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Teaching listening: The gateway to understanding

Written by: James Mannion and Neil Mercer
8 min read

There are four language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of these, it has been argued that listening is the ‘most fundamental’ (Oxford, 1993, p. 205). According to one estimate, humans typically ‘spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.’ (Lee and Hatesohi, 1993) Despite this, listening has historically received the least attention by teachers and researchers. Perhaps the main reason for this is that listening is invisible – it leaves no paper trail and cannot be detected or recorded in the way that speaking can. As Lund (1991) pointed out, listening is unique because ‘it exists in time, rather than space – it is ephemeral in nature’ (p. 201). Even within oracy education, when teachers focus on ‘speaking and listening’, they typically pay more attention to speaking (e.g. using sentence starters and developing presentational talk) than helping students to develop their listening skills.

This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, as Dawes (2008) suggests, ‘Listening is key to learning in classrooms, and yet how often do we say of a child – or a whole class – they just don’t listen!’ (p. 41) The ability to listen is the gateway to understanding. If we explicitly taught listening skills to every child, we would likely see benefits in terms of their ability to acquire knowledge and skills in a range of contexts. Second, as we will see, listening skills can be taught quite easily. There is therefore a strong imperative for teachers and school leaders to take the teaching of listening seriously. In this article, we will briefly review the evidence relating to listening skills, before outlining a few practical strategies that teachers and school leaders can use to improve their pupils’ ability to listen and comprehend.

Although listening is widely recognised as an important aspect of learning, it remains one of the least understood processes: ‘While the other three language skills receive direct instructional attention, teachers often expect students to develop their listening skill by osmosis and without help.’ (Osada, 2004, p. 54; original emphasis) This idea is rooted in a conception of listening as a passive skill. Yet researchers have understood the importance of active listening since at least the 1950s (Rogers and Farson, 1957). It has also long been established that listening comprehension is a ‘highly complex problem-solving activity’ that can be broken down into a set of distinct sub-skills (Byrnes, 1984, p. 318). Because of this recognition of listening as a multifaceted phenomenon, there has been an increasing understanding that students’ ability to listen and comprehend can be improved by teaching them explicit strategies to improve performance on these sub-skills (Vandergrift, 2004). As a result, it has become clear not only that listening can be taught, but also that when this is done well, students learn more effectively.

What does research tell us about listening?

Spoken language differs from written language in a number of important ways. Buck (2001) identified three characteristics of speech that are particularly important for listening comprehension: (a) speech is encoded in the form of sound; (b) it is linear and takes place in real time, with no chance of review; and (c) it is linguistically different from written language. From an educational standpoint, therefore, it is clear that the teaching of speaking and listening skills requires a very different approach than teaching of written forms of literacy and numeracy.

Listening skills are difficult to observe and difficult to define. Despite this, a significant body of research has been conducted, mainly in real classroom or tutorial settings. These studies typically focus on listening comprehension, listening strategies or a combination of the two (e.g. Chand, 2007; Zhang, 2012; Moradi, 2013). Throughout the last 20 years, research has consistently shown that teaching students strategies for improving their listening has a positive effect on their comprehension of what they hear (e.g. Vandergrift, 2004; Zhang, 2012).

People often think of listening skills as generic – something that can be applied across a range of contexts. To an extent, this is true. However, there is also evidence that the extent to which strategies for teaching listening are effective depends on the expertise of the student. For example, a recent study by Jiang et al. (2017) found that novices learn best from instruction that combines reading and listening, while more knowledgeable learners benefit from a reading-only approach.

A recent study found that critical-analytical listening skills are associated with improved learning in maths and computer science at the undergraduate level (Ferrari-Bridgers et al., 2017). Despite such positive findings, however, listening remains relatively overlooked in language teaching and in education more widely.

Mendelsohn (2001) and Berne (1998) reported that by the turn of the century, the findings of research on listening skills had not yet reached the classroom. Our review of the literature suggests that this situation has not changed dramatically in the interim. As a consequence, teachers typically do not instruct their students in ways of listening effectively. We will now outline some practical strategies that schools can use to redress this imbalance.

Strategies for promoting listening

Much of the research on listening skills has focused on second language learning; however, many of the insights are relevant to teaching listening more generally. In a review of the literature on second language learning, Berne (1998) highlighted some key points about listening comprehension practices to have emerged from research, which include the following:

  1. Less able listeners take cues from both sounds and meaning, while the more able focus just on meaning
  2. The use of pre-listening activities, particularly those that provide short synopses of the listening passage or allow listeners to preview the comprehension questions, help listening comprehension
  3. Video presentation helps listeners to attend and comprehend better than audio
  4. The use of real as opposed to ‘made up’ listening passages leads to greater improvement in listening comprehension
  5. Training in listening strategies improves comprehension and learners can and should be taught such strategies
  6. Due to the complex nature of listening comprehension, listening practice should include a variety of situations where listening is required, as well as using different types of listening passages and different modes of presentation (e.g. live, video, audio).

It is likely that the proliferation of digital technology in recent years has had an impact on the extent to which, and ways in which, young people engage in speaking and listening, although we are unaware of any recent research specifically on such matters. However, research does suggest that digital technology can play a powerful role in facilitating dialogue and collaboration, including the development of listening skills; to achieve this goal, ‘the technology must be used with a dialogic intention, in the context of activities which are well designed to promote collective thinking’ (Mercer et al., 2019, p. 197).

Research also suggests that it is beneficial to increase students’ metacognitive awareness of how they learn from listening (Wilson, 2003). For example, a study by Vandergrift et al. (2006) found that using a Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire (MALQ) before and after instruction not only assessed listening over time, but also aided metacognitive reflection (the MALQ was designed as a ‘diagnostic and consciousness-raising tool’, as well as being used for research and self-assessment) (p. 454):

“Using the MALQ can enable and empower… learners to become self-regulated listeners who can better capitalize on the aural input that they receive. By increasing their awareness of the listening process, students can learn how to become better listeners, which, ultimately, will enable them to learn/acquire another language more quickly and more efficiently.”

Dawes (2008) has argued that teaching of listening skills can and should be integrated into everyday activity in classrooms. She describes a set of classroom-tested activities that primary teachers can use to develop listening skills, in whole-class and small-group settings. Drawing on this work by Dawes and that by Zhang (2012), in Table 1 we have summarised a range of metacognitive strategies that students and teachers can use to improve listening comprehension.



This brief review of the research on listening skills suggests that: a) listening can certainly be taught; b) improving students’ listening skills improves their learning and understanding; and c) practical strategies have been devised that teachers and students can use to teach listening successfully. However, it is also clear that there exists a gap between research and practice, since there is little evidence that the research on listening has been used to inform educational policy, curriculum design or classroom practice in any systematic way. We hope that this article prompts teachers, researchers and policymakers to pay more attention to the explicit teaching of listening skills; the available evidence suggests that young people stand to gain significantly from doing so.


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Ferrari-Bridgers F, Stroumbakis K, Drini M et al. (2017) Assessing critical-analytical listening skills in math and engineering students: An exploratory inquiry of how analytical listening skills can positively impact learning. International Journal of Listening 31(3): 121–141.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas