“Teaching listening” is really an oxymoron: it’s impossible teach listening. You can present situations and opportunities for someone to learn to listen better, and then provide feedback, but it is of course up to the listener to do the learning. And yes, you can help learners accelerate their progress in academic listening. Yes, indeed. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly.
Is academic listening different from “regular” listening?
Academic listening is a special kind of listening. It is listening in order encounter, understand, learn, discuss, and remember new ideas. These five aspects need to be involved. No matter what your teaching situation, helping students become better academic listeners is an important part of language teaching.
Over the years, through teaching, observation, and research, I have come up with some consistent principles that can accelerate academic listening.
Principle 1: Use great content
Academic listening is really about content learning. You want the content to do the teaching! Your goal as a teacher is to get the students excited about the new content and about sharing their perspectives. It’s easiest to do this when the content itself is compelling, when there is substance that is really worth trying to understand. Whether you’re teaching history or math, biology or art, literature or physiology, try packaging and presenting the content in ways that makes it more interesting and provocative.
But what if the content isn’t so great?
Try supplementing the content with different forms of multimedia (audio tracks, video clips, web pages) and activities (tasks, games, experiments, surveys) in order to make it more engaging and more motivating for your students. (See Philp and Duchesne, 2016 for a summary on the interaction of engagement and motivation.)
Do we need to pay attention to the language?
But what about the language teaching aspect? Don’t we need to teach the language? Of course, yes, we do, but we need to consider language instruction along a continuum of directness – indirectness. We now know that the most effective way to teach the language is through the learning of content in the target language — provided that we add sufficient language support and opportunities to review (See Cenoz, 2015; Naharro, 2019 for discussion of the role of language support in L2 content instruction.)
Principle 2: Teach “collaborative conversations” as a social learning tool
Academic listening is also about exploring, negotiating, and sharing ideas and learning new perspectives. Classroom learning of academic listening depends crucially on the learners having frequent “academic conversations” with each other — and with you, the teacher. The learners need to feel safe brainstorming, sharing personal thoughts, questioning ideas, reacting emotionally at times, and working out problems understanding each other and the course content. I like to call these “collaborative conversations” to emphasize that it takes multiple people to deepen a concept and create mutual understanding.
Why would I want to collaborate anyway?
But trying to have meaningful academic conversations often runs into a wall. Left to their own devices, most learners, regardless of age, will settle on minimal verbal and non-verbal interaction in the classroom, often attempting to finish learning tasks as quickly – and with as few words – as possible. The challenge for learners is that academic learning involves making our thinking explicit, so it is necessary to teach and reward the use of explicit gambits in order to develop this elaborated style of thinking (Crawford and Zwiers, 2011; Zwiers and Soto, 2017). Somehow, learners must come to see this type of collaborate e conversation as rewarding!
Implementing this principle involves two practical steps: (1) presenting conversation prompts, interaction models, and academic phrases and (2) promoting “positive regard” for others, and the experience that mutual respect and understanding is rewarding, even if it takes work!
Start with critical thinking skills
Presenting interaction models is best done by identifying specific critical thinking skills as “focus points” for learning. The 8 most commonly recognized critical thinking skills are: identify main ideas, compare similarities,contrast differences, attribute facts to sources, evaluate validity, infer missing information, explain results,andapply information to solve problems.
Do we really need to get this explicit?
In a word, yes! If we don’t, the tendency is to collapse each instance of collaborative dialogue as just “collaborating”. That may work as a shortcut in some cases, but the better bet is on deconstructing and drawing out the process. More opportunities for uptake!
Here’s an example of displaying the relationship between focus, conversation gambit (for posing questions), and language frame (for responding and formulating ideas).
Describe the main idea
What is the gist of the lecture?What do you think is the central idea?What was this part of the lecture about?
The presentation was mainly about…The speaker is basically saying….The main idea of the talk was…
And what is “positive regard” again?
The second aspect of implementing this principle is promoting “positive regard”, which means seeking and acknowledging each speaker’s contribution. Positive regard can be achieved gradually through active listening to each other’s ideas, supporting each other’s efforts to learn, and respecting alternate points of view. Teachers assist through consistent modeling and monitoring of conversational interaction to be sure that “positive regard” is systematically practiced (or at least aimed for!) in all classroom interactions (Singer, 2018). For example, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge each student’s contribution explicitly: Thank you for your contribution, André.
