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In this input on listening, after a brief consideration of the importance of listening for
learners of English, we will be thinking about what we and our learners listen to, our
purpose in listening and how that affects the way in which we listen. We will then be looking
at what exactly is involved in the complex skill of listening and understanding and consider
what is meant by top down and bottom up processing. We will go on to considering
problems that learners may experience when listening to spoken English. We will then be
looking at some current issues related to listening: the different aims of ‘doing listening’
(language input or skills development), whether we learn to listen by listening, the
difference between testing and teaching listening, whether and how listening can be taught
in a systematic way. Finally you will consider the value of authentic and graded materials,
and other sources of listening material.

By the end of this input, you should be able to:

 Identify difficulties that your learners experience in understanding spoken text.

 Say what skills are involved in listening to and comprehending different types of spoken

 Discuss different approaches to teaching listening.

 Evaluate the effectiveness of the listening materials and tasks in your learners’
coursebooks and other published materials.

 Select or create appropriate listening materials for your learners and design appropriate
listening tasks.

 Plan how to develop your learners’ listening skills and include listening activities as a
coherent part of your syllabus and lessons.

 State the aims of different types of listening activities.

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1. The Importance of Listening

2. Different Kinds of Listening

2.1. Texts

2.2. Listening Purpose

2.2.1 Interactional versus Transactional

2.2.2 Instrumental versus Pleasurable

2.2.3 Extensive versus Intensive

2.3. Listening Style: Interactive versus Non- Interactive

3. What is Involved in Listening and Understanding?

3.1. Schematic Knowledge

3.2. Contextual Knowledge

3.3. Systemic Language

3.4. Top-down and Bottom-up Processing

3.5. Putting it all Together

4. Learners’ Difficulties in Listening

5. Current Issues

5.1. Listening for Language and Listening for Skills Development

5.2. Learning to Listen by Listening

5.3. From Product to Process

5.4. Teaching Listening in a Systematic Way

5.5. Listening Tasks and Aims

5.6. Different Types of Listening Material

6. Terminology Review


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1. The Importance of Listening

Listening is one of the four skills, and along with reading, considered a ‘receptive skill’ but
how important is it? Consider these statements: what is striking and why?

Research has demonstrated that adults spend 40 – 50% of communication time

listening, 25 – 30% speaking, 11-16% reading, and about 9% writing
Rivers in Gilman and Moody 1984:331, quoted in Vandergrift, L. Facilitating second language listening
comprehension: acquiring successful strategies, ELTJ 53/3 July 1999

Probably most classroom activities, whatever their ostensible purpose, rely to a

greater or lesser extent on the learners’ listening faculties.
Bowen, T. & Marks, J. Inside Teaching chapter 9 p128

Many students whose general abilities in English are quite good, or so they thought,
report a traumatic period after their first arrival in an English-speaking country. For
quite some time, days, weeks or months, depending on the student, they can
understand little or nothing of what is said to them
Rixon, S. Developing Listening Skills p36

Spoken language has many characteristics that are different from those of written
language. The characteristics of spoken language enable us to use language
effectively in live interaction. It is easier to listen to spoken language than it is to
listen to written language.
Rost, M. Introducing Listening p51

What you may find striking about these statements is not only how much time learners
spend doing this skill compared to the others but also how much they struggle with it
compared to reading, for example. Furthermore, recognising how spoken language has
certain characteristics and features that make it is distinct from written language being read
aloud is crucial in helping us bridge the gap between what learners hear and what they

Rost also writes about the importance of listening.

It is now widely accepted that listening plays an important role in L2 instruction for
several reasons:

 Listening is vital in the language classroom because it provides input for the learner.
Without understandable input at the right level, any learning simply cannot begin.

 Spoken language provides a means of interaction for the learner. Since learners must
interact to achieve understanding, access to speakers of the language is essential.
Moreover, learners’ failure to understand the language they hear is an impetus, not
an obstacle, to interaction and learning.

 Authentic spoken language presents a challenge for the learner to attempt to

understand language as it is actually used by native speakers.

 Listening exercises provide teachers with a means for drawing learners: attention to
new forms (vocabulary, grammar, interaction patterns) in the language.

 In addition to creating the right conditions for language development, listening can
also provide enjoyment and stimulate cultural interests, participation in the target

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culture (via movies, radio, TV, songs, plays), appreciation of the beauty of the
language (figures of speech, sayings, colloquial expressions) and fulfilment of social
needs (development of relationships, confidence, gathering information for every day
survival needs).

(Rost, M. Introducing Listening Chapter 10 Section 3.2)

2. Different Kinds of Listening

We do a lot of listening in our daily lives and you probably listen to at least some of the

 Chat with family/colleagues/acquaintances/good friends/strangers

 Phone calls with friends/family/business contacts

 Overheard chat (on the bus, in the staffroom, in the supermarket)

 Radio (programmes of interest, background, DJ talk, songs)

 TV (news, soap, adverts, film, comedy, documentary etc.)

 Students talking (if you’re a teacher)

There are various ways in which listening situations differ; we can distinguish between
different types of text, different listening purposes and different styles of listening.

2.1. Texts
We can distinguish between different types of text (spoken or written) through genre. Genre
refers to the type of text in question, that is, prayer, lecture, chat, play, recipe and so on. A
particular genre may be identified from the way the text is organised, the lexis, the
grammar, the style and register and, in the case of spoken texts, probably different
phonology. For example, chat between friends may be characterised by less ‘careful’
enunciation than a formal lecture.

2.2. Listening Purpose

Listeners have different purposes in different situations and these different purposes affect
how we listen. There are three clines on which any sample of listening can be placed:
interactional vs. transactional, instrumental vs. pleasurable, and intensive vs. extensive.

2.2.1 Interactional versus Transactional

Interactional uses of language are those in which the primary purposes are social. In other
words, the aim is to show interest in the other person, and follow norms of social behaviour;
it has to do with building or maintaining social relationships. It would include things like
greetings, small talk, party chat, and so on. Although some information may be relayed in
the process, this is not the main purpose of it. Consider:

A: How are you?

B: Oh not so bad.

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A: And how’s Ben?

B: Well you know, his leg’s playing up again, it’s the weather you know.

A: Oh yes, dreadful recently.

B: That’s right.

