The Internet TESL Journal

The Teaching of Listening

Arif Saricoban
Hacettepe University (Beytepe-Ankara, Turkey)
arifs [at] hun. edu. tr

Listening is the ability to identify and understand what others are saying. This involves understanding a speaker's accent or pronunciation, his grammar and his vocabulary, and grasping his meaning (Howatt and Dakin). An able listener is capable of doing these four things simultaneously. Willis (1981:134) lists a series of micro-skills of listening, which she calls enabling skills. They are:

According to Bulletin (1952), listening is one of the fundamental language skills. It's a medium through which children, young people and adults gain a large portion of their education--their information, their understanding of the world and of human affairs, their ideals, sense of values, and their appreciation. In this day of mass communication (much of it oral), it is of vital importance that our pupils be taught to listen effectively and critically, he says.

Listening to and understanding speech involves a number of basic processes, some depending upon linguistic competence, some depending upon previous knowledge that is not necessarily of a purely linguistic nature, and some depending upon psychological variables that affect the mobilization of these competence and knowledge in the particular task situation. The listener must have a continuous set to listen and understand, and as he hears the utterance, he may be helped by some kind of set to process and remember the information transmitted. His linguistic competence enables him, presumably, to recognize the formatives of the heard utterance, i. e. , to dissect out of the wave form of the morphemes, words, and other meaning-bearing elements of the utterance.

Listening is a receptive skill, and receptive skills give way to productive skills. If we have our students produce something, the teaching will be more communicative. This brings us to the must of integrating language skills. There are two reasons for using integrating activities in language classrooms:

  1. To practice and extend the learners' use of a certain language structure or function
  2. To develop the learners' ability in the use of two or more of the skills within real contexts and communicative frame work.

Integrated activities, on the other hand, provide a variety in the classroom and thus maintain motivation and allow the recycling and revision of language which has already been taught separately in each skill.

How can we be certain that listening experiences will become more productive? Wittich tells us to distinguish the four levels existing in listening to radio or recordings:

It is listening on the fourth level that primarily concerns us in our teaching. Such listening may add an emotional and dramatic quality. Radio and recordings highlight the importance of listening. Listening is as active as speaking (the other receptive skill), and in some ways even more difficult. It well requires attention, thought, interpretation, and imagination. To improve our learners' listening skills we should let them (Austin Shrope, 1970):
  1. Adopt a positive attitude.
  2. Be responsive.
  3. Shut out distractions.
  4. Listen for the speaker's purpose.
  5. Look for the signals of what is to come.
  6. Look for summaries of what has gone before.
  7. Evaluate the supporting materials.
  8. Look for non-verbal clues.
We can call listening a decoding -making sense of the message process. Each short stretch of meaningful material which is read or heard has to be;Out of this process come pieces of information which can be stored in the long term memory for recall later. We can show the whole process in the form of a model (Abbott and Wingard, 1985).
  1. Perception of sounds, letter shapes, etc.
  2. Initial recognition of meaning of short stretches
  3. Material held in short term memory
  4. Related to material already held in short term memory
  5. Related to material arriving in short-term memory
  6. Meaning extracted from message and retained in long-term memory
  7. Gist recalled later
We can divide the listening process into 3 stages;
  1. Pre-listening (purpose must be given at this stage),
  2. During (in-while) listening,
  3. Post -listening (speaking).
There is an association between expectation, purpose, and comprehension, therefore a purpose should be given to our learners. We should train students to understand what is being said in conversations to get them to disregard redundancy, hesitation, and ungrammaticality. The major problem is the actual way listening material is presented to the students. We should give a clear lead in what they are going to hear; use some kind of visual back up for them to understand; give questions and tasks in order to clarify the things in their minds; and be sure that these tasks help in learning, not confusing. Students should learn how use the environmental clues; the speaker's facial expression, posture, eye direction, proximity, gesture, tone of voice, and that general surroundings contribute information.

