Five essential listening skills for English learners

Five essential listening skills for English learners

1.Predicting content

Imagine you've just turned on your TV. You see a manin a suit standing in front of a large map with the symbols of a sun, clouds and thunder. What do you imagine he is about to tell you? Most likely, this is going to be aweather forecast. You can expect to hear words like 'sunny', 'windy' and 'overcast'. You'll probably hear the use of the future tense: 'It'll be a cold start to the day'; 'there'll be showers in the afternoon', etc.

Depending on the context – a news report, a university lecture, an exchange in a supermarket – you can often predict the kind of words and style of language the speaker will use. Our knowledge of the world helps us anticipate the kind of information we are likely to hear. Moreover, when we predict the topic of a talk or a conversation, all the related vocabulary stored in our brains is 'activated'to help us better understand what we're listening to.

Practise predicting content:

Watch or listen to a recorded TV programme or clip from YouTube. Pause after every few sentences. Try to predict what is going to happen or what the speaker might say next.


If you are taking a listening test, skim through the questions first and try to predict what kind of information you need to listen out for.Aquestion beginning'How many..?', for example, will probably require you to listen for a specific number or quantity of something.

2. Listening for gist

Imagine you are a superhero flying in the sky. From that height, it is possible to see what the entire area is like, how densely populated itis, thekind of houses in each area.

Whenlistening, it is also possible to get the ‘whole picture’ but with one crucial difference: information comes in a sequence. And inthat sequence of information, there arecontent words(thenouns, adjectives and verbs) that can help you formthat picture.We often call thislistening for gist.

For example, the words'food', 'friends', 'fun', 'park' and 'sunny day' have their own meanings, but when you hear the words in sequence, they help form thecontext ofa picnic.

Practise listening for gist:

Find a short videowithsubtitles on a topic that interests you. Use the title to help you predict the content and then listen out for thecontent words. Go back, and listen again with thesubtitles. How much did you understand the first time? Return to the video a week later and try again.


When you learn new words, try to group them with other words used in a similarcontext.Mind mapsare good for this.

3. Detecting signposts

Just like the traffic lights on roads, there are signposts in language that help us follow what we'relistening to. These words, which link ideas, help us to understand what the speaker is talking about and where they are taking us. They're particularlyimportant in presentations and lectures.

For example, if a university lecturersays: 'I am going to talk about three factors affecting global warming…' then later on you mighthear the phrases'first of all', 'moving on to' and'in summary' to indicate the next part of the talk. Other words and phrasescan function in a similar way. For instance, to clarify ('in other words', 'to put it another way'); to give examples ('to illustrate this', 'for example'), andso on. Take a look at thislistofphrasesfor more examples.

Practise detecting signpost language:

Most course books for learners of English come with a CD and audio script. Find an example of a business presentation or lecture and see how manysignpost phrases you can identify (listen more than once, if necessary). Then check your notes with the audio script.


In your notebook, groupsignpostphrases according to their functions,and continue to add new expressions as you come across them.

4.Listening for details

Imagine you area detective takinga closer look at those buildings you saw earlier on as asuperhero. This time, rather than taking in the big picture, you're looking for something specificandrejecting anything that does not match what's on your list.

Similarly, when listening for details, you are interested in a specifickind of information – perhaps a number, nameorobject. You can ignore anything that does not sound relevant. In this way, you are able to narrow down your search and get the detail you need.

In a listening test, if you are asked towrite down the age of a person, listen for the words related to age ('old', 'young', 'years', 'date of birth', etc.)or a number that could represent that person'sage. If it is a conversation, you mightwait to hearsomeone beginninga question with 'How old…?'

Practise listening for details:

Decide on atype of detailed information you want to practise listening for and watch programmes where you would expect to get that information. For example, you could listen to a weather report to get details about the weather,or you could follow the sports news tofind out the latestresults.


If you are taking a test, as soon as you get the question paper, skim through the questions, underline the importantwords and decide what kind of detail you need toidentify in the listening text.

5. Inferring meaning

Imagine you are a tourist in a country whose language you do not speak. In a restaurant, you hand over a credit cardto pay forthe bill, but the serverseems to say something apologetic in response. Even though youdon't understand his words, youcan probably conclude that the restaurant doesn't take credit cards, and youneed to pay with cash instead.

This is the technique of inferring meaning: usingclues and prior knowledge abouta situation to work out the meaning of what wehear.

Similarly, we can infer the relationship between people from the words they use, without having to find out directly. Take the following conversation:

A:Tom, did you do your homework?
B: I did, sir, butthe dog ate it.
A: That'sa terrible excuse.You'll never pass your exams if you don't workharder.

We can infer from the use of the words'homework' and 'exams' that this is a conversation between a student and his teacher. By using contextual clues and our knowledge of the world, we can work out what's being said, who is speaking and what's taking place.

Practise inferring meaning:

Finda YouTube clip from a popular televisionshow, for exampleFriends. Now, rather than watch it, just listen to the dialogue. How much can you infer about what is taking place, who is talking and what their relationship is? Now listen to the clip a second time but watch it too. Were your conclusions correct?


The next time you hear a word you don't understand, try to guess its meaning using the context or situation to help you. But don't worry if you don't get it the first time. As with everything in life, the more you practise, the better you will get.

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