Preparing learners for exams: the problem with listening

Fear of listening

Listening appears to be the most feared component of language exams: learners invariably complain that “the listening was difficult,” teachers seem to worry about the listening subtest more than anything else, examination bodies are often asked to explain themselves and justify the format and level of their listening tests . Interestingly, even though listening is also obviously essential in speaking tests, learners do not seem to be equally concerned  about comprehending what is said during a speaking test; it is only the listening test that sends shivers down their spines!


Don’t talk, just listen!

In real life, as well as in most language exams, there are actually two kinds of listening that we do (Anderson and Lynch 1989:4):

·         Non-reciprocal listening involves listening to input which we cannot control in a situation whereby no feedback can be given to the speakers; for example, listening to a podcast or a radio show, or listening to a recording in an exam and answering questions.


·         Reciprocal listening involves listening and responding, providing feedback to the speaker(s) and helping shape the input in such a way that it is more comprehensible and more relevant; for example, taking part in a conversation, participating in a workshop, or sitting an oral exam whereby we interact with the examiner.


It is non-reciprocal listening that I would like to focus on in this article, as it is not only what most teachers would associate with exam preparation, but also the kind of listening that learners seem to find more problematic.


Testing listening

What further complicates matters in a testing situation is that the listener is required not just to listen and comprehend, but also to demonstrate how much they have comprehended in a manner that is reliable, measurable and fair (Buck 2001: 116ff). This necessitates the use of various types of comprehension tasks, which typically add to the processing load, as they require the learner to process the written input of the question as well as the spoken input they hear, compare the two and make decisions: to answer a multiple choice question in a listening test involves (1) reading and understanding the stem of the question as well as the options provided, (2) filtering and selecting from the listening input the part that is relevant to the question, (3) deciding to what extent the message they have extracted from the input matches the meaning of what they have read, (4 )re-reading the question and selecting the appropriate response.


It is no wonder, then, that learners find listening tests difficult: they are necessarily based on non-reciprocal, non-interactive situations and they necessarily impose quite a heavy strain on the learners’ concentration capacity and processing ability. What is more, learners are rarely prepared adequately for listening exams as most of the listening skills instruction that takes place in language classrooms consists merely of practising the exact task types that examination bodies use to test listening comprehension. While practice is admittedly helpful, and some exam technique training is certainly necessary, what is clearly missing in this paradigm is a focus on developing the listening strategies necessary for successful listening, whether in the street or in the examination room.


Learner Problems

There are two main categories of problems learners face with listening: input-related problems due to message factors as well as medium factors (cf. Richards 1983: 189ff) and task-related problems which are due to the task types used to test listening comprehension and/or the learners’ approach to these tasks. More specifically, the problems that may arise can be summarised as follows (cf. Field 2009: 125ff; Rost 2002: 17ff; Wilson 2008: 25ff)

Input-related problems


-          The text may contain vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to the learners or vocabulary that the learners may only be familiar with in its written form but whose spoken form they find difficult to recognise.

-          The text may contain grammatical structures which are beyond the learners’ current level of competence.

-          Connected speech phenomena such as contractions, weak forms, elision, liaison and assimilation may make certain parts of the input incomprehensible if the learner is unaccustomed to them and expects to hear the full forms.

-          The accent of the speaker(s) may be unfamiliar to the learners and thus difficult to decipher.

-          The number of speakers (as well as the relative age and sex of the speakers) may make it difficult to distinguish who speaks when.

-          The topic of the text may be unfamiliar or uninteresting to the learner.

-          The text may assume certain socio-cultural knowledge which the learner lacks.

-          The text may be too long for the learner to maintain the required levels of concentration and attention.


Task-related problems

-          The task assigned may require additional processing effort because of the amount of reading that it involves (e.g. multi-option multiple-choice questions).

-          The task questions may themselves contain lexis or syntactical and grammatical structures that are beyond the learners’ level of competence.

-          The contextualisation provided may be inadequate, so that the learner does not know in advance which parts of the input to focus on in order to perform the task.

-          The task may require that the learner should answer open-ended comprehension questions, thus adding language production demands to the processing load.



Teaching or merely practising listening?

Clearly, simply practising listening in the classroom is not enough: practice will, at best, merely familiarise learners with the kind of questions they will be required to answer in the exam and, at worst, convince them that listening just happens to be difficult and there is nothing they can do about that.


In addition to practising listening in the classroom as well as outside, learners should be guided to focus on the process of listening and develop appropriate strategies for dealing with listening tasks and appropriate exam taking skills so that they can perform to the best of their abilities under examination conditions.


