Eleven intervention strategies for underachieving L2-listeners

(Co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School)


Your students have not done well in their listening mocks. They are demotivated and lacking confidence in their listening skills. With only a few months to go before the actual exam you are panicking. What to do? Past-paper practice? It did not really solve the problem in the past, in fact it further demotivated a big chunk of your class… If this is you, here are eleven strategies that might just do the trick.

1. Caveat: No quick fix

For your students’ listening skills to improve substantially you will need three to four months of systematic work of the kind envisaged below. Listening skills are notoriously slow to develop because they require the mastery of a vast array of challenging micro-skills that must be executed at very high speed in the brain (words lingering in working memory for only about 2 seconds). Hence, you need to be systematic, patient and resilient, mindful of the fact that the improvements your students will be making will be invisible for several weeks to come but will definitely show up in the end.

2.Daily exposure to substantive amounts of aural input

You need to ensure that your students practise listening on a daily basis. One of the likely reasons why your students are underachieving is because they are not processing aural input often enough and/or not in a way that is conducive to learning. Hence you must:

  • Increase the amount of target language use both on your part and on your students’. Some minimal-prep teacher-led activities: every beginning and/or ending of the lesson, utter sentences for students to translate on the spot (on mini whiteboards or iPads) ; ask the class questions to answer in writing on mini-whiteboards; give them a gapped text and read out to them the full-text version; do (very short) dictations on mini white boards; radically increase the amount of questions you ask, especially closed questions aimed at modelling (e.g. ‘Is it X or Y? questions) ; Some minimal-prep- student-led activities: oral pair-work activities such as survey, role plays, find-someone-who or speak-and-draw activities ; short paired reading-aloud sessions (student A read short paragraph whilst student B translates orally or summarizes the gist of it);
  • Plan tasks which aim at teaching language through listening (L.A.M. = Listening As Modelling). This means less test-like tasks and more tasks of the sort described below (see points 5 to 10 below) which actually focus on developing the core listening micro-skills

Remember: with listening, task variety is key in order not to bore the students but also so as to allow you to recycle the target vocabulary over and over again. Also, keep each task short and sweet and ensure marking is quick and easy.

3.A holistic approach

In order to improve your students’ listening skills you shouldn’t see listening-skills building as separate from reading, speaking, writing and grammar instruction. By ‘holistic’ I mean two things.

Firstly, make sure each listening task does not occur randomly in the instructional sequences you stage in your lessons. For instance, ensure that before the listening comprehension on text ‘X’ the students have received plenty of practice in the unfamiliar language items which occur in that text through plenty of word recognition and pattern recognition tasks. This way your students will come to the listening comprehension tasks more prepared and will have more chances to be successful – this is crucial.

Secondly, focus students on pattern recognition both at word level (e,g.. prefixes and suffixes) and at sentence level (e.g. word order, verb constructions, subordinate clauses) , not only through listening but also through other skills, such as reading.


4.Confidence / self-efficacy building

A language learner’s sense of efficacy (i.e. their perception that they are successful at a given task) is one of the most powerful predictors of success in MFL learning. To enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening you need to scaffold success in every lesson so as to build their confidence in themselves as successful listeners as much as possible. Give them plenty of opportunities to succeed by (a) pitching the tasks carefully to their level: (b) as mentioned above, by prepping them adequately for each listening comp.; (c) by letting them listen to the texts as often as they request; (d) after playing the track a few times read the transcript to them at a slower speed than in the original recording in order to give them another final chance to get it right.

Remember: you can only truly enjoy what you are good – or perceive yourself to be good – at. There is no chance of getting your students to enjoy listening unless they experience some degree of success at it.

5.Ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa

Start all over again from the most basic listening micro-skillset : decoding skills, i.e. the ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa. Focus on the sounds that cause the most serious comprehension issues to your students (e.g. word-endings or ‘eu’ vs ‘u’  in French). Minimal pairs (i.e. identifiying differences between two words that are very similar in sound, such as ‘vous’ and ‘vu’, ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’), rhyming or onset pairs and spot-the-foreign or -silent letters tasks are minimal preparation activities that do work (see this post for more on these tasks). Make sure these sounds are then recycled in any subsequent input they will process (e.g. listening comp) and output (e.g. tongue twisters; role plays) they will produce in the rest of the lesson.

