Category Archives: Listening

“Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions” summary of Chiara Bruzzano’s talk

This is the second summary from the TESOL Italy 2016 talks that I saw. The first one was Henry Widdowson’s plenary ‘ELF and TESOL: a change of subject?’, and you can read it here.

Chiara’s talk starts off with a short video. Two people are having breakfast and chatting away. A third one arrives and joins the chat.

The language sounds vaguely familiar, but doesn’t seem to be making much sense. In fact, Chiara tells us after we’ve watched it that it’s made up of different lines from different song lyrics jumbled together.

And this is exactly how English might sound to our students’ ears. Difficult to understand. Confusing. The likely outcome is that they’ll feel frustrated. And perhaps this is one of the reasons why teaching listening is important. But not the only one, of course. Some other that Chiara lists are:

  • Low English proficiency of students in Italy
  • English is becoming more and more important in everyday life
  • It’s the Cinderella skill
  • Students’ perceptions need to be taken into account for curriculum development
  • Most of the time listening is tested rather than taught in class

The two most common theories which inform how we teach listening are bottom-up and top-down processing. However, rather than choosing between one or the other, it is important we adopt a more integrated approach; that is, helping our learners develop and use both top-down and bottom-up skills.

The rest of the talk is informed by a research Chiara carried out. The sample was made up of 121 Italian students of English aged 16 to 19 and 5 Italian English teachers. To gather data she used questionnaires, interviews with teachers and classroom observations.

The research focused on the appreciation of students for listening activities, the materials and sources used in the classroom, the importance of the skill and the students’ difficulties.

The two main findings that Chiara drew on to provide her practical suggestions were a general good level of appreciation of the students for listening skills and the problems that they highlighted. Most of them referred to perception and parsing problems as being prominent, and their teachers seemed to show a good level of awareness regarding this.

So, it seems that in this particular study students are motivated, enjoy listening and see it as important. The question is then, how can we capitalise on these positive perceptions to improve students’ listening?

First, we should stop just testing listening, and focus on teaching it. I wrote more about this in this post.

As far as bottom-up skills go, we can for example focus on connected speech, weak forms or variations in pronunciation of individual sounds.


Some ways in which we can attempt to help students improve top down skills are:

  • Inferring missing information
  • Continue listening despite difficulties
  • Predicting unfinished utterances.
  • Taking notes of content words.
  • Paying attention to discourse markers, visuals, body language.

In the next part of the talk we were provided with a very useful list of listening Dos and Don’ts.





Then, we had to put them into practice to assess the listening activity you can see below. What do you think is wrong with it and how could it be improved?


Some things that were wrong with it can be seen on this slide:


Finally, there are several ways in which we can try to make our listening lessons more interesting, and more focused on teaching rather than testing listening, which Chiara called listening with a twist:

  • Use a wordcloud as a prelistening:
  • Students watch part of a TV series as an extensive listening and imagine how they would have acted in the situations shown
  • Instead of questions, students can be given a drawing, a map or a table to fill
  • Play chunks of language and ask students to identify how many words they can hear, and then which words
  • Let the students choose their favourite songs or video clips to listen to in class

You can find more tips for teaching listening in some of the previous posts from this blog as well as in the listening section here:

  1. Let’s bring back the TAPES
  2. Teaching listening: tweaking the CELTA approach
  3. Planning a listening lesson: 15 tips
  4. Teaching listening: example lesson plan and reflection
  5. The real deal – authentic materials or authentic tasks?

256331_3965102298242_285721285_o (1) [1661836]Chiara is an English teacher and translator based in Milan. She has taught English as a second language in England, Spain and Italy. She has a BA in Interpreting and Translation (University of Bologna) and an MA in TESOL and Translation Studies (Aston University, Birmingham). Her main interests in the TESOL field are pronunciation, comparative grammar, the teaching of listening skills and communicative language teaching applied to business contexts.

Teaching listening – tweaking the CELTA approach

Image under creative commons from:
Image under creative commons from:

In this post I wanted to look at the standard approach to a listening lesson which trainees learn during the initial teaching course, e.g. CELTA, and show what the potential problems with this approach are, and how we could tackle them. However, this post is not meant as a rant, criticising what trainees learn about teaching listening during the CELTA. Nor am I proposing to abandon this approach. To the contrary. My aim is to make you aware of the possible drawbacks and perhaps cause you to rethink and rework how you teach listening while still appreciating the advantages of the CELTA framework.

