Getting the General Gist (and More): Issues for Intermediate ESL Listening

Getting the General Gist (and More): Issues for Intermediate ESL Listening

Intermediate listening skills classes are hard, for both the teacher and the student.

Students have reached that level where they can function in English in a number of day-to-day situations but still have need to improve their language skills to push to the next level, which becomes exponentially more difficult as students progress. In addition, listening skills are among the most ephemeral of language skills: we can tell if someone is speaking, for example, and how well, but gauging if and how well someone is listening is another matter. So teaching listening also can be a challenge as it’s more difficult to gauge student need and progress. Fortunately, there are ways to assess and teach the intermediate learner listening skills so that he or she may move to the next level.

Consider Assessment

  1. Assessment is particularly important at the intermediate level because this level can be the most “diverse” of ESL levels: students may have been classified as “intermediate” because their reading and writing skills are strong, for example, although their speaking and listening skills are weak. Or they may already have strong listening skills but are “intermediate” because their speaking skills are weak. Assessment, and finding where your class falls as a whole as well as where students individual needs are is an important first step in planning. Assessment can take a number of forms.

  2. 1


    Some formal assessment should be done in an ESL intermediate listening class, through responding to short lecturse by taking notes or answering questions posed in an interview, for example. I often assess formally at the beginning of a listening class by having students take notes on a short news story; this will give me an idea of how well they can understand a spoken English text. I also give short quizzes throughout the semester, sometimes once a week, because not only does this inform me of student progress, but also students tend to stay motivated as they are able to see and track their own growth.

  3. 2


    Informal assessment is also important throughout a term, preferably on a daily basis. During group work, walk around and note how well students are following a conversation with their peers. Are they participated or disengaged? Do they seem to struggle? If disengaged from the conversation, listening comprehension might be an issue; motivation might also be a concern. Informal assessment not only gives some idea of individual student progress but also whether the curriculum is working or needs to be adjusted to improve student motivation and progress.

Check Curriculum and Instruction

  1. The curriculum is often a frustration to students at the intermediate level, as they have usually progressed beyond the stage of needing everyday conversation skills and are ready for more academic or Business English material, but the standard textbooks for intermediate ESL learners are often focused on “everyday” survival English. If this is the case for your classroom, consider supplementing with more academic/business English materials: more advanced vocabulary, listening to more complex directions, longer conversations, responding to short lectures, or following the discussion at a meeting, for example, are all items of instruction for ESL intermediate learners.

  2. 1

    More Advanced Vocabulary

    Students at the intermediate level also have a basic spoken vocabulary and need to start adding to that in terms of more advanced academic or business terminology. Consider extending everyday vocabulary by bringing in academic or business vocabulary: a discussion from the textbook on ordering in a restaurant, for example, can lead into more advanced material such as the trials of the restaurant business. Or a simple discussion on the weather can lead to a discussion of more technical nature concerning weather patterns and fronts or extreme weather experienced in some parts of the world, followed by listening to a weather report.

  3. 2

    Listening for Directions

    Directions involving specialized vocabulary and/or multiple steps are difficult for even native speakers of English to follow in their own language, yet this is a necessary skill. One class exercise is having students write out sets of directions for each other, some process they know about. It can be something as easy as making coffee or pumping gas. Then have them give and write down or act out the directions.

  4. 3

    Longer Conversations

    Students at the intermediate level have gone beyond the level of simple greetings and asking for the price of something in a store. They are ready for longer conversations, so go that extra step. Have students practice listening to a longer conversation but still on an everyday or personal topic, and then ask questions to see how much they really understood. Everyday topics may include going beyond asking the price of something to what the terms of its warranty is, for example. Personal topics may move beyond discussing the weather to discussing what schools in the neighborhood are good or where you might be vacationing and why that place was chosen.

Use Mini Academic Lectures or Language for Professional Meetings

Academic lecture as well as business meetings is two language situations that anyone in the English speaking academic or business world will need to participate in. Understanding these genres, and their underlying structure, is important to advancing within the academic and business world. Knowing how a lecture usually proceeds from a general topic to subtopics and specific examples, and uses specific phrases (e.g., “The first point I’d like to make--”) to show this progression, is important to know to be able to follow the lecture. This is also true for professional meetings: students should know how they proceed from opening comments to taking care of old business and the introduction of new business is important to understanding the meeting itself.

The intermediate ESL listening class has potential for many difficulties as listening is hard to assess and teach and the intermediate level is difficult to teach as well because students are typically diverse in skills and needs. However, through some careful planning and assessment/response to student need, the potential pitfalls of intermediate ESL can be avoided and goals achieved.


What are your ideas for teaching intermediate listening?

Like it? Tell your friends: