Listening Skills

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SLMtitle.png Introduction

We take in words, their sounds and their meanings all the time during our waking hours. We also often ‘overhear’ or ‘catch’ what people are saying to each other. It is not necessary or required that we grasp or register all that is said on these occasions. What we are doing most of the time is merely ‘hearing’ language being used in speaking. However, at other times, we are expected to listen, understand and respond to spoken language, for example, in a conversation or during a lecture. Here we are not just ‘hearing’ people but ‘listening’ to them with attention.

Although listening is cultivated naturally and without specific instruction, it is one of the most important skills in language learning as also in social interaction. We often hear the complaint that someone is not a good listener or, conversely, the compliment that someone is a very good listener. Obviously, this does not mean that some people can hear better, but rather that some people come across as more attentive and more empathetic in conversation than others. They also seem to process information more keenly and fully than those who are poorer listeners.

Is it possible to improve our own listening skills? Can we become better listeners than before? How can listening better prove beneficial to us? These are some of the questions we seek to answer in this module. It includes some points you can ponder over and practise as well as some activities you would be required to engage in as you go through what follows.

SLMtitle.png Learning Objectives

1) Cultivating better attention to sound, meaning and tone

2) Improving clarity in listening

3) Listening for specific information/ detail

4) Listening for gist and overall message/thrust

SLMtitle.png Attentive Listening: Some verbal and non-verbal clues

Study the following situations:

1) You are really excited about a scholarship you have won. Eager to share the news with a friend, you rush to his hostel room where you find him playing a video game. Your excitement is evident on your face as he opens the door. He asks you to come in and sit on a chair near the computer and then proceeds with his game. As you tell him about your achievement, he nods and says "that's good" or "hmm" a couple of times. Meanwhile his eyes are glued to the computer screen and he is intent on winning the game.

2) Mrs. XYZ is a few minutes late to work. Two of her senior colleagues are waiting for her at a meeting. One of them glares at her the moment she walks into the room while the other allows her time to catch her breath and sit down. The first colleague says that being late to work is unforgivable. Mrs. XYZ apologises profusely and starts explaining why she was late. The first colleague cuts her and says she does not want to listen to any excuses and would take stringent action against Mrs. XYZ for the delay. The second colleague intervenes and says she wants to know the reason why Mrs. XYZ was late.

3) A teacher is explaining a concept to a class of ten students. Four of the students are jotting down notes or nodding frequently. They frown at times and smile at other times. They also ask questions or give inputs and opinions when the teacher pauses. Another student is writing continuously and looks up once or twice. A couple of times, he interrupts the teacher to ask her to repeat a sentence. One of the students is watching people walking up and down the corridor and another student looks at the teacher, but keeps fidgeting with her phone or pens every now and then. Three students seated at the back are looking at the teacher without any notable facial expression. Sometimes they peep into each other's notebooks or jot down a few words.

Now answer the following questions based on the above situations.

a) What do you have to say about the friend in situation one? Would you call him an attentive listener? State what makes you infer whether he is attentive or inattentive.

b) Who is the better listener in situation 2? What makes her a better listener?

c) What are the factors that hamper listening in situation 3? What gestures reveal that some of the students are attentive?

d) From the situations given above, list the qualities of good listeners.

You will note that good listeners typically

  • do not take time to become attentive
  • show their involvement by eye contact, facial expressions (such as nods) and by means of participatory verbal clues related to what is being spoken
  • are patient and ready to postpone their judgements till they have adequate information
  • are interested and not easily distracted

Poor listeners, on the other hand,

  • are inattentive or indifferent (uncaring) towards the speaker. They don't pay attention to what is being said and do not consider whether the speaker wants to convey something important.
  • either have blank looks or respond mechanically with words like "okay" or "hmm" without really listening to what the speaker is saying
  • jump to conclusions or let their ego or irritability get the better of them
  • are uninterested, fidgety or easily distracted

Why be a good listener?

Besides the characteristics listed above, empathy and calmness are also discernible traits of very good listeners. Those who are in professions that require frequent and close human interaction such as health care, teaching or social work need to have immense patience and exceptional listening skills. You may also have noticed that quiet but intelligent people are also often good listeners. This is because they are motivated by their thirst for knowledge and their keen sense of observation that requires them to listen more and talk less. As Shakespeare says in his famous play Hamlet, "Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice."

SLMtitle.png Cultivating Listening Skills

SLMact.gif Activity
Preliminary Activity

Estimated time allotted to activity: 10-12 minutes

Shut your eyes for two minutes and listen to the sounds around you.

A) After you have done this, list the different kinds of sounds you heard. Try to use precise words/phrases to describe these sounds. For example, "the scrape of feet against the floor" or "a mosquito buzzing near my right ear".

B) Now, linking these sounds, write a short paragraph on your experience of listening for two minutes. Remember to write not only about the sounds but also your response to them. For example, did a certain sound irritate you or seem pleasant to you? Did another sound remind you or alert you of something? Did you draw any inference or make any passing observation as you concentrated on the sounds?

Now submit this assignment.

Note that while performing part A) of this activity you focused on the details of what you had listened to, whereas, while performing part B) you had to relate or string together one detail to another and use your thoughts and feelings to bring your response to the overall experience. These two processes are two essential aspects of listening skills, i.e., listening for specific detail and listening in order to digest the overall impact or gist respectively.