Interactional conversations only hold any interest for the participants: listening to others
chatting has no real significance. As Brown and Yule point out, ‘Most conversations are
appallingly boring!’ (Brown, G. & Yule, G. Teaching the Spoken Language p82)

Transactional uses are those in which language is being used primarily for communicating
information. In other words, there is a clear purpose in the information exchange.
Transactional exchanges are message-oriented rather than listener-oriented thus the
information needs to be got across accurately, clearly and coherently. Usually the listener
needs the information in order to do something with it.

The two categories, interactional and transactional, are not polar. In the middle of
interactional chat, we may home in on some particularly interesting bit of information and
decide to do something on the basis of it; thus it takes on a more transactional nature.

2.2.2. Instrumental versus Pleasurable

Often we listen because we have a clear goal to achieve, or information to discover. We

listen to an announcement at an airport to find out which gate our flight leaves from, or we
listen to the travel bulletins on the radio to find out what our journey to work will be like.
Listening where we have a clear aim is termed instrumental. Pleasurable listening, on the
other hand, is for our own enjoyment: listening to a play, chatting on the phone, going to a
poetry recital etc.

Like interactional and transactional listening, these two types of listening form a continuum,
and some listening may demonstrate elements of both instrumental and, pleasurable
listening, for example, listening to a documentary on the radio in order find out more about
a subject that interests us.

2.2.3. Extensive versus Intensive

Listening at length e.g. watching a TV soap, a film, and so on with no focus on testing the
listener’s understanding of the content is termed extensive listening. It usually occurs
outside the classroom as it would take up a probably unjustifiable proportion of class time
and is personal to each individual: what one learner chooses to listen to at length may not
please another, which is another reason why extensive listening tends to occur outside the
classroom. Intensive listening, which is what we tend to do in class, usually has a clearly-
defined aim. It often occurs for study purposes.

2.3. Listening style: Interactive versus Non- Interactive

Another way to classify listening is whether it is interactive or non-interactive. Interactive
listening is, typically, listening in conversations where the listener is also a speaker. Other
interactive situations include interviews, exchanges in shops, telephone calls and so on.

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Non-interactive listening is where the listener does not have the opportunity to speak. Thus
watching television, listening to the radio, listening to announcements at the station, or
listening to a lecture are examples.

3. What is Involved in Listening and Understanding?

Listening and comprehending is a highly complex process, which is often wrongly assumed
to be passive. Because the process is transient and everything has to happen so quickly, it is
also quite difficult to analyse and explain. You may already have some ideas about some of
the factors involved from considering student difficulties and, of course, from your
experience as a listener (in both L1 and L2) and your work with your students.

Comprehension of spoken text involves a complex interplay of what the listener brings with
them, the situation, and the actual message. Anderson and Lynch in Listening summarise it
as follows:

Background knowledge

 Factual knowledge

 Socio-cultural knowledge SCHEMATIC

Procedural knowledge

 How language is used in discourse

Knowledge of situation

 Physical setting, participants, context

Knowledge of co-text
 What has been/will be said

Knowledge of the language system

 Semantic

 Systemic SYSTEMIC
 Syntactic

 Phonological

3.1. Schematic Knowledge

This refers to knowledge that the listener already has about the ‘world’ and about certain
types of text.

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Listeners are able to predict and interpret language by analogy with past similar
experiences. In other words they have a range of stereotyped expectations of
particular people, places, situations and text types.

Sheerin, S. Listening Comprehension: teaching or testing? ELTJ 41/2 April 1987


For example, if you turn on the TV at 10.00pm and see a man in a suit sitting behind a desk
talking; you immediately recognise it as the news. You therefore expect certain topics to
come up, you expect to hear a lot of ‘negative’ things, you expect what you hear to be new
events or developments, you expect some live coverage from other reporters, and so on.
You probably know who many of the famous people referred to are, so your background
knowledge, assumptions and associations about them will be activated here too. You also
expect the stories to be told in a certain way: first a new development, then more detail
since that is how the genre ‘news story’ works.

In other words, the background knowledge you already have enables you to predict certain
things, and interpret and infer certain things when you begin to listen.

3.2. Contextual Knowledge

The listener also has information from the context in which the listening takes place. To take
a different example, if your Director of Studies calls you in to her office, tells you to sit down
and has a copy of the school timetable in front of her, there are elements within this context
that suggest she is going to talk about your teaching timetable. Her body language and facial
expression may give you clues as to whether you will like what you are going to hear or not.
You may also recall a previous conversation or message sent out about timetable changes
being necessary and conversations with colleagues in which you guessed what these might

Thus certain elements specific to this particular situation, rather than more general schema
related to ‘Directors of Studies talking to teachers’, will enable you to immediately predict
what the topic is, and even make more specific predictions about the exact content of the

Field in Listening for the Language Classroom talks more in terms of ‘meaning building’, a
term that embraces both contextual and schematic knowledge but also a range of other
elements used by the L1 listener, but not necessarily by someone listening in an L2.

Examples of important L1 meaning-building processes:

Context: using knowledge sources

 Drawing upon: world knowledge – topic knowledge – cultural knowledge

 Analogy with other similar listening encounters

Deriving meaning

 Storing the literal meaning of an utterance

 Accepting an approximate meaning

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 Checking understanding

Adding to meaning

 Making inference
 Dealing with pronouns
 Dealing with ambiguity

Selecting information

 Selecting relevant information

 Recognising redundant information

Integrating information

 Carrying forward what has been said so far

 Connecting ideas
 Self-monitoring for consistency

Recognising the overall argument structure

 Noticing connecting words used by the speaker e.g. On the other hand.

3.3. Systemic Knowledge

This relates to grammar, lexis and sounds. In order to make sense of what we hear, we need
to be able to recognise sounds, discriminate between sounds e.g. know the difference
between ‘girl’ and ‘gull’, not be put off by features of connected speech such as elision,
assimilation, weak forms etc. or different accents and to be able to identify (and interpret)
stress and intonation patterns. Stress and intonation may highlight important points such as
the speaker’s attitude and also may indicate within interaction when the speaker has
finished or expects the listener to say something.

We also need to recognise words and lexical phrases and know what they mean. We need to
recognise if the language being used is appropriate to the genre; if it is not, we may realise
for example that the speaker is being humorous. We need to recognise discourse markers
and see how one bit of the message relates to another. We need to recognise grammar in
order to understand how the words fit together, the time being talked about, whether the
speaker is speaking hypothetically, and so on.

