How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

(co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)

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The present article is a sequel to the post ‘Eleven reasons why your students underperform in Listening’ published a couple of days ago. I ended that post stating that in a follow-up article I would suggest practical ways to address the issues in the provision of listening instruction identified as common causes for L2-learner underperformance. Here it is. Please note, however, that since the original version of this article was quite long  I have decided to split it up in two. Hence this post only concerns itself with six of the issues listed below. I reserve to post the second part of the article over the next few days.

2. The issues

Here is a reminder of the issues identified in my previous post:

  1. Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input;
  2. Listening skills are only a peripheral concern; consequently,
  3. not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice in the classroom;
  4. Teachers do not teach listening skills, they quiz students through listening comprehensions, which are tests through and through;
  5. They usually do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.);
  6. They often do not teach students effective top-down processing strategies;
  7. Students do not perceive Listening as crucial to their learning;
  8. Teachers do not usually actually plan listening activities, and how they would best fit in the instructional sequence they are implementing. They typically follow the textbook or play recordings haphazardly at random points in the lessons;
  9. Many of the listening texts adopted do not contain comprehensible input, which makes listening become sheer guesswork;
  10. Students do not enjoy listening tasks;
  11. Students are not self-efficacious, i.e. their expectancy of success at listening tasks is low. Teachers do not plan for or scaffold success in listening adequately;

In the present post I will lay out my approach to listening instruction discussing the ways in which I addressed the above issues with my KS3  (1 to 13) and KS4/IGCSE (14-16) students.

2. A skill-based approach

Being based on Skill-theory, my approach is based on the principles below:

(a) Listening is a form of expertise which is acquired like any other skills, e.g. driving, playing chess, tennis or boxing;

(b) becoming an expert requires extensive practice in important processes so that they become more and more automatic;

(c) achieving any type of expertise requires the novice to adjust their performance slowly but steadily to the way in which an expert listener behaves. Hence, teachers needs to understand expert-listener behaviour if they are to induce it in novices.

This brings us to the first issue.

3.1 Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input (issue 1)

For listening instruction to be successful one needs to be fully aware of and/or consider in one’s planning the cognitive challenges that processing aural input poses to the novice-to-intermediate learner. Let us look at what makes Listening difficult:

  1. Listening is transitory; any sound stays in the brain (in Working Memory’s Phonological store) for one or two seconds and any incoming information will overwrite it;
  2. Hence, students have a very short time-window in which to analyse anything they hear and make sense of it and to carry forward what they understood in the mind in order to understand what comes next;
  3. When listening to a recording, the speech rate is not under the listener’s control (one cannot say ‘speak slower’ as one would do in real life to an interlocutor).

If we consider what a listener needs to do in order to comprehend any speech signal and build meaning, the picture becomes even more complex; comprehension of aural input goes through the following phases (Field, 2014):

  1. A decoding phase, in which she needs to ‘translate’ input into the sounds of the language
  2. A lexical search phase, in which she searches her brain (Long-term memory) for words which match or nearly match these sounds. This helps her break the speech flow she hears further and make sense of it (in a movement that goes from phoneme to syllable to word to phrase)
  3. A parsing phase, in which she must recognize a grammar pattern in a string of words and fit a word to the linguistic context surrounding it
  4. A meaning-building phase in which, having ‘broken’ the speech flow, identified the words she heard and how they fit grammatically in the sentence she finally makes sense of it
  5. A discourse-construction phase, in which the understanding of each unit of meaning (e.g. sentence) is connected to the larger context of the narrative. In this phase, one’s background knowledge will help enhance comprehension by using (a) using world knowledge; (b) knowledge of the speaker; (c) experiences of similar speech events; (d) knowledge of the topic; (c) what has been said so far. For less competent listeners this phase is very important as it compensates for gaps in understanding.

To make things harder, research evidence indicates that listeners do not wait until the end of an utterance before working out its meaning. They appear to analyse what a speaker is saying at a delay of only about ¼ second, or the length of an English syllable (Field, 2014). This means that listening is an on-line process which relies on automatic predictions by the brain which occur at very high speed in the brain.

Because listening is on-line, test-takers often form a first-pass hypothesis and cling to it – difficult to blame them in view of the very limited time-window they have to interpret the input. This entails that if one or two key words at the begining of a sentence or other important meaning unit are misunderstood, the knock-on effect on what follows may be disastrous and unlikely to be corrected during the second take when the audio is re-played.

Implications for teaching and learning – Firstly, effective listening instruction must concern itself with the mastery of each and every one of the above processes, with a special focus on Phases 1 to 3.

Secondly, although all of the above is crucial to effective comprehension, Decoding skills are obviously the most important set of skills, as without the effective identification of the boundaries of the words we hear, the aural input we process will sound as an unintelligible speech flow and the whole comprehension process could not even start. Ironically, though, this is also the most neglected set of skills in L2 instruction.

