L is for Listening

Ken Beatty  Dr. Ken  Beatty

How can so much say so little? Quickly skim the following play, Emergency; it’s only a couple hundred words long. emergency

In teacher training sessions around the world, I often have a pair of teachers act out this play before their peers because I wrote it to showcase nine typical challenges faced by learners of English. Think about how you understood what was said — or didn’t. At the play’s conclusion, native speakers of English smirk knowingly. Non-native speakers, with limited language skills, are often completely confused. What makes it so accessible to native speakers but so challenging to many non-native speakers?

To really understand the play, it’s necessary to apply a range of strategies when you listen. These strategies define the differences between simply hearing and listening.

1. Predicting what people are going to talk about

In the absence of a setting or props, the first few lines force listeners to put together a sense of who the characters are and where the action is taking place. Asking for help is a common function in many contexts, and the mention of doctor doesn’t necessarily help, as it could include a range of professions, for example, a dentist, a professor, or a physician. When Director of Emergency is mentioned, the first two occupations are discarded, and you assume this is taking place in a medical context—but only if you make the association between emergency and hospital.

As a strategy, it’s important for learners to predict what people are going to talk about by creating multiple likely scenarios of what they will hear. And they need to do so in an ongoing fashion while the other person is still speaking.

2. Guessing at unknown words or phrases (without panicking)

Even the most literate native speakers frequently encounter new words. The word jabberwocky is a nonsense term from a Lewis Carroll poem. Equally obscure, for most people, are medical terms such as patella (kneecap).

As a strategy, students need to determine whether or not the word is one they know, often filtered through the consideration of whether or not they have heard it properly. If the new word is unknown, strategies to discover its meaning include understanding it in context, ignoring it (hoping that an explanation will become evident later in the conversation), or interrupting with a request for clarification. Choosing among these strategies is difficult and needs to be done in a split second before the conversation rolls on.

3. Using prior knowledge of a subject to help understand

When Peter says that he can’t take off his pants, “Not here! Not with everyone watching,” there’s no mention of where that here is. But a prior knowledge of what an open emergency ward looks like, as opposed to a private consulting room, gives the listener a clear picture. But if you are unfamiliar with emergency wards, not having seen one in person or in a medical-themed TV show, then this point can be confusing.

The strategies necessary to overcome these problems are more complex. The first is to attend, that is, pay attention to the world, tying language to new experiences. This requires a combination of curiosity and conscious effort to find out more. The second is for learners to continuously extend their schema, linking words and ideas into new relationships in their mind.

4. Ignoring irrelevant information

When asked about penicillin, Peter mentions that his Aunt Mary is allergic to ice cream. This is perhaps the most confusing portion of the script, as it seems to have no relevance to the narrative. But it’s an extremely common feature of conversation. Speakers often throw in peripheral information, sometimes as a joke, sometimes to fill in space, and sometimes because they think or hope it might change the direction of what is being discussed.

The strategy of ignoring irrelevant information is challenging, particularly if the other speaker is making a joke. Jokes require special skills to recognize and decode.

5. Retaining information

When saying, “Just let me write it down,” the doctor is using a physical technique to retain information. Physical note-taking skills that don’t interfere with listening are important but so are non-writing strategies necessary for learners to retain what is said by, for example, repeating back what they hear.

6. Recognizing discourse markers

Last week, marking a graduate student’s thesis, I noticed a stylistic tic; she began several paragraphs with First, but failed to use subsequent ordinals to indicate second or third points. Ordinal numbers helps guide the listener through the thought process of the speaker but, in other cases, the indication of additional information is more subtle, such as: another thing is, now, and finally. In the paired sentences “Oh, well, one last thing. I need an address,” the only important point is that the doctor needs an address; the rest just positions the information.

7. Recognizing cohesive devices

Cohesion is how ideas stick together within sentences and across paragraphs. Cohesion happens through devices such as pronouns. Pronouns can be tricky because they occur through anaphora, cataphora, and exophora, three terms that mean the pronoun refers to something or someone mentioned earlier, mentioned later, or understood to be outside the conversation. For example, a native speaker will understand that when Peter says, “They can’t put me back there,” he is making exophoric references to the police and prison, respectively.

Learners need to look for the antecedents to pronouns, wait in a conversation to identify the nouns to which pronouns refer, or accept that they relate to ideas that need to be inherently understood as occurring outside a conversation.

8. Understanding intonation, stress, and rhythm

The major way in which speech differs from written text is through intonation, stress, and rhythm, which give clues to meaning and social context. When Peter says, “Maybe I can’t escape, but WE can,” the emphasis on we focuses the meaning. Such a short shift in pronunciation can confuse if not noticed. In this case, the suggestion is that Peter will take the doctor hostage.

Listening for intonation, stress, and rhythm is a challenge for language learners and requires practice, both through extensive listening and by practicing pronouncing words and sentences in different ways.

 9. Understanding inferred information

As a strategy, listening for inferred information falls within the larger concerns of critical thinking. In this case, the information relates to understanding speakers’ attitudes or intentions. Inferring often requires that listeners put together several pieces of information, weighing their relationships. It’s a difficult skill to acquire and is too seldom taught in the language classroom.

When the doctor says, “Doctors know how to cure people. They also know how to kill them. Do you remember the injection?” it’s necessary for the listener to recall Peter’s earlier mention of his allergy to penicillin. This information, combined with the doctor’s calm assurance, leads to the inference that the doctor recognized Peter as an escaped killer at the outset of the conversation and purposely injected him with penicillin as a way of subduing him.

Ah, but you already knew all that.

Tasks for Teachers

1. Keep a log or diary documenting your students’ difficulties with listening. What interferes? Make a list of additional strategies that they need in order to make sense of what they hear. For example, beyond the nine challenges and strategies mentioned above, there is the challenge of understanding pop culture and literary references in conversations. For example, Peter Grimes is the name of an opera character.

2. Record short conversations in a variety of contexts (e.g., buying things, asking for information, making complaints) or have your students do so. Have students transcribe them. Consider what strategies are necessary to understand the subtle meanings in the conversations. Help students put these strategies to use.

Tasks for Learners

1. Perform the play in front of other students. Afterward, ask them to write an explanation of what happened and then discuss. Are they individually or collectively able to apply strategies to understand the play’s meaning?

2. Working with a partner, identify three or four listening strategies and write your own short play. Think of two characters, a place, and a conflict. As you write the dialog, include your strategies. Perform your play and see if others can guess and apply those strategies necessary to understand it.


Celce-Murcia, M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goh, C. (2002). Exploring listening comprehension tactics and their interaction patterns, System, 30, 185-206.
Long, D (1990). What you don’t know can’t help you, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12, 65–80.
Lund, R. (1990). A Taxonomy for Teaching Second Language Listening, Foreign Language Annals, 23, No.2: 105–115
Wilson, J. J. (2008). How to Teach Listening. London: Pearson.

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 28 countries. Ken is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).