Principle 3: Shift responsibility to the learner
The essential insight behind this principle was hinted at in the opening “oxymoron”: It is the learners themselves who decide whether or not they want to understand. The teacher can’t do it for them. Set up optimal learning conditions – and let the learners do the work. This suggestion may seem obvious, but I have often seen learning get short-circuited when teachers try to guide or help their students too much. Think in terms of letting the students take the lead, in whatever ways you can. Have the students run the technology, let them select content supplements and decide on activities when possible, have them lead group discussions, have them give presentations, even have them design the tests.
Why don’t we start with simplified content?
But are we being too “harsh” on the students if we really think learners decide whether or not they want to understand? Shouldn’t we be making the content easier for the students to understand if they’re having difficulties with the language? Well, yes and no. The paradox is that by setting high expectations, and allowing the students to struggle to succeed, we are actually empowering them with the skills and strategies they need outside of our classroom (See Ferlazzo, 2016 and Asgedom, 2014 for powerful discussions of this issue of teachers challenging students with high standards.)
Principle 4: Teach “active listening” as a reliable learning strategy
Active listeningis more than the notion of “being animated when you listen”. It is actually a broader range of cognitive and emotional activity that could be described as “engaged processing”. Active listening starts with a mindset: an open-mindedness and curiosity and a “positive regard” for the speaker and his or her ideas – a supportive intention to try to understand without judging. Beyond these intentional aspects, active listening involves the specific teachable behaviors of paying full attention, asking clarification questions, paraphrasing, reflecting, summarizing, asking creative follow up questions to probe further into the speaker’s meaning (Rost and Wilson, 2013).
Back to gambits again: lead with target behaviors!
For all of these behaviors, there are specific gambits we can teach students to help them adopt an active listening mindset:
asking clarification questions: When you said (….), did you mean…? I’d like to ask if you can explain more about…
paraphrasing: What I hear you saying is… Let me see if I understand you correctly. I believe you said…
reflecting: That is very interesting to me. It reminds me of … I see a parallel between (….) and (…)
asking follow up questions: Is there another way to think about this? For example, is it possible that…
This is probably too much for my students.
I often talk with teachers who believe that active listening is way beyond their learners’ abilities. After all, their students may be struggling with basic vocabulary and grammar issues. Don’t they need to master the language more fully before they can use these “advanced” academic formulas and interaction gambits? Research has shown that teaching this type of “metacognitive thinking” actually helps students, even lower-level students, handle new and complex language more readily, without simplification of content. It empowers learners to engage gradually with more complex ideas (Goh, 2018; Vlach and Ellis, 2010).
Learning to use structured academic language and carefully constructing collaborative exchanges can also create more meaningful interactions between the students. This support language provides students with “islands of reliability” for interacting in pairs and groups in ways that promote more “comprehensible output” – that is, speaking or writing output that challenges the learner to use his or her maximum language capacity (Keene, 2011; Graf and Birkstein, 2007). And in my own experience, teaching active listening strategies makes content learning more enjoyable for the students!
Principle 5: Use short segments to focus on skill building
Academic listening can be overwhelming for students because it involves sustained listening, sometimes up to 30 minutes or longer. Once a student becomes overwhelmed and fatigued, learning efficiency — engagement and enjoyment, as well as memory function – obviously diminishes. What I like to do to counteract this is to punctuate a class with intensive work on shorter listening extracts: cuing an audio or video track to just 30 or 60 or 90 seconds of input.
Always set a task before listening
I may play a 60-second track three or four times, each time with a new task:
• Listen and write down just the verbs. (Drawing attention to the need to identify key words.)
• Listen and write the full forms for these reduced forms. (Drawing attention to reductions and assimilations).
• Listen and tell me which of these words or expressions you hear (To develop selective listening. I write several words on the board, only some of which are actually in the passage to be played).
