Listening for learning

Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,
Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

This post is in response to Nathan Hall’s invitation to take part in an ELT Research Blog Carnival. The first topic is ‘listening’.

In a recent post, the Secret DOS asks, along with many other questions, if there is any more to language learning than memorisation, regurgitation and evaluation. I’d say there is. What that more is, though, may depend on who’s doing the learning and on what and why they want to learn. An essential element, however, must be that learners develop an understanding of how the language is used in different contexts and for different purposes by reading and listening to what and how things are written or said in that language.

But how do we cover all the many possible contexts learners will want to participate in? There isn’t enough time. There are too many learners. Their motivations, interests and goals are too diverse. Well, we don’t. Realistically, we can’t.

We can, however, help learners to apply what they do with us to what they want or need to be able to do in other areas of their lives. Some learners will do this naturally. Others will need support, guidance and encouragement.

With the limited time available to meet face-to-face in many contexts, we can try to expand the learning time by encouraging and guiding learners to take advantage of the language around them to get a feel for how language is used in a variety of contexts, to develop language skills and also to become more aware of their learning. (Even when time isn’t limited, this seems like a good thing to do!)

Jenny Kemp (2010) reports on a study of listening logs kept by students as part of a listening skills module. Essentially listening-focused learning diaries, the listening logs were used by students to record at least five listening experiences per week over the course of eight weeks. Information recorded in the logs included details of the activity – date, source and what happened – and a reflection on the experience. Learners could choose what kinds of listening they included according to their own interests, goals and lives. Any listening activity could be included – listening to songs, topping up mobile phones, a listening task found online, etc. Learners were asked to think about the types and variety of listening they do and how easy or difficult each experience was. They considered how factors such as accent, speed, background noise, interest or tiredness affected their ability to participate in the listening event. They reflected on how they responded, if they enjoyed it, if it was useful and what they would do differently when next in a similar situation.

The accounts in the listening logs showed that learners were aware of their language abilities and learning processes. Whether this awareness was developed through the listening and recording activities or whether learners already had a good understanding of this is not clear. However, having a record did seem to make it easier for them to recognise progress between instances of similar activities.

“This time it was better because I already knew what the machine was going to ask me, although I think that I can understand it much better than before.” (Learner 2)

They showed an understanding of what makes an experience more difficult and of the strategies they could employ to make it easier.  Instances where learners simply recorded their problems were opportunities for the teacher to offer feedback and advice.

One of the aims of the listening logs was that, as learners developed metacognitive awareness, they would be more able to take control, make decisions and direct their own learning and development. The entries provided evidence that learners anticipated difficulties in particular situations and took action to minimise these or that they set themselves learning challenges to move towards their goals. “Next time I’ll make my mind work harder, no subtitles” (Learner 9). Learners also recorded an awareness of the new language that they were learning from their listening activities.

Kemp found that the listening logs provide insights into students’ motivation for learning English through the situations they choose to participate in and their reflections on the experiences. The logs can also, she argues, “be instrumental in [motivation’s] generation”.

Keeping the logs seems to increase learners’ awareness of their language ability and learning processes and strategies, allowing them to use those insights to make decisions about future learning and language use.  It encourages learners to take control over their own learning and to recognise progress in areas that are relevant and important to them.

As Kemp writes in the introduction to the article:

“As language teachers, our goal should be to provide these learners not only with transferable skills but also with guidance, to raise their awareness and enable them to become independent learners who are able to exploit the potential learning situations in which they find themselves.”

Jenny Kemp’s consideration of the entries in her students’ listening logs provides us with insights into the thinking and learning processes of her learners. It contributes to our understanding of the diversity of learner motivations, preferences and experiences and were we to read similar accounts from our own learners, we would be in a better position to advise, guide and provide input related to their own particular contexts and goals.


Kemp, J. (2010). The Listening Log: motivating autonomous learning. ELT Journal, 64(4), 385-95.

22 thoughts on “Listening for learning

  1. Excellent post, Carol! This topic has been on my mind a great deal lately. Great article and a fine example of what I was envisioning for this blog carnival. I will be thinking about this for a while. Thank you.


    1. Many thanks, Nathan, both for this comment and for starting the ELT Research Blog Carnival. I’ve enjoyed browsing articles and thinking about the topic.I’ll look forward to contributions from others.


