Competitive listening

by Margaret Horrigan

When I did my initial training, a CELTA, many years ago I was very much in awe of how to stage a listening skills lesson. There seemed to be quite a difference in enabling learners to understand a reading text and a listening text. Both are, after all, receptive skills and therefore share some common denominators. Not really, we process the information coming in…that’s about it. The listening skill is by far the harder skill to implement and also the one which learners can find the most daunting.

Why is listening difficult?

Essentially listening is the harder of the receptive skills because there is only air in front of the listener. There is nothing to grasp on to, no visible landmarks as there would be in a reading text. The old familiar words seem to disappear into phenomena that the listener is not even aware of:

  1. elision
  2. juncture
  3. glottal stops
  4. reduced forms

These are just a few examples of the land mines that face the listener. Add to this list the fact that you cannot flash a CD in front of the learners and tell them to predict what will be mentioned in track nine. In a reading skills focused lesson you could open the book on the page where the reading occurs and show it to the learners for a few seconds and then based on the type-set, headlines/titles and related pictures get them to predict the content of the reading text!

So, why not distribute a script and let the listener read? Surely, this would solve so many problems! Not really, as the moment the listener has the script of a dialogue or monologue in their hands they are no longer just listeners. You have made them become listener-readers. Big deal, right? Well, yes. It is a big deal as you have deprived the learners of the one skill which they probably use most to gauge their ability in the foreign language. They have a real need to understand another human being speaking as interaction is impossible without a listener and speaker.

What’s the solution?

There is obviously no hard and fast solution to anything in the world of language teaching as it is essentially the study of humans. There are, however, a number of things to keep in mind when setting up listenings:

  • Genre – what type of text is it? Are you using a radio interview of a celebrity or is it the weather forecast? What real-world knowledge can be activated before you ask the learners to listen? What can they predict?
  • Context – set this up carefully. Try to guide students with visuals etc so that they know WHO is speaking to WHO, WHY these people are speaking, WHERE and WHEN the interaction occurs, WHAT the topic of conversation is. And, finally, HOW the interaction occurs – is it face-to-face or over the phone? Ideally, all these questions need to be answerable before you turn on the recording. There will be some of you who already know that by witholding some of the information above you can create a communicative task but I will not go into these options here.
  • Graded tasks – the magic number is three but anything less than three tasks and your learners may flounder! Have three tasks which gradually push the listeners to listen for broader information. These could be anything from easy true or false statements to more ambiguous true or false statements. Just keep in mind that you need to push the learners to process the listening text at gradually deeper levels.

Context-free listenings?

What happens, in practice, can often be another story. Course books are notorious for providing rather stilted listenings and, dare I say it, fake, fake, fake celebrity interviews! This is not conducive at all to setting up a listening skills lesson and many’s the teacher who has spent hours pondering over what the best context is for a short listening which is essentially in the course book as a vehicle for a language item. Sometimes, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and as efficiently as possible.

For short listenings which have target language items embedded for teaching purposes here are a few things you can do:

Numbered Listenings

Choose a text with no more than 50 words. For every word of the text write a series of chronological numbers, including the punctuation markers, starting with ‘1’ above.

1          2                3          4               5             6             7             8              9

For    example,    your    text       should     look    something     like       this.

On the board you should only put the numbers 1-50/44 etc. with the appropriate punctuation markers placed near the numbers as done above. The learners will automatically know that this is a text and that every number refers to a word. Then you divide the learners into groups and distribute different coloured board pens, sticks of chalk or ‘symbols’ to help identify the groups. Finally you state the following 2 rules:

  1. You can listen again once you have taken turns to insert words onto the board
  2. If you want to guess more than one word, the words must be consecutive

Once the learners get a chance to listen they get the idea of how the game works and they become very, very competitive. I find it best to let the learners write the words up and erase the associated number(s).  This gives the teacher the chance to monitor and work the recorder. The teacher can also ‘sell’ words for some forfeit and these words can act as anchors to help speed up the process. Indeed, the board can be set up to include anchor words to facilitate the reconstruction. This is essentially what this task is, a numbered reconstruction with the whole class working together. Obviously, whatever target items are on the board can be highlighted and then exploited for teaching purposes. Other variations of this task which, I can take no credit for, are that each word is assigned a  number. So, ‘the’ will always be number ‘5’…I find this cumbersome to create and a little monotonous to execute but always worth a try.

Another variety I’ve tried is to give the learners the text but with the words cut up into individual words and they can come to the board and stick the words over the correct number. The paper could obviously be colour coded to identify the groups. This variety works well with much younger learners and a rule of thumb is to shorten the text as the level or age of the learners decreases. Obviously the winner in both varieties of this task is the group who has managed to identify the most words.


A colleague of mine from many moons ago, David Holmes, used the following task to kick start listening lessons. Again, there is no set up of context. I have used it many times since and am grateful to him for sharing it, so would take this opportunity to give him credit for his creativity here.

David used to find a song or listening text and type it up on his laptop. He then took the first line of the text and copied and pasted it directly below the original line. This copied line was then transformed into the font ‘windings’ and the rest of the text was too! This meant that the learners had to crack a code using the first line as their clue. A couple of things that I discovered when doing this type of task is:

  1. leave  enough space between words and  lines
  2. don’t use capital letters or punctuation markers
  3. establish a time limit between listenings where the learners can work on cracking the code in teams


In Italy there is a quiz show on TV called Passaparola. The moment I saw the last game on this show I could see its potential for the language classroom. Basically there should be as many letters of the alphabet as possible on the board in the shape of a circle. Here’s a snapshot of a powerpoint version I created:

Once again you divide the learners into a maximum of four groups and allocate a shape or coloured board pen to each group. The listening consists of a series of definitions presented in alphabetical order, for example “This A is a small insect” (ant). The beauty of this quiz is that it can be used as a warmer, filler or you could eventually get the learners to create their own. It can involve items from a text, a lexical set or key words to set up a context! Whichever group gets the right answer gets their ‘shape’ or ‘colour’ placed around the associated letter…this is how the points are kept. The winner is, of course, the group which guesses the most words. As a follow-up you could ask the learners to retrace their steps and recall how the words relate to a reading in order to set the reading up or encourage the learners to renegotiate their comprehension.


Anxiety free listening lessons? I think so. I’ve tried these tasks out for over 15 years and although these three tasks are completely devoid of context and shouldn’t work, they do. Essentially these are not tasks at all but are listening games as they have clear winners. They certainly won’t solve all your learners’ listening anxieties but, used now and again, they can provide your listening skills lessons with some variety and reduce the anxiety of doing a ‘listening’ for your learners.

Author’s Bio: Margaret has been an English language teacher since 1991 and is also a Cambridge ESOL Delta, CELTA and YL ext. trainer and assessor and EAP teacher at the LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. Margaret is the Director of Teacher Training with IH, viale Manzoni, in Rome and holds an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.