BTR-TESOL Unit 6A - Listening Skills
by Udambor Bumandalai




objectives of this unit

the least you should know

processing information during listening

what makes listening challenging

activities to develop listening skills

comprehensive questions

video example

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



More than 45% of people’s daily communication time is spent listening to spoken messages. This number is even higher if the communication is carried in an educational setting. Strong listening skills are, therefore, key to the success of communication activities people participate in. This unit will give you some useful information on how people listen in a second or foreign language, what makes the listening process challenging for students, and what kind of listening activities can help develop stronger listening skills in your students.

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Scenario: Teaching Listening English in China

Catherine was assigned to teach an English listening and speaking class to a group of college students who had been learning English for over three years in China. On her first day of teaching, Catherine wanted the students to introduce themselves to her. She began with a simple question asking a student: What’s your name? To her question, the student replied: Yes. However, a classmate quickly noticed the misunderstanding and helped the student understand the question by translating it into Chinese. Catherine noticed similar problems with the rest of the students who struggled to understand her throughout the rest of the class period. At the end of the class, several students came to her asking whether she would teach them how to listen and understand better. It was possibly the first time they had listened to things in English without having them said twice or three times, or even translated. Catherine had never taught English before and felt lost about helping her students improve their English listening skills.

  • What would you do if you were Catherine?
  • What do you think made listening very difficult for these students?
  • What might Catherine do to help her students improve their listening skills?
  • Where and how can she find appropriate listening materials to use in her class?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After working through this unit, you will be able to…

    • Explain what listening is.
    • Identify two important listening processes.
    • Describe what makes listening challenging and how to overcome those challenges.
    • Choose and use the most effective listening activities in your classroom.
    As you learn the content of this unit well, you will better understand how students listen to and understand spoken messages, what makes listening a challenging skill to develop, and how to use effective listening activities that help improve students’ listening skills.

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    The least you should know

    People typically think that they listen with their ears, but there is much more to listening than just hearing. Listening is a mental process in which people create meaning from a spoken message. When people listen, they need to listen actively to what is being said by paying close attention. If they do not pay attention, then this process will only become hearing where no meaning is understood. When people listen actively, they recognize words by the way they sound and assign correct meanings to them. Then they try to understand the relationships between the words within a sentence and get a meaningful message out of it. The listening process, however, does not always go easily. A number of features of spoken language make the listening process challenging. However, many useful learning activities can help students gain stronger listening skills.

    1. Processing information during listening

    Whenever people listen to old or new information, they process it in two different ways: bottom-up and top-down. Language learners at different levels use one or both of these listening processes. They do not necessarily realize that they are using these processes when listening. However, it is important for teachers to know which listening process their students are using or should learn to use so that their listening skills can improve. This knowledge also helps teachers plan suitable listening activities according to their students’ abilities.

    Bottom-up listening

    When students listen to a message, they try to understand it by paying close attention to sounds, words, and grammar in a step-by-step manner. For example, when a student hears the statement Call me tomorrow, he starts with listening for each word. Once he is able to recognize the individual words of this statement, he connects each word to its meaning, and finally he puts together all the words and connects the meaning of each word within the statement to understand the whole meaning. This process of collecting small bits of information and combining them to make sense is called bottom-up listening. Students with lower-level English proficiency tend to use this listening processing more often. However, when the content of the message is new or unfamiliar, even students with higher levels of proficiency use this listening process.

    Top-down listening

    Top-down processing, on the other hand, means trying to make sense of the heard message with the help of past knowledge and experience. When students use this process, they recognize some of the words in a conversation and then guess what is being discussed without having to listen for every sound, word, or grammar point. For example, when a student hears a statement I am hungry because I didn’t …, he can use his knowledge of English grammar that the auxiliary didn’t needs to be followed by a verb, and also based on his general life experience he can figure out that not eating something causes a person to feel hungry. This way he guesses that the missing word must be eat. Students in intermediate and higher levels use this process more often than lower level students do.

    To become skillful listeners, students need to learn to use both bottom-up and top-down listening processes.

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    2. What makes listening challenging?

    Listening is hard because the spoken signal is so fleeting. It lasts only a few seconds. Listening is also difficult because listeners cannot control the rate of speech, the vocabulary, or the grammar that the speaker uses. Therefore, they may struggle to understand fast speech, unfamiliar words, or complicated sentences, as well as new ideas. Finally, spoken language does not always follow written language forms and rules. Students often find listening to be challenging when they expect spoken language to be like written language. Here are some features of spoken language that may make listening difficult for students.

