[From Listening in Action, Michael Rost]

I am often asked to give a definition of listening to teachers, and though I have learned a lot about listening over the years, I still typically go back to the introduction of my first teacher training book, Listening in Action, to give an overview. Here it is, aging well!



           In order to define listening, we can ask two basic questions:  What are the component skills in listening?  and What does a listener do?   

           In terms of the necessary components, we can list the following:  

• discriminating between sounds  

• recognizing words  

• identifying grammatical groupings of words 

• identifying “pragmatic units” — expressions and sets of utterances which function as whole units to create meaning  

• connecting linguistic cues to paralinguistic cues (intonation and stress) and to non-linguistic cues (gestures and relevant objects in the situation) in order to construct meaning 

• using background knowledge (what we already know about the content and the form) and context  (what has already been said) to predict and then to confirm meaning 

• recalling important words and ideas

           Successful listening involves an integration of these component skills.  In this sense, listening is a coordination of the component skills, not the individual skills themselves.  This integration of these perception skills, analysis skills, and synthesis skills is what we will call a person’s listening ability. 


perception skills                    analysis skills                                      synthesis skills

discriminating sounds           identifying grammatical units             connecting linguistic and 

recognizing words                 identifying pragmatic units                             other cues 

                                                                                                            using background knowledge                                                     



           Even though a person may have good listening ability, he or she may not always be able to understand what is said in every situation.  In order to understand messages, some conscious action is necessary to use this ability effectively in each listening situation.  This action that a listener must perform is “cognitive” or mental,  so it is not possible to view it directly,  but we can see the effects of this action.    The underlying action for successful listening is decision-making.  The listener must make these kinds of decisions:

•  What  kind of situation is this?

•  What is my plan for listening?

•  What are the important words and units of meaning?

•   Does the message make sense? 

           Successful listening requires making effective  “real time” decisions about these questions.  In this sense,  listening is primarily a thinking process — thinking about meaning.   Effective listeners develop a useful ways of thinking about meaning as they listen.  The way in which the listener makes these decisions is what we will call a listening strategy.   



How should I deal with this situation?                      How should I organize what I hear?

What is my relationship to the speaker?                   How should I plan my response? 

How can I get clarification?                                      What is my goal for listening? 

           social strategies                                                         goal strategies 

                                               LISTENING STRATEGIES

           linguistic strategies                                       content strategies 

What words should I pay attention to?                     Does this make sense in light of what                                                                                               I already know about the topic?                                                                                 

What  unknown words and expressions                    What can I predict ? 

           can I guess?                



           In order to develop a comprehensive image of ourselves as instructors of listening,  we need an combined approach for building up essential skills and for fostering successful strategies.


use                                                                             develop


                                               Goals of listening instruction 



            To develop their listening ability, our learners need a great deal of exposure to spoken language and ample practice in various listening situations.   However, in addition to exposure and practice, it is vitally important for the listener to become engaged in the process of listening  and develop a desire to understand.  This is not something that  exposure and practice alone can bring about.  The ways in which individual learners try to become engaged and try to understand and try to improve are called learning styles.

            Let us look at some different types of learners and how they approach development of their own listening ability:  

Ulla:  I like to watch American films on video tape.  I replay important scenes again and again until I feel that I have understood well.  Then, after watching the whole film, I go back to some of the scenes — my favorite ones — and listen to them and study the language carefully. I make sure that I know exactly what the speakers say. This helps me to understand the expressions when I hear them again. 

Agbo:  I like to talk with people.  Whenever I have free time, I try to meet with English-speaking friends.  Even though I’m not a good speaker or listener, I try to understand and ask a lot of questions if I want to understand something more clearly.  Especially, I have one or two good friends, and by talking with them, I think my listening is getting much better.  I’m certainly becoming more confident when I am with them and more comfortable with my English ability. 

Emi:  My listening has improved because in my English class, we have to do a lot of talking to our classmates in English, and we have to listen to different kinds of tapes and get the important ideas.  I need this kind of guidance because I would probably give up if I studied by myself.   I like to be tested by the teacher about the precise meaning of the speakers on the tape, and then hear the tape again.  Each time, I feel I am understanding more and becoming a better English listener.  

Truyen:  Although I studied English for many years, I never really understood spoken English very well.  But when I  entered the university, I really began to make progress with my listening ability.  I think this is mainly because I am very interested in my classes.  The ideas of the lectures are very difficult, but I have found that if I really want to understand the lectures,  I must prepare very hard for them in advance.  Sometimes I tape record lectures and review the parts where I was confused.  The preparation and the review helps me to listen better each time. 

            We can see some clear differences in these types of learners.  Ulla might be called a “self-instruction type.”  She sees useful opportunities for learning alone, she consistently carries out her plans, and she enjoys the learning process.   She has developed her ability to perceive language accurately and has worked on developing her memory for English vocabulary.  She also has a sense of how to assess her own progress. 