In listening activities, we listen for a purpose. We make an immediate response to what we hear. There are some visual or environmental clues as to the meaning of what is heard. Stretches of heard discourse come in short chunks, and most heard discourse is spontaneous, therefore differs from formal spoken prose in the amount of redundancy 'noise' and colloquialisms, and its auditory character.

In listening to English as a foreign language, the most important features can be defined as:

  1. Coping with the sounds,
  2. Understanding intonation and stress,
  3. Coping with redundancy and noise,
  4. Predicting,
  5. Understanding colloquial vocabulary,
  6. Fatigue,
  7. Understanding different accents,
  8. Using visual and environmental clues.
This brings us to the thought that, while planning exercises, listening materials, task and visual materials should be taken into consideration. The teacher should produce a suitable discourse while using recordings. A preset purpose, ongoing learner response, motivation, success, simplicity, and feedback should be the things considered while preparing the task. Visual materials are useful for contextualization. We can also categorize the goals of listening as listening for enjoyment, for information, for persuation, for perception and lastly for comprehension and lastly to solve problems.

We can divide listening for comprehension into three stages;

  1. Listening and making no response (following a written text, informal teacher talk)
  2. Listening and making short responses (obeying instructions - physical movement, building models, picture dictation. etc.), true- false exercises, noting specific information, etc.
  3. Listening and making longer response (repetition and dictation, paraphrasing, answering questions, answering comprehension questions on texts, predictions, filling gaps, summarizing, etc)
The purposes that should be in a listening activity are giving/providing:
  1. General information (understanding of the main points)
  2. Specific information (understanding of the particular items)
  3. Cultural interest (generally informing about the target language culture)
  4. Information about people's attitudes and opinions
  5. The organization of ideas
  6. Sequence of events
  7. Lexical items (words expressing noise / movement)
  8. Structural items (their use and meaning)
  9. Functional items (their form and use)
Lack of sociocultural, factual, and contextual knowledge of the target language can present an obstacle to listening comprehension. In his Language and Language Learning (1960), Brooks discusses vital points for the student to be aware of, such as contradictions and omissions -aspects of sandhi-variation (the changes occur in natural speech as a result of environment, stress, intonation, rate of speed and so forth). Though Brook does not specially refer to the term " sandhi-variation ", he does refer to the phenomenon of sadhi in his examples: Jeet jet? (Did you eat yet?) (p. 50) . According to Brooks, native speakers in an informal situation "habitually reduce the clarity of speech signals to the minimum required for comprehension. "Brooks believes that it is necessary to give consideration also to the interdependence of language and culture; for example, register, expletives, verbal taboos, culture-bound vocabulary. He also mentions that there is a need to clarify and point out the differences between written and spoken English.

In order to teach listening skills, a teacher should firstly state the difficulties. For a student of a foreign language, accurate and intelligent listening is a necessity, and the teacher is responsible to help his / her learners to acquire this skill which provides the very foundation for learning and functioning in a language. That the teacher can observe and isolate the errors in speaking, but could not in listening is a difficulty. In listening, the learner can exercise no controls over the structural and lexical range of the speaker to whom he is listening. Nevertheless, any listener can learn to focus on significant content items, to explain in another way he can learn to listen selectively.

Helping the learners to distinguish sounds, teaching to isolate significant content and informational items for concentration may be provided by controlled listening exercises. One exercise is to give him certain performance objectives -to give him general informational questions that he should be able to answer after he listens the material for the first time. These questions should require only the isolation of facts clearly revealed in the material. Questions that require application or inference from the information contained in the listening exercise are best used at later stages or more advanced students.

More controls are necessary at less advanced levels. Sheets containing sequentially organized and significant questions on context and content -questions that call for one-word answers -serve as useful guides for the student. Such questions help him filter out and listen for significant information. The questions themselves suggest the content and provide the student with an organizational frame for selective listening.

For listening comprehension exercises, we tend to read passages, record news or broadcasts, or prepare lectures. All of them have value, but they are extremely difficult sources for early practice in selective listening. This type of listening exercises does not present the redundancies, the colloquialisms, the hesitations, the gestures and the facial expressions that are an inseparable part of the spoken language. They emphasize informational content and fail to provide the signals used to communicate information and meaning.

