Category Archives: Listening

Does anyone know how to do extensive listening?

Recently, my colleague asked me for my collated list of Extensive Listening (EL) links, which prompted a short discussion on EL, and how to do it. This quickly highlighted the fact that we had two different ways to think about how to do EL. Unlike Extensive Reading (ER) we are all on the same page (pun intended), but the opposite is true for EL.

The problem with EL is that nobody ever figured out an elegant way to do it. I’ve written about EL before, after someone asked me how to do it (Blyth, 2015), which followed on from my ELT Journal article (Blyth, 2012), but I could only give generic advice. The big problem that listening teachers have, ever since the audio-lingual era, is that we’ve been too busy to do anything but borrow ideas from reading pedagogy (Field, 2008). EL is probably no different. We just uncritically adopted ER principles.

With ER, I provide my students with the following information, which is based on Day & Bamford (2002):

Rules: Extensive reading must be 1. Fun or interesting; 2. Easy; 3. You choose your own book, magazine, blog, anything; 4. Read lots; 5. Talk about it. Research suggests that you should know about 98% of words to have effective comprehension of the text. Choosing: for every 100 words, you should know 98 so it’s ok if you don’t know 2 words, but if more than three or four unknown words you should choose a different book…

So which of the above criteria can be applied to EL?

  1. Fun or interesting
  2. Easy
  3. Choose your own
  4. Listen lots
  5. Talk about it

But not “6. How to choose an EL text your level”. Listening texts are also invisible. With an ER book, you can look at it briefly and decide if the book is worth further investigation or not. Vision provides information up to 1000 times faster than any other sense. In contrast, students cannot know if the EL text is at, above, or below their level until they had already committed to putting on the headphones, pushing the play button, and waited to get a handle on the contents. With a book students can quickly see the level information, the number of headwords, the word count, size of font, number of lines per page, the thickness of the book, the type of pictures, and the usage of images too, among many other cues. In contrast, a listening text is a mystery bag, or like a box of chocolates, “you never know what you’re going to get”, until you start listening. This mystery element is the part that has always troubled me, and perhaps my students.

So far, there are a number of assumptions to get out of the way before we can get to the final question, “Is there a better way to do EL?”.

  1. Is extensive listening even needed?
  2. Is it effective?
  3. What is the current system of EL?
  4. Is the current system working?
  5. Is there a better way to do it?

The above questions deserve far more attention than what I can afford here, but brief answers are attempted just the same. Firstly, EL is indeed needed. For instance, Field (2008) argued that students on study abroad and similar programmes often struggle. They might be tested on their grammar, and placed into a class level based on their test-taking competency and grammar knowledge, but not their listening skills. Consequently, these students, especially those from the Far East, tend to do badly in class because they cannot access their grammar teacher’s verbal instruction, and so they blame themselves rather than the level placement apparatus. Another way to answer the first question is from a Vygotskian perspective: practice makes perfect. Research in brain science, suggests the more a certain set of neural pathways are used, the more connections are made, which results information being able to flow more efficiently  (Burton, 2013). That is, the more practice students get in listening, the better they will become.

Secondly, is EL effective? Masters and PhD students of Renandya & Farrell (2011) clearly demonstrate this. Students who did extensive listening outperformed students who received only listening strategy instruction. I argued in support of this point that strategy instruction is merely teaching students to compensate for a lack of skill, rather than teaching the skill to plug the gap (Blyth, 2012). Chang and Millett (2014) provided additional evidence that practising EL results in improved listening performance than no EL practice (or at least ER alone).

Thirdly, what is the current system of EL? On this point, I cannot give a clear answer, to which Chang & Millett say, “The practice of EL in L2 teaching is a relatively novel idea and its theoretical framework is undeveloped, so not many language teachers have the knowledge to carry it out” (2016, p351). Everyone seems to have their own idea on what and how to define EL, and how to implement it. So, to define what “4. Listen lots” means, as in, how much is “a lot”, cannot be done. What texts can be used? For Chang and Millett (2016) EL is listening to graded reader audio CDs. For Rob Warring (What is EL?), it is listening to a variety of (ungraded) web based texts like those listed on my Listening page.

Fourthly, despite the lack of clarity for the third question, EL is still more effective than teaching listening strategies. It still seems that any kind of practice is better than no practice.

