Listening In Language Learning

David Nunan, The English Centre, University of Hong Kong


Listening is the Cinderella skill in second language learning. All too often, it has been overlooked by its elder sister: speaking. For most people, being able to claim knowledge of a second language means being able to speak and write in that language. Listening and reading are therefore secondary skills -- means to other ends, rather than ends in themselves.

Every so often, however, listening comes into fashion. In the 1960s, the emphasis on oral language skills gave it a boost. It became fashionable again in the 1980s, when Krashen's (1982) ideas about comprehensible input gained prominence. A short time later, it was reinforced by James Asher's (1988) Total Physical Response, a methodology drawing sustenance from Krashen's work, and based on the belief that a second language is learned most effectively in the early stages if the pressure for production is taken off the learners. During the 1980s, proponents of listening in a second language were also encouraged by work in the first language field. Here, people such as Gillian Brown (see, for example, Brown, 1984; Brown, 1990) were able to demonstrate the importance of developing oracy (the ability to listen and speak) as well as literacy, in school. Prior to this, it was taken for granted that first language speakers needed instruction in how to read and write, but not how to listen and speak because these skills were automatically bequeathed to them as native speakers.

The nature of the listening process

Listening is assuming greater and greater importance in foreign language classrooms. There are several reasons for this growth in popularity. By emphasizing the role of comprehensible input, second language acquisition research has given a major boost to listening. As Rost (1994, p. 141-142) points out, listening is vital in the language classroom because it provides input for the learner. Without understanding input at the right level, any learning simply cannot begin. Listening is thus fundamental to speaking.
Two views of listening have dominated language pedagogy over the last twenty years. These are the bottom-up processing view and the top-down interpretation view. The bottom-up processing model assumes that listening is a process of decoding the sounds that one hears in a linear fashion, from the smallest meaningful units (phonemes) to complete texts. According to this view, phonemic units are decoded and linked together to form words, words are linked together to form phrases, phrases are linked together to form utterances, and utterances are linked together to form complete meaningful texts. In other words, the process is a linear one, in which meaning itself is derived as the last step in the process. In their introduction to listening Anderson and Lynch (1988) call this the "listener as tape-recorder" view of listening because it assumes that the listener takes in and stores messages sequentially, in much the same way as a tape-recorder, one sound, word, phrase, and utterance at a time.

The alternative, top-down view, suggests that the listener actively constructs (or, more accurately, reconstructs) the original meaning of the speaker using incoming sounds as clues. In this reconstruction process, the listener uses prior knowledge of the context and situation within which the listening takes place to make sense of what he or she hears. Context of situation includes such things as knowledge of the topic at hand, the speaker or speakers, and their relationship to the situation as well as to each other and prior events.

These days, it is generally recognised that both botom-up and top-down strategies are necessary. In developing courses, materials, and lessons, it is important, not only to teach bottom-up processing skills such as the ability to discriminate between minimal pairs, but it is also important to help learners use what they already know to understand what they hear. If teachers suspect that there are gaps in their learners" knowledge, the listening itself can be preceded by schema building activities to prepare learners for the listening task to come.

There are many different types of listening that can be classified according to a number of variables, including purpose for listening, the role of the listener, and the type of text being listened to. These variables are mixed in many different configurations, each of which will require a particular strategy on the part of the listener.

Listening purpose is another important variable. Listening to a new news broadcast to get a general idea of the news of the day involves different processes and strategies from listening to the same broadcast for specific information, such as the results of an important sporting event. Listening to a sequence of instructions for operating a new piece of computer software requires different listening skills and strategies from listening to a poem or short story. In designing listening tasks, it is important to teach learners to adopt a flexible range of listening strategies. This can be done by holding the listening text constant (working, say, with a radio news broadcast reporting a series of international events), and getting learners to listen to the text several times, however, following different instructions each time. They might, in the first instance, be required to listen for gist, simply identifying the countries where the events have taken place. The second time they listen they might be required to match the places with a list of events. Finally, they might be required to listen for detail, discriminating between specific aspects of the event, or perhaps, comparing the radio broadcast with newspaper accounts of the same events and noting discrepancies or differences of emphasis.

