Listening Revisited: Striking that balance between developing listening skills and question-orientated exam practice

20 June 2019

I realize I rarely think much about the skill of listening. It’s never quite as ‘cool’ a topic as say speaking or more modern aspects of teaching and learning such as 21st Century skills, critical thinking, creativity, technology etc. However, it’s a vital cog in the language learning wheel and a cog which learners often struggle with. The more I read on the subject, the more issues and challenges arise. Specifically for teachers, who are battling with finding the most effective ways to approach teaching listening. I use the term ’teaching’ listening, as this seems to be a topic for debate i.e. are we actually ‘teaching’ listening in class or are we just practicing it?

Teaching vs Practicing Listening

Often our listening in class is practice orientated i.e. we try and help students get correct answers in listening comprehension-type questions – usually in order to prepare students for exams. But is teaching about a) everyone getting correct answers or is it b) about developing skills and learning? Many teachers will tell you that the former is most important as learners need to pass their exams. Therefore most time is spent preparing learners with exam-type question practice i.e. listening becomes a passive skill. However, is this the best approach and should we be spending more time on the latter? i.e. developing more active listening skills.

Common Listening Challenges

There are various challenges we as teachers need to be aware of before approaching listening classes and during the planning phase. Below are 5 examples of some common challenges:

  1. Too often learners try and listen to every word in a dialogue or conversation or perhaps translating directly in their heads.
  2. Learners are too ambitious and expect to understand everything and then become demotivated when they can’t.
  3. Learners may also apply the wrong strategy for a listening task or situation i.e. they may be listening for specific information before they have determined who is talking and what the topic of conversation is.
  4. Mental block can also take over, especially in exams, when the pace of the listening is fast and the listening is dense and long. Learners can give up easily and become pessimistic if they lose the thread from the start.
  5. Learners struggle to cope with the real-time aspect of listening.

As a language learner myself (I’m currently learning Mandarin) I have experienced most of these. I’m just feeling I have reached a point where people are starting to understand me and me them. It’s taken a while but exposure to the language everyday has slowly helped me, behind the scenes, to make sense of the language. Listening is key to that. That has involved effort through 2 main methods. Firstly, actively listening to conversations on the street, or in coffee shops, and picking out key words and conversation gist. Secondly, listening to conversations, dialogues and monologues on podcasts. Interestingly, I would usually fail to pick up any meaning from the first listening but with repetition and use of certain strategies, meaning becomes clearer and with it a sense of achievement over time. I could then utilize those strategies in subsequent situations.

Key messages for listening

What the above tells me is that we need to break down listening into intelligible elements which can be developed and learned overtime. Let’s have a look at 4 areas which can help inform our listening teaching practice.

  1. Listening should be taught (through skills and strategies)
  2. Listening should be active and meaningful (not passive)
  3. Listening shouldn’t always have to product-orientated in approach i.e. not constant testing
  4. Listening should be encouraged outside the classroom

Here are my practical tips for these 4 areas.

Listening should be taught (through skills and strategies)

Idea 1: Make the listening skills that appear in the course explicit to students- Give them a goal or a challenge to work towards at the start of class. This will help give them a sense of achievement. At the end of class, ask students to reflect on how well they did and what challenges still remain. This will help students feel competent and believe in their ability. This means that it is essential to move away from a product-orientated approach i.e. just practicing listening using questions.

Idea 2: Track and monitor progress – If you can, keep a record of students’ competency in these skill areas and monitor progress. Where possible provide guidance on how to improve (see the last part on listening outside of class for more ideas). If you are aware of the CEFR and you use a course that is mapped to the CEFR you can pick and select key can do statements for listening and use these as a standard to monitor progress.

Here are some of the key skills that you can focus on over the duration of a course (I’ve also added a CEFR-type can do statement if it’s useful):

Listening for the main idea – students can listen to and identify the overall ideas expressed in the whole recording.

  • Listening for details – students can listen for groups of words and phrases at sentence level.
  • Listening for specific information – students can listen for particular information at word level.
  • Predicting – students can guess key information contained in the recording before they listen.
  • Inferring meaning – students can listen to and identify the difference between what the speaker says and what they actually mean.
  • Identifying emotion – students can listen to and identify the mood of certain speakers.
  • Listening for opinions – students can listen to and identify the attitude of certain speakers.
  • Inferring relationships – students can listen to and identify who the people are in the recording and what the relationship is between them.
  • Recognizing context – students can listen to aural and contextual clues and identify where the conversation takes place, who is speaking, etc.