Field in Listening for the Language Classroom describes this process as ‘decoding’, a process
which turns the acoustic input the listener receives into what we think of as standard forms
of language. There is a detailed breakdown of the ‘levels of representation’ in the diagram
below. Field states that the goal for the language learner is to move the processing from that
which is controlled and demanding to the processing of the proficient user where the
recognition and chunks come much more easily.

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Levels of Representation of a Simple Utterance

Phoneme Level /duːjuːspiːkˈɪŋ.ɡlɪʃ/

Syllable level /duː + juː + spiː + kɪŋ + ɡlɪʃ/

Word-form level do + you + speak + English

Chunk level [do you speak] + English

Syntax level Intonation level

Aux + Subject + Verb + Object

Do you speak English

Meaning level ? yes / no / hello / please / thanks


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Examples of Important L1 Decoding Processes

Phoneme level
 Identifying consonants and vowels
 Adjusting to speakers voices

Syllable level
 Recognising syllable structure
 Matching weak syllables and function words

Word level
 Working out where words begin and end in connected speech
 Matching sequences of sounds to words
 Identifying which words are not in their standard form
 Dealing with unknown words

Syntax level
 Recognising where clauses and phrases end
 Anticipating synaptic patterns
 Checking hypotheses

Intonation group level

 Making use of sentence stress
 Recognising chunks of language
 Using intonation to support syntax
 Reviewing decoding at intonation group level

3.4. Top-down and Bottom-up Processing

The types of knowledge we have considered above relate to what we, and students, need to
know in order to ‘understand’ a text.

Whilst Field talks about ‘meaning building’ and ‘decoding’, most other authors term these
two distinct types of processing as ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ processing respectively.

Bottom-up processing refers to the use of incoming data as a source of information

about the meaning of a message. From this perspective, the process of
comprehension begins with the message received, which is analysed at successive
levels of organisation - sounds, words, clauses and sentences – until the intended
meaning is arrived at. Comprehension is thus viewed as a process of decoding.

The listener’s lexical and grammatical competence in a language provides the basis
for bottom-up processing.

Top down processing, on the other hand, refers to the use of background knowledge
in understanding the meaning of a message. Background knowledge may take
several forms. It may be previous knowledge about the topic of discourse, it may be
situational or contextual knowledge, or it may be knowledge stored in long-term

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memory in the form of schemata and scripts – plans about the overall structure of
events and the relationships between them’.

(Richards, J. C. The Language Teaching Matrix pp50 - 51)

3.5. Putting it all Together

Are any of these kinds of knowledge more important than the others in the listening

A sensible answer to this question would be this: they are all important elements but
depending on the listener and his/her purpose, some may become more important than
others in certain listening situations. It may be that ‘bad listeners’ often rely on schematic
knowledge too much and do not actually listen to the content of what is being said.

In certain listening situations we may need the ‘details’, the recognition of lots of individual
words, whereas in other situations we may be happy with a very general idea of what is
being said thus forming our own interpretation based on previous knowledge.

It is likely, of course, that in real life we move between the two and make more or less use of
them even within the same piece of listening.

In general, listening can be regarded not so much as a question of perception and

processing of a signal, but rather as a process of parallel construction on the part of
the listener: construction of a coherent interpretation which is consistent as far as
possible with the acoustic clues and the listener’s mental image.

Bowen and Marks Inside Teaching p 131

The role played by the acoustic clues and the listener’s mental image may then vary,
according to the listener as well as the situation.

Listening is anything but a passive activity. It is a complex, active process in which the
listener must discriminate between sounds, understand vocabulary, and grammatical
structures, interpret stress and intonation, retain what was gathered in all of the
above, and interpret it within the immediate as well as the larger socio-cultural context
of the utterance. Co-ordinating all of this involves a great deal of mental activity on the
part of the listener. Listening is hard work and deserves more analysis and support.

Vandergrift, L. Facilitating second language listening comprehension:

acquiring successful strategies (ELTJ 53/3 July 1999

Types of Listening Activities

Consider the following tasks which relate to a listening activity in class. Do they encourage
top-down processing or bottom-up processing? Can any involve both and how?

1. Ask students to guess content of a dialogue from accompanying picture

2. Listen to a dialogue and guess where the speakers are

3. Raise your hand when you hear words with the sound /əʊ/

4. Predict which of these topics will be covered in this TV documentary

5. Listen to and watch a video and assess the speaker’s attitude

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6. Listen and fill in the gaps

7. Listen and repeat

8. Dictation of a text


The listening activities encourage the following types of processing:

1. Top down as they have not listened yet but it is summoning schemata prior to listening.

2. Bottom up first to pick out key lexical items, then top down bringing in your previous
knowledge of places where people talk about these things.

3. Bottom up

4. Top down

5. Top down

6. Bottom up as you need to listen out for isolated lexical items. Top down processes could
help you if you were in doubt.

7. Bottom up as you do not even have to understand the content you are focussing on
producing sounds correctly.

8. Bottom up although top down could help fill in bits that you do not catch. This is
typically an activity where learners fail to use top down processes to help them.

4. Learners’ Difficulties in Listening

Listening is a crucial skill, but one which some learners find difficult. Why is this? Here are
some comments about learner difficulties with listening.

Lack of knowledge of the topic:

Our ability to listen and understand is largely determined by our awareness or knowledge of
the topic. If we know, in broad terms, what we are going to listen to, we have expectations
which we expect to be fulfilled and we make predictions about what will be said. For
example, if we are listening to news on the radio, we expect certain topics and types of
report to come up. If we go into a shop to buy a sandwich, we have certain expectations
about the kind of thing that will be said to us. Certain schemata are called up in our minds
which provide a background to what we are hearing and greatly facilitate comprehension.

Schemata, then, are data structures, representing stereotypical patterns, which we

retrieve from memory and employ in our understanding of discourse.

Cook, G. 1989 Discourse Oxford University Press p73

For more on schemata see Cook, Discourse and the section on discourse in this unit.

One reason for lack of comprehension then is that the listener does not summon the
appropriate schemata, because of different schemata in operation across cultures, or lack of
familiarity with the subject. You may have more problems with the news in Chinese because

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of your lack of familiarity with the cultural references than you would with for example, the
French news, regardless of your language level. Similarly people talking about a construction
project may not be comprehensible to you even in your L1. Failure to summon the
appropriate schemata may of course also be linked to not understanding or misinterpreting
key lexical items during the listening process.

