Interactive English Digest. Vol. 2, # 1. Oct. 1999. (p. 4-7).

8 Tips Towards Better Listening

by Tim Newfields

To English, Japanese, German, and Spanish Summaries

Many persons studying foreign languages are frustrated by their inability to understand what proficient speakers say. Though EFL learners can often understand materials in standard dialects, limited vocabulary, and slow speeds, non-standard dialects, idiomatic phrases, or rapid speech represent a challenge to many foreign language learners.

What are the best ways to develop ones listening skills? This article offers some simple listening tips. For convenience, these are classified in terms of pre-listening, in-listening, and post-listening skills.

Pre-Listening Tips

* Define Your Purpose

If you start by listening with a goal in mind, the listening task may be easier. Before listening to something, ask yourself, "What do I need to learn? The general gist or some specific information?"

If getting the general gist is your goal, focus on the ideas which seem to be repeated most often, most loudly, and at the beginning and end of a speech segment. (Main ideas generally appear there.)

If your goal is to obtain specific information, listen for "trigger words" and consider what the speaker is likely to say just before that information appears. For example, if you want to buy a car, words such as "price", "cost", or "dollars" signal some key information will occur – or has just occurred.

* Acquire Some Background Information

Getting a basic knowledge about topics before they are discussed generally makes listening easier. Returning to the example of purchasing a car, understanding concepts about horsepower, mileage, and financing in your native language may help you deal with a car sales rep in a foreign language better. Once you have the basic concepts down, detailed information is easier to listen for.

* Predict, Then Monitor

Often it's good to imagine what those you'll listen to will say before you hear them. If you predict the key points of a speech segment before it happens, you'll have less new information to listen for. Most conversations and speeches follow a fairly predictable pattern. When listening, try to monitor what's being said and see how closely it matches your predictions. Remember just the parts that differ from your guesses – the other parts you know already.

Tips While Listening

* Which Words Are Emphasized?

When listening, pay attention to the loudest and slowest words. These stressed words usually contain valuable information. Less important words are usually spoken quickly and softly. In a sentence such as, "And the price of that car is a real bargain," you'll probably find the words "price" or "bargain" emphasized.

* Listen for Non-Verbal Cues

A speaker's body language can offer clues about what's being said. Even if you don't understand any verbal cues, you can read much from his/her body language. What are a speaker's gestures saying? Boredom? Tension? Interest? Learn to "listen with your eyes" as well as your ears.

If you are listening to a speech or conversation with many others, notice how other listeners also respond. When do they smile? At what times do they seem bored? Observing their reactions can help you "fill in the gaps" to understand what is happening better.

* Confirm Your Understanding

While listening in a conversation, give brief periodic responses to let the speaker(s) know you're actively listening. Short phrases such as "Indeed", "I see", or "Is that so?" will assure speaker(s) you are following the conversation.

Conversely, if you don't understand what's going on, repeat the unknown word(s) with a rising tone – or stop the conversation to request clarification.

If you're listening to a speech, jot down the area where you got lost and try to ask for clarification when the speech is over.

Post-Listening Tips

* Rephrase Key Sections

Too many English learners say, "OK" or "I see" at the end of a talk without specifying what they think is OK or what they have seen.

To confirm whether or not what you've heard is correct, summarize it using patterns such as, "So what [you] said was . . . .?". If you don't have a chance to confirm your understanding directly to the speaker(s), summarize what you've heard to other listener(s).

Another option is to write a summary of what was said. This is useful in that it forces you to paraphrase and bring diverse ideas together.

* Critically Evaluate Key Points

A final post-listening activity is to think critically about what was said and relate it to your own experience. Sometimes proficient speakers sound good in front of people, but when you pause to consider what they actually said, you might discover flaws in logic or gaps in their statements.

If you notice such flaws or places where the content seems questionable, try to politely challenge the speaker. Real listening should not be a one-way activity: it should be a two- (or multi-) way communication process. It is good to switch roles and make the speaker(s) listen to you. To be a good listener, you also have to believe in your voice as a speaker.


This article has outlined eight ways to improve your listening skills. There are many other ways to enhance your listening not mentioned here. For more ideas about how to develop your listening skills and some actual English listening materials, refer to any of the resources below.


Burley-Allen, M. (1995) Listening: The Forgotten Skill. (2nd edition). London: John Wiley & Sons.

Davis, R. S. (1999). Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab. [Online]. [Expired Link].

Dunkel, P. & P. Lim. (1994) Intermediate Listening Comprehension: Understanding and Recalling Spoken English. (2nd edition). New York:Heinle & Heinle Pub.

Rost, M. A. (1998) Strategies in Listening Tasks for Listening Development. New York: Addison-Wesley Pub Co.

Trickel, K. (1999). ESL Activities for Students - ESL Wonderland. [Online]. [Expired Link].

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Copyright (c) 1999 by Tim Newfields