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An introduction to listening sub-skills

Aims

To learn about listening sub-skills

To think about which listening sub-skills we use in different situations

Materials required
None
Appropriate for
Trainee teachers / New teachers
Listening is one of the four language macroskills (the others are reading, speaking and writing).
But its important to understand that in real life theres no such thing as just listening. In fact,
there are several different kinds of listening, which we call sub-skills. Here are three listening
sub-skills which are often practised in the language classroom:

Listening for gist. This is when we listen to something to get a general idea of what its
about, of whats being said. We dont want or need to understand every word. Example:
listening to a summary of the days news on the radio.

Listening for specific information. This is when we listen to something because we want to
discover a particular piece of information. We know in advance what were hoping to find
out. We can ignore other information which doesnt interest us. Example: listening to a
weather report to find out about the weather in your part of the country.

Listening in detail. This is when we listen we listen very closely, paying attention to all the
words and trying to understand as much information as possible. Example: a member of a
jury listening to a statement from a witness.

Task
Think about these listening situations. In your opinion, which listening sub-skill(s) would we
normally use in each situation? Why? Complete the table, then compare your ideas with the
suggested answers.
Note: more than one answer may be possible. Sometimes different people might listen in
different ways, or they might start listening using one sub-skill and then switch to another.
Situation

Listening
sub-skill(s)

1. Youre at the airport,


listening for information
about your flight.
2. Youre in a city that you
dont know. Youve asked
someone for directions to
your hotel.
3. Youre listening to a song
on the radio.
4. Youre chatting to an old
friend and exchanging news.
5. Youre paying for your
shopping at the

Reasons

supermarket.
Suggested answers
Situation

Listening

Reasons

sub-skill(s)
1. Youre at the airport,

For specific

Youre only interested in your own

listening for information

information,

flight. Then, when your flight is

about your flight.

then in detail

mentioned, you listen carefully for


information about the boarding gate,
possible delays, etc.

2. Youre in a city that you

In detail

Its important that you understand all

dont know. Youve asked

the directions. If you miss a detail, the

someone for directions to

directions will be difficult or impossible

your hotel.

to follow.

3. Youre listening to a song

For gist

The answer here depends on the

on the radio.

(or in detail?)

listener and the song! You might be


happy with a general impression of
what a song is about, or you might
want to understand all the lyrics.

4. Youre chatting to an old

For gist

friend and exchanging news. and / or in detail

It depends how interested you are in


your friends news and perhaps how it
relates to you. Maybe you listen to
some parts for gist and other parts in
more detail.

5. Youre paying for your

For specific

Youre waiting to hear how much you

shopping at the

information

have to pay. You may also be expecting

supermarket.

particular questions (Do you have a


loyalty card? Would you like a bag?
etc.)

Further reading
Harmer, J., (2007) How to Teach English (new edition), Pearson-Longman, chapter 10.
Harmer, J., (2010) The Practice of English Language Teaching (Fourth Edition), PearsonLongman, chapters 16, 18.
Scrivener, J., (2011) Learning Teaching (Third Edition), Macmillan Education chapter 10.
Wilson, J.J., (2008) How to Teach Listening, Pearson Longman.