Failure to exploit visual or environmental clues:

In face-to-face listening situations or when we can see the speaker, as on the television, we
also have environmental and visual clues to help us. The situation, i.e. where the listening
takes place, or the way the speakers look in terms of dress and facial expressions, film
footage shown during the news report all provide extra visual information which helps us
comprehend the spoken message.

Facial and other gestures are certainly not universal so these may not always provide the
right information for learners. Also learners may not automatically transfer skills from L1 and
not fully exploit the visual information that is available to them. At times there is little from
the context that can help you.

Furthermore a lot of listening in the classroom also takes place using audio recordings. This
means that unless the teacher provides the information in another way, there are no visual
clues to aid comprehension. This is quite unlike the most typical listening situations in real

Unrealistic expectations:

This may be on the part of the learners but also on the teacher’s.

A study by Bone (1988) of native speakers showed that people often listen at only 25
per cent of their potential and ignore, forget, distort or misunderstand the other 75 per

White, G. 1998 Listening Oxford University Press p7

Learners often expect 100% comprehension. This tendency may have been encouraged by
teachers and teaching methodology, for example, in the use of graded listening texts and
intensive listening comprehension tasks, right and wrong answers, listen and repeat type
tasks and so on.

Lack of concentration:

This is something that affects us all at times. Tiredness, lack of relevant schemata, nerves
when confronted by a tape recorder in the classroom, lack of interest in the topic or a
person growling in a foreign language may all affect our ability to relax and listen attentively.

Concentration can be lost if you get distracted by an unknown word or expression. Speech is
transient and it may not always be possible to ask to hear what was said again.

Unfamiliar language:

This is of course a key factor. If you listen to a completely unknown language you will
probably understand nothing. With some kind of contextual information you may be able to
guess the topic. If some familiar words are used, words which are similar to your L1 or
proper names, you’ll have a better chance of guessing the topic, and so on. The Dutch art
talk should not therefore be entirely incomprehensible.

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Native speakers are familiar not only with the sounds, vocabulary and structures of their
language but also patterns that occur in language. We do not need to listen out for
everything because again our prediction skills come into play. We can afford to miss bits,
that is, we exploit redundancy.

Imagine listening to someone with a slight speech defect:

‘Top talking, tand till and tay there until I tell you to move’.

It is not difficult to understand what is being said even though a phoneme is missing.

You could also delete entire words from a stream of speech and still understand what was
being said, filling in the gaps from your knowledge of patterns in the language.

Learners of a language are not so familiar with the linguistic patterns of English and
therefore have to listen harder. It results in ‘tunnel hearing’ i.e. listening to one word at a
time. This results in overload on the memory. It can also result in understanding what is
being talked about but not getting the point of it i.e. the main content words have been
understood but not the function of what has been said.

It has been suggested that the brain can take in about seven bits of information or chunks of
information at once. If the learner is not sure what is important and what is not, there may
be a situation of overload.

Another problem is not knowing the meaning of certain words. In face-to-face interaction it
may be possible to ask for clarification, but if you are listening to audio, video or a lecture it
is not. Unknown words can result in distraction or wrong guesses. If there are too many of
them, overall comprehension may be lost. Sometimes learners may fail to recognise words
that they know within a rapid stream of speech.

Lack of familiarity with phonological features:

This covers quite a range of aspects.

Firstly, learners may fail to recognise the function of certain intonation patterns. Proficient
users of a language expect certain intonation patterns to be associated with certain
functions of the text. For example, we recognise when a question has been asked, if the
information is new or given from stress and intonation patterns used, what the important
bits are, and we can usually spot if someone is expressing a particular emotion. Learners
may not be able to do this without considerable exposure to the spoken language.

Native speakers also have a better chance of familiarity with a range of accents, some may
cause native speakers difficulty too. Learners are less likely to have had exposure to such a
range of accents and different voices.

We are used to listening to speech at normal speed and the resulting phonological features.
Words in connected speech may sound different to words spoken in isolation. Learners of a
foreign language may fail to hear words that they know within a stream of speech or they
may miss an all-crucial sound because of weakening.

Some students may have more difficulties than others. In a country like Portugal where
television and films are subtitled rather than dubbed, learners have more exposure to
spoken English and different varieties of it than in a country like Spain where everything is
dubbed. With satellite TV exposure may increase. Also it may depend on the oral proficiency
of non-native teachers in schools as this will influence how used learners are to hearing
spoken English, possibly from an early age.

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A lot of listening of course goes on between non-native speakers of English. Two learners of
the same nationality are more likely to be able to understand each other than for example a
Spanish student and a Japanese student.

See the input on connected speech in Phonology 2

Noise, volume, voice quality, speed of delivery:

These things may make comprehension difficult when listening in L1 but get worse when
added on to all the other problems of L2 listening. Some people are easier to understand
than others because they speak more clearly and in a more interesting way. This may be
related to sex, age, level of formality, and their awareness of listeners’ difficulties.

5. Current Issues
If you are interested in reading about the role of listening in ELT from a historical
perspective, see Appendix 5.

Listening nowadays plays an important role alongside the other skills in ELT. There are
certain areas that you need to be aware of, in some cases because they are somewhat
controversial. Before reading on, we shall consider these issues and your reaction to them.
Some relate to the aims of listening lessons, some the procedures we use and some the

5.1 Listening for Language and Listening for Skills Development

Listening is commonly used in the classroom for two different reasons: one as a vehicle for
focusing on language and the other as a means of developing learners’ listening skills. Often
the two may be combined.

Look at the excerpts below of these listening material:

 New Headway Upper Intermediate, Unit 7, page 75 Listening T 7.5

 Cutting Edge Intermediate, Module 5, Listening: Working in something different

 Pre-Intermediate Choice, Unit 12, page 73, Listening

What differences in procedures are there? What differences in aims? What do you normally
do listening for? Do your students have the same goal?

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New Headway Upper Intermediate

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Cutting Edge Intermediate

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Pre-Intermediate Choice

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Extract 1: New Headway Upper Intermediate, Unit 7 page 75 Listening T7.5)

The listening text, a song is used here solely for recognising expressions with get e.g. have
got, I’ve got nothing to prove, I’ve got a plan to get us out of here etc. An exercise on phrasal
verbs with ‘get’ precedes the listening. The aim of the listening then is raising awareness of
lexical phrases with ‘get’. It is a purely language focused aim.

