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To listen or not to listen… that is the key skill!

Updated: May 11, 2022

Being able to teach listening may sound counter intuitive, but with listening taking up 45% of all communication time, on average, it becomes obvious how important it actually is!

In contrast, speaking accounts for just 30% of all time spent on communication. Therefore, it is clear that listening is well worth spending time on. Listening is a skill which, thankfully, can be taught.

Teaching listening can be especially challenging because of sound. Not necessarily the words, but the sounds a language contains. All languages are made up of unique sounds, or phonemes. There are very few languages which share the same number of phonemes. For example, English features 44 unique phonemes whilst Arabic has 34, Italian has 30, Japanese has 22 and Rotokas has just 11!

As a result, there are issues arising out of languages featuring sounds that simply do not exist in another, and those sounds also may be produced in a different manner to how it is produced in another. Listeners may well struggle to distinguish between sounds of a foreign language, simply down to the fact that they are not part of their first language!

There are other much more immediate factors which can contribute to how successful teaching listening to EFL learners is. These factors include the quick pace of the speaker, background noise, a lack of visual clues (for example, when listening on the telephone), the listener’s limited vocabulary and a lack of knowledge of the topic.

While the challenges posed by the speaker or the situation may be out of the listener’s hands, there are a few skills or 'strategies' that EFL teachers can focus on to help their learners.

1. Predicting content

Predicting content means to look at what is about to unfold, for example, on TV, and then try to imagine what the story is going to be and try to work out what kind of vocabulary is likely to appear.

2. Listening for gist

Listening for gist means to identify the key words that allow you to paint a complete picture. A good example is ‘sun,’ ‘beach,’ ‘towel,’ ‘hotel.’ On their own, all different. Together, they lead you to understand the topic is probably going to be about a holiday.

3. Listening for detail

At this point, you are listening for key words which fill in the gaps you have. It can be directed, however. Based on key words you can identify, you can then assume what kind of vocabulary you are likely to need following it. For example, if in a test you are identifying ‘age,’ then numbers and the word ‘years’ will be the most important to listen to.

4. Inferring meaning

This is when we take clues in a conversation and attempt to build understanding by using our own experiences to fill in the blanks. For example, if two people are talking, and you hear “good try”, “try again” and “lean more” you may expect the conversation to be a discussion between an athlete and their coach.

It is worth noting that these five elements do not exist in isolation. They do overlap each other, and it is very important for an EFL teacher to be aware that an activity is likely to cover more than just the skill they are looking to work on. Because they overlap, it means the students can struggle with what they are specifically trying to do. However, given how activities can influence more than just one skill, there are always opportunities in and outside of the classroom for students to look to improve their listening.

At Notting Hill College, we work hard to ensure that every teacher who undertakes one of our Ofqual-regulated courses, such as Level 5 Certificate in TEFL or Level 6 Diploma in TESOL, has the tools necessary to work with their students and build their confidence when it comes to key skills such as listening, where improvements can be marginal. This is where teachers really can come into their own to help ensure their students' continued development and success.


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