The challenge of listening in class

International students typically feel much more confident reading and writing because they can work at their own pace, reread, and rewrite. Speaking and listening, however, must be processed in real-time and given that most of students’ class time is spent listening and that the information gained is crucial for their academic success, listening is a foremost concern. Furthermore, before students came to the US, they usually had many opportunities to read and write formal English, but very few chances to listen interactively (as opposed to the less-interactive nature of media consumption) to long stretches of English.

If an international student is clearly struggling to understand the spoken English in your class, here are some tips for the student and for you.

Tips for students (listening)

    • Carefully complete all assigned reading in advance of class meetings, keep a journal of new content vocabulary, and practice pronouncing these words. All of this will make it easier to hear and understand these words when they are used in class. Research into the connection between vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension has reported that anywhere from 35% to 50% of the variance in listening comprehension is due to the breadth (mostly) and depth of vocabulary knowledge though good listeners can compensate for lack of vocabulary by inferencing and focusing on the main idea rather than specific details (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, pp. 59-60). Likewise, this pre-lecture study provides background knowledge that plays a “crucial role in listening comprehension” (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, p. 67).
    • Sign up for the Conversation Partners program—the best practice for listening and speaking is to listen and speak to a real person.
    • Ask professors if they will allow you to audio record class lectures. This practice has many benefits: 1) the student can listen to the lecture again to pick up any missed content and grasp the overall structure of the discourse, 2) when listening again, the student can familiarize him/herself with difficult pronunciations that are particular to the course content and professor, thus, making these easier to process in the future, 3) the mere presence of the recording device will help the listener stay focused on the overall goal of comprehending class content, 4) the reassurance offered in #1 leads to less anxiety while listening; research into L2 listening has revealed that the anxiety learners feel because of the pressure to understand a lecture in real-time with no second-chances is a significant distraction from the task at hand: listening for meaning. The recording gives them the freedom to listen for the main ideas and be part of the class because they have the confidence and self-efficacy to go back later and pick up details.
    • Be a metacognitive listener: come to a lecture ready to employ your vocabulary, knowledge of lecture structure and style, discourse signals, and inferencing skills to draw content meaning about the day’s topic. Research shows that students who employ a bit of self-monitoring (conscious attention to listening strategies) have better comprehension and retention.
  • Watch English movies, and experiment with turning the subtitles on or off. Watch a scene  without subtitles and see how much you understand, then watch it again with subtitles, and again without. Watch the movie in pieces or the whole thing then later again with or without subtitles. Note: courtroom dramas like A Few Good MenPresumed Innocent, JFKTo Kill a Mockingbird, etc. will have scenes of extended ‘lecture-style’ speech that is similar in formality and logical development to classroom discourse—much more than the informal conversation typical of TV sitcoms.

A note on grammar (syntax): quite a lot of research has demonstrated that for language learners, focusing on the function words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions) and syntax of sentences in lectures is less important and even a distraction from grasping the meaning. Rather, students should be advised to focus on the global meaning as emphasized in key words and phrases. (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, pp. 61-62)

On the other hand, students should be directed to pay attention to discourse structure signals in lectures (“First, let’s look at…” “To sum up so far…” “and, to repeat…” “but more importantly…” etc.). If students have an idea of the overall schema, or script knowledge, of how academic lectures typically develop, these phrases provide important signals to logical development, emphasis, and meaning structure. This is also why it is very beneficial for teachers to provide an outline of lectures for international students to follow along with.

Tips for teachers during lectures

    • Slow down.
    • Provide concrete examples for any difficult concepts.
    • Use visual aids.
    • Provide an outline of the lecture for students to follow or use for note-taking.
  • Be aware that cultural references (including most jokes) will not only not be understood, but will make international students feel even more like outsiders. In Patricia Duff’s (2004) analysis of classroom interaction (cited in Ortega, 2009), she found that the teachers and native speakers would tell jokes and anecdotes and structure their discussions around what they assumed were common knowledge references to television, celebrities, and current events. While such talk can effectively connect academic subjects to relevant personal knowledge, for the ELLs “such talk only served to silence them and weaken their learning of the subject matter. Interestingly, none of the participants in these classrooms showed much awareness of just how difficult these interaction events were: fast-paced, full of slang and with many speakers contributing at the same time. Instead, the silence of the ESL peers was interpreted by the teachers, the … [domestic] students, and even the ESL students themselves, as shyness and limited language ability, attributes associated with dominant ideologies of ‘being Asian’ and ‘being a newcomer’” (Ortega, 2009, p. 238).


Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action. New York: Routledge.

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London: Hodder.

Duff, P. A. (2004). Intertextuality and hybrid discourses: The infusion of pop culture in educational discourse. Linguistics and Education, 14(3/4), 231-76.