The standard recommended approach (Field 2009, Rost 2002, Wilson 2008) that most teachers these days follow in their listening lessons allows for:

·         some pre-listening work, whereby the learners’ background and contextual knowledge is activated, relevant grammatical and lexical areas are reviewed and predictions are made on the content of the listening input

·         while-listening work, whereby the learners complete tasks focusing on different aspects of the input they hear; the input is normally heard more than once at this stage, with learners working on a different aspect of the text or set of questions each time

·         post-listening work, whereby the learners may do some further work on the language of the input and/or use the listening input as a springboard for productive skills work.


This approach seems to make sense, as it can help address the input-related problems pertinent to lack of context, socio-cultural knowledge or linguistic knowledge as well as some of the problems to do with understanding the task itself and allowing ample processing time. However, a lot of what the learners are asked to do in a standard listening lesson is not generalisable: they do not necessarily develop strategies and skills that will help them deal with a different input text and a different set of tasks on a future occasion, whether in the classroom/examination room or in the real world. To help learners deal with fresh listening material in unpredictable situations, we need to understand exactly what the processing and comprehension problems they face are due to and equip them with appropriate strategies they can use for more successful listening in general.


Understanding the root of the problem: focus on the process

An intensive and, I’m afraid, time-consuming approach to the while-listening phase of the lesson may provide learners with essential information and feedback that will help improve in this area. This would involve the learners listening to the input a number of times and actively discussing among themselves as well as with the teacher how much they understand and why. In practical terms, this could mean:

-          learners comparing and justifying answers in pairs or groups and replaying parts of the input as necessary

-          teachers replaying parts of the input to highlight aspects that have confused learners (including, for example, phonetic reductions or unusual features of the speakers’ accents)

-          teachers replaying parts of the input to highlight information essential to answering the questions

-          learners manipulating the recording so that they can pause and ask questions at any point that they find unclear

The aim of such activities is to focus on what the process taking place in the learners’ minds as they listen is and to make them more aware of the salient features of the input that can help them process it more effectively. What we also need to supplement the three-phase listening lesson model with is activities aiming to develop appropriate strategies for successful listening.


Dealing with problems: focus on listening strategies

The kinds of strategies that successful listeners use have been studied quite extensively in the last twenty years or so (e.g. Rost 2002, Field 2009, Vandergrift 1999 and 2003). It appears that listeners use well-defined strategies to help them with aspects of listening such as the following:

-          planning what they want/need to focus on

-          paying attention to different aspects of the input depending on their purpose

-          monitoring their own comprehension levels

-          evaluating their own performance

-          inferring useful information from what they hear

-          building on that information by using other knowledge

-          ignoring aspects of the text that are irrelevant to their purpose

-          lowering their own anxiety and encouraging themselves


Making learners aware of such strategies and helping them use their strategic competence appropriately seems an interesting direction for listening instruction to explore. While- and post- listening work can concentrate on specific strategy training along the following lines:

-          Reading a transcript in the post listening phase and crossing out all parts of the text that were irrelevant / not useful to the task completed

-          During the second or third listening, asking learners to locate the parts of the text that answer different questions

-          Asking learners to indicate their perceived level of understanding on a chart or using a grade system after each listening

-          Doing a short relaxation exercise before each listening activity

-          Asking learners to infer a speaker’s role or intention based on their tone of voice


However, what is important is for the learners to become consciously aware of these strategies and their applicability to other contexts and listening situations: this is what will help them listen successfully, whether in an examination room or in their professional and social lives.



Buck, G (2001), Assessing Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Field, J. (1998), Skills and strategies: towards a new methodology for listening. ELT Journal 52/2: 110-118

Field, J. (2009), Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Flowerdew J and L. Miller (2005), Second Language Listening. Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press

Anderson, A and T. Lynch (1989), Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Richards, J.C. (1983), Listening comprehension: approach, design, and procedure. TESOL Quarterly 17/ 2: 219-240

Rost, M. (2002), Teaching and Researching Listening. Harlow: Pearson

Vandergrift, L (1999), Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53/4: 73–8.

Vandergrift, L (2003), Orchestrating strategy use: toward a model of the skilled second language listener. Language Learning, 53: 463–96.

Wilson, J.J. (2008), How to Teach Listening. Harlow: Pearson




George Vassilakis trains teachers on the Delta and Celta programmes at CELT Athens. George has over 25 years of experience in the ELT sector as a teacher, course designer, teacher educator, examiner, academic manager and coursebook author.




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