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Why do students find listening so hard?

Updated: Jan 18

Why do students find listening so hard?
How can we help students be better listeners in English?

Students, even students who can speak, read and write well in English, often struggle with listening exercises in class, and there are many reasons for this.

  1. Disembodied voice syndrome: when you play a track for students in class, it can be quite removed from reality. They can't see the expressions on the speaker's face, the gestures they're making with their hands or any other signals they're making with their body language. Without these 'paralinguistic' clues, a listening extract in class becomes harder than listening to the teacher or someone else who they can see. To help students with this, setting the context is really important - the students need to know who they are going to hear, what the situation is, where the speakers are etc before they listen to make up for the lack of paralinguistic clues.

  2. Panic: Students sometimes expect or want to understand every word they're hearing. When they don't understand a word or a sentence, they can panic that they're not following, and then, because they're panicking, they don't understand anything else. Some students need training and support in tolerating confusion and ambiguity, and they also need training in listening for gist. If someone knows that the first time they listen to something they really aren't expected to understand it all, and only need to get an overall sense of what is going on, then that should make panic less likely to happen.

  3. Unfamiliar speech types: If a student has always been taught 'British English' and all of their teachers have taught a "standard" English using a Southern English accent, and the listening includes speakers of English from America, Ireland, Nigeria, Pakistan or New Zealand, it's only to be expected that students will be confused. English has so many varieties that it's important to expose students to some variations quite early so that they don't get stumped. It's also important that they get exposed to speech at a 'normal' speed. If they have only ever heard teachers speaking English very slowly and they're suddenly confronted with a listening task where English is spoken at a normal speed, then they'll definitely be thrown by this. Exposure is the only cure for this. Students need to hear a variety of Englishes, spoken at natural speed, as they progress through their learning. Of course, at lower levels, we do simplify and slow down, but as students reach higher levels, they have to hear a variety of Englishes or else they'll never make progress.

  4. Unfamiliarity with connected speech and other pronunciation features: When we speak English, words run together. It's very common to drop or change sounds at the boundaries between words and this makes it very difficult for a learner to understand. If a student has learned that the word 'have' is pronounced /hæv/ and the word 'to' is pronounced /tu:/, but they've never learned that when we put them together, we're more likely to pronounce them /hæftə/, then they might not understand when they heard someone say 'I have to go'. The only way around this is to do lots of pronunciation work with students, so they recognise these features when they hear them.

Listening exercises don't have to be any more difficult than any other type of exercise we do in class, but it's important that we remember what we need to do to help learners overcome the unique challenges that listening can pose in the classroom.

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.


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