The Language Teacher
July 2003

Listening in a Second Language

David Nunan

The English Centre, University of Hong Kong

Why Listening Matters

Listening is arguably the most important of all four macroskills. In the first place, it is the gasoline that fuels the acquisition process. Without access to comprehensible input in a language, we will never acquire that language (Krashen, 1982). A second reason why listening is important is because we do more of it than anything else. Approximately fifty per cent of the time we spend functioning in another language is spent on listening.

At a practical level, listening is important, particularly with beginners, and particularly in many Asian contexts involving reticent learners. By 'front-loading' our classes with listening, we take the pressure off the students. If they know they are not going to be required to do lots of speaking in the early stages, they can relax. Listening work gives them processing space. Additionally, the listening work that we do with them provides models for later speaking activities.

Rost (1994) provides three other important reasons for emphasizing listening, and these demonstrate the importance of listening to the development of spoken language proficiency.

  1. Spoken language provides a means of interaction for the learner. Because learners must interact to achieve understanding, access to speakers of the language is essential. Moreover, learners' failure to understand the language they hear is an impetus, not an obstacle, to interaction and learning.
  2. Authentic spoken language presents a challenge for the learner to attempt to understand language as native speakers actually use it.
  3. Listening exercises provide teachers with the means for drawing learners' attention to new forms (vocabulary, grammar, new interaction patterns) in the language. (pp. 141 - 142)

A traditional way of characterizing listening was to see it as a passive skill. However, as Helgesen (2003) points out, nothing could be further from the truth. He says that "Listening is very active. As people listen, they process not only what they hear but also connect it to other information they already know. Since listeners combine what they hear with their own ideas and experiences, in a very real sense they are 'creating the meaning' in their own minds." (p. 24).

Listening in Practice

Rost (2001) argues that designing instructional listening cycles involves selecting listening input (this may be live, or in the form of audio/video recordings) the chunking of input into segments for presenting to the students, and then designing cycles of activities for learners to engage in. According to Rost, effective teaching involves:

  1. careful selection of input sources (appropriately authentic, interesting, varied and challenging),
  2. creative designs of tasks (well-structured, with opportunities for learners to activate their own knowledge and experience and to monitor what they are doing),
  3. assistance to help learners extract effective listening strategies (metacognitive, cognitive, and social), and
  4. integration of listening with other learning purposes (with appropriate links to speaking, reading and writing). (p. 11)

Helgesen (2003) provides the following principles for effective listening instruction.

1. Expose students to different ways of processing information: bottom-up versus top-down.
Bottom-up processing involves making sense of individual sounds and words. Top-down processing, on the other hand, involves using what we already know ('inside the head' knowledge) to make sense of aural input.

2. Expose students to different types of listening.
Good language learners and good listeners have a range of strategies for processing aural input. It is therefore important to train learners to be flexible listeners, to know when, for example it is appropriate to listen for specific information, and when it is appropriate to engage in more global or 'gist' listening to get a general idea of what a text is all about.

3. Teach a variety of tasks
Just as learners need to be able to deal with a range of different listening texts, they also need to deal with a range of different task types. Helgesen makes the important point that if learners are expected to complete a task while actually listening (rather than AFTER) listening), then production demands need to be reduced. For example, if they are listening to a conversation, and have a task in which they need to match people's names with a number of pictures, then the task will be easier if they have a list of names to select (by for example, underlining or drawing a line from the name to the appropriate picture) than if they have to write the names – which probably can't be done in real time anyway. All of these principles can be captured by the notion of basing our listening lessons on developing strategic listening (see, for example, Mendelsohn, 1994). In strategic listening the focus is not only on the direct development of listening proficiency, but also adding a process dimension to the classroom by developing in learners a flexible range of strategies. The simplest way of doing this is to make the strategies underlying a task explicit. For example, if you are doing a task that requires students to identify attitudinal information, you might preface the task by saying something like:

"Listening sometimes means focusing not just on what people say but the way they say it. This means paying attention to pronunciation, sentence rhythm and intonation. In the next task, you are listening to the speakers' intonation to identify which speakers are stating a fact and which speakers are surprised." (For a listening series based on this idea of strategic listening, see Nunan, 2003).

In this short piece, I have reviewed recent theoretical approaches to listening comprehension. I have also tried to show some of the practical ways in which these ideas might be activated in the classroom.


Helgesen, M. (2003). Teaching listening. In D. Nunan (Ed.) Practical English Language Teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.
Mendelsohn, D. (1994). Learning to Listen. San Diego CA: Domine Press.
Nunan, D. (1999). Second Language Teaching and Learning. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Nunan, D. (2003). Listen In: A three-level listening series. Second edition. Boston: Heinle / ThomsonLearning.
Nunan, D., & Miller, L. (Eds.) 1995. New Ways in Teaching Listening. Washington DC: TESOL.
Rost, M. (1994). Introducing Listening. London: Penguin.
Rost, M. (2001). Listening. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp.51-84). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

David Nunan is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Director of the English Centre at the University of Hong Kong. Prior to this, he was Director of Research and Development, NCELTR, and Coordinator of Postgraduate Programs in Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Professor Nunan has published over 100 books and articles in the areas of curriculum and materials development, classroom-based research, and discourse analysis. In addition, David Nunan is Faculty Dean at Newport Asia Pacific University where he runs an Internet-based Master of Science degree in TESOL. In 1999-2000, he served as President of TESOL International.

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