Probably the least popular approach to teaching listening is “deliberate practice.”  It’s not popular because, well, it’s not fun. It’s not fun because it forces you to confront aspects of your skill that are effectively your weaknesses, and most people find that rather uncomfortable!  When I played high school basketball, my least favorite part of practice was “wind sprints.” Everyone would line up at the baseline at one end of the court, the coach would give a piercing blow of his whistle, and the whole team of ragged teenagers raced as face as possible to the far baseline at the other end of the court (94 feet, if you’re counting in the US system). We’d pause, hands on knees (at least that was my usual posture), try to catch our breath before Coach Buford sadistically blew the whistle again signaling the next mad sprint for the opposite baseline (you were supposed to touch it with your hand to show that you arrived).  If you jumped the line early before the whistle, you were humiliated for not being able to follow simple instructions, and if you were last in the group to reach the far baseline you were further berated for not trying hard enough.  I hated it.  But I also came to realize its importance.   The wind sprints training gave me extra energy to play my hardest throughout the real game — or to assume that playing my hardest was “the norm”, and it gave me the endurance to finish games. Indeed, the actual games were a piece of cake compared to the practices!

Deliberate practice in listening is a lot like “wind sprints”: we’re putting students through the paces of practicing specific skills. In the case of listening development, these skills involve perception, inference, recall.  And yes, we’re doing it repeatedly, to the point it becomes tiring, and eventually automatic.   Unlike my high school Coach Buford, we obviously don’t want to berate our students for not being able to perform perfectly (though bless his heart, Coach Buford was probably trying to motivate his charges in the best way he knew how).  Instead,  we can use positive psychology to guide the students through what it an arduous, but essential practice. But we do have to blow our whistles, and we do have to monitor how well the students are performing if we want them to do well “in the actual game.”


Deliberate practice refers to a learning approach of analyzing component skills in an overall performance and practicing those sub-skills that need most improvement (Ericsson, 2016). However, there is not necessarily a relationship between how often you practice, how “easy” the skill feels for you, and how well you execute that given skill. As many teachers can attest, it is entirely possible for a student to learn a skill incorrectly, or to introduce bad habits, or use a practicing style with a faulty mindset.  In effect, bad habits, or a problematic mindset, or poor form may actually prevent learners from evermastering the target skill. For this reason, it is essential to have an experienced guide who has mastered the skillsthe student is pursuing to set up a practice that correctly models the target skills. The guide must also  systematically observe the student while practicingin order to give corrective feedback.

Deliberate practice is a form of instruction designed to help learners work on specific skills — with “deliberate” awareness that they are willingly practicing a component sub-skill in order to improve their overall proficiency in a learning domain. To be effective, deliberate practice should be focused on a single learning objective, provide multiple opportunities (5-10 typically) for repetition and feedback, and offer ample time for reflection and de-briefing of what has been practiced and learned.

Teachers who work with second language learners are aware that L2 learners require intensive work in bottom-up listening skills (i.e., learning to perceive incoming speech accurately).   Both “lower order” processing skills (phonological processing, word recognition, and grammatical parsing) and “higher order” thinking skills (inference, integration, application) can be the focus of deliberate practice, though native speakers of the target language will typically require less bottom-up listening work.   L1 listeners will need lessfocus on lower order skills, which have become largely automated, while L2  listeners (e.g. ELLs) will need supplemental deliberate practice with the lower order skills. Both groups require a focus on the higher order listening skills.

This differential treatment results from developmental sequences. In first language learning, listening is typically the primary language skill that children develop, and on the basis of their oral processing skill (which includes sensitivity to their L1 rhythm and intonation structure, intuitive knowledge of sound co-occurrences and constraints), children subsequently add extended listening(such as story listening), speaking, reading, and eventually writing. By the time that the monolingual child is learning to read and write, listening will have been strongly established as a reliable means of comprehension and further learning and listening processes are largdly automatic, requiring little attention (Cutler, 2000; Cutler & Farrell, 2018).