            Agbo is what might be called a “social type”.  He enjoys face-to-face interaction and senses that it is an effective way to get “the real thing” in terms of listening practice.  He is usually satisfied to get the general gist of what he hears, though he is not embarrassed to ask questions if he wants to understand specific expressions and meanings.  He understands that language development requires consistent effort and he is willing to make that effort. 

            Emi is what might be called a “language classroom type”.  She trusts her teachers to present her with useful practice.  She consistently tries hard to do what is expected of her.  She has a sense of what her goals are and feels strongly that classroom instruction is helping her to reach them.  She is confident that she will succeed. 

            Truyen is what  we might call a “subject matter type.”  He wants to listen better so that he has access to ideas in English.  He is, in this sense, “listening to learn”, not just “learning to listen”.  He sees English not just as a vehicle of social communication, but as a carrier of important concepts, and an aid to him in his career.  He has found a motivation and a systematic method for developing his listening ability. 

Principles for developing listening ability 

            We can identify different strengths in the learning styles of each of these four types of learners.  All of these styles contain useful learning strategies and illustrate important learning principles.   From these portraits, and based on what we know about language skill development, we can draw out some general guidelines:  

1. Listening ability develops through face-to-face interaction.

By interacting in English, learners have the chance for new language input and the chance to check their own listening ability.  Face-to-face interaction provides  stimulation for development of listening for meaning.  

2. Listening develops through focusing on meaning and trying to learn  new and important content  in the target language.

By focusing on meaning and real reasons for listening  in English, learners can mobilize both their linguistic and non-linguistic abilities to understand.  

3.  Listening ability develops through work on comprehension activities. 

By focusing on specific goals  for listening, learners can evaluate their efforts and abilities.   By having well-defined comprehension activities, learners have opportunities for assessing what they have achieved and for revision. 

4.  Listening develops through attention to accuracy and an analysis of form.

By learning to perceive sounds and words accurately  as they work on meaning-oriented activities, our learners can make steady progress.    By learning to hear sounds and words more accurately, learners gain confidence in listening for meaning.  

What can a language teacher do to help students develop their listening ability?

             As teachers, we need a comprehensive image of what we do in order to help students develop their listening ability.  Recalling the earlier discussion about listening development, we can propose several guidelines for the classroom teacher in assisting students to develop their listening.


1.  Talk to your students in English.  Talk to all  of your students — not just the better English speakers.  Make English a vital language for communication. Personalize the classroom: get to know your students through talking with them about topics of mutual interest. 

2.  Make English the language of your classroom.  Give opportunities in class for the students to exchange ideas  with each other in English.  Point out to them how they are becoming confident and effective users  of English. 

3.   Introduce your class to other speakers of English — personally or through use of video and audio tapes.  Expose them to different types of people and situations.  Above all, encourage them to listen to understand things that are important to them.  

4.  Encourage the learners to become independent, to seek out listening opportunities on their own outside of the classroom.  Help them to identify ways of using English language media (TV and radio broadcasts, video tapes). Set up a self-access listening and learning center.  Help your students to develop self-study listening programs and goals. 

In the classroom 

5.  Set activities for listening that personally  engage your students.  Set challenging, yet realistic, goals for each activity.  Give the students clear feedback on how well they do.  Provide systematic review of tapes and activities to help consolidate their learning and memory. 

6.  Focus on teaching, rather than on testing.  Reward students for trying to come up with reasonable ideas, rather than just “the correct answer” during listening activities.  Keep a record of what the students have achieved  during the course.  

7.  Look for effective ways to utilize audio and video tapes  that come with textbooks you are using.  With some thought and experimentation with different types of listening exercises, you will find relevant and productive uses for these tapes.   (The index in this book will direct you to ideas for utilizing audio and video tapes.) 

Teaching procedures 

            For classroom teaching, it is important to have a model of instruction that incorporates 

useful learning principles.    Most experienced teachers seem to have a model of the “ideal” sequence they will follow in a class — although in practice they will usually  “skip” back and forth between steps in response to what their students do.  Here is a general model for a sequence in a listening phase of a class.

                                    Help the students’ focus their attention  

                                    • get them thinking about the content

                                    • have them set a purpose for participating

Set the task  

• provide criteria for successful listening 

• give advice on using strategies for understanding

• model what would like them to do as they listen 

                                                                                    Let the students do the task                                                                                     • observe them as they do the task

                                                                                    • note how they are doing the                                                                                                 task; where they are succeeding                                                                                          and where they are having trouble     

Evaluate the task  

• Did everyone succeed at the task?

• Is a second attempt necessary?

• Can you point out how certain skills and

strategies helped them do the task?

• Can the students take note of any new words 

or ideas for future study?                                

                                                                                                Provide a follow-up 

                                                                                                • use the listening task and                                                                                                     evaluation  as a lead in

                                                                                                to the next classroom or

                                                                                                homework activity

About The Author

, What is listening?, 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.

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