Fifth and finally, is there a better way to do EL? I would like to begin discussion on this point. To me, the mystery bag element has to be dealt with. To begin with, how can we define the “mystery bag”? Firstly, grading; how can a student know if a particular or group of similar listening texts are level appropriate for him or herself. Secondly, what does level appropriate mean? What are the key features that make a listening text appropriate, whilst others inappropriate? Secondly, how much listening is needed on a weekly basis; assuming that a week is an appropriate increment of time to manage listening practice. On this point, my boss had his idea of the minimum time for students to listen, whilst I had mine. Mine demanded that students do at least thirty minutes a week, but they could choose a five minute text, and listen to it six times; or a fifteen minute text, and listen to it twice; or two or three different texts, but still total listening experience must be at least thirty minutes. Obviously, the number of times of practice matters, as argued earlier. However, what is the optimal length and number of times to listen?

Establishing standardised metadata

Publishers of graded readers have, in their various ways, admitted that certain metadata are needed. As mentioned earlier, information about the number of headwords, word count, CEF level, genre, and more all help the student decide if the book might be level appropriate for them. At the moment, most EL texts lack such information, except where it might be listed as “easy”, “medium”, or “difficult”, based on the curator’s judgement. Consequently, in the interests of making things easy for students, I would propose a similar system. I would hope that these criteria I’m suggesting not be the new standard, but be discussed, tested, and modified based on an informed position. Then, after rigorous testing, will the most appropriate ones be used. The metadata to consider are:

  1. CEF level
  2. Genre & topic
  3. Nature of text: authentic, genuine, or contrived.
  4. Length of text
  5. Words per minute
  6. Number of speakers
  7. Number of words outside of the 2,000 most common word range
  8. Number of academic and technical words from the AWL
  9. Number of idioms used
  10. Script availability: Yes / No
  11. What native-like phonological features are present?


It is hoped that future research on EL can begin to address a number of key issues. Firstly, what is an optimum length of listening time per week, and optimum number of times to listen to each text. Secondly, what is the best practice for doing EL, specially for an education environment where accountability (and grades) are concerned? Thirdly, what metadata are most useful for students to help them decide if a text is appropriate for their current listening level. Which also implies another question, what is a “listening level”?


Blyth, A. (2012) Extensive listening vs. listening strategies: Response to Seigel. ELT Journal, 66 (2), pp. 236-239.

Burton, R. (2013) A Skeptics Guide to the Mind. St Martin’s Press.

Chang, A. and Millett, S. (2014) The effect of extensive listening on developing L2 listening fluency+ some hard evidence. ELT Journal, 68 (1), pp 31-40.

Chang, A., and Millett, S. (2016) Developing L2 listening fluency through extended listening-focused activities in an extensive listening programme. RELC Journal, 47 (3), pp. 349-362.

Day, R., and Bamford, J. (2002) Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading. Reading in a Foreign Language. 14 (2), pp. 136-141.

Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Renandya, W., and Farrell, T. (2011). ‘Teacher, the tape is too fast!’ Extensive listening in ELT. ELT Journal, 65(1), 52-59.

Workshop: Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening


Due to sudden family emergency, I had to return home, and cannot give this presentation. However, I am eager to give this workshop to your group, office, chapter, etc if requested.

I will be presenting a workshop titled “Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening” at the annual Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) conference in November this year. I encourage you to come along, or ask questions online (via Twitter is best). Official details:

Conference: Japan Association of Langauge Teachers (JALT) 2016 conference,

  • Event: 42nd Annual International Conference on Language Teaching and Learning & Educational Materials Exhibition
  • Where: Aichi Industry & Labor Center – WINC Aichi, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
  • When: 25 – 28 November 2016
  • Theme: Transformation in Language Education

Day: Sunday, November 27th. CANCELLED (see above)
Time: 1:05 PM – 1:30 PM  (25 minutes).
Room: 904.

Presentation ID #: 619
Presentation Title: Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening
Format: Practice-Oriented Short Workshop
Content Area: Listening (LIS)
Context: College & University Education

Handouts / resources:

(to be added later)


Long abstract:

Often teachers teach listening by playing a CD and providing students with comprehension questions; though this is not teaching listening but testing it (Sheerin, 1987). Also, recent academic discussion has criticised the inadequacy of listening strategies (see Blyth, 2012; and Chang and Millet, 2014). Consequently, new methodologies were developed by the presenter to actually teach listening using bottom-up approaches based on cognitive science theory by Cutler (2012) and Field (2008). This practice oriented workshop introduces these new teaching methodologies which are the outcomes of a large scale mixed methods research project. This project worked with teachers in central Japan to develop and trial methodologies for bottom-up listening approaches that are suitable for their context (considering teaching preferences, class types, and students). Data collection included pre and post listening tests, as well as interviews with teachers and students. A key result is that bottom-up listening approaches, or teaching pronunciation, is an effective means to improve student listening abilities. This workshop will provide only a brief introduction to pertinent listening theory followed by demonstrations of simple activities that teachers can use from Monday morning. The workshop will include demonstrations, audience participation, and a short Q&A. Handouts will include web links to class handouts, audio samples, demonstration videos, and other related materials.

