9 Listening Strategies That Develop Active Listeners
by Rebecca Palmer
It’s not enough for students to merely listen to audio assignments. Students must use strategies that make them active, not passive, listeners. To understand the difference between active and passive listening, students need direct instruction on strategies that work (Vandergrift, 1999; Goh, 2008; Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010). To accomplish this, teachers should use time in class to model effective strategies and evaluate students’ use of them. Students who use before-, during- and after-listening strategies develop skills that enable them to monitor their own metacognitive processes.
To demonstrate good listening strategies, teachers should preselect short audio articles or lecture excerpts that are normally used in their classes and describe for students what kind of thinking they can do before, during and after listening.
Model How to Use the Strategies
Here are instructions for nine active listening strategies.
Help yourself better understand a listening assignment by thinking of things you already know about a topic. This helps your mind build connections between what you know and new information you will hear. Say to yourself things like, “This lecture about animal communication makes me think about how my dog lets me know that he needs to go outside. He runs to get a sock and brings it to me.”
Make guesses about what you may learn as you listen. Guessing helps your brain focus on the assignment. It doesn’t matter if your guesses are right or wrong. For instance, if the topic is a space mission to Mars, you might guess, “I bet it takes six months to get to Mars and it’s probably really cold. I don’t think people can survive on Mars.”
3. Talk About New Words
If there is a list of preselected vocabulary words from the assignment, go through the list and think about what you know about them. If you don’t know the words, talk about them with a friend or use a free audio dictionary such as http://www.dictionary.com. If there isn’t a preselected list of words, make sure you understand words in the title and in any introductory material. Have a brief conversation in your head to clarify key words. If you do not know what flaunting means in the title “Flaunting Your Success,” write down a synonym like showing off to refer to as you read. Sometimes, a rough sketch, such as a dollar sign in front of affluent, can give you quick help as you listen.
4. Listen for Answers
As you listen, be listening for answers to questions you have. To identify questions to ask, preview activities you need to complete after you listen or turn the title of an assignment into a question. For instance, if the title of a lecture is “The Science of Love,” you might ask, “How is science related to love?” or “What have scientists learned about love?” Looking for answers to questions gives you a reason to listen and keeps your mind active and alert.
5. Take Notes
Write notes that help you remember ideas. Outlining and layering information is always a good idea, but try other imaginative ways of taking notes: Use connected circles and shapes, create a chart, or draw a map. Use abbreviations and symbols that help you keep up with the speaker’s rate of speech; for instance, if the words memory and communication are used a lot, just use an “M” and “C” in your notes and add a reminder that explains this after you finish listening. Speakers also convey ideas in nonverbal ways. Pay attention to intonation, and if applicable, facial expressions, to take notes on a speaker’s opinions and outlooks.
6. Re-listen/Find a Fix
When you get bored or when ideas are hard, you need to find a way to get back on track. The best way to fix things is to re-listen. You don’t have to wait until the end to re-listen. Sometimes a quick backtracking and re-listening to a line or two can quickly clear up confusion. This is especially important at the beginning of an audio assignment. If you can’t re-listen, shift to a different listening strategy that helps you regain your focus. For instance, if you’ve been taking notes, and you’re becoming confused, figure out what is causing the confusion. Do you need to look up the meaning of some words, can you write down your questions, or should you try to summarize what you have understood so far?
What do you agree and disagree with? What parts do you like best? What parts are confusing? Use symbols, such an exclamation mark (!) before an idea you like or an “X” next to something you disagree with, that help you quickly write your reactions so you won’t forget them.
Read your lecture notes several times before and after class all week. In your head, summarize what the assignment was about and test yourself on your notes. Occasionally, you will be asked to write a formal summary. You will read your summary aloud or make a recording of it.
Read and listen to other sources for more information about the topic. Learning more information makes a topic more meaningful and interesting, especially if you share these ideas with others.
Evaluate Students’ Listening Logs
To evaluate students’ progress in using the strategies, request that they keep a listening log.
One suggestion for a weekly listening log is included in the attached handouts (.docx). To further develop students’ progress, use one format for a listening log at the beginning of the term and a different format later. For instance, in the beginning, students’ entries should describe which strategies they have used and how they have used them. When students have mastered the ability to choose and use the strategies well on their own, change the format so students’ entries summarize and extend what they have learned.
With both log formats, students take part in weekly seat-hopping pair shares in which each pair shares what is in its logs for 2 minutes. When the 2 minutes are up, one student in each pair moves one or two seats to the left or right and each new pair shares information. After three or four “seat hops,” the whole class may discuss what they have learned.
The goal is for students to be aware that they are in charge of keeping their attention strong and focused on complex listening tasks.
Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive instruction for second language listening development: Theory, practice and research implications. RELC Journal, 39, 188–213.
Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating second language listening comprehension: Acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53, 168–76.
Vandergrift, L., & Tafaghodtari, M. H. (2010). Teaching L2 learners how to listen does make a difference: An empirical study. Language Learning, 60, 470–497.
Rebecca Palmer is an instructor in the intensive English program at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA, where she teaches listening, speaking, reading, writing, culture, and grammar . She received her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in secondary reading education. Her area of interest is in writing materials for L2 learners that strengthen and speed learning.