Listening should be active and meaningful (not passive)

Listening is an active skill that happens between 2 or more people in everyday situations. You, obviously do have situations when we listen passively to a monologue or watch the news etc., but where possible, encourage activities that help students deal with real time listening, as this is a key area of challenge.

Idea 1: live listening


  1. Explain that you are going to tell the students a story, but don’t do it yet. For now, just write the title of the story on the board, for example: ‘A nightmare journey’.
  2. Put the students in groups and ask them to write eight questions they would like to ask you about the story. Note: They do this before they hear the story.
  3. Elicit a few of the questions and write them up on the board.
  4. Next, tell the students that while they are listening to you telling the story, they should see how many of the questions you answer.
  5. Tell the students to put their pens and pencils down.
  6. Tell the story.
  7. After telling the story, ask how many of the questions they heard the answers to – you might want to elicit some of the answers.
  8. Next, put the students in pairs and get them to sit facing each other.
  9. Explain that you want one of the pair to start retelling the story but in the first person. However, when you clap your hands, they should stop and their partner should continue telling the story.
  10. Start the pairwork and monitor to see if or when the participants finish retelling the story.

(Acknowledgement:  Adrian Tennant on

Listening shouldn’t always have to be product-orientated in approach i.e. not constant testing

Use the class time as effectively as possible. What I mean by this is, include as many opportunities as you can for listening through a lesson, not just practicing comprehension. Here are some examples of how you might do that:

Idea 1: Dictate lesson objectives – instead of listing the lesson objectives for students to read on the board, why not dictate the objectives and have them discuss and write them down as pairs or groups.

Idea 2: Feedback – When asking for answers from students or opinions etc. make sure you bounce these around class. So if one student gives an idea, get the next student to repeat what the first student said before adding their own idea. The next student must then repeat the first two ideas and then add theirs.

Idea 3: Integrate an active listening task to a speaking activity A classic speaking activity is to have students work in pairs and speak for a minute on a topic. Why not, add an active listening challenge so the student who is listening has to think of 2 follow-up questions based on what the speaker said. Alternatively, after a class mingle activity you can have students tell the class something interesting they found out from another student instead of feeding back something about themselves.

Listening should be encouraged outside the classroom

Class time is so limited so encourage students to expose themselves to listening opportunities outside of the class. Give them variety in what they listen to also. For example try using advertisements, news programs, poetry, songs, extracts from plays, speeches, lectures, telephone conversations, informal dialogues… the more varied and authentic the better. Set little tasks or challenges to help focus their listening and give them a sense of achievement.

Idea 1: Song lyrics – Give them a song to listen to at home. Ask them to choose and write down a couple of sentences to summarize the song’s main idea. They can them share in the next class. Or they could write down phrases that they recognize and/or words that they don’t know the meaning of.

Idea 2: Podcasts – Choose a suitable podcast for your students’ level. There are some examples below. One starting point would be to keep a notebook for new vocabulary you hear on podcasts. Try and teach students to work out the meaning of the words from the context. Encourage students to write down definitions and example sentences that connect to their lives. The best way to encourage them would be to do an example for a language podcast you use.

Useful English learning podcasts:

Idea 3: Listening to the news – Don’t worry about how much you understand.  Listen to or watch the report first a few times ‘just for fun’. Stop and review as many times as necessary. Write a brief summary (one or two sentences) of each story. Set yourself a few questions to answer.  Then listen again for the answers. Make notes of any new vocabulary you think is useful.

More ideas for using the news for listening here:

John Cruft is the Regional Professional Development Senior Manager for Macmillan Education, Asia and MENA. He has been working in Asia for over 16 years as both a teacher and teacher trainer. John has taught in both the public and private sectors. He has also designed and delivered professional development workshops across the Asian region in many different contexts, including government INSETT projects in Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

John holds a Master’s degree in Education and International Development from the Institute of Education in London, where the focus of his study was on education systems across Asia. He also holds a PGDip TESOL from the University of Nottingham, UK.