• Listen and summarize the main ideas. (Orally to a partner, or in writing)
• Listen without taking notes. Then at the end, try to reconstruct exactly what the speaker said. (I may provide a partial transcript to facilitate this process.)
Don’t forget the decoding aspect of L2 listening
You might object that this type of activity doesn’t resemble true academic listening – as in a university lecture or a business presentation. That is correct, but in order to effect transfer of skills to academic listening contexts, students also need the training opportunities to build up the sub-skills of word recognition, phonological discrimination, extracting key information, and building short-term memory (Field, 1998; Goh and Aryadoust, 2013; Wilson, 2003). Working with short extracts also helps the teacher and students diagnose specific decoding problems and take concrete steps to remediate, rather than relying entirely on inferencing in order to guess “the missing pieces” (Cross, 2009).
Principle 6: Teach listening strategies
Listening strategies are cognitive and social intentions for “how to understand”, deliberate plans to construct meaning more deeply. Some have argued that effective strategies are a by-product of motivation and emerge in learners naturally without being taught (this is the “soft skills” theory) and others argue that listening strategies do not emerge unless they are demonstrated explicitly, and that direct teaching of listening strategies improves motivation (this is the “hard skills” theory”) (Graham, 2017). Though you may find differences in learner uptake, I have found that most learners will benefit from some explicit instruction in “how to listen”, particularly if it is done in the immediate context of a listening task.
What are listening strategies?
In my own research tracking and interviewing learners (Rost, 2016), as well as through the research of colleagues (e.g. Vandergrift, 2007), we have identified eight recognizable categories of listening strategies.
1. Planning Developing an awareness of the steps needed to accomplish a listening task, anticipating content that may be introduced, coming up with an “action plan”
2. Focusing attention Concentrating on the input and task at hand, avoiding distractions and disruptive thoughts, reminding oneself of the plan
3. Monitoring Verifying or adjusting one’s understanding or way of understanding during a task
4. Evaluating Checking the outcome of one’s listening process against a standard of accuracy or completeness
5. InferencingUsing information in the input to guess themeaning of unfamiliar language, to predictcontent, or to fill in missing information
6. ElaboratingUsing prior knowledge from outside theinput and relating it to content in the inputin order to enrich one’s interpretation of theinput
7. CollaboratingCooperating with the speaker, other listeners,and outside sources for assistance withimproving comprehension or enrichinginterpretations
8. ReviewingCondensing, reordering or transferring fromone modality to another, of what one hasprocessed to help understanding, memorystorage and retrieval
(From Rost and Wilson, 2013)
Can listening strategies be taught?
But how do we teach listening strategies? And is it important for students to learn strategies in all of these various categories? Will this type of “metacognitive” instruction really help them? The key to helping students learn and adopt these strategies is in designing tasks, or steps in an activity, that focus on one specific listening strategy. For example, to promote “planning”, we might give a series of images related to an upcoming lecture to the students, and ask them to come up with a list of ideas that might be included in the lecture. For “collaborating”, we might play a segment of a lecture or presentation, and have students work in pairs to complete a cloze summary of the section.
What if they don’t get it?
And because listening strategies are conscious plans to improve understanding, it is important for students to reflect on their utility. At the end of an activity, we may simply ask, “What did you think of that activity? Did it help you listen better? Why or why not?” It’s not important if the students “get the language” of the strategy, but it is important that they can identify the kind of effort they made to understand better.
Principle 8 : Teach note-taking as a review tool
Note-taking is widely viewed as one of the most important macro-skills in academic listening, but there is little agreement on what constitutes effective practice. Different techniques have been taught, including the Cornell Method (columns and indenting to show relationships), Mind Maps (graphic connections to show associations), and Key Words (noting only key words and phrases to show sequencing and prominence). However, no one method has been shown to be superior to others, although there is evidence that certain modalities of note-taking represent deeper levels of information processing than others (Bohay et al., 2011; Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).
Should it be optional?
So does it matter if we have students take notes? Yes! Shouldn’t it be optional? No! Even though there is no consistent correlation between specific types of notes or quantity of notes and comprehension scores, as a teacher I have consistently seen a positive effect of note-taking instruction on student participation and an increase in student responsibility in trying to understand. I have seen advantages of providing interventions while students are actively engaged in listening to academic lectures— not just before or after.