Extract 2: Cutting Edge Intermediate, Module 5, page 52 Listening ‘Working in something


The tasks here encourage learners to connect the topic to their personal experience and
background knowledge, to help summon relevant schemata/top down processes to aid
comprehension. The first task encourages them to work with not understanding everything
since they only have to identify in what order the people speak. The teacher can encourage
guessing and justifying at this point. The students then listen again for more detailed
information and again, depending on how this is handled, it could offer opportunities for
guessing, justifying, re-listening if there are problems.

The tasks here very much follow the ‘standard’ approach to dealing with listening.

Extract 3: Pre-Intermediate Choice, Unit 12 page 73 Listening)

Task 1 brings into play the students’ background /general knowledge about the events. Task
2 requires them to pick out key lexical items in the stream of speech. Task 3 again requires
them to recognise key lexical phrases.

The underlying aim of this listening activity is grammatical: it provides a context for and
examples of the past simple and past continuous.

5.2 Learning to Listen by Listening

A holistic approach to developing listening skills is to make sure that learners do plenty of
listening. Practice makes perfect.

Practice is the most important thing. The more listening the better, and the sub skills
will take care of themselves as they become atomised.

Ridgway T. Listening Strategies- I beg your pardon? ELTJ 54/2 April 2000

Listening comprehension activities can be incorporated into class activities on a regular

basis. By using English as the medium of communication in the classroom the amount of
exposure time to the spoken language can be vastly increased. Speaking activities also
incorporate listening and thus the learners listen to each other as well as the teacher.

Outside the class, or in self access slots, learners can be encouraged to listen to English
through songs, graded readers with accompanying CDs TV, films, the Internet, etc.

One benefit of doing a lot of listening and maybe particularly doing it out of the classroom,
or on a self-access basis, is that it may help reduce inhibitions and fear. Learners can feel
very put on the spot in the classroom with the teacher controlling how many times they are
going to hear something and asking them to feedback their answers to the whole class.

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Live listening is also very useful. See Chapter 18 in Harmer, J. 2007 The Practice of English
Language Teaching (4th edition) (Longman) for a description and discussion of classroom

It should be noted that if students are working on their own doing listening, we do not have
insight into what they are actually doing. By doing it, they may be actually working on
subskills. For example, a student reading a book and listening to a tape of it may be
matching the two and raising his/her awareness of certain pronunciation features.

5.3 From Product to Process

A typical procedure nowadays for dealing with a listening text is as follows:

 Create interest

 Pre-teach a few key items of vocabulary

 Pre-set a gist task

 Students listen and do task followed by feedback

 Pre-set a more intensive task

 Students listen and do task

 Maybe a third listening if students found it difficult or disagreed in their answers

 Feedback, confirmation of correct answers

 Move onto another activity e.g. language focus, or another skills activity

This procedure for listening texts has been called the ‘comprehension approach’ and has
drawn criticism.

John Field writes:

The methodology profiled above provides practice in listening but fails to teach the
skill. A conventional listening comprehension lesson simply adds yet another text to
the learners’ experience; it does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of their
listening or to address their shortcomings as listeners.

Field, J. Skills and strategies: Towards a New Methodology for Listening ELTJ 52/2
April 1998

Critics of this approach also point out it erroneously regards reading and listening as being
similar and yet the two skills are in fact more different than we might suppose. Looking back
at the typical procedure, it is possible to see how the same stages could be followed using a
reading text instead. Therefore, what the approach fundamentally overlooks are a range of
defining features that separate listening from reading, features that should influence how
we approach the teaching of the skill in the classroom. The approach does not take account
of the fact that as well as rather unnaturally casting the listener as eavesdropper and not
being interactive in contrast to most listening inlfe, it is unlike reading where there is a
standardised spelling system. With listening, the listener is exposed to speech sounds that
vary considerably. The reader can also see spaces between the words, a listener has to
decide where the word boundaries are. The spoken word is also ephemeral whereas the
written word is not and with listening the information unfolds in time; the listener cannot

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jump forward or go back. The language used in speaking can also be markedly different to
the more considered and standard speech used in writing which is constructed without the
pressure of time.

Further to this White, in Listening also lists a number of objections to the ‘standard’

 Not much time is spent on actually listening to the recording.

 Not much time is spent on analysing what went wrong.

 The teacher takes on the sole responsibility for building up an understanding of the
listening text on the part of the students.

 It assumes that there is only one way of listening to something.

 Classroom listening very often puts students in the position of passive over-hearers.

 The tasks do not stress the links between listening and speaking.

 We often expect 100% comprehension.

It is therefore argued having students answering comprehension questions, correctly or

incorrectly, does not necessarily inform the teacher why they performed the task
successfully or not or where their weaknesses lie. Field says ‘It misleads us into thinking we
have dealt with our students’ listening problems’. This has manifested itself in a movement
away from comprehension to viewing listening more as a process. That is, rather than
focusing on what students understand and the ‘product’ i.e. the students completing the
task, the focus shifts to what they do not understand and why. A process view of listening
advocates basing an approach on the behaviour of the expert listener, the nature of the
signal that reaches the listener’s ear and the processes the listener employs to make sense
of it.

Here are some ideas for teaching rather than testing listening:

 Spend less time on pre-listening tasks.

 Allow time for an extended post-listening period in which learners’ problems can be
identified and tackled.

 Encourage learners to write down the words they understand, to form and discuss
inferences, to listen again and revise their inferences then to check them against what
the speaker says next.

 Encourage learners to listen and re-listen and to do as much of the work as possible for

 Get learners to listen to a short passage, then to compare their understanding of it in

pairs. Encourage them to disagree with each other. Play the passage again. Let the pairs
revise their views, ask them to share their interpretations with the class, resist the
temptation to tell them who is right and who is wrong, get them to give evidence for
their answers.

 Spend time asking where and how understanding broke down and then construct
remedial tasks i.e. to home in on subskills.

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Finding Solutions to Problems

The following problems arise in your class. What ‘remedial action’ might you decide to take?

