5 Tips for teachers to sharpen their listening skills

As language teachers, we tend to think of listening as a skill for students, but are we forgetting that as teachers, listening is equally, if not more important? Many teachers like to be heard, and focus so much on their teaching that perhaps they do not consider the learning that is (or isn’t) taking place right in front of them.

The best way to gauge how much your students are getting from your classes is to keep your ears open and listen to them more!

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Some benefits of being a good listener as you teach are:

1. Getting evidence of learning

How do you know what your students are picking up from your classes? Do you teach away and then wait for test results at the end of the week, month or term? What if that’s too late, and your learners are under-performing at that point? By allowing students to speak out their answers (both correct and incorrect), allowing time for them to discuss what they are learning, and by considering the answers they give you, you can measure how strongly they are progressing in the areas that you are teaching.

Give opportunities for your learners to check their answers in pairs before reporting back to class, and move silently around the room as they talk. What you hear may surprise you. After all, when the stress of speaking in open class in front of everyone is removed, they may have the confidence to let go and speak more freely, thus showing their true, uninhibited level of performance.

2. Noticing and addressing errors

Error correction is an incredibly important part of language teaching, and a skill which starts with listening for accuracy as students speak.

The three typical stages to error correction start with identification: what is the error, where did it come from, and is it problematic enough to address.

Second, highlight the error to the student (without jumping in with a correction yourself). Use a gesture or facial expression to show that something was not ideal in the sentence, and ask the student to rephrase.

Finally, address the error by giving a correction, or by opening up the sentence for others int he class to correct. This corrective process may take a little longer than simply correcting students outright, but it integrates teacher-student and student-student listening, consideration and analysis into the daily interaction of the classroom. Without a careful ear, this is simply not possible.

3. Validating student ideas

Much of what students say in the language classroom is assessed for accuracy based on the topic of the lesson, and little other attention is given to student-produced ideas.

With a little more sensitivity and an open ear, however, you might find that your learners have some interesting and generative ideas that can be picked up and used to develop more interesting directions in your classes.

Find areas of interest for your learners, and challenge them with motivating topics and discussions, and they are much more likely to produce genuine statements that are more meaningful for everyone.

Listen out for what they want to talk about, and develop teaching ideas from there, to increase motivation and therefore performance.

4. Increasing student talk time

Without student talk time, there is little room for deep, all-round language development. It is the production of ideas, discussions and sentence examples that gives learners the opportunity to try out what they are learning in a meaningful context.

The more a teacher talks, the less time and space there is for student interaction, so learn to step back, close your mouth and open your ears to what is being said around the classroom as students are talking, and you will find a hundred opportunities for teaching to the needs of the class.

Let students make mistakes for the sake of fluency and demonstrated learning (as in 1), above), and you will pick up a lot of need points which will help your students develop their language.

5. Enabling extended student turns

Related to student talk time is the length of sentences and conversational turns which students take in the classroom. Again, due to the dominant role of many language teachers, student turns are often reduced to simple one-word answers or sentences read out from worksheets.

This is not enough to guarantee personalised language development, flexibility with language or the ability to speak with confidence. Rather than true-false, yes-no answers, encourage students to talk about why they suggested the answers that they did, or how they found the answer in the text.

Higher-order questions such as these will prompt longer, more critical output for learners, an excellent way to increase independent speaking, confidence and critical/evaluative thinking with new language.

By listening more carefully to student explanations and reasoning (rather than the answers to questions which you already know), you can find out more about their study strategies and the processes that go on in their heads as they are working through the tasks you set.

This information is invaluable if you are preparing students for assessments or exams, and again can give you ideas of strategies to focus on in future classes.


Overall, the importance of openness to your students’ words, ideas and processes is huge. Without this information, you are not teaching individuals with their own ways of seeing the world, but training them to depend on correct answers and your input, which will unfortunately not be there for them in their exams, future study or in the real world at the end of their education.

Be a good listener, make notes of key points to pick up later, and allow students to go further than what is necessary to answer the questions on the worksheet, and their motivation to speak will increase, leading to higher performance in the end.

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This article was originally published on December 10, 2018 and was last updated on December 17, 2020.

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