Listening for detail

While listening for detail, you are expected to grasp and retain bits of information contained in the passage. Being alert to what people are saying around you makes you better-informed and better equipped to deal with new situations.

Listening for detail includes:

  • Listening for specific information
  • Picking out special words/terms/names
  • Listening for grammatical form
  • Discerning words from their pronunciation

In order to listen well to detail, you must be attentive to what is being articulated. Hence you must have a good grasp of the sounds in the English language. Also look out for words that are emphasized: These are words that convey important information.

Listening for detail is particularly important when you have to act according to what is being said. If you hear the sentence "Give me the tyre" as "Give me the fire", you might end up burning your hands! Those who listen carefully to instructions do not miss out on any dos and don'ts and are thus able to complete a task successfully.


SLMact.gif Activity
Following Instructions

Estimated Time: 15 minutes

Listen to the following audio clip: Media:Nokia_instructions.ogg

Now follow this link to answer a few questions based on the audio clip.

SLMact.gif Activity
Catch the details

Estimated time: 30 minutes

Listen to the following video clip and complete the exercises given below:

Stanza 1

Little boxes on the _____________,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes
Little boxes ______________________ (3 words).
There's a ________ _____ (2) and a pink one
And a blue one and a _________ one,
And ________ (2) all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look __________ the same.

Stanza 3

And they all play on the ________ course
And _______their martinis dry,
And they all have ________ children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to ___________________ (2)
And ______ to the university,
And they all are ____________________ (3)
And they ____________ (2) all the same.

1) What are the “little boxes” made of? ________________________________

2) Where did the people in the houses go? To the ____________________

What happened to them there? They were _______________________________________

What do you think the lyricist means by this? That _____________________________________

3) Mention three kinds of professionals named in the second stanza.

___________________           ___________________          _____________________

4) The boys ___________________________ and they _____________ and _____________________

5) Why do you think the singer keeps repeating the expression “and they all look just the same.”?
To suggest that ________________________________________________________________________

6) What do you think is the message of the song?



SLMact.gif Activity
Additional Activity

Estimated Time: 20 minutes

Listen to the following video clip without looking at the visuals. It is a short excerpt from an Indian film in English. After you have listened to it, click on the ‘next’ button to answer the questions that follow.


Activity 1 (10 minutes)

1) Where do you think the conversation is taking place? What makes you think so?

2) How many people did you hear in the clip? Did you gather their names or identities? Give a label to each of them.

3) List the different kinds of vehicles you heard in the clip.

4) What is each person in the clip doing?

Now listen to the clip again and try to gather details of what you might have missed at first hearing. In addition, try to make a note of the emotional responses of the characters to each other. For instance, you might say that someone is ‘surprised’, ‘happy’, ‘disappointed’, ‘annoyed’, ‘angry’ or ‘puzzled’.

Activity 2 (10 minutes)

Fill in the blanks in the following summary of what you have heard in the audio clip:

1) At the beginning of the clip, we can here sounds of _____________ such as ____________ and ___________. _________ people are heard in conversation. They

seem to be ______________ ______ (doing what?)

They have reached _________________. _______________ wants to go to a road called _____________ ____________. She describes a ___________ coloured house owned by


_________ is evidently upset. She says she is _____________________________.

2) The road they are on is called ____________________. Meanwhile, there is a call. The caller is called ___________. Another voice is heard. It seems to

belong to __________________. ______________ says she can’t go on because she has __________________________. She also reminds _________ that

____________________________ are to come home so they must return . _____________ protests saying __________________________________________________. At this,

________ sounds very _______________ and says she is turning back. _________’s answer is “Turn!”. It shows she is _____________.


Sustained Listening

While listening to a story or to a lecture we need to listen not only for specific information but also to overall message and the relationship of one idea with another. For this we need to follow the speaker's train of thought. The tone of the speaker often indicates what is coming. Think of the many ways in which you can say "Okay, I will come." The way you say it will show if you are enthusiastic about going somewhere or you are doing it as an obligation or you are angry about going somewhere. The speaker's tone can help us anticipate what is to follow in a passage. It also adds meaning to what we hear.

There are also some words/phrases that indicate what is coming next. For instance, "however" suggests there is going to be contrast while "besides" suggests addition to the same point. A good listener pays attention to what is being said, what is connected to what and how something is being said. According to Tony Lynch[1], while listening to a lecture in a foreign language, we could use certain macro-strategies such as:

  • Predicting: Thinking about the possible content of the lecture before you listen
  • Monitoring: Noticing your problems as you listen and identifying areas of uncertainty
  • Responding: Giving your own opinion on the ideas presented by the lecturer
  • Clarifying: Preparing questions that you can ask the lecturer so as to get a clearer understanding
  • Inferring: Making hypotheses when you aren't sure of something, such as the meaning of an unfamiliar word or expression
  • Evaluating: Assessing how well you have understood the lecture

SLMact.gif Activity
Note Taking

Estimated Time: 30 minutes

Listen to this lecture by Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus. Make notes on what you have heard using the following guidelines: <br>

1) For what work has Yunus received the prize? How does he describe each aspect of the work? 

2) In what ways has this work been successful? What evidence does he give of its success? 

3) What does Yunus say about world poverty?

4) How is economic disparity evident in the world?

5) What does Yunus have to say about the concept of 'social business'? 

Remember to jot down key statistics and important points while you make notes.


Lynch, Tony. Study Listening. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

  1. Lynch, Tony. Study Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.,