1. Students miss the main point because they did not pick out key lexical items.

2. In a roleplay one of the speakers falls silent as a result of not understanding what their
partner said.

3. Confusion arises over a misunderstood word e.g. ‘can’/’can’t’ in a dialogue.

4. Students fail to recognise the speaker’s attitude through intonation.

5. Students get the wrong end of the stick because of misunderstanding a cultural

6. Difficulties in understanding the news on the radio.

7. Not recognising links between different parts of what is said.

8. Students say they cannot understand a word of a short conversation because it is too

Here are some suggestions for the problems above.

1. Get students to listen and note down lexical items they hear, after one listening they
compare notes and try to reconstruct text.

2. Listen to sentences, mark main stresses.

3. Teach and practise strategies for dealing with not understanding.

e.g. Sorry? / Pardon? / I didn’t get that, what did you say? / Sorry I’m not sure
what you mean. / I’m not with you. / Could you speak more slowly please?

4. Listen to sentences which contain ‘can’/’can’t’, they tick which one they hear (if written)
or make a signal e.g. thumbs up, thumbs down for positive or negative. Practice with
similar e.g. ‘was’/’wasn’t’.

5. Listen to short monologues demonstrating different attitudes, match each with

appropriate adjective, identify features of intonation e.g. lots of variation,
surprise/excitement, flat low, boredom, etc.

6. Word association activities based around such references prior to listening.

7. Get students to predict content based on their knowledge of what kinds of stories are
usually in the news, current affairs, from newspaper headlines, photos or from headlines
of each story.

8. Recognise the effect of cohesive devices: looking at spoken text in written form and
noticing examples of anaphoric/cataphoric reference, deictic references, lexical
cohesion; listen to audio and stop it at certain points to ask what things refer to.

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9. Get students to write down any words or phrases they understand, then share ideas and
try to reconstruct. Let them listen to it as many times as they want.

10. Exercises on features of connected speech: how many words did I say? mark main
stresses, mark weak forms, linking etc.

5.4 Teaching Listening in a Systematic Way

From analysis of the different elements involved in effective listening, and the problems that
arise, many writers have attempted to draw up lists of subskills or micro-skills. Obviously
some of these relate to top down processing (schematic and contextual knowledge) and
others relate to bottom up skills (systemic knowledge). The first is from Richards on listening
comprehension in The Context of Language Teaching. The second is from Bowen and Marks,
Chapter 9 in Inside Teaching.

From Richards, J. C. 1985 The Context of Language Teaching Cambridge University Press
p198 & 199.

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From Bowen, T. & Marks, J. 1994 Inside Meaning Heinemann p130 & 131

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Field in his article Skills and strategies: Towards a New Methodology for Listening, points
out that Richards’ list is ‘extremely diverse’ and suggests that three separate areas could be
targeted: ‘types of listening (for gist, for information etc.), discourse features (reference,
markers etc.) and techniques (predicting, anticipating, recognising intonational cues etc.).
Later, Field in Listening in the Language Classroom questions the whole concept of ‘sub-
skills’, on the grounds that is difficult to show they exist as it is difficult to show what goes on
in the mind of a language user. Processes, he argues, are concrete and based on listening
research: research by psychologists into the operations that go to make up expert listening
and the way they interact; research by neurologists and the way the brain responds to the
demands of listening; research by phoneticians who have studied the nature of the input
reaching the listener’s ear and what they need to do to interpret it.

Although coursebooks include listening practice, various writers (including Richards, White,
Field and Sheerin) have claimed that we tend to test not teach, that is focus on the ‘product’
and whether the students have answered comprehension-type questions correctly or not,
and that there is little in the way of systematic development of listening skills in published

 What would a systematic approach consist of?

Field identifies two for developing students’ listening abilities:

o A skills-based approach to listening, consisting of either teaching the subskills of

listening as part of a structured programme of micro-listening exercises or
determining how and why understanding breaks down, then providing remedial
practice in the processes involved.
o A strategic approach based upon the recognition that much second-language
listening is dependent upon the learner’s ability to compensate for gaps in

 What kinds of things could be considered listening skills and strategies?

This is a controversial issue because some writers feel that there are difficulties in
knowing what skills or strategies are employed in listening (it happens so quickly and is
not visible) and, as we have seen, there is disagreement over what skills and strategies
actually exist. Furthermore, even if you can identify ‘micro-skills’, teaching and practising
individual skills in this manner (a building block approach) does not necessarily enable
learners to put them into operation along with other ones. Note that the terms ‘skills’
and ‘strategies’ are sometimes used interchangeably and certain American writers
(Vandergrift and Richards, for example) seem to use one or the other to refer to the
same thing). However, to separate the two, it is possible to say:

o Skills relate to the text itself and what you do in order to understand it.
o Strategies relate to the listener and are:

Efforts to compensate for uncertainties in understanding, and could include making

inferences, realising where misunderstandings have occurred, and asking for
clarification. Students should need these strategies less and less as they get more
familiar with the language and more competent at listening skills...

White, G. 1998 Listening Oxford University Press

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5.5 Listening Tasks and Aims

The use of tasks when doing listening in the classroom is commonplace. There are many
different kinds of tasks including matching content with predictions, selecting or ordering
pictures, multiple choice, gap-filling and so on. It is important when you select or design a
task that you are aware of why you are doing it.

What do you think is the aim of the following activities related to listening?

1. Teacher dictates a series of short sentences: I’ve got a terrible cough. The sea’s very
rough today. This steak is too tough to eat. Let’s go through into the other room. I’m not
hungry yet though.

2. Teacher asks students to predict what they’ll see on today’s BBC news.

3. Teacher provides students with a copy of the tapescript. They read as they listen for the
final time.

4. Teacher provides students with a gapped copy of the tapescript, plays the tape again
and they fill in the gaps.

5. Teacher asks students to listen to descriptions of people and match them to pictures in
their book.

6. Teacher gets a student to operate the tape recorder and replay as requested by the
other students.

7. The teacher pre teaches key items of vocabulary.

8. Teacher plays (part of) the tape in short sections and asks the students to repeat.

9. Dictogloss activity

10. How many words did I say?

11. Write down all the words and expressions you heard connected with the topic of

12. Put your hand up if you don’t understand.

13. Stopping the tape and asking the students what they think comes next.

1. To raise awareness of sound spelling relationships in English, in this case the
pronunciation of the letter combination ‘ou’. Field argues for the importance of a
knowledge of spelling or the ability to relate the spoken to the written form, in his article
Notes on listening: The Use of Spelling.