    Speech rate

    Not every listening message is delivered at the same speaking rate. Some people speak quickly while others speak slowly. Since the listener is not in control of the speed, speech that is too fast is sometimes difficult to understand. When this happens, students need to be able to ask people to speak more slowly, request clarification, or find ways to listen to the message one more time. Usually listening multiple times helps.

    Individual sounds

    Not all languages share the same sounds. English has some sounds that are challenging for students from different language backgrounds to hear. For example, Japanese speakers have a hard time telling the English sounds /r/ and /l/ apart because they do not make a distinction between these sounds in their language. So listening to words like right and light becomes challenging for them. Teachers can use minimal pair drills (explained later in this unit) for sounds that are challenging to their students.

    Repeated statements

    Spoken language is usually unplanned or unscripted. This causes people to say things repeatedly or redundantly. Sometimes people say things wrong and they correct themselves without warning by restating what they said. Not knowing or not paying attention to restated words can easily confuse students. When students know that redundancy occurs and learn to recognize it, they can overcome this challenge. Learning expressions that signal restatement, such as I mean, you know, and like can also help.

    Reduced speech

    In spoken language many words often get reduced and sound different. For example, reduction occurs when using contractions, such as you’ll, we’re, and they’ve. Sometimes sounds change and become more like their neighboring sounds. For example, the statement Did you eat yet? sounds like Dija eechet? As teachers give students more experience with listening to reduced speech, students learn to listen more successfully.

    Intonation and stress

    In spoken language, the speaker’s tone of voice expresses different meanings. For example, a rising tone at the end of the statement More cookies? makes this statement a question while a falling tone leaves it as a simple statement. Also word stress plays an important role in listening. For example, the word present can have two meanings. If the stress is placed on the first syllable (PREsent), it refers to a noun that means a gift. When the stress is placed on the second syllable (preSENT), the meaning changes to an action verb of giving something or delivering a speech. (Learn more about intonation and stress in BTRTESOL Unit 7B “Teaching English Pronunciation.”)

    These are some of the most common features of spoken language that make listening difficult. Students often do not realize them unless teachers point them out and teach students how to deal with these challenges.

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    3. Activities to develop listening skills

    Students can learn to listen successfully when teachers carefully select and use activities that develop students’ listening skills. The following are some useful listening activities arranged in order from those that are good for beginning learners to those that are for advanced learners.

    Intensive listening

    This kind of activity focuses on a feature of spoken language that students have not mastered yet. For example, to teach students how to distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, the teacher can have students work on an intensive listening task by having them listen to pairs of words that are exactly the same except for two sounds (minimal pairs), such as grass-glass, right-light. Any of the above-described features of spoken language that make listening challenging for students can be focused on one at a time in this kind of activity and studied and practiced intensively. As students focus on one area of listening this way, they learn to use bottom-up listening processes.

    Cloze activity

    This is an activity in which students are asked to listen to a spoken passage and then write down the words that have been removed from the written version of the same passage and replaced with blank spaces. This kind of activity helps students listen for individual words correctly and makes use of their bottom-up listening and top-down predicting abilities. When students listen for individual words correctly, it encourages them and makes listening less intimidating.

    Listening for the main idea

    During this kind of activity, students are expected to figure out the general idea of what is happening in a spoken passage by listening to key words, intonation, and other clues that might help them guess the general meaning. This kind of activity requires students to use top-down listening processes. Understanding the general meaning of a listening task helps students see the big picture of what they are listening to and it also helps them realize the relationship between different ideas in the listening passage.

    Listening for detailed information

    Asking students to find specific information given in listening materials is another good way to develop strong listening skills. Teachers give students a list of questions to which the answers can be found as students listen to the listening passage. This kind of activity helps increase students’ ability to listen for individual words, and pay attention to grammar and meaning in detail. In this way students get to practice using bottom-up listening processes. This kind of activity is useful in classes at all levels.

    Predicting meaning from the context

    This type of activity requires students to figure out information that is not said directly in a listening passage. For example, if students hear that a man has many cars and a large house, they can infer that he is rich, even if that fact is not stated directly. Because students need to think about the relationships between different bits of information and figure out the meaning that was not given directly, this activity is most suitable for students who are a little bit more advanced. For this kind of listening, teachers can provide inference questions at the beginning or at the end of a listening task. Predicting information in this way requires students to use both top-down and bottom-up listening processes.

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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • What is listening and how does it differ from hearing?
  • How do people process information when they listen?
  • What are some of the challenges that students face during a listening task?
  • What are some activities that help students develop listening skills and how do they work?
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    Video example

    Click below to view a short video of a listening activity in a college English class in Mozambique (where Portuguese is the school language). As you watch this video think about how it can be related to what you have learned in this unit. Then answer the questions in the following “Reflection and Responses” section to check your understanding of this unit.

