All Ears: Strategies for Effective Listening

Listening is one of the most difficult skills to develop, according to the research. At the same time, listening comprises nearly half (40–50%) of the time spent on communicating both in everyday situations and in the academic world.

If you want to go to an international conference but lack confidence in your listening skills, this blog entry will be helpful in developing listening strategies.

Obviously, better listening comes with experience. Additional language learners (ALL) are in a tough situation — listening skills are essential to communication, but mastering them is hard. Listening requires not only a high level of concentration, but also immediate comprehension of the new language. It takes time, practice, and patience to become a better listener.

Strategies for effective listening

Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the recall of listening input and better comprehension.

Listening strategies can be broadly classified as top-down and bottom-up strategies. Both classes are rooted in computer science of 1970s. The bottom-up strategies are text-based, relying upon language aspects, such as sounds, vocabulary, and grammar (Nunan, 2010). Top-down strategies include listening for details, recognizing word order patterns, e.g. connecting the ‘r’ sound with the following vowel, etc.

On the other hand, the top-down strategies are listener-based and focus upon the listener’s thinking process. The listener constructs the original meaning by using incoming sounds and context as clues to interpret the main idea, make predictions, and summarize intention (Nunan, 2010). Some of the top-down strategies are: predicting, listening for the main idea, drawing inference, and summarizing.

More recently, researchers recognized both top-down and bottom-up listening strategies as being able to significantly improve listening comprehension.

We’ve compiled and categorized listening strategies that will be helpful in a conference setting.

Strategies: before listening

Previewing and predicting. Our knowledge of the world helps us anticipate the kind of information we are likely to hear. We can usually predict what the speaker is going to talk about if we read the conference program or presentation abstracts. Such background knowledge will help you tune to the topic, as well as activate your subject knowledge and related vocabulary, which is stored in the brain. Such preparation will improve your comprehension even if you do not understand each single word.

Tips

  • Learn as much information as possible about the topic of the presentation and the speaker
  • Read presentation abstracts and underline the key words; check them in the dictionary, if necessary
  • Read the handouts and any other supplemental materials
  • Evaluate what you already know and what might be new
  • Compare and contrast ideas discussed in your community

Strategies: while listening

Listening for the content and meaning

To be successful at listening, it’s not necessary to understand each word. Sometimes it’s just enough to grasp the main idea. Don’t let yourself be distracted by unknown vocabulary, listen to the gist instead of separate words.

Tips

  • Pay attention to signposting language which gives verbal cues. Just like road signs show us direction on the road, signposts link ideas and help us understand the structure and logic of the speech. Recognizing such signals can help you get the gist of the presentation and follow the development of ideas — summing up, introducing a new topic, or wrapping up the speech. Check out this list of signposting language.
  • Content words, usually nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, convey the meaning and give us the most important information. Identify such words in the speech and construct the main idea around them.
  • Listen for repetition. If something is repeated several times, it suggests importance.
  • Pauses usually occur before the most important information. Slow pace usually indicates important points.

Listening for intonation cues. Although intonation doesn’t change the meaning of individual words, it guides you through the sentence and helps follow the speaker’s intended meaning.

Tips

  • Most regular statements (those which just state facts or information) use a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
  • Speakers usually use rising intonation on specific words in a sentence to emphasize their importance.
  • High-energy emotions like happiness, excitement, fright and annoyance usually use a rising intonation.
  • Boredom, sarcasm, and disinterest often use a falling intonation.
  • When speakers give a list they use rising intonation for each item in the list until the last item which has falling intonation.

Listen for what the speaker is not saying. Sometimes listening is not just about what is said but also about what is not said. This listening skill is often referred to as ‘inferencing’ — drawing conclusions based on information that has been implied.

Tips

  • Use verbal cues, prior knowledge, and context to work out the meaning of what we hear.
  • Pay attention to the speaker’s body language and pauses. These non-verbal cues usually complement verbal ones and enhance your comprehension.

Follow this link for more information on this strategy.

Listening for details is useful when you are interested in a specific kind of information. To get the detail you need, ignore anything that sounds irrelevant and narrow down your search to a particular part of the presentation.

Tips

  • Specific information is often factual in nature — name, place, number, etc. When you listen for details, you need to have an idea in advance of what information you’re expecting.
  • As you listen, try to recognise when the information is about to be given, and pay particularly close attention at that point.
  • Pay attention to the slides and handouts? factual information is often placed there.

Strategies: After Listening

When the presentation is over, you still have a chance to make something clear by asking questions. Clarifying is an interactive strategy that helps you fill in your knowledge gaps in case you couldn’t understand the speaker or establish connection between different parts of the message.

Tips

  • Clarify what you heard by asking for repetition. Start your question with something like — Would you mind repeating that for me again? or Would you mind going over that one more time?
  • Confirm your understanding by repeating and restating the other person’s idea using your own words. It’s a great way to show that you were listening carefully, and it helps the speaker to find a way to simplify or clarify a key point which you’ve misheard or misunderstood. When you paraphrase what you heard, it also helps you to process and retain information better.

Follow those strategies to get the most of the message you’re listening to and enjoy communication! Remember — the more you practice, the better you listen.

Resources to practice listening skills

  1. Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening LAb https://www.esl-lab.com/
  2. English Listening Lesson Library Online — http://www.elllo.org/index.htm
  3. Modern love podcast from NYT — https://www.nytimes.com/column/modern-love
  4. BBC 6 minute English — http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningenglish/oromo/features/6-minute-english
  5. Learn American English Listening Lab — https://www.learnamericanenglishonline.com/Listening_Lab/Listening_Lab.html

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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