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?


  • And also ‘what do I need to focus on that I can and should help the learner with?’ maybe. I’ve found this a hard skill as I often have students for only a few lessons so have to think “hmm,his present cont is poor but does he really need it for his job??”. As you have mentioned before, I also have to keep a few steps ahead so I’d say I’m constantly :
    1)Spotting errors/weaknesses/needs
    2)Choosing what to work on
    3)Deciding how to do it
    For instance, the student in a telephone roleplay says “Tell me your name?”. Then an alarm bell rings and I’m already thinking of “Could I take your name, please?”, the difference between surname, forename, when to refer to the person as MR…,how to use “and your..”. Next, I’m mulling over if I should stop this roleplay and recap or let it go. If the later then will I do a focus on with all the ideas or do step by step focussing or just eliciting, correcting and practising. I could also do a reversed roleplay and get her to make notes of my language or even just record it on my phone.

    During all this time the rest of my brain is listening for more titbits and shooting of fin different directions. I understand what all the complaining about the TOEIC is about now. Students say they have to keep up with the listening and not get stuck otherwise they blow it, sounds like us when listening.

    I definitely think getting teachers to start listening noticing and planning is a good thing but not killing an activity though. There are far too many ‘talk about X for a minute’ activities which are supposed to be meaningful but just an excuse to find errors where the teacher may shout out “AHA! You made a mistake boyo, you should’ve said…..now continue…”. they probably won’t, I wouldn’t.

    Great post!! You’re on a roll again!!

    • Thanks Phil, you’re right to pose the million-dollar-question: “can I handle the example I’ve found?” In training, at least, there is only one way to find out!

      The parallel with our learners’ listening challenges in proficiency exams is well-made, though in most of these they get a second bite at the listening cherry (though not always, of course!) I have certainly developed more appreciation for how incredible a talent listening well is.

      About your final point: I certainly don’t encourage my trainees to deal with language issues or opportunities the moment they hear them. As you say, this is often counter-productive, and anyway, most beginning teachers can’t (and shouldn’t feel they have to be able to) work that fast. At the end of the activity or even more fully developed into a later lesson is perfectly fine. In fact, on my CELTA, the targets for trainees’ language focus lessons are all rooted in these initial notes taken by them during days one and two.

      Thanks for the positive feedback; it’s nice to be on a roll again 😉

  • Brilliant post Anthony!
    I really learnt a lot from this, and I totally agree with you on all your points. I definitely would be trying these ideas out on my next CELTA in August.

    Just one question:
    When we listen to learners, we are of course listening to language use that can be corrected or pushed up a level most of the time (of course sometimes we throw in good examples of language use too). But when you are doing this listening activity with your trainees, as they are mainly NSs or expert users of the language, what do scribes look out for? What should they be taking notes of verbatim?

    Thanks for this post, Anthony. I’ll be added ‘Listening to Students’ into my timetable next month!


    • Glad you liked it, Chia 🙂

      During the early getting-to-know-you activities on day one, I am writing down accurate language, and use this later for language feedback. I do this because I want to establish early that developmental language feedback does not require error.

      So when trainees are listening to each other, either of the following variations may be at play:

      1. trainees note down complete chunks of any language they here – the objective is to get up to speed.
      2. trainees listen for language which is marked or interesting to them in some way – the objective here is to have them make decisions about what lanauge is worthy of attention later and to identify a reason why this is so.

      Hope that answers your question – let me know how your course goes. Pity you are busy in August as I need a partner-in-crime for our course then.

  • Great post. I think this is absolutely spot on. What often makes the difference for me between a so-so teacher and a good one is that ability to really listen (and then know what to do with what you’ve heard of course).
    It can be hard for novice teachers because they are naturally often very concerned with what they are doing themselves, rather than what the students are doing. It’s natural, but it does need to be challenged, and the activities you describe sound great for starting to do that.
    I am also reminded of an activity from Towards Teaching- Campbell and Kryszewska that I used to use on CELTA. Participants write their names on small pieces of paper, the trainer takes them in. Everyone sits in a circle with a chair in the middle. Participants take it in turn to sit in the middle, where they are given a name at random. Everyone talks about whatever topic they want in pairs or small groups and the eavesdropper listens to the person whose name they have. They should mentally note what they say and one or two examples of the exact phrases they used. After a few minutes the eavesdropper gets everyone to stop talking (good practice) and reports on what they heard. Everyone has to guess who they were listening to.
    This can work well as a warmer and lead in to a discussion about the importance of listening (and how you can do it without hovering right over students).

    • Thank you so much for that reference and for that activity, Rachael! It sounds like a wonderful workout and I’ll have to try it next course.

  • Hi Anthony,

    I pulled out my notebook and started jotting down some of these ideas, thinking I would share them at a teacher training I’m helping to facilitate at the end of the month. But as I was writing, I realized that I could benefit from these ideas just as much as any of the teachers I’ll be working with. I’d like to think I’m an adept listener; I’d like to think I’m on the lookout for language deficiencies more than blatant mistakes. But the truth is, I haven’t taken very much time lately to really make sure that I’m doing what I think I’m doing. So I’ll be video taping some of my upcoming lessons and when I watch them later in the day, I’ll be paying special attention to how accurately I’m listening to the students and what aspect of language I’m focusing in on when I give feedback. It’s great to read a post like this and know it’s going to impact how I teach my very next lesson. Thank you.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! It’s great when we catch ourselves almost overlooking the relevance of something for ourselves that we are considering using with others, isn’t it? I catch myself doing that a lot these days! Do let me know how your action research goes, eh?

  • This post did not disappoint Anthony. Great tips here.

    One point that summed it all up for me was this one: “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”.”

    The act of listening is very much molded by the listeners past experience and cognitive abilities. Simply knowing this gives the listener the chance to allow adaptation to a new way of listening to happen.

    Favorited this post and look forward to trying out some exercises with our participants.

    Take care, Josette

    • Thanks a lot for the feedback, Josette; I really appreciate hearing when someone has enjoyed my work.

      You make a very good point about awareness raising being a powerful change agent; when I wrote that, I must confess I was thinking of the much more mundane idea that taking notes “in your own form of words” means you cannot say anything useful about the original speaker’s “form of words” as they have been lost along the way. I like your idea better.

      Thanks for favoriting – do let me know how the try-out with your trainees goes!

  • Thanks Anthony for highlighting another very important area of ELT class rooms.
    Now that I recapitulate most of my teachers didn’t listen accurately to what I was trying to understand in the lectures and it took me ages to rectify my mistakes.
    I remember one of our teachers lost her temper if a student dared to ask twice; she believed if one is attentive; the ears catch what is being heard and we had no other choice but to struggle and get things clear by searching relevant boos in the library which was again not an eassy task when you have to borrow books manually.
    Now that things have gone digital, its much easier to get material for both teachers and students.
    I’d apply your suggested strategies in my class; they are as usual, very practical.
    It was a treat to listen to you and Izzy in your traning session; your planning and execution was superb and I personally learnt a lot. Thanks

    • Thank you for your kind comments about Izzy and me talking about our work at IATEFL 2010: we wanted our audience to have fun watching as well as learn something useful so we spent some time rehearsing – our neighbors in the hotel must have thought we were mad!

      I think your earlier teacher’s attitude – that if learners don’t understand, then they haven’t been listening – is unfortunately quite widespread. Arguably it only serves, as in your case, to drive your learning out of the classroom and into the library, turning a communicative dialogic process (the talk between teacher and student) into a more solitary one.

Join the conversation...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.