    (Video coming soon.)

    Reflection and Responses

    As you view this video, think about each of the following questions.
    1. What was especially good about this class?
    2. What teaching principles/techniques discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this video?
    3. What adaptations could you make for the situation you are (will be) teaching in?
    4. What other things might you do differently to make your listening lessons even better?
    Write your reflections and responses in the box provided below. After posting your comment, you may scroll down to see what other users of this unit have said in their reflections and responses. If you want to read even more, click on the "Load more comments" button. When you're done, scroll down to the next section of this unit.
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    Where to go to learn more

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in the BTRTESOL program that relate to the topics that have been addressed in this unit about teaching listening skills. By better understanding these additional aspects of listening, you will be better prepared as a teacher to develop listening skills in your students.

    • 6B “Developing English Language Learners’ Speaking Skills”
    • 7B “Teaching English Pronunciation”

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    Online and other electronic resources

    Here are some websites that have activities already created for you like those described above.

    Randall's ESL Lab homepageRandall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab
    This website has all of the above-described activities except for the intensive listening activity. The activities are also organized according to students’ proficiency levels.

    English Listening Lesson Library Online homepageEnglish Listening Lesson Library Online
    This website has all of the above-described activities except for the intensive listening activity.

    Breaking News English HomepageBreaking News English
    This website is full of great listening activities described in this unit except for the intensive listening activity.

    Literacy Works homepageLiteracy Works
    This website provides activities for listening for main and detailed information and predicting meaning from the context.

    California Distance Learning Project homepageCalifornia Distance Learning Project
    This website has activities for listening for main ideas and detailed information.

    Real English homepageReal English
    This website has activities for listening for main ideas and detailed information, and cloze activities as well.

    Here are some websites with useful listening materials for your classrooms, but you need to come up with your own activities.

    VOA News Learning English homepageVOA News - Learning English
    This website has daily short news videos with transcripts.

    Hulu homepageHulu
    This website allows users to view many TV shows and movies for all age groups online.

    Technology Entertainment and Design homepageTechnology Entertainment and Design (TED): Ideas worth spreading
    This is a website with more than 900 talks ranging from five to 18 minutes long in length on topics related to technology, entertainment, and design. Each talk comes with a transcript in both audio and video forms.

    National Public Radio (NPR) homepageNational Public Radio (NPR)
    This is a public radio network that broadcasts national and world news, music and entertainment programs on wide varieties of interesting topics. Transcripts are available for most archived audio programs.

    CNN Student News homepageCNN Student News
    This website has daily ten-minute news videos for middle and high school student audiences. A transcript for each news video is also available free of charge.

    Easy Conversations homepageEasy Conversations
    This website has simple conversations for beginning level learners to listen to. Transcript of each conversation is provided and conversations are organized under 15 different topic areas.

    ESL Fast homepageESL Fast (365 ESL Short Stories)
    This is a website with 365 different short story audio files along with their transcripts for intermediate-level students.

    English for Children homepageEnglish for Children
    This is a website with over 100 simple stories for children available in audio form and along with transcripts.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    New Ways in Teaching Listening book coverDavid Nunan and Lindsey Miller. New Ways in Teaching Listening. Publisher: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc, 1995. ISBN 0-939791-58-7. Available for purchase at

    This book gives detailed information on how listening strategies can be developed in learners and offers insights developing listening skills. It also provides useful information on choosing authentic listening materials, proper technology, making listening fun, etc.

    Practical English Language Teaching: Listening book coverMarc Helgesen and Steven Brown. Practical English Language Teaching: Listening. Publisher: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007. ISBN 0-07-111921-3. Available for purchase at

    This is a book that is specifically designed for developing speaking and listening skills through carefully designed activities under six major topics such as food, animals and pets, free time and hobbies, and travel. There is a companion website that goes with this book where teachers can find additional sources for testing.

    Targeting Listening and Speaking book coverKeith S. Folse. Targeting Listening and Speaking. Publisher: University of Michigan Press, 2003. ISBN 047208898X. Available for purchase at

    This is a book that is specifically designed for developing speaking and listening skills through carefully designed activities under six major topics such as food, animals and pets, free time and hobbies, and travel. There is a companion website that goes with this book where teachers can find additional sources for testing.

    Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field book coverNikki Ashcraft and Anh Tran. Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field. Publisher: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc, 2010. ISBN 978-193118569-1. Available for purchase at

    Read more about what listening teachers      are doing these days to make their classes successful. This book includes chapters on designing listening courses and effective listening activities, using music and other authentic materials, and advanced and academic listening ideas.

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    Additional References

    Coming Soon.

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