Let’s first start then with the CELTA approach. I subdivided it into 8 stages and gave the main aims of each. Please note that not all will always be present in every listening lesson. Some are optional, while others can be done jointly as one stage (e.g. 1 and 2). However, it is very likely that most listening lessons will follow the procedure below.

The standard CELTA approach:

Lettering “Celta” da UTD 592-002 - Régua

Stage and Aim(s)

  1. Lead-in – to get the students interested and engaged in the topic
  2. Text orientation – to prepare the students for what they’re going to hear and enhance their chances of understanding (NOTE: point 1 and 2 are often done in one go)
  3. Pre-teach lexis – to make sure difficult vocabulary items do not impede comprehension
  4. Listening for gist – to encourage global comprehension and to give a reason for listening
  5. Feedback – to check students general understanding of the text
  6. Listening for details – to promote listening for specific information
  7. Feedback – to check students detailed understanding
  8. Follow up speaking – to encourage a personalised response to the text and to provide speaking practice

Until I did the DELTA – 4 years after the CELTA – this was how I staged almost all of my listening lessons. However, the diploma course showed me that apart from the obvious benefits of the above staging, there are some perhaps less conspicuous, but very important disadvantages. For example:

Some disadvantages of the above staging:

  • little time is spent on actually listening to the recording
  • not much time devoted to identifying and analysing students’ difficulties
  • suggests there is only one right way of listening to a text
  • students are turned into passive listeners
  • the tasks do not highlight the link between listening and speaking
  • very often full and detailed understanding is expected by the teacher
  • the students do not take any responsibility for understanding the text
  • there is no reflection on the process
  • very often tasks are artificial and do not promote a natural response to the listening
  • often there is more testing than teaching going on

Based on G. White Listening. OUP 1998

Can you suggest any other drawbacks?

Frankly, I was quite shocked at the beginning when I was faced with so many drawbacks of an approach I had used so often. ‘Why hadn’t anybody told me before?!’, I thought. Although it might sound like a cliché, the answer is quite simple: I guess first we have to learn how to walk, before we start running.

Below then is a draft list of some of the easiest ‘tweaks’ you can use to tackle the above problems. Can you suggest any other solutions?

How to tackle these problems?

  • limit the time spend on pre–listening stages
  • build in reflection stages into your planning which will make the students more lesson in adversityaware of the listening process
  • encourage learners to identify problems (e.g. difficult lexis, information density, accent, speed, etc) and construct remedial activities which will home in on particular listening sub–skills
  • allow time for intensive re–listening of short passages which students identified as problematic
  • encourage learners to write down the words they do not understand, guess their meanings in pairs, make inferences and listen again to check against the recording
  • put the students in control of the CD player so that they can decide when to pause, forward or rewind
  • design tasks which imitate an authentic response to this particular listening text, by asking yourself: how would I listen to this listening text? (e.g. university lecture – note taking; conversation – asking for clarification)
  • encourage students to justify their answers and to disagree with other in pairs during feedback, and resist the urge to give the answers away immediately

More generally, when planning a listening lesson, ask yourself:

  • what is difficult about this particular listening?
  • how would you listen to this text? (e.g. as an eavesdropper, participant, general vs detailed understanding)
  • how can I develop learners’ ability with this particular text (e.g. informal chat) or way of listening (e.g. note–taking) beyond the class?
  • how can I design the tasks to reflect the above?

Please let me know if you find this post useful.

