Learning to listen

Improving listening skills in Modern Languages and beyond

Head of IB French at Sevenoaks School, Dr Fabienne Cheung, thinks it’s time to challenge traditional approaches to teaching listening skills in Modern Languages.

Teaching modern languages listening skills

Picture the scene in the Modern Languages classroom: Monsieur, Madame, Señor or Professoressa, poised with their finger on the ‘Play’ button; students’ ears craning towards the loudspeaker. The tape begins. The classroom jolts to a start, and by the end of the audio some are dusting off their hands in satisfied glee whilst others ask: ‘Why are they speaking so fast, Miss?’.

Traditional listening activities in Modern Languages still form an essential part of both classroom practice and examination assessment. Indeed, as recently as 2018, the IB has reinstated a listening component in their Language B examinations, which had previously been tested ‘implicitly’ under the auspices of other skills.

The importance of listening is therefore impossible to ignore, yet ostensibly remains one of the hardest skills for all students to acquire. The perceived stress and time-boundedness of classroom listening practice so often seems to replicate an exam, which Vandergrift (2007) describes as an undue weight ‘on the product of listening: the correct answer’. Anecdotally our department has seen that students often dread this skill and have historically performed less well here in exams.

Why is listening so hard?

Research into why students seemingly find listening difficult abounds, particularly in Modern Languages. This research has attempted to take account of the way listening is taught, as the key to understanding how teachers can improve delivery of this skill. A useful explanation from Conti and Smith (2019), argues that listening was, for too long, taught with majority emphasis on students’ ‘top-down’ processing. Here, students apply their existing knowledge of a given scenario (e.g., buying a ticket at a train station) and match their expectations to what they hear on the audio tape. Conti and Smith assert instead that ‘bottom-up’ processing must be given more weight. Students must be ‘built up’ to listening through activities such as: increasing their phonological awareness; word recognition tasks; metalinguistic preparation; and pre-listening activities. By joining these top-down and bottom-up approaches, students stand a better chance of ascertaining what information to isolate to answer a given question, and crucially are taught to learn to listen.

Learning to listen

I have implemented teaching strategies to better balance top-down and bottom-up processing when embarking upon listening activities with students. These often involve a degree of metacognitive reflection such that the idea of learning to listen has become more embedded in the classroom.

Firstly, frequent pre-listening activities have become essential for priming students for what is to come. This can take several forms, from: whole-class or pair-work open discussion questions on a given topic; brainstorming likely vocabulary required for a topic, sorted into word classes; or a series of true or false statements in the target language to discuss in advance.

Students benefit greatly from the chance to ease themselves into a listening text, whilst also implementing Krashen’s hypothesis of simultaneous acquisition and learning (1983) whereby ‘using language’ and ‘“knowing about” language’ align.

Secondly, I use listening activities that do not follow the usual ‘text-oriented instruction’ model that Brown (1987) and Vandergrift (2012) suggest has dominated the classroom due to outdated reading and writing pedagogy. Moving away from finding the ‘correct answer’ and increasing students’ ability to listen for gist is essential here.

For instance, activities such as teacher or peer dictation focus on the pure skill of listening and transferral rather than decryption; adding an enforced delay of 10 seconds increases their skill in retaining aural input. These approaches reduce the anxiety of the ‘correct answer’ whilst allowing for quality listening practice.

Modern Languages and beyond

Results from combining the ‘bottom-up’ as well as ‘top-down’ processing model have, anecdotally, been successful. Taking this approach lends more variety to teaching listening skills and avoids the temptation to simply rehearse examination-type exercises ad infinitum. It has helped to see the students’ progression over the course of a teaching sequence, a term, an academic year and beyond as a continuum in which listening skills should be constantly reinforced from the bottom, with the aim being to support students to learn to listen rather than expecting them to be able to jump too high, too soon.

Beyond the Modern Languages classroom, reframing these approaches to listening skills could have positive effects, in particular the metacognitive benefits a teacher could glean. By signposting to students that an activity is part of ‘learning to listen’, students can be supported to direct their attention towards an outcome that is not always the ‘right answer’ but the experience of listening itself. This approach could be used in English or Music, but also in areas such as sport or the sciences, where the importance of students listening accurately to their teammates or laboratory partner may be vital. Indeed, it seems that in all classrooms – where communicative exchange is paramount – the skill of listening must take centre stage. From the Modern Languages classroom to beyond, supporting students to learn to listen is therefore essential to our role as teachers.


Dr. Fabienne Cheung is Head of French at Sevenoaks School. 

More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/






All images with kind permission from Sevenoaks School







Brown, G. (1987). ‘Twenty-five years of teaching listening comprehension’. English Teaching Forum, 25, 11–15.

Krashen, S. & Terrell, T.D. (1983), The Natural Approach, Pergamon.

Smith, S., and Conti, G. (2019). Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen. Independently published.

Vandergrift, L. (2007). ‘Recent developments in second and foreign language listening comprehension research’. Language Teaching, 40 (3), 191-210.

Vandergrift, L., and Goh, C. C. M. (2012), Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action, Oxford: Routledge.


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