2. To encourage learners to use background knowledge to help them comprehend i.e.

focus on top-down processes.

3. To help learners identify features of connected speech, to make connections between

what they hear in a stream of speech and the written form, to clear up any doubts about
words or lexical phrases they did not catch.

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4. This depends on where the gaps are. It is probably related to identifying words of a
specific type e.g. tenses, weak forms, words with a particular spelling, stressed words,
discourse markers etc. It involves recognition of single items.

5. To help learners pick out the main points.

6. To enable learners and teacher to identify sources of difficulty in listening.

7. To help learners summon appropriate schemata.

8. To provide practice in pronunciation, probably focussing on elements of connected

speech, intonation.

9. To infer information which has been missed, to listen for main points, stressed words, to
connect spoken with written form, to retain chunks of language.

10. To raise awareness of features of connected speech, to identify word boundaries, to

encourage learners to visualise the written form of what they are hearing.

11. To encourage recognition of lexical items.

12. To encourage learners to identify specific areas of difficulty, to encourage use of

strategies such as asking for clarification.

13. To encourage learners to predict from lexical or syntactic clues, to raise awareness of
the importance of chunking in comprehension processes.

5.6 Different Types of Listening Material

There are various options open to us in terms of the listening materials we use and their

We can use authentic materials or graded, published materials. We can use ourselves or
other ‘live’ speakers of English. We can use the students. We can use video or audio listening
material, pre-recorded or home-made recordings. Variety is probably a good thing and each
of these types of listening material has particular advantages.

What advantages and disadvantages can you think of for each of these types of material?

 Authentic texts

 Graded texts

 The teacher

 Other live speakers of English

 The students

 Video

 Audio

 Homemade recordings

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Authentic texts:

 Some coursebooks incorporate authentic listening material but many, particularly at the
earlier stages of language learning, do not. They include specially written dialogues for
example or texts based on an originally authentic text re-recorded by actors, perhaps
with some simplifications.

The advantages of using authentic materials are:

 They give practice in coping with real life listening.

 They have the characteristics of everyday speech (depending on genre) with hesitations,
false starts, stuttering, pauses, vague language etc. in conversation. Obviously a
newsreader who reads aloud does not display these characteristics.

 Providing the task is appropriate, they encourage learners to adopt strategies to help
them deal with not understanding everything. As Field says they get students used to
the idea that ‘real life listening in a foreign language is usually an incomplete affair.’
(Field, J. Finding one’s way in the fog: listening strategies and second language

 They may be more motivating because they are real, topical, of current interest, and
provide a sense of achievement if learners can understand something.

 There is a range of material available e.g. internet, TV, radio, songs,

monologues/dialogues etc.

If you are using authentic materials it is of course necessary to ensure that the task is
appropriate for your learners. You grade the task rather than the text.

Graded texts:

Bowen and Marks point out:

The attention paid to authenticity of material has been a useful corrective to the
dominance of extremely unnatural material for listening work. Nevertheless, there
seems no reason to assume that a pedagogic process aimed at developing listening
skills, not to mention using listening material for introducing and practising new
language, should make exclusive use, right from the start, of the sort of material it is
assumed learners will need to listen to outside the classroom.

Bowen, T. & Marks, J. 1994 Inside Teaching Chapter 9 p136

Using materials specially produced for language learners also has advantages:

Reading or listening to a text with a high degree of comprehension will be more

profitable than reading or listening to a text of which one understands little.

Whilst guessing skills are useful, learners learn the skills of listening comprehension
from what is comprehensible to them. They need to practise listening
comprehension, not listening incomprehension ...Graded texts, not necessarily
authentic, will be the fastest way forward for them. They will probably get plenty of
practice in listening to texts which are largely incomprehensible to them anyway.

Ridgway, T. 2000 Listening Strategies-I beg your pardon? ELTJ 54/2

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A lot of coursebooks include listening which is semi-authentic. That is, it pretends to be

authentic. It is therefore readily available and tied in with your syllabus, the book probably
contains ready made tasks to use with it and other related activities.

These kinds of texts iron out some of the difficulties of authentic listening but at the same
time expose students to a variety of voices, accents and so on and some of the features of
authentic speech etc.

Graded, scripted listening material is also the kind of material that is most widely available in
published form. In the pre-communicative days all listening material was of this kind. It may
be easier for the students to understand because all the language is within their grasp, it is
therefore confidence building and provides models for language production.

The teacher:

There was a lot of adverse publicity given to the teacher’s own voice under the label of ‘TTT’.
A distinction needs to be made however between ‘pointless’ TTT and teacher talk that is
useful and being used for a specific purpose. TTT is therefore not necessarily bad. The

 Is always available, very flexible in terms of topic, genre, aim etc.

 Provides possibilities for interactive listening.

 Familiarity with the teacher’s voice and speech patterns may help comprehension.

See Field, J. 1995 Normalisation MET 5/4

The live voice of the teacher in the classroom can fulfil two valuable functions. Firstly it
can provide listening practice where the listeners can see and interact with the speaker
verbally, but also through facial expression: the speaker can respond to the ongoing
feedback from the listeners – especially expressions which indicate a lack of
comprehension – by repeating, reformulating, adding, changing direction, and so on.
Secondly it can provide exposure to and opportunities to notice new and half-familiar
items of language. For example, in telling a story, a teacher might deliberately include
certain words and phrases which the class have recently encountered to give them a
chance to hear them used in a new context; or might deliberately include several
instances of the past perfect, in order to draw attention to its use in subverting
chronological sequence in narrative.

Marks, J. July 2000 Listening in ETP Issue 16

However teachers sometimes do adopt an unnatural style of speaking in the classroom,

especially teachers who deal with a lot of lower levels and who perhaps spend many years
abroad. A word of warning is given here.

Teachers who rely on their own voice for a substantial amount of listening work should
be especially careful not to perpetuate an unnatural style of speaking, with over-
articulation, lack of connected speech features of pronunciation and general rather
than specifically chosen- reduction of syntax and lexis.

Bowen, T. & Marks, J.1994 Inside Teaching Heinemann p 136

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Other live native speakers of English:

(Live as opposed to recorded) Bringing another native speaker into the classroom offers
students interactive listening possibilities along with the chance to hear a different voice.
Meeting a real person can be a motivating experience in itself. Obviously the type of text,
the purpose and so on can be determined by the teacher, the students or the speaker.