Since they are so important, Decoding Skills should be addressed explicitly in  any long-, medium- and short-term curriculum planning. I will  discuss how in section 3.4, below.

Thirdly, students must be taught masses of vocabulary through the aural medium, not as isolated items but across as wide a range of linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Important: no point teaching vocabulary only through the written medium as the lexical search phase is activated by its sound. Students must hear the words many times over whether through (a) peer read-aloud sessions; (b) jigsaw listening; (c) dictations (keep them short and snappy not to bore them); (d) gapped dictations; (e) songs or texts with gapped transcripts; (f) narrow listening and any other L.A.M. (listening-as-modelling) activities discussed here.

I feature three or four L.A.M. activities in every single lesson of mine and it has paid enormous dividends in terms of enhanced aural comprehension, decoding skills and pronunciation.

Fourthly, students must be trained in recognizing words fast, under time pressure. This will involve lots of practice which starts with the students being exposed to  aural input uttered at a slower speech rate and gradually increasing in speed of delivery.

For instance, at the beginning of a unit of work you may utter model sentences (for students to translate or transcribe on mini-whiteboards) at a moderate speech rate; as the unit progresses and students will have processed those or similar sentences several times aurally, you will increase the speed of delivery until their listening fluency will allow them to understand near-native talk.

Similarly, do use past exam papers for practice, but at the early stages of the GCSE course you will read them out to them at a slower rate pitched to the level of listening fluency of your students; as the year progresses you will gradually increase the speed until they will be ready for the exam recordings. During the early stages of this process, do repeat chunks of texts if the students ask you to do so – these requests will provide you with a valuable insight into their decoding and parsing issues.

Fifthly, limited grammar is not an option, as it is crucial for the parsing phase. Consequently, to begin with, one must ensure that the core grammar points in your Examination Board’ syllabus are covered thoroughly; secondly, students must process each grammar structure through the aural medium as often as possible – this is the most neglected dimension of L2-teaching and one of the main reasons, in my opinion, why students often struggle to acquire grammar.

Why? Firstly, because part of the challenges that L2 grammar poses to L2 learners refer to pronunciation and or to decoding skills. Secondly, because modelling and practising how grammar works solely through the visual modality clashes with the way our brain is wired. Thirdly, it is evident that learning the same concept through a synergy of modalities (listening + reading + speaking + writing) is likely to be more effective than simply doing it through one or two as usually happens. Finally, whilst listening the students need to focus harder and recruit more attentional resources which may result in greater cognitive arousal and increased Working Memory span

A zero preparation activity to achieve this consists in simply uttering sentences containing the target structure and ask them to translate on mini-boards – I do this in the first and last part of every single lesson of mine, uttering model sentences with high surrender value, i.e. sentences which can be used across several topics, contain core vocabulary and key grammar structures. Another very useful minimal preparation activity involves: (1) showing the students a sentence in which the target structure has been used incorrectly, then (2) uttering the correct version of that sentence and finally (3) asking to notice the difference and amend the initial sentence.

An activity requiring more preparation that I carry out in every single lesson of mine involves the use of sentence builders and sentence puzzles like the ones in the pictures below. I read out sentences putting together the different chunks in the sentence-builder/ sentence-puzzle to model the use of the grammar structure in context and students write translation on mini-board. This activity kills several birds with one stone because it addresses the decoding, lexical and parsing level all in one go and creates connections between a specific grammar structure and several lexical items. Figures 1 and 2 shows 2 sample activities. More techniques for enhancing parsing skills are suggested  below, in section 3.4.

Fig.1 Sentence puzzle : teacher pronounces  the jumbled-up sentences below in the correct order as the students re-write them in the table


Fig. 2  – Sentence builder.  (Typo in column 4 – it should read ‘à present’)


3.2 Listening skills are only a peripheral concern (issue 2); consequently not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice (issue 3) and students do not perceive the importance of listening (issue 7)

In most Modern Language classrooms listening is grossly neglected, despite the fact that it is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014).

The human brain is wired to learn languages through listening; hence, by not using the aural medium to teach, we miss out on a daily basis on an extremely important opportunity to enhance our students’ learning. Both my article here and in Smiths and Conti’s (2016) – the Language Teacher Toolkit –  I suggest a range of minimal preparation / high impact listening-as-modelling activities which teach language through listening.

Moreover, even when we read we activate L2 words phonologically, which means that even when interpreting written texts we use the way it sounds to make sense of it. This means that if students do not distinguish clearly between words that sound similar their reading comprehension may be impaired.

Teachers need to recognize that Listening must be a priority not just because 25 % of the exam includes listening, but because learning a language through Listening greatly enhances acquisition. The teaching and learning in my lessons has been hugely enhanced by increasing my focus on listening in the last three years or so.