  2. Interesting. I’ve found that with listening logs, it’s important to scaffold this task a bit, e.g. give students a small selection of types of listenings to choose from; give guided questions for them to answer about what they’ve listened to; broaden things up once learners are responding in the metacognitive way you intend. Without doing so, the majority of my students have written very superficial comments e.g. “I watched an episode of Friends today. It was very difficult to understand.”


    1. Thanks for this, Tyson. I’ve been giving it some thought. What kind of guided questions do you give? Are they along the lines of the questions condensed into the fifth paragraph above covering things such as accent, speed, tiredness, interest etc or something different?

      I think you’re right that it’s important to scaffold the activity by asking good questions and that learners often have to be prompted (pushed?) to put more effort into their evaluations. I have to admit, though, that one of the things that really appealed to me about Jenny Kemp’s account was the fact that learners choose from the things they need or want to listen to anyway and start to see these all as learning opportunities. I’d also be interested in getting a better idea of what kinds of things they are doing – partly to do with me being nosy, partly to help me link what I do with them to what they do. I’d be worried that if I limit the types of listenings, learners wouldn’t be as motivated. I would, though, discuss the kinds of things that they could include.

      I’ll keep thinking. Many thanks for your advice!


  3. Hi Carol,

    I think one of the great things about this post, and Kemp’s listening logs in general, is the highlighting the need to be aware of how a student is listening and to find out what went wrong during the listening act. When our students are engaged in listening in the L2, they are trying so hard to understand what they are listening to, that they rarely have the resources to focus on just why they can’t hear something in particular. With both listening and reading, the main ways we assess understanding (writing a summary, answering comprehension questions) test what our students could understand without necessarily getting at why they couldn’t understand.

    I think that Tyson has a good point as well. Probably students will need some guidance in understanding where they are having problems. With much listening, our students might not realize why they can’t hear what they are listening to. For example, connected speech might just sound like so much gibberish to a student, but once you point out the elisions and assimilations in a chunk of text, they can start focusing in on that stumbling block. A listening log provides both the teacher and the student a chance to real find out what is going wrong when listening.

    Thanks for an interesting read.



    1. Hi Kevin,

      Many thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear from you!

      I completely agree with you and Tyson when you say that the students will need guidance. As you point out, they will most likely need help in understanding the reality of spoken communication with its connected speech, sentence and syllable stress, range of accents, structure and lexis, etc.

      They also, I think, need to be realistic about their participation in the experience itself. Are they really listening? Or, are they thinking about what they’re going to say when the other person’s finished? Do their thoughts drift as they’re listening and they miss a lot of what’s been said? Is the accent so difficult to understand that they just hope the person’s said what they expected they would given the context? Or, are they unfamiliar with the context and so the structure and content of the interaction is too new to them to take it all in at first? These are difficulties I’ve had in listening situations as a competent user of the language, but I imagine second language learners may put all difficulties down to their language abilities or – as they may see it – lack thereof!

      So, yes, I absolutely agree that we need to be providing guidance – about language knowledge, language development, types of listening, strategy use, etc – pointing out what they can do and helping when with what they find difficult.

      I think it’s really important and I’m very grateful to you and Tyson for highlighting it as it probably hasn’t come across well enough in the post.

      Thank you!



  4. When I first moved to Spain to study in a University my school included a, “culture class.” It was later explained that this class was added because without they found students went straight into courses, were overwhelmed and homesick and thus went home. This class had a lot of assignments like, “Go to a museum and find this piece of art.” or “Keep track of five new words you hear”(since Spain and Mexican Spanish had quite a few differences). We also had to keep something similar to a listening log. I really enjoyed it, but never thought about using it with my students since I am in a place where English isn’t spoken. I hadn’t even thought of using it so they could do it with movies, TV, or radio! Thanks for the great push to get my wheels turning again!


  5. Interesting idea, those listening logs. I taught ESL for many years but never used those. I did incorporate some experience related activities though as mentioned above. Those definitely helped. Good post and comments. Thanks!


    1. Hi Ron. Many thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and comments. It’s interesting to hear that you found experience related activities helped. It’s something I’d like to do more of with my learners.


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