Do Your Students Know These 3 Secrets to Successful Listening Comprehension? What to Keep An Ear Out For

Do Your Students Know These 3 Secrets to Successful Listening Comprehension? What to Keep An Ear Out For

Listening comprehension can be, for ESL students, one of the most difficult aspects of language fluency. Words written on a page are one thing, but a set of sounds thrown out into the air can be far more confusing.

Even if a nonnative speaker understands all the vocabulary and grammar that a native speaker is using, if he can’t decipher the aural clues the speaker is giving, all his book knowledge will be for nothing. To make sure your students are ready to tackle the challenge of listening to a native speaker, point out these clues to keep an ear out for.

Do Your Students Know These 3 Secrets to Successful Listening Comprehension?

  1. 1

    Word Stress

    Speakers naturally stress the more important words in their speech, and they do so without a conscious thought. Sometimes, understanding which words are stressed can make the difference when it comes to understanding what a native speaker is trying to say. Stressed words are important words. English speakers stress words by using careful pronunciation, a higher pitch and a higher volume. When your ESL students are listening to native speakers, they should listen for the words that stand out. These are often clues to understanding what the speaker is trying to say.

    Sometimes, a stressed word can determine the meaning of a sentence, and if the listener misses that word they might completely misunderstand the message. For example, “I can help you.” and “I can’t help you.” sound almost identical expect for the stress on can’t. The negative modal is important information in the sentence, and most speakers will enunciate the vowel more for the negative form.

    Word stress can also give clues for unusual grammatical constructions. Phrasal verbs are a perfect example. These verb phrases are often a verb paired with a preposition. When these prepositions don’t follow normal grammar rules, a nonnative speaker can easily become confused. Knowing that native speakers usually stress the last word of a phrasal verb will clue listeners in when they hear a phrasal verb new to them.

  2. 2


    Reductions are a natural speech modification by native speakers. Words and syllables are reduced and often blur together. “I could have gone” becomes “I coulda gone”. Modal verbs are often the greatest targets for reduction though they are by no means the only ones. For English students who study reductions, knowing how to translate reduced phrases to grammatically correct word combinations can be the key to comprehension. Students who have no experience with reductions may have to ask for clarification several times before they understand a native speaker’s speech. Students who wish to sound as fluent as possible should practice using reductions, but all ESL students should become familiar with reduction patterns to make sure their listening comprehension is top notch. (For more information, read Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: How to Teach Reductions.)

  3. 3

    Sentence Intonation

    Sentence intonation does more than make a language sound pretty. Sometimes the most important information in a sentence is in how the speaker uses inflection in the delivery. For example, a sentence may be a statement according to its grammar, but inflection makes it a question. “So you’re studying English?” Rising intonation at the end of the sentence makes this statement into a question. Likewise, a single word can be a question when it uses rising intonation. “Do you like tomatoes? Cucumbers?” Effective listeners need to recognize this intonation pattern so they can respond appropriately during discourse.

    Imperative statements offer grammatical clues when they drop the “you”, but recognizing the intonation can also clue a listener in that action is required. A stress at the beginning of the statement followed by falling intonation signals that the speaker has an expectation of the listener. Recognizing this intonation pattern will confirm for the listener that a command has been given.

    Sarcasm doesn’t come through in writing, and if a listener does not know the intonation clues it may not come through in speaking, either. One key clue to understanding sarcasm is recognizing that inflection and intonation are the opposite of what they should be. Rising intonation on a stressed word rather than falling intonation, for example, signal that the speaker means the opposite of what he is saying. Monotone delivery can also signal sarcasm, and effective listeners should be able to recognize these patterns.

Listening can be a challenge for even the most fluent ESL students. When they understand the finer points of speech along with the more common ones, your students will be effective and successful listeners.

What listening constructions present your students with the most challenges?

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