6.Ability to break down the speech flow

This is a very important set of micro-skills. Without the ability to break down the speech flow, your students will never be able to ‘slow down’ the aural input in their heads. So you need to train them on a daily basis in the art of identifying the boundaries of the words they hear. A low prep task: get a set of sentences or a very short text and eliminate the gaps between the words. Then read each line out to the class at slower-than-native-speaker speed asking them to draw the boundaries between the words. Finally show them the original version for marking.

Spot-the-intruder is another favourite of mine. Doctor the lyrics of a song or the transcript of an L2-recording by inserting a few extraneous words of your choice, then play the song and ask them to identify the ‘intruders’. The purpose is to get them to listen and focus on phonemic level of the text. The students really enjoy this activity.

7.Teaching vocabulary aurally and in high-frequency chunks

Teach them lots of vocabulary but do it aurally/orally and in phrases/sentences in which they occur more frequently in TL speech. Make sure the students hear each of the words/phrases you explicitly aim to teach in a lesson at least five times. If you do frequent vocabulary mini-tests, as I do, make sure they involve listening.

When testing vocabulary uptake do not simply stage isolated word or chunk recognition; make sure you include the target lexical items in longer sentences, too.

8.Focus on parsing skill

As explained in my post ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, the ability to effectively recognize aurally the patterns that bind words together is crucial to comprehension. Hence, training students in this skill is paramount. Sentence puzzles are a minimal preparation activity which does wonders in this respect (see examples below). I do sentence puzzles or the other similar activities described in this post every day.


9.Inference and predictive skills

I am not very fond of this approach, but training students in the art of guessing intelligently from context has yielded positive outcomes in a number of research studies. Inference: use written texts  for training first and move on to audio texts only when you think they are ready – as applying inference strategies to reading comprehension is easier and less threatening. Model the process to the class in think-aloud demonstrations of how one can use grammar, syntax, key words and knowledge of the world to guess meaning (think-aloud = verbalise your thoughts as you execute the task). Then provide practice by giving them texts with a set number of words for them to infer the meaning of using surrounding context. Prediction: demonstrate approach by think-aloud, then give students jigsaw puzzles or do ‘guess what comes next’ tasks (i.e. students read the beginning of a narrative and have to guess what comes next).

  1. Lots of short low stake assessments

Rather than getting the students to sit through a whole past exam paper – which can be tedious and daunting – do only one task at a time with them as often as possible. As I said above, prep them thoroughly beforehand aiming at them coming to the task with a mastery of around 90 to 95% of the words in the target text.

  1. Retrospective reports

At the beginning of your intervention programme you may want to elicit as much information as possible as to the problems that your students experience in performing listening tasks. One method that usually yields useful data involves retrospective reports carried out immediately after task completion. Ask the students, as part of a classroom discussion or in writing (e.g. on a google doc) to describe what they found difficult about the task. Do this with more than one task, if time allows it, in order to get as clear a picture as possible of what gaps you need to address. Your findings will inform your subsequent planning. I have always found this a very useful exercise.

  1. Task familiarity and task-specific strategies

This is obvious: once identified the exam tasks your students usually lose the most marks in, invest some time going through the past exam papers and identify their most typical features, such as the format, the register, the typical comprehension questions asked, the kind of vocabulary and grammar structures they contain, the syntax (e.g. Is there a lot of subordination? Are they rich in adjectives, adverbs or idioms you do not normally teach?). Your findings will inform your short, medium and long term planning


Anyone aiming at improving the listening skill of a group of underperforming students needs to  plan their intervention in a multi-layered, holistic and eclectic way in the context of an approach which provides extensive practice in the micro-skills which render comprehension possible. This entails addressing all the levels involved in the comprehension of aural input in a systematic way day in day out over a period of at least three to four months before one can see significant results. Finally, drastically increasing the exposure to ‘smart’ aural input which models language use and pattern recognition and recycles high-frequency vocabulary and grammar at will rather than ‘quizzing’ students is key to the enhancement of learner listening skills.

To find out more about my ideas about teaching do get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ the book I co-authored with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net





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