Let me begin with a personal example. When I started to learn English several years ago, the hardest part for me was listening comprehension. I tried very hard to understand what people (especially native speakers) were saying to me, but my attempts did not seem to be very successful. When I came to the United States to study English in an English program, my problem did not magically go away, and in fact, the oral communication class was one of the challenging classes for me because of the listening activities that our teacher made us do. But the most disappointing thing happened at the end of that semester when I failed the listening test!
But instead of grieving about my failure, I decided to develop a plan for overcoming this challenge. First of all, I downloaded several speeches on my MP3 player and listened to them every day while walking to school or on the way to a grocery store. Some of those talks had written scripts, which allowed me to become familiar with the content of the speeches to better understand them while listening.
This daily exercise helped me tremendously! I started to notice that my comprehension skills were getting better and better. And faster than I anticipated! As a side advantage, I was also able to learn quite a few authentic English expressions while listening to the talks on a variety of topics.
This was not the end of the story. The English program I was attending belonged to the university that regularly offered free lectures and talks for anyone interested. As soon as I found out about it, I could not miss the opportunity! Attending those talks became my new hobby. However, I was not just sitting there and listening to the speaker—I was practicing various listening skills by applying the strategies that I learned in class. I would like to share some of these strategies and I hope they will help you just as they helped me.
1. Getting the Main Idea from the Introduction
Before jumping in the depth of the discussion on the subject of their talk, speakers tend to provide an introduction in which they explain the topic and provide an overview of what they are going to discuss. They may say: Today, I am going to discuss/talk about _________ or In this lecture, I will address/cover _________ or I chose the topic of ____________ for my today’s presentation.
Try to be extremely attentive during the first several minutes of the talk—this is when you will be able to get the main idea. Understanding the purpose and the main idea of the talk given in the introduction will help you stay focused as well as pay closer attention to details that the speaker will provide to support the main ideas.
2. Using an Outline to Take Notes
Another helpful activity that you could do when attending lectures or presentations is writing an outline. Outline is a visual representation of the main points and supporting examples of a listening passage. Using an outline is particularly helpful on those presentations and lectures where the speaker presents several points or describes a series of steps. By listing the steps and jotting down the supporting details for each of them, you will be able to better understand the speaker.
The basic outline could look something like this:
Step/Point/Concept 1: _______________________________________________________
Supporting examples: ________________________________________________________
Step/Point/Concept 2: _______________________________________________________
Supporting examples: ________________________________________________________
3. Using Graphic Organizers
As a variation of an outline, you can also draw a graphic organizer. Similar to outlines, graphic organizers will help you visualize the organization of the presentation and map out the main ideas and supporting details, as well as see connections between them.
4. Listening for Definitions
When you listen to an academic lecture, you may hear specific terms that you are not familiar with. Speakers have different ways of giving definitions of new terms. That may use such words as: that is, it means, is.
5. Listening for Supporting Details
To accommodate the diverse needs of the audience, the speaker may also provide examples of the new terms in the lecture. In addition, they may also provide supporting details to better illustrate the points they are making or elaborate on the main ideas. It is important to listen for those supporting details, as they will facilitate your comprehension. Some of the most common expressions that many speakers use before providing examples are: such as, for example, one example is, for instance, example includes, to illustrate, one is, take (for example). So try to pay attention to those signal phrases as you listen.
6. Listening for Similarities and Differences
During their talks, speakers may also compare and contrast different concepts, items, and terms. They can use certain expressions to indicate 1) similarities, such as: similar to, at the same time, as well as, both, like, likewise, as, in comparison and 2) differences, such as: on the other hand, to contrast, despite, although, even though, however, nevertheless, unlike, yet, but, on the contrary, rather, though, regardless. Listen for those phrases because they tell you that a similar or a different example is coming.
7. Listening for Referencing Phrases:
In many lectures or presentations, speakers often report on the findings of research or provide the results of a questionnaire or a survey. They may use phrases that indicate the reporting information. These phrases are called referencing phrases because they indicate that a reference to a source will follow. It’s helpful to listen for those phrases, as they will help you notice and pay attention to supporting details. Some of the most commonly used phrases are: according to, a study reports, based on the results of, the researcher found that, the findings showed.
8. Listening for Causes and Effects
When speakers try to explain different relationships in their talks or discuss how one item affects the other, it is very important to distinguish between causes and effects, that is, the reasons and the consequences. Oftentimes, the speakers would use words and expressions that can help you recognize cause-effect relationships. The most commonly used words and expressions are: because, because of, due to, for this reason, so, then, as a result, as a consequence, therefore, thus, accordingly.
For example, in the sentence: Because of the increasing number of international students, many universities started to offer remedial English courses.
- Cause: Because of the increasing number of international students
- Effect: Many universities started to offer remedial English courses
9. Listening for Solutions to Problems
When speakers describe problems in their talks, they sometimes can also address solutions to those problems. Therefore, it is important to learn to listen for the solutions. So if you are at the lecture that addresses a problem, ask yourself the following questions to help you identify the solution:
- Is there any way to solve the problem addressed by the speaker?
- What may be an appropriate solution to this problem?
- What can we do about this problem?
The examples of phrases listed above are often used by speakers. However, this may not always be the case. Therefore, you need to pay a close attention to the overall organization of the lecture and the development of the speaker’s ideas
10. Verifying Hypotheses
During a talk, you can sometimes make predictions about the content and the main points discussed by the speaker. The title of the talk and your background knowledge on the topic will help you form hypotheses about the presentation. These hypotheses will be either confirmed or disproved in the process of listening. Forming hypotheses and listening for the confirmation or disproval will help you stay focused during the talk, which, as we already know, will facilitate your listening comprehension.
11. Using Keywords to Take Notes
You can also practice taking notes, which will increase your ability to concentrate and pay attention to the details. When you are listening, do not try to write down everything you hear. It is impossible! Instead, listen for keywords from the presentation and take notes using those keywords. Keywords are usually nouns, verbs, and numbers. As you take notes, skip unimportant words such as be, a, the, and prepositions. Using keywords and leaving out unimportant words will allow you to take notes much faster and more effectively.
For example, you hear: “Based on the results of this experiment, the researcher made a conclusion that men are not just driven by money, but by knowing whether they earn more or less than their coworkers.” You write: “Study: men driven by coworkers earnings (+/- their own salary).”
12. Using Abbreviations and Symbols to Take Notes
As stated above, it’s impossible to write down everything the speaker says. Therefore, you need to use short versions (abbreviations) of words and phrases, as well as symbols. These abbreviations and symbols vary among people, and it is up to you what kinds of symbols you use—as long as they make sense to you. In fact, it would be a great idea to create your personal system of abbreviations and symbols that you will make use of.
Some examples of symbols and abbreviations:
- Ex. – example
- + – and
- = – means, is, results in
- 4 – for
- int. – international
- w/o – without
- vs. – against
- v. – very
- < less than
- > more than
To conclude, many of you would probably agree that understanding a speech in a foreign language is challenging. But the good news is that there are numerous exercises that you can do to substantially improve your listening skills. I described just some of them here, and I hope you will find them useful.
Are there any strategies that you have for helping to improve your listening comprehension in English?