Teaching Listening

Listening is the language modality that is used most frequently. It has been estimated that adults spend almost half their communication time listening, and students may receive as much as 90 percent of their in-school information through listening to instructors and to one another. (Visit the International Listening Association website for a list of percentages of time devoted to listening, speaking, reading, and writing in different contexts, as shown in various studies.)

Language learning depends on listening. Listening provides the aural input that serves as the basis for language acquisition and enables learners to interact in spoken communication. Often, however, language learners do not recognize the level of effort that goes into developing listening ability in a second or additional language.

All listening involves a sender (a person, a podcast, the television), a message, and a receiver (the listener). Far from passively receiving and recording aural input, listeners involve themselves actively in the interpretation of what they hear, using their background knowledge and their linguistic knowledge to construct meaning from the flow of sound.

Listeners often must process aural messages as they come, even if they are still processing what they have just heard, without backtracking or looking ahead. In addition, listeners must cope with the sender’s choice of vocabulary, structure, and rate of delivery, and with factors such as background noise that reduce the clarity of the stream of sound. The complexity of the listening process is magnified in second language contexts, where the listener also has incomplete control of the language.

Not all listening is the same; casual interactions require a different sort of listening capability than academic lectures do. Language learning requires intentional listening that employs strategies for identifying sounds and making meaning from them.

Given the importance of listening in language learning and teaching, it is essential for you to help your students become effective listeners. In the communicative approach to language teaching, this means modeling listening strategies and providing listening practice in authentic situations: those that your learners are likely to encounter when they use the language outside the classroom.


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Material for this section was drawn from “Listening in a foreign language” by Ana Maria Schwartz, in Modules for the professional preparation of teaching assistants in foreign languages (Grace Stovall Burkart, Ed.; Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1998).