Listening Strategies

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Listening to a recording in class

Listening to a recording in class is different from listening to people speaking to you outside school. In “real life” situations, you can ask people to repeat and explain themselves, or to speak slowly, and you can use their body language and facial expressions to help you understand what they are saying.

But you can’t ask a voice on a CD or a sound file to slow down or use different words, so here are some words of advice on how you can help yourself to listen to a text in English in the classroom.

Before you listen:

  • Your teacher will tell you in advance what the listening text is about, and will give you some activities to do – a brainstorming session, for example – before you listen. Make a note of important facts and useful words and phrases.
  • Your teacher will also tell you what you have to do while you listen. You may have to make a summary of the text, but you will usually have to answer questions on it. Read these questions carefully, and check that you understand them. They will give you clues about what to listen for.

While you listen:

  • Listen carefully for words which you may confuse with others: there are important differences between did and didn’t, can and can’t, is and was, will and would, his and hers, for example.
  • Listen for words which are stressed: these will normally give you the most important information. Stressed words are those which stand out in speech: they do this because they carry more important meaning than others. In the following sentences, the words in bold print are stressed. Do you know why?
    Ottawa is the capital of Canada.
    - I asked for a red sweater, not a green one.
    - I never told her that.
  • Pay attention to the speaker’s tone of voice: is he or she expressing surprise, doubt, or anger, for example? Is he or she asking a question or making a statement?
  • Listen carefully for linking words, since they will help you to guess what is coming.
    - If you hear but or however, you can expect some sort of contrast.
    - When you hear I would at the beginning of a sentence, you can be pretty sure an if-expression is coming.
    - Numbers are great clues. If you hear There are three things, listen out for three. Words like firstly, secondly and thirdly will also tell you how many things are being talked about.
    - Linking words like therefore, since, although, before, after, then and this tell you how groups of words are related. Look at these examples:

    I felt very tired and hungry. Therefore I looked in the Yellow Pages for a local hotel.

    Although it was expensive, I decided to stay there and have a meal immediately.

    Since it was late when I finished dinner, I went straight to bed.

    I have to find my passport: that is why I have to go to back home.


  • Make short notes while you listen.
    - Note the most important facts only.
    - Use key words and phrases, not complete sentences.
    - Write each important idea on a separate line, and leave lots of space so that you can write more later.

Listening in other situations

We listen to people speaking English both in the classroom, at home, and on holiday. In these situations we can use some of the strategies we use when listening to recordings in class, but there are other useful techniques as well.

  • Sometimes we listen to recorded speech in songs and films. We can play songs again and again, and brainstorm with friends if we have trouble understanding a word or phrase. When watching a movie in English, try to look at the subtitles as little as possible. It is a good idea to read them for the first few minutes, while you get used to the way the characters speak, and then to use them less and less as the film moves on.
  • When we listen to live speech in the classroom or elsewhere, we can get help in a number of ways:
    - We can watch the speaker’s body language and facial expression. These will give us some idea of what tone he or she is using and what mood he or she is in. This is, of course, not possible when you are talking and listening on the telephone, but there are other ways in which we can get speakers to make us understand.

    - You can ask the speaker to repeat something you have not understood. This can – and should - be done politely by using expressions like these:
     Excuse me, I didn’t catch that.
     Sorry, would you repeat that, please?

    - You can also ask the speaker to say something in a different way, by saying
     I’m sorry, that was a bit difficult for me, or
     I’m afraid I didn’t understand that long word.

Finally, remember that people like other people to listen to them, so keep eye contact with speakers, nod and say Mmm or Aha from time to time, and when you want the speaker to think you are very interested or impressed, say Really? or Well I never. Then you will find that speakers will do their very best to make you understand even the most difficult words and phrases.