classifying and categorising and practice needs to be provided.
  4. Evaluating
    involves judging what is central and important and distinguishing it from peripheral and inessential information.  Learners need to practise the ability to look at what they have gleaned and prioritise things to bring out essential points.
  5. Creating
    involves using the notes to synthesise something new.  That may be a presentation at a seminar, an essay or an answer to an examination question.  You can't do this without practice and lots of it because it also involves recalling, understanding, applying, analysing and evaluating what you have encountered.

It is important that learners are aware of the levels of cognition at which they are working.


The choices

Linear note taking and making

This is a familiar form of note making and taking but has a few variables:

  1. Simple sentence making.
    In this form, note takers simply write a new sentence for every idea they encounter.  The result will be a page of sentences, each distinct from the neighbouring sentences and each representing a single idea.  Even when the speaker has carefully explained a causal relationship between two ideas, they will appear in separate sentences but be linked with a simple arrow to show the direction of causality.
  2. Paragraphing and indenting.
    In this form, notes are organised like this:
    1. First main point
      1. Subheading
        1. First example and result
        2. Second example
      2. Next sub heading
    2. Second main point
  3. Focused notes.
    These require a selection of pretty pen colours with the note-maker / taker selecting the appropriate one for each type of meaning.  It ends up looking something like this:
    Event or Fact
    It can, of course be combined with either of the first two approaches, and often is.

Linear note making and taking gets a bad press because of some suppositions about how the human brain processes information.
The system can, however, become quite sophisticated with combinations of the three basic approaches, the use of arrows and other graphics to show equality, superiority, connections and so on.
Some people who use this system use the reverse of each page of a notebook for making revision notes by refining what it faces, like this:
notes 1
and so on for the rest of the notebook.
It is easy to insert additions into linear notes as one reads and researches.  It is far more difficult and sometimes impossible to do that with ...

Diagrammatic note taking and making

There are a number of approaches to this which result in slightly different outcomes.

  1. Branching notes:
    These begin with the main topic in a central box from which the note-taker / maker draws lines, placing text on them.  It looks like this:
    note 2
  2. Mind- or concept-maps.
    These extend the branching system and can become quite sophisticated (and quite messy).
    They might end up like:
    note 3
    Hand drawn rather than produced like this they can be very sophisticated indeed.  The issue is that the user has to develop a shape and colour system which is memorable but not too complex to be remembered.

There are an infinite number (almost) of ways that the systems can be refined and combined to suit the user.
Linear notes are easier to draw on for revision and later extension and refinement.  Graphical notes are helpful to see connections and similarities.
Some users convert linear to graphical or vice versa for revision purposes.


Avoiding the blank page

Many note-takers settle into their seats with a blank page in the notebook open in front of them.  This is slightly bizarre behaviour because it implies that they have no preconceptions about what they are going to experience and have made no predictions concerning the lecture's focus and probable content.

We saw above that there are three sources of information to draw on before the lecture begins:

  1. The title
    which will tell us something about the content and from which we can predict the focus.
  2. Any summary the lecturer / teacher has been good enough to provide
    from which we can start with a few headings and subheadings.
  3. The syllabus
    from which we set the lecture / lesson in context and make some connections to other topics.  This, too, can be used to plan our note-making in advance.

Furthermore, even a poor lecture will have some kind of predictable structure to the information to be presented.  Almost all lectures / lessons in academic contexts will contain at least:

  1. An introduction to focus the audience, probably including some consideration of why it's important.  From knowing this, we already have a title and two headings for our notes:
  2. Some detail concerning the definition of the focus of the lecture.  From this we can refine our headings:
            Point 1:
            Point 2:
            Importance 1:
            Importance 2:
  3. Some consideration of contrasts with other ideas / theories / hypotheses.  From this, we can add another section to the skeleton of the notes:
    Other theories / ideas:
  4. The implications of the focus so we can add another section:
        Implication 1:
        Implication 2:
        Implication 3:
  5. Some indication of chronology may be provided so we need another subheading:
  6. The lecturer's emphasis will usually be clear, too, so we can add:
    Most important issues:
  7. A summary at the end from which we can check that we have made a note of the most important issues.

If we reserve a separate page in our notebook for each of these sections, we will be well prepared because we know what we are listening for and we won't waste time writing down the headings.  It's helpful to do that because lecturers may present the information in a different order.  All we need to do then is flip forward or back through the notebook to assign the thoughts and comments to the right parts of our notes.
If we prefer diagrammatic notes, of course, the headings and subheadings will appear on branches and sub-branches.  In that case, each of the six or so pages of the notebook that we have prepared will contain a separate tree.
It may, naturally, be the case that they are not all relevant.  Much will depend on the topic, the length of the presentation and the skill of the lecturer / teacher.  If that is the case, we shall have wasted a bit of paper.  So be it.


