Listening skills and strategies for the foreign language classroom

How can we turn listening from a passive skill to an active and engaging process for our learners?
Here are 7 points to consider when designing listening tasks for the foreign language classroom.

By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor)

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    Listening may be one of the passive skills in language teaching and learning but it should not be considered as passive at all. The listening process should be viewed as an active process that is not only engaging for our students but also fosters their communicative skills. We need to carefully examine and detect the various listening strategies and skills that we want to focus on when giving out a listening task to our language classroom. These should be based on our learners’ specific needs, their level of English and their L1 background. Below you will find some key points to consider when selecting listening activities for the foreign language classroom and how we can use these tasks to promote language learning in the best way possible

– Activation of schemata

What are the types of ‘knowledge’ we might want to focus on during the pre-listening stage? For Anderson and Lynch (1988), there are three basic stages/elements that lead to comprehension. These come together but also interact with the text/ the content of the listening task. It is important for teachers to be able to identify these types of knowledge and how they can help in the listening comprehension and the successful outcome of the activities they give to their learners.

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When constructing a listening task, it is important to keep this information in mind in order to adapt the activity to our students’ specific level and needs. Listening tasks that are too difficult to process may not be effective. We must examine the degree of contextual and linguistic knowledge our students have and decide whether or not we need to activate our learners’ schemata and introduce certain key elements during the pre-listening stage or to adapt our materials in order to address their needs. In exam oriented classrooms for example listening activities should provide adequate practice for the upcoming language tests, whereas with adult learners (who learn the TL for communicative purposes) the focus should be shifted to real-life listening tasks.

What is important is to discuss the listening topic beforehand with the entire class, to prepare the learners for what they are going to listen to and activate their schemata. We should try to elicit from our students as much information as possible, let them ‘discover’ what the upcoming task is all about and thus keep them actively involved in the learning process.

Training students to read all the relevant information before the listening task begins is also a strategy that could be useful for their language exams. This way they will be prepared for what they have to focus on when the activity begins and easily ‘extract’ the specific information they need in order to complete the task.

– Listening as a purposeful activity

We must also keep in mind that, in real life, listening mainly serves functional purposes. When we listen ‘naturally’, we listen for a reason, for a purpose. We then either retain (or skip) the information, we use it to interact with others or we take some other sort of action. Our listening tasks must serve these same functions. We must design these activities with a ‘purpose’ in mind, that will trigger our students’ interest and make them ‘tune in’ and focus on the listening task in order to achieve something. This sense of purpose will greatly enhance their motivation levels and will make them eager to participate in the lesson.

Communicative tasks need to come with a real purpose. In order to engage our learners and make them more involved in the listening task, we first of all need to keep in mind what happens in real life conversations and what the communicative purpose of the task is. Below is a model of what happens after listening and understanding that is useful to keep in mind when designing listening activities.

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– Task/topic authenticity – variety

In many EFL contexts learners do not get enough exposure to the L2 outside the language classroom. Using authentic TL input for our listening activities should therefore form an important part of our lessons. The world wide web can be a great ally in our quest for authentic audiovisual resources. YouTube videos and certain podcasts can offer great real life listening material as long as they are selected with caution.

Variety in language input is also equally important to authenticity. Listening tasks in the EFL classroom should not just focus on conversations among native speakers. The options are endless: news broadcasts, radio programs, listening to an interview with a famous politician/actor/singer, announcements at a train station/airport etc. can all be used as the basis for effective and innovative EFL activities.

For Penny Ur (2012:115), authenticity in listening tasks mainly has to do with real-life listening, with material that has not been produced for language speaking purposes. As she points out, the degree of authenticity and whether or not we will be giving out a specific listening task to our students will depend on our learners’ level and needs. Younger students with limited exposure to L2 input could benefit from semi authentic materials that are not very demanding and are ‘adapted’ to a lower level with clear, low rate of speech. More advanced learners will need more exposure to real, authentic examples of speech. As teachers we therefore need to evaluate the effect the listening materials will have on our students and whether they will help our learners develop effective listening skills in the target language.

– Learner motivation: listening as a purposeful, communicative task

Nobody wants to listen to something they do not find interesting or relevant to their age and needs. It is important to always remember that we need to keep our learners’ motivation levels up at all times. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are equally important here. Our learners need to find the activity stimulating, focus on it and carry it out with success.

For Penny Ur (1996), ‘purposeful and original activities’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to want to communicate and express their thoughts and ideas in the L2. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved in the lesson and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.

– The importance of strategy teaching

For Vandergrift (1999) listening strategies are conscious means by which learners can guide and evaluate their own comprehension. He divides these strategies into metacognitive (selective listening, monitoring), cognitive (making deductions, using one’s own knowledge on the subject) and socio-affective (asking for clarifications, cooperating with others). Keeping these in mind, it is important to make sure that the listening tasks we give to our students are designed to help them use such listening strategies and will consequently boost their overall communication skills.

– Selective listening

Similar to skimming and scanning in reading, our learners need to be trained to listen for the gist or for specific information. Our students must learn to identify general topics and at the same time detect specific details when needed. This will come in handy not only as exam practice but also when they will have to listen to native speakers of the language in real life situations.
To sum up, one of the most important aspects in a successful listening task is whether it is ‘authentic’ enough to support and develop our L2 learners’ listening skills. It is important to always examiny what the main listening skills and strategies we want to teach are and whether the activity is adapted to our learners’ level and needs.
We must check whether the type of listening activity we choose will be effective enough in order for our learners to listen for example for gist or for specific information. Task authenticity is important here since through the use of a variety of different tasks we do not only address our learners’ different learning styles, but we also trigger their curiosity.

– Follow up tasks

Listening can be followed by a hands on activity, by note taking, by a game, a quick role play activity, a group task, a matching task or even a writing task that will boost our learners’ creativity (ex. listen and write down what happens next). The selection of these activities will greatly depend on our specific language classrooms, our students’ L1 background and the difficulties they may face when listening to an authentic L2 conversation. It will also depend on whether or not our classroom is exam oriented (which will mean that we will have to focus on specific task types and topics that will help our students in their language exam preparation).


Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1988) Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of Discourse Comprehension. New York: Academic Press.

Vandergrift, L. (1999) ‘Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies’ in ELTJ 53/3, pp 168-176

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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