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How can listening skills be improved?

Y Sin asks:

I have been learning English for years. I can read English articles quickly, even if they are very long. But I still have problems with listening because I cannot grasp the topics. Can you give me suggestion how to improve my listening skill?


Roger replies:

We have had a number of questions on how to best develop listening skills. These come from a wide variety of web page readers, from students who are pursuing their studies through English-medium courses to doctors from abroad who are practising in England and find difficulty in understanding what their patients say to them. At the end of this answer, after the theory, we have some listening practice.

For most, if not all of you, the main problem is that the English that you listen to has to be processed in real time. There is no time to pause or think. You cannot 're-process' listening material, as you can with a written text that you are reading. So, if you miss important information as the dialogue or discourse proceeds, there is the danger, if not likelihood, that you may 'lose the thread' of what the dialogue or discourse is about.

Topic clarification

Of course, if you, as the learner, are taking part in a conversation with an English-speaking person where the listening and speaking roles and responsibilities are shared, there are techniques available to you for holding the dialogue up or slowing it down.

In this example, a visitor from Romania, Gabriela Granescu, has phoned her English friend, Penny Adams, to ask her how to her home in the West Country from Gatwick Airport:

Penny: You need to get the rail coach link...
Gabriela: Excuse me?
Penny: There's a coach link from Gatwick to Reading.
Gabriela: What is coach link?
Penny: A coach is a type of bus.
Gabriela: A coach is a type of bus?
Penny: Yes.
Gabriela: O.K.

Here, Gabriela is dealing with the problem of topic clarification by using such stock responses as 'I don't understand' or 'Excuse me', or by echoing part of the preceding utterance as an indication that she is in difficulty. These explicit signals are crucial in open-ended conversations such as these, as they will always elicit a repetition or reformulation and so give the listener both time and opportunity to make a relevant response.


Of course it may become a little irritating to the person you are speaking to if you do this all the time. And it is clear that not all listening situations are ones where you are taking part in dialogue and need to exercise speaking skills simultaneously with listening skills.

It is therefore advisable to look at ways of improving your listening skill so that you can process any variety of spoken discourse more effectively.

Using authentic listening material

One approach that I suggest you explore from intermediate level onwards is to collect as much authentic listening material as you can find and, of course, focus on topics that you are interested in or have some knowledge of. (No listening, after all, is done in a vacuum.) Source materials might be anything from favourite films with a soundtrack in English available on video to radio or TV programmes of interest that you can make a recording of. It is important that the material should be not more than a little above your current level of understanding.

The advantage of having a recording of at least some of the material is that it offers the possibility of playing the tape a second (or even third or fourth) time and thus having another chance to process the information once more. It is important, of course, not to overdo this, otherwise the objective of the exercise - attentive listening and processing the information as efficiently as possible - will be defeated.

It is important that most of the listening material that you work with:

  • should be at, or only slightly above, your level of language difficulty;

  • should be well contextualised so that it enables you to make predictions about the likely development of the topic.

If you can ensure this, listening will become so much easier. In this exercise, the contextualisation provided should help you to understand what the listening text is about.


Listening Practice

Now listen to these conversations. You will hear different people talking about a variety of different things. As you listen, see if you can work out which is the correct answer from the list given. Only one answer is correct.

Conversation 1

In this first example, the interviewer is visiting a dairy farm in Worcestershire. She is talking to Andy Morris, the farmer, about milk production. But something else is happening. What is it?

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a) A calf is being born.
b) A calf is being fed.
c) A calf is being nursed.
d) A calf is being operated on.



Conversation 2

In this second example, the interviewer is asking Stan Jones, a member of an English folk-dancing team, about the significance of the sticks and bells used by the folk dancers. Stan's reply is that:

Listen to audio

a) the sticks represent swords and the bells represent tools.
b) that the sticks represent either swords or tools - opinion is equally divided.
c) that the sticks represent implements that might be used in planting seeds.
d) that the sticks represent implements that might be used in preparing food.


Conversation 3

In this third example, John Ballard, a sports commentator, is talking about footballing expressions. It is clear from the conversation that 'shifting the goalposts':

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a) is a strategy used in football to ensure that both teams have equal advantage.
b) used to be permitted in football, but is now no longer allowed.
c) is a term used to describe any situation where new rules are introduced before the task is completed.

















Answer 1

During the course of the farming interview, a calf is being born. The discussion goes like this:

Interviewer: We're actually just standing outside one of the sheds where one of your cows is calving.
Farmer: As usual, yes, they know when to do it. They always interrupt you.
Interviewer: Does that mean that in any minute you're just going to have to rush off and help?
Farmer: Well, no, no. She's done it before, so she should be all right. And it's coming out the right way, so?

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Answer 2

In the folk-dancing discussion, the sticks are thought to represent implements that might be used in planting seeds. Stan Jones, the folk dancer, confirms:

...the stronger body of contention is that they are in actual fact implements - tools. Some of these dances relate to fertility, to planting seeds, to planting corn, to planting beans. So, if you can imagine the stick movement being associated with dibbing in beans, then you've got the fertility dance.

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Answer 3

In the football discussion, 'shifting the goalposts' is confirmed as a term used to describe any situation where new rules are introduced before the task is completed. 'Shifting the goalposts' was never actually permitted in football. John Ballard comments:

...Another one I think we could particularly concentrate on 'widening or shifting the goalposts' which really is about changing the rules as the situation develops?I supect that's what happened in the very early development of the game [of football] actually, when they didn't have fixed widths. I'm sure there was some cheating that went on.

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