If you would like to find out more how to apply these ‘tweaks’ in practice, you might find these posts useful:

Planning a listening lesson – 15 tips

In this post I wanted to give you a list of 15 practical tips for planning listening lessons. I’ve tried to put them in an order resembling the way I’d actually follow when planning.  If you have any other tips, please let me know in the comments section.
  1. If possible, choose a text which will interest your students 
  2. Engage students in the topic before they start listening 
  3. Design the tasks so that each further raises students’ interest and curiosity, making them want to continue listening or to listen again 
  4. Lower processing demands by setting a gist task: it should a) be achievable in one listening b)encourage to listen further c)prompt a personal response 
  5. Ensure students know what the task is (TIP: put the gist question on the board, ICQ) 
  6. Design the tasks so that they are TAPE: techniques–oriented, authentic, purposeful and engaging (see my post on it here) 
  7. Ask yourself what is difficult about this particular listening, what students might struggle with and construct tasks which will tackle those 
  8. Build in reflection stages: students are often curious why they’re doing what they’re doing and should be made aware of the reasoning behind certain activities 
  9. Don’t be afraid to replay the passages that were difficult to home in on particular issues students have had: this is where the real teaching starts 
  10. Let the students decide what they want to listen for: it’s much more authentic and motivating 
  11. If the listening is your aim, allow the majority of classroom time for the actual listening 
  12. When setting the more intensive listening task, often the simplest and best idea is to focus on the problems identified in the first listening (i.e. respond to sts queries or ask them which parts were difficult/interesting/they’d like to listen to again and focus on those) 
  13. It might sound silly but… make sure you know the answers! 
  14. Anticipate problems and prepare solutions/remedial tasks: this is similar to the anticipated problems and solutions section when planning a systems lesson 
  15. Think how students can use the subskill you have focused on beyond the class: TIP design dos and don’ts list, set a HW which will force them to use the strategies and feedback in the following class

The real deal

If you’re like me, you try to use authentic materials in your classes as much as possible. The most common arguments in favour of authentic listening or reading texts (in comparison to course book materials) is that they:

  •  are more engaging
  • provide a “real” model of language
  • give practice with texts students will encounter outside the class
  • are topical and up-to-date
  • provide a greater sense of achievement when tackled successfully
  • can be carefully picked to match student’s interests OR the student can choose the text themselves

Of course, there are many other advantages, as well as clear disadvantages (e.g. too difficult, too long), which are listed in detail, for example here. However, in this post I would like to focus on something different.

The question I want to pose has been hinted at in passing in one of my previous posts. Remember the A from the TAPEs? AUTHENTIC with a capital “A”. But what I’d like to advocate are authentic TASKS rather than authentic materials, or preferably combining the two.

My premise here is that as teachers we should focus more on designing authentic tasks, rather than looking for an authentic text to use in the class just for the sake of using it. We have to remember that “different texts call for different treatments” (Nuttall, Ch. 1996: 153), and try to design the tasks accordingly.

So what do I mean by authentic tasks? Consider this piece of course book material from NEF Up-Int p.30. The text itself is perfectly authentic, however, what about the task itself?

All 3 questions are typical comprehension tests (1. Gist; 2. Lexis; 3. Implied meaning). Not that they are wrong, but the problem is they

  • do not really teach the learner how to approach this genre (a short story) in the future
  • are not an authentic response to this genre

So how can we make the task more natural?

“A good rule of thumb, […], is to first consider the sort of things a target reader is likely to do with [the text]” (Nuttal, Ch. 1996: 153).

In other words, ask yourself: how would I read/listen to this text in real world? How would I respond to it?

Coming back to our example, one of the most natural reactions to a story/anecdote is that you retell it to your friends later on (possibly altering it, either consciously or unconsciously). The simplest authentic task would be then (presumably after a gist listening, but not necessarily, all depending on the level of your sts) to ask students to retell the story in groups. Then they could check it with other groups, and listen again to the original to see if their versions differed. Can you think of any other tasks that would be more authentic responses to the text than the original course book exercise?

As Wilson (2006: 39) rightly puts it;

“listeners cope with different types of listening by preparing themselves according to the conventions and expectations of the genre”.

Students then must be made aware of those conventions and taught how to react naturally to certain texts. After all, nobody answers true or false questions when listening to a friend telling a funny story over a pint of beer down the pub, do they?

Below then are some typical text types and suggestions for an authentic task to do with your students. Not a definitive list, of course. And not to say that the classical T/F questions should be abandoned completely. There is always some room for them. However, when designing listening or reading tasks, we should ask ourselves more often: how would I react/respond naturally to this text in the real world? WHY would I listen or read it? And how can I design the tasks to reflect this?