Another way of characterizing listening is in terms of whether the listener is also required to take part in the interaction. This is known as reciprocal listening. When listening to a monologue, either live or through the media, the listening is, by definition, non-reciprocal. The listener (often to his or her frustration), has no opportunity of answering back, clarifying understanding, or checking that he or she has comprehended correctly. In the real-world, it is rare for the listener to be cast in the role of non-reciprocal "eavesdropper" on a conversation. However, in the listening classroom, this is the normal role.

Listening in practice

A challenge for the teacher in the listening classroom is to give learners some degree of control over the content of the lesson, and to personalize content so learners are able to bring something of themselves to the task. There are numerous ways in which listening can be personalized. For example, it is possible to increase learner involvement by providing extension tasks which take the listening material as a point of departure, but which then lead learners into providing part of the content themselves. For example, the students might listen to someone describing the work they do, and then create a set of questions for interviewing the person.

A learner-centered dimension can be lent to the listening class in one of two ways. In the first place, tasks can be devised in which the classroom action is centered on the learner not the teacher. In tasks exploiting this idea, students are actively involved in structuring and restructuring their understanding of the language and in building their skills in using the language. Secondly, teaching materials, like any other type of materials can be given a learner-centered dimension by getting learners involved in the processes underlying their learning and in making active contributions to the learning. This can be achieved in the following ways:

  • making instructional goals explicit to the learner
  • giving learners a degree of choice
  • giving learners opportunities to bring their own background knowledge and experience into the classroom
  • encouraging learners to develop a reflective attitude to learning and to develop skills in self-monitoring and self-assessment.

I try to simulate the interactive nature of listening, and also try to involve learners personally in the content of the language lesson through activities in which learners listen to one side of a conversation, and react to written responses. Obviously, this is not the same thing as taking part in an actual conversation, but I find that it does generate a level of involvement on the part of learners that goes beyond the usual sort of non-participatory listening task. Because learners are providing personalized responses, there is variation between learners, and this creates the potential for following-up speaking tasks, in which learners compare and share their responses with other learners.

Non-reciprocal listening tasks can draw on a rich variety of authentic data, not just lectures and one-sided anecdotes. In my own listening classes, I have used the following data: answering machine messages, store announcements, announcements on public transportation, mini lectures, and narrative recounts. The increasing use of computerized messages on the telephone by companies and public utilities can also provides a rich source of authentic data for non-reciprocal listening tasks.

A recurring theme in recent books and papers on language teaching methodology is the need to develop learners" awareness of the processes underlying their own learning so that, eventually, they will be able to take greater and greater responsibility for that learning. This can be done through the adoption of a learner-centered strategy at the level of classroom action, and partly through equipping students with a wide range of effective learning strategies. Through these, students will not only become better listeners, they will also become more effective language learners because they will be given opportunities to focus on, and reflect upon, the processes underlying their own learning. This is important, because if learners are aware of what they are doing, if they are conscious of the processes underlying the learning they are involved in, then learning will be more effective. Key strategies that can be taught in the listening classroom include selective listening, listening for different purposes, predicting, progressive structuring, inferencing, and personalizing. These strategies should not be separated from the content teaching but woven into the ongoing fabric of the lesson so that learners can see the applications of the strategies to the development of effective learning.


In this paper, I have set out some of the theoretical, empirical, and practical aspects of listening comprehension. I have suggested that listening classrooms of today need to develop both bottom-up and top-down listening skills in learners. I have also stressed the importance of a strategies-based approach to the teaching of listening. Such an approach is particularly important in classrooms where students are exposed to substantial amounts of authentic data because they will not (and should not expect to) understand every word.
In summary, we can say that an effective listening course will be characterized by the following features (see also the design features set out in Mendelsohn, 1994):

  • The materials should be based on a wide range of authentic texts, including both monologues and dialogues;
  • Schema-building tasks should precede the listening;
  • Strategies for effective listening should be incorporated into the materials;
  • Learners should be given opportunities to progressively structure their listening by listening to a text several times, and by working through increasingly challenging listening tasks;
  • Learners should know what they are listening for and why;
  • The task should include opportunities for learners to play an active role in their own learning;
  • Content should be personalized.


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  • Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Teaching the spoken language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Mendelsohn, D. (1994). Learning to listen. San Diego CA: Domine Press.
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    Rost, M. (1994). Introducing listening. London: Penguin.