Table 4.  Sample of types of “deliberate practice” to improve listening

Area of Practice Form of Practice/RepetitionLearner Shift During Practice
Lower level skills
speech processing: minimal pairsseries of pairs of phonological phrases that are identical or “minimally different” (e.g. Do you repair clocks? Do you repair clogs?); students listen and say “same” or “different”.improved ability to detect minimally different words
speech processing: noticing assimilations  series of very short (5-7 seconds) bursts of speech, with recognition practice (such as T/F questions or fill in blanks) for problematic sequences (such as phrases with assimilated sounds); shadowingimproved ability to listen to fast speech, improved ability to decode assimilated phrases; improved interest in hearing spoken language variations
speech processing: word stress series of phrases, delivered orally; students repeat or indicate the stressed syllables; or students do “word spotting”, writing down any words they have heardimproved ability to attend to stress, pick out target words; improved ability to distinguish word boundaries
speech processing: detecting sentence stress series of sentences (or “idea units”); students indicate the most stressed word in eachimproved ability to identify words in the stream of speech
speech processing: parsing grammatical structuresseries of short comprehensible sentences (or “idea units”) with complex grammar, slightly above students’ productive ability; students choose correct written form of utterance, or write/fill in blanksimproved ability to segment speech into component words; improved ability to make grammatical sentences from words recognized in speech
Vocabulary recognition: picking out words in a stream of speech series of short extracts (25 words) with m/c or blank fills in for identifying which target words were utteredimproved ability to recognize words; improved ability to identify boundaries of “unknown words”
Grammatical parsing: making sense of phonological strings series of short extracts (25 words) with target grammatical structures blanked out; listeners attempt to fill in missing parts; followed by shadowing/repetitionimproved ability to understand speech at natural speed; improved ability to construct grammatical sentences in speech and writing
Higher level skills
Memory Building: Questions about reconstructing a storyseries of short stories, involving multiple actions and sequencesimproved attention span, improved recall
Recognizing Literal Meaning: Questions about facts, details, or information explicitly stated in the audio storyseries of short extracts (25-50 words) with questions or T/F paraphrases about literal meaning (what was explicitly stated vs. inferable)increased awareness of literal vs. implied meaning
Understanding Vocabulary:

 Questions about the meanings of words as they are used in the context of the extract

series of short extracts (10-25 words) with questions (synonyms, rephrasings) about specific vocabulary itemsincrease in receptive vocabulary
Making Inferences:

Questions asking students to make inferences as they listen to audio stories, interpreting what is said by going beyond the literal meaning

series of short statements (10-25 words) with questions about what can be inferred from what was spokenimproved ability to listen “actively”, making inferences while listening
Identifying Main Idea: Questions asking students to identify the main idea or gist of an audio storyseries of short extracts (30-60 seconds) with questions (T/F) or m/c or open-ended about the main ideaimproved ability to listen selectively for most important information
Summarizing Content:Questions asking students to summarize the content of an audio storyseries of short extracts (20 seconds, 100 words); students work alone or in pairs to create short (10-20 word) summariesimproved ability to focus on main ideas, ability to formulate coherent short summaries
Determining Point of View: Questions asking students to determine a speaker’s point of view or perspective in an audio storyseries of short extracts (30-60 seconds), such as movie scenes (in audio only or video formats), in which the characters have identifiable perspectives or emotional states.improved ability to discern differences of emotional states in characters
Analyzing Reasoning: Questions asking students to analyze a speaker’s reasoning or draw conclusions based on an audio extractseries of short extracts, personal opinions about a topic or issueimproved reasoning ability; tolerance for differing viewpoints
Finding Evidence: Questions asking students to identify statements or details in an audio story that provide evidence to support inferences, interpretations, or conclusionsseries of short stories (2-3 minutes), involving problem-solution structureimproved critical thinking while listening

About The Author

, Deliberate practice: essential for bottom-up listening skills, Lateral Communications
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.