Extensive Listening: What, why, and how?

Music Beats Headphones 122/365, by CC Louish Pixel, 2011.
Music Beats Headphones 122/365, by CC Louish Pixel, 2011.

Extensive listening (EL) is intended to give students addtional English listening practice. It should be enjoyable, and something where there is no pressure of understand all of it (Field, 2008), and no pressure to complete comprehension questions. Research cited in Renandya and Farrell (2011) suggest that EL is more effective than teaching listening strategies; a point I strongly support (Blyth, 2012). Ramírex and Alonso (2007, cited in Lynch, 2009, p153) found that students’ listening improved more from web-based audio materials than from conventional textbook materials (class CDs). They say probably because of the control the individual student had in controlling and playing the audio file, and the increased concentration this allows. So, how can EL be implemented? EL is done weekly, between daily classes, or somehow regularly as apart of the student’s routine; and is done for the duration of the course. Each teacher or system will have their way, but this is one possible means:

  1. Tell them what EL is (what)
  2. Tell them the benefits of it (why)
  3. Show them examples of EL sources (here; how)
  4. Have them practice doing the listening with one of the sources (with the aim of showing it’s not so hard, and giving students the chance to get help with technology issues)
  5. Tell them this is their homework (give some sort of sheet or report to fill in like these EL Reports, so they have notes to refer to for talking about their EL in the next class)
  6. Next lesson: Ask if they had any major problems
  7. Have them talk in pairs (in English) about what they did for EL, and share their experiences (see this EL Discussion handout)
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 most lessons.

Steps 1-4 are done in the first two or three classes as introduction and review/reminder of what, why, and how to do EL. If you don’t have a computer room, you can ask students to use their smartphones. The assumption is that class time is needed to set up, check, and follow up on EL. That is to say, EL is not a thing you can assign for homework and forget about. Also, giving students class time to discuss their EL they had done, is a chance for them to learn about which other sources are interesting, good, or to be avoided. Allow your students to suggest any other new or interesting sources not on the EL list, or establish your class’s own EL library or list of sources.


Blyth, A. (2012) Extensive listening vs. listening strategies: Response to Seigel. ELT Journal, 66 (2), 236-239.

Field, J. (2008a) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lynch. T (2009). Teaching Second Language Listening. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Renandya, W., and Farrell, T. (2011). ‘Teacher, the tape is too fast!’ Extensive listening in ELT. ELT Journal, 65(1), 52-59.

Listening isn’t the opposite of speaking

A lot of people think that listening is the opposite of speaking. A lot of people also believe that when they listen, their understanding is the same as what the speaker intends. Sadly, both of these assumptions are not true. Phonologists and linguists, Boersma and Hamann (2009) in their model of listening demonstrate that the listening process is not the same as speaking, just run backwards. Instead, listening is an independent process of interpreting sounds and matching them to words. Wydell (2006), and other researchers say that vocabulary is stored as phonological objects in our heads. That means it’s easy to make listening mistakes, like “assist a passenger” and “a sister passenger” (Field, 2003), which changes the whole meaning of the conversation. Even if you hear the words correctly, you still have the problem of understanding what the speaker intends. A person might say “I like it”, but depending on the intonation, the meaning can change (Halliday and Greaves, 2008). Finally, while listening, we interpret other people’s meaning mainly based on what we think they mean. Often, the intended message is accurately received, but not always, and this is where miscommunication often begins. So, this is why we should always double check our understanding, and always ask if we think something isn’t quite right. A good practice in business is right after a phone call is to write an email saying thanks for your time, and with a summary of the phone call. This gives the other person a chance to respond and correct any potential misunderstandings.

Speaking and perception
Speaking and perceptions, from anon.


Boersma, P., and Hamann, S. (2009). Introduction: models of phonology in perception. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gryuter. In P. Boersma, and S, Hamann (eds). Phonology in Perception, p. 1-24. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gryuter

Field, J. (2003) Promoting perception: lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57(4), p. 325-334

Halliday, M., and Greaves, W. (2008) Intonation in the Grammar of English. London, UK: Equinox.

