Learning to listen

"Sorry?" - whiteboard
“What can you say when you haven’t been listening?”

I’ve been thinking about listening skills a lot since we decided to “unplug” our CELTA course back in 2009 (if you are interested in catching up with that work, you can watch a summary talk we gave at IATEFL 2010, or read some blog posts here, here and here.).

Listening skills development is certainly not a novel topic; what is perhaps unusual about my preoccupation is that it hasn’t been the students’ listening skills that I’ve been thinking about, but the teachers’.

When Izzy, my colleague at the time, and I pulled out a blank piece of paper and redefined what we wanted to see in a teacher, being able to really listen to students and leverage what they heard was very high on the list.

In fact, although it didn’t come first on the joint list we worked out when we wanted some kind of chronology for our talk in Harrogate, it was actually my #1.

Above perhaps all else, I want my teachers (both those who teach me and those I train to teach) to be able to listen to me and to leverage what they hear for my learning benefit.

But what does “being able to really listen…and leverage what they hear” mean?

And following from that, is it teachable, trainable? Or is it a talent, one that you either have or you don’t – a genetic predisposition, if you will?

If it is trainable, what steps could trainers take to help trainees discover this skill in themselves, develop it, and learn to apply it in the classroom with confidence in real-time?

These are big questions, and I do not presume to have final answers. However, I would like to describe some of the very limited work I do on my CELTA course at the moment, and invite you to comment.

You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you?

When we made initial changes to our course back in 2009, we demonstrated how to take language notes while maintaining a conversation with another person, then got trainees to do the same. this was basically simulating a one-to-one teaching situation, and in doing this we noticed the following basic truth:

Listening like a teacher is hard

Some time ago, in a comment on a blog post that I have not since been able to track down (please comment if you know where this was!), I outlined what I considered to be the basic workflow that constituted teacher listening in class, namely:

  1. Hear accurately what the student has said
  2. Note down accurately what student has said
  3. Decide if what has been heard and noted has been understood
  4. Decide if what has been noted is accurate (lexically, phonologically, grammatically)
  5. If Yes to all three above, decide what is generative or exploitable for the rest of the class
  6. If No to any of the above, decide what is correctable
  7. Decide on a correction or exploitation strategy for post-task feedback
  8. Re-focus on the student conversation


“If you find us hard to follow, just listen quicker”

– The Dubliners –

This faced us with the obvious issue that this is an extremely demanding complex of decisions to reach, even for an experienced teacher, so how can beginner teachers be prepared to do this?

Further, should they be prepared to do this? Might it be unethical – irresponsible and dangerous – to try to get novice teachers to focus on this “higher-order” teaching stuff when they might not yet know how to ICQ, CCQ, “chest” materials or elicit?

We decided that eavesdropping (which is all, in principle, classroom monitoring is in its most basic form) is a skill that most humans with reasonable hearing and a healthy ego were capable of doing, and if we could make the connection between listening into a juicy conversation on a busy bus and listening to students engaged in a mingle activity, we would be on the road to success.

After all, one of our design principles was “if it is challenging, but central to our notion of a teacher and something familiar from normal life, then it should come early in our course“. Eavesdropping – sorry: monitoring – certainly fitted this definition.

Tuning in

So, as one of our other design principles was that we should work from situations that the trainees had experienced or would experience soon, we have recently taken different approaches.

Sometime on day two of our course these days, we refer the trainees to the fact that, during the “getting to know you” tasks that we engaged them with in the first hours of the course, we trainers were circulating, listening and noting verbatim things they were saying. We show them the notes – untidy as they might be – and hope the trainees notice these are quotations, not paraphrases of their talk.

From there, we discuss the benefits or advantages of capturing precisely things your learners say. Even on day two, most trainees realise that the more accurate the data, the more accurate the conclusion one can draw about a learner’s needs.

With this basic appreciation of the benefit of verbatim notes established, it’s time to start developing this as a teaching skill.


We start off in pairs. One trainee is the scribe, one is the speaker. The scribe’s job is to ask an intial question and then, while maintaining constant eye contact and normal back channelling with the speaker, write down quotes from the conversation. After one minute, the roles change and the speaker becomes the scribe. In this way, both trainees get to talk about the given question and both get to practice 121 style engagement and note-taking.