Practising the art of note-making

Many people develop their note-making skills at school and stick with the pattern that they first used.  That may be a mistake because, as with most other skills, practice and experimentation usually lead to improvement.  Here's an outline for a mini-course in note-making skills.

  1. Raising awareness of the alternatives.
    Have to hand an example or two of each type of notes which refer to the same mini-lecture or part of a lecture.
    Get the learners to discuss their relative merits and how they respond to them.
    For many, this may be the first time they have seen a set of notes which differ from how they make notes.
  2. Forcing the issue.
    Using short texts (fewer than 100 words is usually enough) compel learners to take notes in at least three different ways.  The aim here is to force them to consider and experiment with alternatives.
    Texts can be generalised or specific to the domain in which your students need to operate but should contain at least:
    1. One main point
    2. One consequence of it
    3. Two examples
  3. Not starting with a blank piece of paper.
    If we give the learners the title of what they are going to hear and some indication of its content, then they can start to construct their note skeleton before they hear a word of it.  It doesn't matter which form of note-making they are going to use.  The principles are the same.
  4. Responding.
    Learners now need to be given the opportunity to respond personally to the three types of notes they have taken and discuss or reflect on (or both) which suits their learning style and which sort of note-making they find accessible later on when they come to review what they have written.
    Learners need to be directed to considering not only how easy they find taking notes using the methods but also to how easy they find it making notes to highlight the main issues and review their notes for revision / extension.
  5. Finally, practice can be provided starting with short read-aloud texts (or video clips) and slowly working up to more extensive and complex presentations.  Learners should be practising using the one or two styles they have identified in the previous exercises.
    Some of this stage can involve the learners being asked to make notes on your lessons and each other's practice presentations, for example.  For more on presentation skills, see the guide in this section to speaking skills in EAP.


Types of lectures and lecturers

Finally, learners need to be aware of the possible styles of lectures and lecturers that they are likely to encounter.
Dudley-Evans and Johns (1981:34) identified three styles, all of which pose problems for (especially) EAP learners.  They are:

Style A — 'Reading Style'.
The lecturer reads from notes, or speaks as if he was reading from notes.  Characterised by short tone groups, and narrowness of intonational range.  Falling tone predominates
The issue for learners they identify is that it
may make it difficult for the listener to distinguish between what is presented as 'contrastive' and what is 'non-contrastive': without such pointing-up of the essential points, the overall structure of argument may not be perceived
Style B — 'Conversational Style'
The lecturer speaks informally, with or without notes.  Characterised by longer tone groups and key-sequences from high to low
The main issue for learners they identify is
there is the danger that matter hurried-over towards the end of the key sequence, but nevertheless necessary for the understanding of the lecture as a whole, may be missed.
Style C — 'Rhetorical Style'. The lecturer as performer
Characterised by wide intonational range.  The lecturer often exploiting high key, and a 'boosted high key'.  Frequent asides and digressions marked by key and tempo shift — sometimes also by voice-quantity shift.
The issue for learners with this style is that it
involves the difficult task of perceiving the asides and digressions, of assessing their relevance or otherwise to the main argument, and — most important — of being able to pick up the argument after the digression.

To this should be added that the Reading Style lecture will often be akin to writing read aloud and that may lead to clearer linguistic clues regarding connections, subordination and causality and that this may, in fact, make it easier for the EAP student to follow the thread.
The other two lecture styles will contain a good deal of colloquial language and even a joke or two that may be lost on all but the most advanced users of a second language.

Knowing this is helpful but not as helpful as actually exposing EAP learners to the three styles and giving them some way of recognising them and adjusting their listening strategies accordingly.
Practice in doing that is now available easily on the web.  There are hundreds of sites containing everything from short presentations to full-length academic lectures.  Some, on ted.com, for example, are presentations given by very skilled lecturers, others may be less accessible or enthralling but learners need all sorts of practice.
What's more, of course, such examples cover a huge range of topic and specialist areas so your students can access the ones which are relevant to their expertise in their subject.

Related guides
speaking in EAP which considers where, when and how to ask questions in lessons and lectures
listening the more general guide to the skill
teaching listening for some classroom ideas
adverbials for the guide to adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
subordination for a guide to the area as a whole
Bloom's taxonomy if you want to know more about the level of cognition that tasks require
EAP index for links to other guides in this area

Dudley-Evans, A and Johns. T F, 1981, A Team Teaching Approach to Lecture Comprehension for Overseas Students, in The British Council ELT-46, The Teaching of Listening Comprehension, London: The British Council, Printing and Publishing Department