The Challenge of Teaching Listening Skills

(Reading time: 2 - 4 minutes)

Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any EFL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice. It’s frustrating for students because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Speaking and writing also have very specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills; however they are difficult to quantify.

Student Blocking

One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn’t understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying to translate a specific word. Some students convince themselves that they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.

Signs that Students are Blocked

Students constantly look up words

Students pause when speaking

Students change their eye contact away from the speaker as if they are thinking about something

Students write words down during conversation exercises

The key to helping students improve their listening skills is to convince them that not understanding is OK. Another important point is to try to teach your students (with differing amounts of success) that they need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time.

Listening Exercise Suggestion

Suggest a number of shows in English on the radio, podcasts online, etc.

Have students choose one of the shows based on interest

Ask students to listen to the show for five minutes three times a week

Keep track of student listening to encourage them to keep up the practice

Check with students to confirm that their listening skills are improving over time

Getting in Shape

Use this analogy: Imagine you want to get in shape. You decide to begin jogging. The very first day you go out and jog for two hours. If you are lucky, you might even be able to jog for two hours.

However, chances are that you will not soon go out jogging again. Fitness trainers have taught us that we must begin with little steps. Begin jogging short distances and walk some as well, over time you can build up the distance. Using this approach, you’ll be much more likely to continue jogging and get fit.

Students need to apply the same approach to listening skills. Encourage them to get a film, or listen to an English radio station, but not to watch an entire film or listen for two hours. Students should often listen, but they should listen for short periods - five to ten minutes. This should happen four or five times a week. Even if they don’t understand anything, five to ten minutes is a minor investment. However, for this strategy to work, students must not expect improved understanding too quickly. The brain is capable of amazing things if given time; students must have the patience to wait for results. If a student continues this exercise over two to three months their listening comprehension skills will greatly improve.


Once you have begun to listen on a regular basis, you might still be frustrated by limited understanding. What should you do?

Here is some advice:

  • Accept the fact that you are not going to understand everything.
  • Keep cool when you do not understand - even if you continue to not understand for a long time.
  • Listen for the gist (noun=general idea) of the conversation. Don’t concentrate on detail until you have understood the main ideas.
  • Do not translate into your native language

Firstly, translating creates a barrier between the listener and the speaker. Secondly, most people repeat themselves constantly. By remaining calm you will be able to understand what the speaker has said. When you translate into your native language, you are taking the focus of your attention away from the speaker and concentrating on the translation process taking place in your brain. This would be fine if you could put the speaker on hold. In real life however, the person continues talking while you translate. This situation obviously leads to less -not more- understanding.

By remaining calm, allowing yourself to not understand, and not translating while listening, your brain is free to concentrate on the most important thing: Understanding English in English. •





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