Some of the most obvious advantages of authentic tasks are:

  • they resemble tasks learners will have to perform in English outside the class
  • they are more meaningful
  • often there is no right or wrong answer, which avoids the disappointment and frustration of getting the answers wrong
  • they provide learners with skills they can use outside the class
  • they prepare them to attack similar texts more effectively in the future

So when you read it through the list, think why these tasks are presumably more authentic than a typical T/F or multiple choice question. And try to think of other authentic tasks either for these genres, or for other ones. I’d be more than happy to include your suggestions in the post 🙂

  1. Story:

  • retell your partner
  • T or student pauses the recording, the student reacts (e.g. That’s incredible/sad/unbelievable. etc.)
  • T pauses the recording at different points and asks students a question which will involve them in the process of telling the story: e.g. What do you think X looked like?

     2. News article:

  •  read the title and decide if it’s worth reading and why
  • skim through the paragraphs and find one which you’d like to read in more detail
  • skim through, and retell the news to your partner
  • compare the presentation of news in two different newspapers

     3. Interview:

  • respond yourselves to the questions
  • find one surprising/interesting piece of information and read more about it on the internet

     4. Dialogue:

  • ask for clarification when you don’t understand
  • try to interrupt politely
  • T stops the dialogue, the students respond appropriately (i.e. to practise functional language or adjacency pairs)

     5. Lecture:

  • use the information from the ppt to identify the main points of the lecture
  • pause after signposting language and predict what information comes next
  • take notes
  • summarise the content using the notes or convert them into an essay

Read up on reading and listening task design:

  • Nuttal, Ch. 1996. “Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language”. Heineman
  • Willson, J.J. 2008. “How to teach listening”. Person

Let’s bring back the TAPEs

Once upon a time, over the hills and far away, there existed the formidable and ancient race, called by the barbarous foreigners: the TAPEs. In that dim and distant past the TAPEs were so widespread that their voices resounded in all four corners of the Earth – in every house, school and every English classroom. But then a disaster struck. TAPEs’ omnipresence sparked envy and hatred. Outnumbered, cornered and overrun, TAPEs fell into oblivion.

It’s incredible how quickly things are forgotten. Some of my former students who are only a few younger than me (I’m 26) would look at me totally befuddled when I told them I used to listen to music on a Walkman… The word TAPE sounded Greek to most of them, and so made things no clearer.

This little TAPE nostalgia moment got me thinking. Also, I’ve recently started teaching a 1-1 student who would like to improve her listening skills. I decided, then, it was a good time to sit down in the Winni-the-Pooh pose for a bit and cogitate.

Too often, the listening activities we do in class are designed to test rather than teach the (sub)skills involved. As a result, bad answers trigger students frustration, anger and resignation.

So, with no further ado, I’ve decided to read up on listening and do some research, to see how I can TEACH it better.

In this first post on the topic I’d like to share with you a few simple ideas on how to instantly make your listening classes more practical and useful for the students by giving them the tools and skills necessary to better tackle their weaknesses in listening in the future.

But what happened to the TAPEs from our story?

They’re coming back stronger than ever!

Before you plan your next listening lesson, think back to this dim and distant, yet glorious past, when CDs and mp3s were inconceivable. Dig out an old TAPE from your drawer, look at it, and think about the significance of the seemingly outdated four letters:


  • our goal should be to equip learners with techniques and strategies they’ll be able to use beyond the class to become better listeners
  • ask yourself: what techniques can the learners be taught to better attack similar type of texts? (i.e. note taking, predicting content, guessing meaning from context, relying on visual stimuli, etc.)


  • as much as possible use materials which are natural and authentic, and which resemble real language use 
  •  HOWEVER, even more importantly, design the tasks so that they are authentic – i.e. what is a natural response to this particular type of text?, e.g.  a lecture – note taking; a dialogue – asking for clarification


  • tasks you give should be clear and achievable
  • they should have an obvious sense of purpose to the learners and fit into your overall lesson aims


  • select texts which your learners need to listen to outside the class
  • ask the student which topics they’re interested in
  • when designing the tasks build engagement with every activity, and always allow for a personalised response to the text