The students:

The students themselves provide another important source of listening material. This is true
even within a monolingual class, the students themselves may not see the advantages as
obviously as in a multilingual class. The students:

 Provide samples of non-native speaker English.

 Can get involved in creating the listening material which is motivating and confidence

 May find comprehension easier since the voices are familiar.

A lot of English used in the world today is between non-native speakers of English. In
business and academic contexts, holiday and travel contexts, for example, it is essential that
learners can listen to both native and non-native speakers. While recorded materials provide
few examples of non-native speakers of English, we do have the option of using our
students’ voices, recorded or live. In Listening, White has suggestions for this in chapter 2.

This is obviously easier to put into practice in multilingual classes where students have to
communicate with each other in English all the time.

Video vs. audio:

The main advantages of video over audio are:

 In most real life listening you can see the speaker, which gives you additional
information about context, speakers’ attitude from facial expression etc.

 Video is more intrinsically interesting as there is visual input as well as audio.

 Video is better for longer listening passages because it sustains interest more easily.

 Audio is more readily available in many teaching contexts however and easier for
teachers to plan for.

Home-made recordings:

You can produce whatever kind of text you want in this way. You expose students to
different voices, you can choose to focus on specific language items if you want etc.
However, make sure your recording facilities produce something comprehensible and also
make sure your actors can produce something reasonably authentic sounding if this is your
aim. Some people do strange things in front of a microphone. Home-made videos can
present more problems. The advantage of cassettes over live speakers of course is that the
text can be replayed.

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8. Terminology Review
The definitions below all refer to concepts from this section. For 1 – 5, supply the term being
defined. There is an example provided.

Example: Listening done purely for enjoyment = pleasurable listening

1. Using background knowledge, previous experiences and contextual clues to understand

the meaning of a listening text.

2. Listening to extended pieces of text in order to practice listening skills in general, or to

acquire vocabulary, with no overt study or language aims.

3. Our knowledge of the world and how circumstances and situations tend to develop,
which allows us to build a mental representation of a given context. In the classroom,
we tap into this knowledge in order to create interest in a listening text.

4. An approach to listening which advocates providing learners with lots of opportunities

for listening, and lots of practice in the skill, in the belief that practice makes perfect. No
development of sub-skills is encouraged.

5. Listening situations in which the listener has no opportunity to speak.

For 6 – 10, provide a definition for the labels given. There is an example provided.

Example: Transactional Listening: Listening in which there is an overt exchange of facts

or information, or a clear goal or objective to the interaction.

6. Interactional listening

7. Bottom-up processing

8. Intensive listening

9. Interactive listening

10. Systemic knowledge

Suggested Answers
1. Top-down processing

2. Extensive listening

3. Schematic knowledge

4. Holistic approach

5. Non-interactive listening

6. Listening whose primary aim is to establish, maintain or build social relationships. There
is little real exchange of facts or information.

7. Decoding a text by focussing on sounds, building sounds into words, then phrases, then
clauses and so on, until the meaning of the whole text is understood.

8. Listening to a text very attentively, usually to focus on language use in the text.

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9. Listening in which the listener also speaks, such as a two-way conversation.

10. Knowledge of the language systems (grammar, lexis, phonology and discourse) which we
employ when de-coding a text. We rely on this knowledge when employing bottom-up
processes strategies.

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Although not essential to your Module 1 preparation, if you would like to explore this area
further we suggest the following:

Essential Reading:
 Anderson, A. & Lynch, T. 1988 Listening Oxford University Press

 Field, J. 2008 Listening in the Language Classroom Cambridge LTL

 Harmer, J. 2007 The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edition) Longman

 Richards, J.C. 1990 The Language Teaching Matrix Cambridge University Press, Chapter

 White, G. 1998 Listening Oxford University Press

Recommended Additional Reading:

 Bell, J. 1989 Soundings Longman

 Blundell, L. & Stokes, J. 1981 Task Listening Cambridge University Press

 Bowen, T. & Marks, J. 1994 Inside Teaching Heinemann, Chapter 9

 Brown, G. & Yule, G. Teaching the Spoken Language Cambridge University Press chapter

 Cook, G. 1989 Discourse Oxford University Press

 Doff, A 1991 Listening 1 Cambridge University Press

 Field, J. 1996 Notes on listening: normalisation MET 5/4

 Field, J. 1997 Notes on Listening: authenticity MET 6/3

 Field, J. 1997 Notes on listening: listening and pronunciation (MET 6/2

 Field, J. 1997 Notes on Listening: the use of spelling MET 6/4

 Field, J. 1997 Notes on Listening: variability and assimilation MET 6/1

 Field, J. 1998 Notes on Listening: conversational features MET 7/1

 Field, J. 2000 Finding one’s way in the fog: listening strategies and second-language
learners MET 9/1

 Field, J. April 1998 Skills and Strategies: towards a new methodology for listening ELTJ

 Field, J. April 2000 Not waving but drowning – a reply to Tony Ridgway ELTJ 54/2

 Field, J. January 1998 The Changing Face of Listening ETP Issue 6

 Goh, C. October 1997 Metacognitive awareness and second language listeners ELTJ

 Marks, J. 1995 Listening in ETP Issue 16

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 Richards, J. C. 1985 The Context of Language Teaching Cambridge University Press

 Richards, J. C. 1990 Listen Carefully Oxford university Press

 Ridgway, T. April 2000 Listening Strategies – I beg your pardon? ELTJ 54/2

 Ridgway, T. April 2000 Hang on a minute – a reply to John Field ELTJ, 54/2

 Rixon, S. 1986 Developing Listening Skills Macmillan

 Rost, M. 1990 Listening in Language Learning Longman

 Rost, M. 1994 Introducing Listening Penguin

 Sheerin, S. April 1987 Listening Comprehension: teaching or testing? ELTJ 41/2

 Underwood, M. 1989 Teaching Listening Longman

 Ur, P. 1984 Teaching Listening Comprehension Cambridge University Press

 Ur, P. 1996 A Course in Language Teaching Cambridge University Press, Module 8

 Vandergrift, L. July 1999 Facilitating second language listening comprehension:

acquiring successful strategies ELTJ 53/3

 Wilson, J. J. 2008 How to Teach Listening Pearson Longman

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