What is listening?

elt listening Aug 13, 2021

by Dr Jeremy Koay


I was once asked to transcribe a 3-minute long news recording. I played the recording and I could fully understand the news. However, when I started transcribing it word for word, I discovered very quickly that some words were not clear. This experience suggests that it is not always necessary to process every word to comprehend a piece of spoken language.

When learners do not understand what they listen to, some (even learners themselves) put the blame on learners’ language proficiency level. Some claim that vocabulary knowledge is central to listening skills. While vocabulary is important, I am yet to be convinced that it is the main aspect of listening.


Listening, either one-way (e.g., lecture) or interactive (e.g., conversation), is always an active event. In other words, listeners are not passive recipients. In a conversation, for example, listeners ask questions when a speaker’s message is perceived as unclear. This implies that both listeners and speakers are active participants in a communicative event.

Genre and topic familiarity are arguably the most important factors for effective listening (Vandergrift, 2007). If learners are familiar with a news genre, for example, they can anticipate information such as descriptions of an event and people involved. While genre familiarity allows learners to recognise typical discourse markers (e.g., the most important reason is, my second point is), which helps learners to identify main ideas more effectively; topic familiarity enables learners to guess meaning of unfamiliar words.


As active participants, listeners draw on their experience to make sense of what they listen to. This suggests that it is useful for learners to monitor their listening comprehension by making predictions and evaluating the consistency of their predictions (Vandergrift, 1999).

Because genre and topic familiarity are important aspects of listening, pre-listening activities play a crucial role in a listening lesson (Vandergrift, 1999). Such activities should be thoughtfully designed to strategically introduce learners to genre features and listening topics.


Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating second language listening comprehension: Acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53(3), 168-176.

Vandergrift, L. (2007). Recent developments in second and foreign language listening comprehension research. Language Teaching, 40(3), 191-210.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/LeventeGyori