The notes from this round are often a mix of quote and paraphrase. It quickly becomes clear to trainees that their paraphrases say more about their language than their “learner’s”.

Time for round two. Pairs become trios or quads. One trainee is the scribe; the others are a working group. The group chats together about a given question (often they decide this question – and all the others – themselves) while the scribe does their work. In this round, the scribes needn’t engage with the group as they can engage with themselves, and in this way the scribes learn to keep a low profile when they can.

Generally, trainees by now have the idea of what verbatim means and the reduced pressure of the group monitoring allows them more thinking space. Balancing this is the increased cut-n-throust of the conversation and the general increase in noise.

Get stuck in

The final round is a full-blown mingle stage, with a number of scribe mingling with the rest of the group. During the activity, we trainers rotate the scribes so everyone has a chance to participate as scribe or speaker.

Each of these three interaction patterns is a typical teaching situation (teacher working 121; teacher monitoring static groups; teacher monitoring a mingle). Later that day, the trainees will be teaching their first Teaching Practice – a speaking lesson – so this rehearsal for listening and noting language is essential in our view.

Essential – but difficult.

Note-taking is, it would seem at first glance, a rudimentary, mechanical act – and yet, trainees regularly say how difficult it is in the live classroom. Why do they find it challenging? Let’s look at some common comments from trainees and see what might be behind them.

The room was too loud/the acoustics were bad/I can’t hear so well

Understandable, this response, but in reality the same trainee would ahve had no difficulty in listening carefully to a conversation in which their name had been mentioned in a noisy environment. Listening is a faculty sharpened by desire: once this connection is established, ambient noise begins to play less of a role. Combine this with some coaching in positioning in the room, lip-focusing (not lip-reading) and attentiveness, and performance improves.

When I was writing things down, I couldn’t keep listening to the conversation

Equally understandable, but the question here really is why should you expect to get down what is being said while you are writing something else down? There is a natural concentration opportunity cost to writing, and this is at the expense of listening. Once trainees experience this in their own classroom duties, they develop a visceral sense of how challenging it is to listen, process and write expensively – which is a useful lesson to learn in order to appreciate how unfair setting expensive note-taking tasks for listening practice can be.

I got too interested in listening to the conversation and forget to write things down

Also understandable, and reassuring – after all, pity the teacher who is not interested in what their learners are saying simply for the human interest. However, teachers need to be dual core processors, in a way: part of us needs to focus on meaning and the human interaction; another part needs to have its focus on the language being used. An early experience with this challenge is arguably crucial to setting the right expectations for how a teaher needs to be able to attend to their learners and their output.

I couldn’t work out what to do with the language afterwards and I get stuck

For a novice teacher, this is especially unsurprising. However, even if the teacher simply showed the learners what they would have said to do the same job in language, this would be valuable feedback and a useful first step on the road to becoming an effective teacher.

I started thinking about what I’m supposed to do next

Teaching is a Zen profession: by learning to be in the present moment, our most effective teaching steps follow naturally much more often than they are forethought. By learning to trust their intuitions and act on instinct to a certain degree, trainees can discover that they have a language instinct and that this is trustworthy. They also learn to think more quickly, as those decisions taken consciously need to happen in seconds. This is challenging at first, but so is everything in teaching. It’s best to focus on challenging trainees with the stuff that really matters rather than the dog-through-hoops tricks of ICQs etc that are easy to tick off a tutor’s “wish to see” list but do not really help the neophyte teacher actually to teach.

They weren’t making making any mistakes

Of course they were. A learner, by definition, does not use the language perfectly. The new teacher, however, needs to learn how to listen discerningly. In the beginning, errors go unnoticed as we fight against our natural inclination to accommodate for meaning. Later, teachers notice “errors”, and “correct” them. The high art of teaching is to notice needs where language is well formed but camouflaged – no surface errors are present but looking more closely reveals a lexical deficit, for example. Alternatively, there really is a flawless utterance which is based on a more generalisable pattern from which other students in the group could learn (see the example “It’s not the sort of thing that you think would ever happen to you” in my last post about punching your weight in class). Beginning teachers need to get good at working on all of these levels, and the sooner they start, the better.

So that is some of what I am trying to do on my training course at the moment, and why I am doing it. What do you think?


  1. Pingback: Learning to listen | Multiple Intelligences | Scoop.it
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