Finally we need to consider that, in view of the importance of Listening in the language learning process, by not emphasizing it in our lessons we are sending our students the message that listening is not important; this perception is unlikely to motivate them to work on it in class and to pursue it autonomously at home.

Implications for the classroom – First of all, I strongly recommend investing 40 to 60 % of each and every lesson into: (1) listening activities which consist of Listening-as-modelling activities or L.A.M. (this may include work on decoding skills); (2) oral interaction tasks (which includes listening); (3) critical listening (student listening to a peer’s oral output to evaluate or translate it) and (4) listening comprehension. I usually devote around 30 % of a typical lesson to listening, 30 % to speaking, 30 % to reading (mainly as a follow-up to the listening tasks) and only about 10 to writing (of the interpersonal sort).  As for vocabulary learning, I mainly flip it  (students do it at home in the run-up to the lesson as homework) unless we do vocab games or builders as a pre-reading or speaking task.

A culture of listening ought to be created in the classroom whereby (1) the students understand the importance of listening for their development as language learners; (2) they learn new language items from it; (3) they experience listening to appreciate the culture of the target language country (e.g. through videos, songs, movie trailers); (4) they are encouraged to practise listening autonomously (e.g. for personal, enrichment, fun, consolidation work).

Carrying out directed-critical-listening activities three or four times per term, in which the students evaluate oral output from their peers with a focus on specific sounds, intonation patterns or the correct deployment of a grammar structure helps me foster this culture of listening by bringing a metacognitive edge to the process.

An even more effectve way to bring Listening skills into the students and teachers’ focal awareness is by exploiting the exam ‘washback effect’. In other words, give more weighting or prominence to Listening in the exams so that you and your colleagues will be putting more effort into it and the students will focus on it more actively. I reckon that if Examination boards did this, the quality of teaching and learning in the UK will greatly improve.

Finally, another important implication for teachers is that they should not limit their listening activities to comprehension tasks – which brings me to the next point.

3.3   Issue 4: the vast majority of the listening activities staged in lessons consist of comprehension tasks

Listening tasks should be considered as tests through and through and, as I argued here, students do not learn much from them. Tasks like these do not explicitly train your students in decoding skills, do not teach new vocabulary or foster the noticing of new grammar/lexical structures – as the students are focusing on picking out details or establishing if certain statements are true or false and are not encouraged to focus on other levels of the text.

Implications for the classroom – Think about the five phases of listening outlined in paragraph 2.2, i.e.:


2.Lexical search


4.Sentence Meaning-construction

4.Whole Discourse construction

When teaching a specific topic or sub-topic, (1) ensure you have first trained your students to handle each of the above levels, especially the first three. (2) Do a lot of work on the decoding/pronunciation of the target vocabulary in that sub-topic, especially the words containing the most challenging phonemes (see in the next point how); (3) provide them with plenty of opportunities for processing the target vocabulary and the target grammar aurally. (4) When you are confident that they are ready to understand most of the text in the listening comprehension and all they need is a bit of inference and guesswork using context and their knowledge of the world, then, and only then, carry out one or more challenging comprehension tasks.

One useful tip: before you and/or the class mark the listening comprehension, put up on the screen the transcript and ask the students to explain why they gave the answer they came up with; it is a bit time consuming but will give you an insight into how much they really understood and into what they found most problematic. If you can, as a follow-up task, gap the transcript where the most interesting words and grammar structures are and do a partial dictation.

3.4.  Teachers do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.)

This is a point I have touched in paragraph 2.3 above and made in many previous posts of mine (e.g. here, here an here), so I will go straight to the implications for teaching.

Implications for teaching and learning

1.Decoding skills – Your Schemes of Work ought to include work on pronunciation and decoding skills (how to turn letters and combination of letters into sound) from the very early stages of instruction. Primary is the place where this is systematically done for the first language – why is not systematically done for the second language too?

So, first of all brainstorm with your colleagues the decoding issues which in your experience (both as a learner and a teacher) hinder your students’ understanding of the target language. In French, for instance, you will focus on things like liaison, the difference between ‘e’ and ‘é’, ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’  and any other words or phrase that may sound similar (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’). When you have identified the core items, embed micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) like the ones below in your long-, medium- and short term planning. Make sure you recycle the core items across all units.

MLEs take little time to prepare, the students like them and learn a lot from them.