Wydell, T. (2006) Lexical access. In P. Li (General Editor), and M. Nakayama, R. Mazuka, Y. Shirai (eds). The Handbook of East Asian Psycholinguistics, Volume II, Japanese, p241-248. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Photo found at:

Language comprehension

I love these internet pictures, and I’ve written about them before (5 things every new teacher needs to know). Often they include quotes and ideas on how to live a better life. Here is one that resonates so much in not just language, but human relations, too. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students do have listening problems, and do need to improve their listening skills. However, it’s not always a lack of listening skills (both top-down and bottom-up), it can also be how information is perceived and integrated into your comprehension of the conversation. I also teach student-teachers from the UK, and I’ve noticed that sometimes the notes they take don’t quite match what I said. Listening is a complex thing. Words spoken does not equal words understood. We hear the words, but we don’t always take in what the speaker says, but instead, we interpret what we think the speaker is meaning, and sometimes what we think the speaker means is dependent on what we understand or are prepared for. There’s a lot more that can be said on this. Look up Fodor’s Language of Thought (LOT) and Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom.

I'm only responsible for what I say; not for what you understand.
I’m only responsible for what I say; not for what you understand.

New ways of teaching listening at Nagoya JALT

I’ll be presenting New ways of teaching listening at Nagoya JALT ( on Sunday the 15th June at the Nagoya International Centre, from 1.30pm to 4pm. See my resource page on the day to get a copy of the slides for your own reference, Winjeel.Com/Research/Teaching_Listening.

Winjeel.Com ScreenShot
Winjeel.Com ScreenShot

Listening and Reading Vocabulary at JALT

In less than two weeks my research partner and I will be presenting at the next Japan Associaton of Language Teacher’s annual conference. The topic is Japanese EFL Students’ Listening and Reading Vocabulary, and follow the link for details of time and place. As far as we can tell, we are the first to find a way to directly measure the difference between the lexical access Japanese students have in both visual and aural domains; and there does appear to be a difference. This is a pilot study, and so we are looking forward to hearing from the audience their views about it. So far, we are planning to expand the project and tweek it for another run in  April and later years, too… tbc.

Teaching Listening

I’m glad that I’m able to get out and share my message of “New Ways of Teaching Listening” with people. The JALT2012 conference last year was a short presentation, but allowed me to connect with people. On Saturday the 20th July I presented at Gifu JALT, and this time I had time to more fully explain where I’m coming from. For many teachers in ELT, teaching listening is giving students comprehension questions, playing a CD, and then checking the answers; this is not teaching listening, but testing it. So I feel I’ve become a kind of evangelist for both finding ways to actually teach listening, and then sharing the reasons why. As for the how, that’s slow coming. I don’t want to say too much on what I think is good, our industry had too much of that in the past, but instead I try to be evidence-driven: sharing ideas that have some evidence of positive effect on students. Thanks to Gifu JALT for gaving me the opportunity to start to share that message, the presentation wasn’t as smooth as I’d like it to have been, but it was valuable practice.

New Ways of Teaching Listening icon
New Ways of Teaching Listening

The Teaching Listening web page includes two PowerPoint presentations (in pdf form), audio recordings of the presentation (hosted on SoundCloud), and some resources that can be deployed by teachers on Monday morning. I hope to repeat (and refine) this presentation in the future, so the page is in a state of perpetual “under construction“.

Teaching listening: An intro

It’s interesting what different teachers think of when you ask them “How do you teach listening?”. This question was asked of some teachers who were kind enough to lend their time to me for the 2011 article I published in the KOTESOL proceedings (details). However, since then I’ve been able to ask more people, both formally and informally about this.

For both teachers and students, ‘teaching listening’ almost invariably means a set predetermined time in a lesson, often dictated by the textbook, and an audio cd that accompanies the textbook. So, listening might take up, possibly, just ten minutes of the lesson. Furthermore, often (thankfully not always), teaching listening means playing a CD and checking the accompanying comprehension questions afterwards. This is not actually teaching listening, but testing listening.

To teach something, the usual procedure is to provide instructional input first, provide scaffolded practice, and then test its acquisition (often at the end of semester). Why have we skipped the first two steps, when we have elaborate, well honed techniques for teaching grammar, for instance?

John Field (in his 2008 book), tells us that early listening pedagogy was adopted from reading pedagogy. In the late 1960’s early 1970’s expensive audio labs were installed in schools, and managers expected that we would make good use of them, but how? Of course busy teachers would just adapt techniques that were already within their pedagogical repertoire. As a consequence, many of our listening textbooks are structured like this, still.

So, how should we teach listening? Well, there are many things we can do. However, I’d rather make efficient use of class time, so I’d like to avoid the activities and techniques that are not effective, or worse still, damaging (there is some evidence that some listening activities has some negative consequence, more on that later).

So, what works? So far, in my research teaching pronunciation seems to be it. Or, using pronunciation as a vehicle for instructing listening. So this is the starting point of many articles on this topic that will follow on this blog. So, more to come.