Different ways of doing a listening

Summary: The standard way of doing a listening with many small and large variations.

Recordings that you use in class use can be "authentic" ones originally made for native speakers (e.g. radio programmes and other podcasts) or "graded" ones designed for EFL learners (e.g. from textbooks , EFL exams, skills books, self-study books, or radio programmes and other podcasts specifically for English language learners). Whichever ones you use, there seems to be a widely accepted “standard” way of using these recordings, as seen in many textbooks and their accompanying teacher’s guides. The same method is also often taught as a part of teacher training such as four-week TEFL courses. This article will explain that method and then examine small and large changes you can make to it.

What has perhaps come to be considered the standard way of using listening texts consists of the following stages:

- Lead in

- Pre-teach

- Gist question(s)

- First listening

- Check answers to the gist question(s)

- Look at the detailed comprehension questions

- Listening for detailed comprehension

- Check answers to the detailed comprehension questions

- Language analysis and/ or discussion questions

Lead in

The teacher gets the students thinking and speaking about the topic of the listening, for example by discussing the accompanying photos, speaking about the same topic the people on the recording tackle, predicting something from some extracts, or roleplaying a situation they will later hear other people in. This stage is to get students’ interest in the topic and to make the listening easier to understand by helping them think (consciously or unconsciously) about what they might hear.


After being told the reason for doing so, the students are taught or tested on some vocabulary that is vital to know to be able to do the later comprehension tasks. Note that this it is not useful to think of this as vocabulary to understand the text, as that could theoretically be every word in it, but rather things needed to do the tasks. This is generally limited to around five to seven words or phrases, and if they need more new language to do the tasks it is probably the questions rather than pre-teach stage that the teacher should change. It is obviously important that they also recognise the words when they hear them, so some pronunciation work at this stage is common.

Gist question(s) and first listening

The students are then told what they should listen for the first time they hear the recording. Gist questions should not rely on detailed comprehension, as that is a different kind of understanding, but should be tasks that keep them listening for the whole text. It is therefore best if each question is answered in several parts of the text, e.g. “Is the man generally happy or unhappy with the hotel?” or “What is the woman’s purpose?”

If there are several questions to listen for the first time it is played, it is often worth stopping the tape after the first one is answered to make sure everyone understands what they have to do and that they haven’t missed the first answer.

If a substantial number of people can’t answer the gist question(s) after the first listening, it was probably too difficult for them and you have little choice but to play it again just for this stage, leaving the detailed comprehension questions for the next time you play the recording. If some of them still haven’t got it after the second listening for gist, you can either play important passages again to help them or ask them to continue listening for the answers to the gist questions during the detailed comprehension stage that follows. The latter approach usually works fine, as it will be their third listening and the wording in the comprehension questions can help understand what is being said. If you think they might still not even understand the answers at this stage and it is the difficulty of the text rather than the questions that is to blame, it is probably best to abandon the detailed comprehension stage and just do all you can to help them get the answers to the gist questions.

Detailed comprehension questions and further listenings

Common formats for detailed comprehension questions are:

- True/ False

- Gap filling, e.g. writing information in a form

- Sentence completion

- Correcting wrong information

- Putting events in order

- Matching tasks, e.g. drawing lines between the views expressed and the people who said those things

- Short answers to questions

- Note taking, e.g. making lists

- Labelling pictures or diagrams

Detailed comprehension questions can also be designed to lead naturally on to the discussion and/ or language analysis stages.

It is difficult to read and listen at the same time, so students should be given the chance to read through the questions and make sure they understand them after checking their gist question(s) answers and before the recording is played again. They will probably be able to answer some of the questions from what they understood during their initial gist listening. If anyone has answered all of the questions without listening again it was probably too easy (or those students are in the wrong class) but they will still usually be happy to listen again to check their answers. When they are ready and you play the recording again, you can stop the recording after the first question is answered to check everyone is keeping up, as suggested above.

Check answers

Some teachers like to get students comparing their answers before you do so as a class, but unless they have been making notes they often won’t have any way of discussing their answers further when they disagree (unlike reading, where they can go back to the text together), so this is very much optional.

You will probably want to play the recording again in some way as you check the answers as a class. The possibilities are to only play the parts that people misunderstood, to play the whole thing again and pause after each question is answered before you ask for their answers, or to pause before each question is answered to ask for their answers then listen to that little bit to check.

Language analysis

Even if you can really show students that they have improved their listening skills, they are likely to want to learn some language from the activity too. In other classes, e.g. many lessons at the beginning of textbook chapters, the listening is set up specifically to introduce a particular language point.

Many textbooks have a language exercise that students do and then listen again to check, but if possible it is best if you can link naturally between this stage and the previous one. The most common way to do so is to include the target language in the detailed comprehension tasks, e.g. “Has he ever been to Tokyo?” if the point is Present Perfect or “He _______ go to the pub later on” if the point is modals of probability/ possibility. Another possibility is to elicit the language by asking for full sentence versions of the short answers they wrote down at the detailed comprehension stage.

Tasks for the language analysis stage include:

- Filling in grammar words or collocates and listening again to check, then discussing why these are the only or most likely words for each gap

- Choosing which of each pair of sentences is in the text, listening again to check. Students then discuss why each sentence is better, the only correct possibility or more likely in that conversation.

In some classes the rest of the lesson will then continue with practice of that language, meaning moving on from the listening and probably not mentioning it again. Otherwise, it is common to have a speaking task still related to the topic of the listening.