When do you teach note-taking?
Interventions— short instructional episodes during a language processing experience— provide a way for students to focus their attention and learn specific note-taking strategies that promote comprehension. And as other researchers have found, I also believe that the note-taking interventions improve long-term memory during and after listening, particularly if notes are used for collaborative tasks and review for tests — or even if notes are allowed to be used during tests (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).
Principle 9: Provide listening homework
Because accelerating academic listening involves nurturing a mindset shift, it is important to have productive outside homework assignments between classes. This will promote a more long-term change in attitudes and behavior.
Curate a list of successful sources and tasks
For each course I teach, I try to curate a set of at least 10 topically related YouTube or Vimeo or TEDTalk or other videos or FreshAir or other short interviews that are in the public domain. Recently, I’ve started including videos from Netflix and other subscription services, as so many students have subscriptions to these services. (I ask students to provided suggestions to add to the list as the course progresses.) This is a technique for keeping learning alive for students between classes, and for “flipping” the roles of classwork and homework as needed (Jensen et al., 2015).
Err on the side of caution
As a safety procedure, I recommend watching the videos all the way through or listening to interviews from start to finish first, to be sure the content is appropriate for your students. It’s much better to have a shorter list of sources you know are successful than having a massive list of unchecked items.
What is realistic?
In a typical 8-week course for me, the homework for the students is to listen to at least five and complete a short task – usually some variation of “Summarize in your own words”, “What is one thing that you learned in this presentation?” “What is one follow up question that you would like to ask the speaker?” “What are 5 words or expressions you learned in this talk?” If the class has a discussion board in its Learning Management System, I may require that each student comment on each video they watch, and respond to one other student’s comments for each video. If the class has time for presentations, I may have students prepare a presentation in pairs, related to the ideas in one video they have watched together.
Principle 10: Demonstrate to learners how to “get an A” in your course
The concept of academic listening — and academic study generally – may be unfamiliar to your learners at first, so it is helpful to “gamify” the concept by demonstrating to students the specific active behaviors they can use to “win the game”. For example, in one of my CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) classes, I give the students guidelines that include a number of “active listening” ideas:
HOW TO STUDY AND EARN AN “A” IN THIS COURSE
These guidelines are the best way to master the material in this course and earn an “A:”
• Come to class on time, listen actively, and participate. Take good notes and participate in the
discussions and in-class exercises. Be certain that your comments improve on the silence.
• Participate in the on-line discussions and make use of web resources, especially the videos.
• Take notes as though you will be explaining the content to a friend who missed the class.
• Communicate with the instructor – about possible absences, late assignments, or anything else that will
affect your performance in class.
• Ask questions if you don’t understand something! Just because others aren’t asking questions doesn’t mean they understand. If something isn’t clear to you it may not be clear to your
classmates. Do them a favor and raise your hand.
• Summarize, rewrite, and review your notes between classes. Don’t wait for the night before an
exam to re-familiarize yourself with the material covered.
• Take some action to personalize the material. Develop your own set of study notes, summarize each lecture or reading to a classmate (learning partner), or write out what you think would be a likely essay question on the test.
Why so strict?
But aren’t these guidelines too strict? Don’t we need to be sensitive to learner differences? Don’t we need to modify course expectations to fit a range of cultural learning styles? To an extent, yes, but we also need to allow students to build strong study habits. By showing the “rules” of the system, we are helping them succeed, both in content learning and cultural learning (Hattie, 2012; Hofstede et al, 2010).
Do I really need all 10 of these principles?
So those are the ten principles that can accelerate academic listening. You may wish to adopt one or two of them to see if you detect any improvement – or any greater “buy in” from your students. And of course using them is no guarantee that all students will immediately increase their listening ability. At the very least, trying to inject these principles into your classes will trigger some fresh energy for students to improve.
Asgedom, M. (2014). The 5 powers of an educator. Chicago: Mawi Learning.
Bohay, M., Blakely, D., Tamplin, A., and Radvansky, G. (2011). Note taking, review, memory, and comprehension. The American Journal of Psychology, 124, 63–73.
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.