  1. Minimal pairs – two near homophones (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’) are provided in writing but you will pronounce only one of them; student to identify the one you uttered. This is a very useful activity because of what we said about listening being processed online, at very high speed; students lack flexibility in their interpretation of what they hear, hence, once they interpret a word wrongly they are not likely  to change their mind (Field, 2014). Since many weaker learners will often base their interpretation on one or two key words they hear to build meaning, they can be easily misled by near homophones;
  2. Focus-on-word-endings activities – these are  very useful when it comes to highly inflected languages like German, Spanish, Italian and French. Minimal prep activities: (1) gap the ending of words, utter the words and ask students to fill the gaps; (2) Write five or six words you are teaching as part of the current unit and utter five or six words you taught previously that rhyme with them; students to match the rhyming words; (3) Write 3 or 4 set of letters or combinations of letters (in French: ent, in, ont, ant) and utter ten words which contain those letters in their endings; students to identify which words contain the target letter-set.
  3. Spot the error – Give the students a list of sentences containing a given target item that you have just practised through minimal pairs (e.g. em). Then read them out loud making sure that you read the target item wrongly.
  4. Spot the liaison (in French) – write 8 sentences containing instances of liaison, read them out loud and ask students to identify where the liaison occurs
  5. Spot the intruder – Write a sentence on the board but when you read it out loud add in an extra word or sound. Students to write the extra word on mini-board or repeat the extra sound.

For more tasks of this sort, read here or here .

2.Parsing skills – First of all, make sure than when you introduce and practise a new grammar point you do so through the oral/aural medium; in my post on grammar teaching (here) I have given many examples of how this can be done. In sum, make sure that through sentence builders, partial dictation, L2-to-L1 translation on mini-white-boards (as you utter sentences containing the target grammar structures) the students ‘hear’ the grammar structure and process it orally.

A low prep/ high impact activity involves directed attention to specific grammar features. Whilst listening to the recording (or you) the students need to identify the occurrence(s) in the text of specific items (e.g. how many irregular adjectives/ perfect tenses/ if clauses did you spot? Songs add a bit of enjoyment to this type of activity ; get the lyrics from and identify any interesting grammar features you may want to direct your students’ attention to.

Inductive learning activities through listening are also very useful in this respect. For instance, provide the students with ten sentences in the first language containing the new grammar structure(s), e.g. the use of ‘rien’ in French. Then read out to them the translation of each sentence and ask them to infer the rule in groups of two or three.

Another task requiring minimal preparation involves giving students a first language sentence and then utter two translations of it, one grammatically correct and one wrong. Students to tell you which one is correct and why.

All of the above activities direct students’ attention to grammar through the listening medium training their ear to process grammar aurally and not simply through the visual (reading) or grapho-motor (writing) modality as far too often happens in the ML classroom.

Moreover it is also important to make sure that in every grammar lessons students employ the core grammar structures in the context of oral interaction. Stage work on decoding skills prior to the interaction and ask them to pay particular attention to specific sounds involved in the production of the grammar structure (e.g. Spanish: do not pronounce ‘h’ in pronouncing ‘Hacer’ ; French: focus on pronunciation of ‘je’, ‘ne’ ‘me’ as opposed to ‘j’ai’, ‘n’ai’, ‘mais’).

3. Lexical recognition skills – As already mentioned above, you ought to ensure that students process the core vocabulary over and over again through the aural medium and across as many linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Sentence builders come handy in this respect because they present words in several combinations with other parts of speech.When you are dealing with high frequency words which in your experience occur often in the listening exam papers, make sure the students can distinguish them clearly from their homophones or near homophones. Use minimal-pair activities to reinforce such differences.

4. Concluding remarks

Listening instruction and sound curriculum design ought to always keep in sight the full scope of the processes involved in the comprehension of aural input, the challenges they pose to the L2 learners and the abilities exhibited by expert listeners as they make sense of what they hear. In the above, I have outlined the main challenges and suggested ways in which teachers can address them in the classroom through minimal preparation / high impact activities. The main points I made:

  • Listening must be given more prominence in ML lessons;
  • Teachers must see the development of listening skills as a core concern in their practice and pass on this perception to their students whilst encouraging them to practise listening autonomously;
  • Listening activities should be used to model new language not simply to test students;
  • Decoding and parsing skills should be focused on in every lesson, especially at the early stages of instruction;
  • Listening instruction based solely on listening comprehension tasks is likely to be ineffective and to engender disaffection is less-able-to –guess students.

In the second part of the article I set out to explore how we can promote top-down processing skills (e.g. predictive strategies and using context to infer meaning), plan effective instructional sequences as well as affective issues referring to motivation and self-efficacy

4 thoughts on “How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

  1. As so often on your blog, there is so much important, useful content that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps I might suggest a small edit to make the sense clearer, though:
    Instead of, “Thirdly, students must be taught masses of vocabulary through the aural medium, not as isolated items and across as wide a range of linguistic contexts and topics as possible,” the clarity of the exposition would be better served by using “but,” as “Thirdly, students must be taught masses of vocabulary through the aural medium, not as isolated items but across as wide a range of linguistic contexts and topics as possible.” That way, it becomes clear that everything after “across” is in contrast to “as isolated items”. (Many languages do not use “but” in this way.)

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