Speaking task

The aim of the speaking task could be to recycle the language in the stage above or just to practise a good range of skills during the lesson. Especially in the latter case, almost any speaking task is possible. Common ones include:

- Students giving their own points of view on the things mentioned in the listening

- Roleplaying the same or a similar situation as in the listening, perhaps personalising it or improving on it (e.g. making it more polite)

- Having a different conversation in the same roles as in the listening

Varying the way you do listenings

Ways of changing the “standard” way of doing listenings that is explained above include:

 Varying the sources

 Cutting out stages

 Combining stages

 Adding stages

 Mixing up stages

 Varying how you do the stages

 Using completely different lesson structures

Varying the sources

Other (perhaps more interesting) sources of listening include songs, videos, the teacher and the students themselves. With videos, you might want to have a stage where they listen without being able to see the images to make it more like textbook and exam listening, then let them watch to check their imaginations about what was going on. Songs are useable with the kind of “standard” lesson structure described above if you choose the song and comprehension questions etc carefully, but most students and teachers prefer to use the whole text of the lyrics at some stage. Common activities with the whole text of songs include gapfills, correcting things which aren’t in the song, and reordering the text. With any of these, it is generally best if the students can predict most of the answers (e.g. trying to put in the missing words by using the rhyme scheme) before they listen to check.

Listening to the teacher and each other can be done face to face or by recording it first, e.g. on a Dictaphone. The latter allows students to listen and then record their reaction, e.g. by pretending the Dictaphone is a telephone answer machine.

Cutting out stages

The most obvious stage to cut out is the Pre-teach stage, as the tasks can simply be changed to ones students can do with the language they already know – usually enough of a challenge as it is! The Pre-teach stage also often breaks up the rhythm of the lesson, sometimes making the students lose the interest you built up in the Lead-in stage - or even forget the topic. The language covered in the Pre-teach stage is also usually more important for the detailed comprehension questions than for the gist question(s), thereby giving them another opportunity to forget the language you teach them. If learning vocabulary is an aim, this can always be done at the language analysis stage rather than as part of a Pre-teach.

Especially if the listening is mainly to prompt conversation or to introduce a language point, it is also possible to skip the detailed comprehension stage.

Combining stages

It is possible to combine the lead-in and the pre-teach stage, e.g. by giving them words which are used in the text and asking them to predict something about what it said from those words, answering any vocabulary questions before or during that prediction task. The gist task is then to simply listen and check their predictions.

As mentioned above, it is also desirable to combine the detailed comprehension questions and the language analysis stage.

Adding stages

The most common thing to add to the “standard” way above is some more controlled practice before the speaking stage. One possibility is Shadow Reading, which is students trying to read the tapescript aloud with the same timing as the recording, which is being simultaneously played. A simpler activity at the same stage is for the students to read out the conversation in pairs or small groups before having the same conversation again with some details changed, e.g. using their own names and other personal information. They then hide part or all of the tapescript and try similar conversations with no help.

Mixing up stages

See below for a suggestion on how to rearrange the detailed comprehension and gist stages.

Varying how you do the stages

Alternative first listening tasks

Although it is a realistic skill to practise, there is no reason why the first listening task should always be a gist question. For example, if we listen to a recorded train announcement we just want to pick out one piece of information and can happily ignore the rest. The first listening task should, though, always be easier than the later ones. Another first listening task that I have used which works well is to just count the number of something, e.g. angry words, speakers, times they disagree, or examples of a particular word.

Alternative Pre-teach stages

Although vocabulary is likely to be the thing that usually stops comprehension, you can also pre-teach grammatical forms, a particular pronunciation point (e.g. minimal pairs, an intonation pattern or the sentence stress difference in can/ can’t sentences), or cultural information (e.g. that English apologies usually include excuses so they can expect to hear one).

Alternatives ways of checking their answers

The most obvious and common variation is letting them check their own answers, e.g. with the tapescript, rather than going through them as a class. This is particularly useful when you want to do the next stage with the tapescript anyway, e.g. when students will practise the dialogue in pairs or the language analysis will happen from the written evidence.

Production stage options

Students could produce other listening texts and/ or tasks for each other that are similar to those they have just been listening to. More details of this are given below.

Completely different lesson structures

One way of completely changing the focus of how you do a listening lesson is to make the meaning and content of the text a secondary point and to make the main focus talking about and developing listening skills. This means spending some time that might usually be used on discussing the topic to talk about improving their ability to listen instead, e.g. talking about how you can predict what will be in the text and then doing so, then discussing how successful it was after.

Another big change is to not play the recording all the way through without stopping, but rather to pause during it to discuss what they have heard so far and what might be coming next. This is much more like the listening that we do in everyday life, e.g. in conversations or when dealing with an interactive machine such as an automatic switchboard. Students could predict the next line of the dialogue or how the story continues. Most textbooks have at least one listening set up this way, and many more texts are easily adaptable to this approach.

Most textbooks also have a jigsaw listening task where sections of the class listen to different recordings and then bring the information together in some way, e.g. hear different job interviews and then work with people who heard the other ones to select the best of all the candidates.

Another nice variation is to give students control of the CD player or computer that is playing the recording so that they can listen however they want. This is particularly good if they can work in small groups in different rooms, e.g. when they write questions for each the other team to answer.

If students all have a copy of the CD, you can also give them control by doing the lead in during class and then setting the actual tasks for homework. This is a nice way of making sure they do actually open the CD case, and hopefully copy it onto their mp3 players for extra practice while they are doing so.

Copyright © 2012

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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