Since most of the actual listening the student will be exposed to outside of the class is likely to be real-life conversation, it seems wisest to use materials cast in real-life situations for listening comprehension exercises -at least at the beginning level. If the oral instruction of the course is contextualized -set into a " situation " - it should be easy enough to contextualize the aural practice as well. The teacher can easily adapt to listening exercises those situations through which the text presents oral drills and communicative activities, just by giving them a slightly different twist. Listening exercises should be as natural as the situations from which they grow. In other words, an exercise in listening comprehension must be as close as possible to a "slice of life" -neither a contrived situation nor an artificially delivered discourse. By means of this, a teacher has a great work to do, and has to be a very creative person in order to teach listening communicatively.

Lesson Plan

Topic: Beauty Contest

Duration: 20 minutes

Level: Upper Intermediate

Materials: Pictures, blackboard, tape, tape-recorder

Goals: Students are asked to understand when they listen to a speech. This lesson will at least make the students take one step to get accustomed to hearing and understanding what they hear. Objectives: By the end of the lesson the students will understand the significance of listening.


Pre-listening Activities: The teacher asks the students what they are going to listen to. A discussion atmosphere is tried to be created. At this stage pictures are used effectively.

During Listening Activities: While students are listening to the tape the teacher asks them to take some notes.

Post-listening Activities: The teacher writes some questions on the board and asks them to answer the questions. They are also stimulated to talk and participate in the activity dominantly.


The teacher hangs the pictures on the board and tries to make the students talk about the subjects.

T: Do you think that they are beautiful?

S:. . .

T: Can you guess the name of the first competitor?

S:. . .

T: Can you guess the height of the second competitor?

S:. . .

T: What nationality does the third girl belong to? What is your opinion?

S:. . .


The teacher asks the students to listen to the tape very carefully. And he gives information lists to the students. While they are listening to the tape they try to fill the blanks with appropriate information. If no information appears for any blank on the list, students are asked to put a cross on the blank provided for the required information.


The teacher writes on the board some questions. Students answer these questions to test whether they understood what they have listened or not.

  1. Whose name is the best? Why do you think so?
  2. Who is the tallest one of all?
  3. Who is the oldest one of all?
  4. Who is the heaviest one of all?
  5. What nationality does the first one belong to?
  6. What nationality does the second one belong to?
  7. What nationality does the third one belong to?
  8. Who can speak two languages?
  9. What are those languages?
  10. Whose favorite film star is Leonardo Di Caprio?
  11. What does Suzanne Kerrigan mean by saying" I hope the political situation of my country will not effect this kind of a contest?"

At home listen to the information about the people whose names are in the chart below and copmlete the missing information.
Elizabeth Mccornick Alexandra Bellomonti Suzanne Kerrigan
Nationality: Canadian Nationality: Italian Nationality:
Weight: 53 Weight: 51 Weight: 56
Age: 21 Age: 20 years old Age: 22
Languages: Languages: Languages:
Hobbies: Hobbies: Hobbies:
Profession: Profession: Profession:
Height:: Height: Height:1. 73
Her mother's name:



  1. Abbott, G. & P. Wingard. (1985). The Teaching of English as an International Language: A Practical Guide. Great Britain.
  2. Austin S. . (1970). Speaking & Listening:A Contemporary Approach. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. USA
  3. Carroll E. R. (1969). The Learning of Language. National Council of Teachers of English Publication. New York.
  4. Celce Å\Murcia, M. & L. mcIntosh. (1979). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Newbury House Publishers, Inc. Massachusetts.
  5. Fox J. W. (1974). Teaching Listening Skills. English Teaching Forum. October -- December, 12, pp. 42-45
  6. Joiner, E. (1977). Communicative Activities for Beginning Language Students. English Teaching Forum, April, 15, pp. 8-9.
  7. Yagang, F. (1993). Listening: Problems and Solutions, , English Teaching Forum, January 31, pp. 16-19.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 12, December 1999