Teaching listening for better communication [Archives:2007/1070/Education]

July 23 2007

Kalyani Samantray
Associate Professor of English
S B Women's College,
Cuttack, India
[email protected]

Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any ESL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired by second language students over time and with lots of practice. It is frustrating for students because there are no listening rules, as in grammar teaching, for becoming a good listener. Even speaking and writing have specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills. However, they are difficult to compute.

For effective listening, one of the greatest inhibitors is often the students' own mental block. Many times it so happens that while listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn't understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying to translate a specific word or expression. Some students convince themselves that they do not possess the ability to understand spoken English well, and thereby create listening problems for themselves.

The key to helping students improve their listening skills is to assure them that at the initial stage of ESL listening, it is alright if they do not understand everything. This is more of an attitude adjustment than anything else, and it is not easy for many students to accept this. A lot of teacher support is essential to convince students that they need not understand everything that is said in English. Another important point is that the students need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time.

Let us use an analogy: Imagine you want to get in shape. You decide to begin jogging. The very first day you go out, you plan to jog five kilometers. But you would very soon realize that it is not an achievable target. If you somehow manage the five kilometers the first day, chances are good that you will not soon go out jogging again. Fitness trainers have taught us that we must begin with short distances. If you begin jogging short distances and walk some as well, over time you can build up the distance. Using this approach, you'll be much more likely to continue jogging and get fit.

Students need to apply the same approach to listening skills. Encourage them to watch an English movie, or listen to English programs on TV or radio, but not to watch the entire film or listen to English programs for as long as they continue. They should listen frequently, and listen for short periods – ten minutes or so. This should continue for some time. Even if they don't understand anything, ten minutes is a minor investment.

However, for this strategy to work, students, and teachers as well, must not expect improved understanding too quickly. The brain is capable of amazing things if given time. Students must have the patience to wait for results. If students continue this exercise over two to three months, their listening comprehension skills will greatly improve.

The most important thing is to listen, and that means as often as possible. The next point is to find listening resources which are interesting and appropriate for the students.


Once the students have begun to listen on a regular basis, teachers and students both might still feel frustrated by limited understanding. What should you do?

Here are some pieces of advice I give my students:

– Listen for the main idea of the conversation. Don't concentrate on detail until you have understood the main ideas.

– Do not translate everything you hear into your mother tongue.

– Accept the fact that you are not going to understand everything.

– Keep cool when you do not understand – even if you continue not to understand for a long time.

I remember the problems I had in understanding spoken French when I had been to France for the first time. In the beginning, when I didn't understand most of what I listened to, I unconsciously started translating words in my mind. This approach usually resulted in confusion. After a while, I discovered two extremely important facts. Firstly, translating creates a barrier between the listener and the speaker. Secondly, most speakers repeat several times what they have said. By remaining calm, I noticed that even if I missed out many things, I could usually understand in general what the speaker had said. I discovered some of the most important things about listening comprehension.

Translating creates a barrier between the listener and the person who is speaking

While you are listening to another person speaking in a foreign language (English in this case), the temptation is to immediately translate everything into your native language. This temptation becomes much stronger when you hear a word you don't understand. This is only natural as we want to understand everything that is being said. However, when you translate something into your native language, you are taking the focus of your attention away from the speaker and concentrating on the translation process taking place in your brain. This would be fine if you could put the speaker on hold. In real life, however, the person continues talking while you translate. This situation obviously leads to less -not more- understanding. I have discovered that translation leads to a kind of block in my brain which sometimes doesn't allow me to understand anything at all!

Listen for the message

Think for a moment about your friends, family and teachers. When they speak in your native language, have you noticed that they repeat themselves? They, of course, don't repeat word per word. If you notice carefully, you would find that they repeat the general idea. When you speak in your mother tongue, you too do the same. That means that whenever you listen to someone speaking, it is very likely that s/he will repeat the information, giving you a second, third or even fourth chance to understand what has been said.

By remaining calm, allowing yourself to not understand every word that is being said, and not translating while listening, your brain is free to concentrate on the most important thing: understanding the message/ information in English.

Listen to something you enjoy

The greatest benefit of using the media to improve your listening skills is that you can choose what you would like to listen to and as many times you would like to listen to it. By listening to something you enjoy, you are also likely to learn a lot of essential vocabulary. This is indeed a bonus.

Listen for the key expressions

Key words or key phrases help you understand the main ideas. If you understand 'Sana'a', 'university', 'course', 'last year' you can assume that the person is speaking about a university course in Sana'a last year. This may seem obvious here, but when you are actually listening to someone, understanding the main idea always helps you in understanding the details as the person continues to speak.

Listen for the context

Let's imagine that your English speaking friend says “…I bought this beautiful reesa last week. It was a little expensive than most reesas I have but I bought it to wear it to my cousin's marriage.” You certainly don't understand what a reesa is. If you focus all your attention on getting the meaning of the word reesa, you might feel discouraged. However, if you try to understand the word in context (i.e. the situation explained during the conversation) you probably will understand it without much problem. It demonstrates what you need to focus on: not the word/s that you don't understand, but the words you do understand. Using the known words, you can manage to get the meaning of the unknown words.


It might seem to you that my ideas on how to listen encourage you to not understand everything. This is absolutely correct. One hundred percent understanding is something to work towards and not to expect of yourself initially. Listening needs a great amount of practice and patience. Do not get scared when you do not understand. If you keep your cool, you will be surprised by how quickly you begin to understand natural spoken English.

Repeated listening is the most important way to improve your listening skills. Enjoy the interesting programs aired by the media, and listen to good speakers as often as you can.