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Teaching Exam Listening

Teaching Exam Listening

For learners preparing to take Cambridge exams in Italy, listening is notoriously the most difficult skill. This is backed up by their own admissions and the usually-less-than-borderline results they get in the exam-style listening activities they do in class. I’ve recently picked up an intensive 20-hour, 8-week Cambridge FCE preparation course comprised of students who failed the exam in June this year, all of them dragged below the pass mark by poor listening. I’ve invested lots of time in thinking about how I can improve their listening ability, but whatever creative way I try to practise this skill I seem to constantly run into a brick wall, not just in terms of marks, but student engagement too.

So this article is an attempt to explain why this might be happening.

Italians are already on the back foot

There are factors out of my control in Italy that just don’t allow for the development of listening skills in English. For a start, Anglophone films and TV series, a rich source of language input, are dubbed into Italian rather than subtitled. Also, the English taught at schools in Italy still follows a method from the dark ages of EFL, in which lessons are based around grammar-translation.

Indeed, most students will have probably have never heard any form of authentic English in the classroom. Finally, exams across all fields and levels in the Italian educations system are based around memorising and regurgitating precise details, often meaning the bigger picture is ignored. In terms of listening, this results in students having an obsession with having to understand every word they hear, and when they don’t, panic ensues and their comprehension shuts down.

Nevertheless, as teachers we can’t blame student performance on circumstances such as those above and instead must look for ways to help our exam students eke out those vital marks to push them over the line in their quest for their Cambridge pass certificate. How can we do this?

Listening will improve by listening, or maybe not

There is often an assumption made by some EFL teachers that students will improve their aural comprehension by simply listening again and again and doing exam practice after exam practice. Of course, this theory that practice makes perfect is not without foundation. If students are immersed in an English-speaking environment 24-hours a day, constantly exposed to the language, then eventually their ear will be become better trained.

But I can tell you from experience that this process takes months or years. So imagine how long it will take if your only source of listening is 40 minutes per week of contrived recordings designed to trick you into putting the wrong answer! It’s clearly an uphill task. I’ve long since become an advocate of teaching over testing thanks in no small part to Prodromou’s (1995) musings. Teaching over testing applies not only to grammar and vocabulary, but to the four classic skills too.

How to teach listening and how it doesn’t always work

I’ve read a wonderful series of articles on this website written by Hall Houston in which he describes interesting ways to carry out listening tasks in the pre, while and post stages and I’ve also perused ‘Teaching Exam Classes’ by Peter May (1996), in an attempt to find some inspiration. I must admit that I found Hall’s suggestions particularly useful for setting up activities, and May’s insightful for getting into the nitty-gritty of exam strategies. However, a limitation of the former is the squeeze on time that I have on this intensive course and an issue with the latter is that students don’t seem to be able to put into practice what we’ve learnt when I leave them to fend for themselves during listening.

Let me explain.

These students on the intensive FCE course ‘have been there and done it’ in terms of the FCE exam and are just looking to pick up those few points to get hold of their B2 certificate. Many of them share the belief with aforementioned practitioners that continual listening will get them to the required level and don’t seem able to adapt their approach to listening. I’ll outline some of the methods of I’ve been trying and what has happened.

  •  Method: Pre-teaching key vocab that will crop up during the listening by getting students to match it up with synonyms and definitions, and then using it in short production activities to check understanding.

Result: They seem to have understood the new vocabulary in the pre-teach phase. But then they either aren’t hearing the language I’ve pre-taught them or are not realising its relevance.

  • Method: Predicting possible answers to gap-fills (Part 2) or interview questions (Part 4). The former involves identifying what category of lexis might be mentioned and the latter answering the task question as if the interviewee.

Result: For Part 2, they seem devoid of ideas and don’t appear to see the point of doing it. In Part 4, although they actively take part in the prediction and often chance upon the correct answer that will come up on the listening, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will get it right when listening.

  • Method: Picking out discourse markers, such as ‘but the most important was’ and ‘although X, Y was’ in scripts after listening (to help with a future class) and pre-teaching those that will appear in the listening of the current lesson in order to distinguish between correct answers and red herrings.

Results: They do this very effectively when reading a script and discussing discourse markers before listening, but fail to pick up on them during the actual recording.

  • Method: Reading the questions and taking notes on what you hear before seeing the multiple choice options, then hearing a second time with options.

Result: When listening and taking ‘free’ notes, the students usually hit upon the right answer and confirm it when seeing options, but when doing listening under exam conditions, they don’t take notes at all and are often less successful.

For whatever reason, for the most part it seems that all of these strategies and tips go out of the window when it actually comes to listening under exam conditions. It’s as if being in an exam situation causes students to disregard any listening strategies I’ve taught them and they revert back to being overwhelmed by not understanding every single word that is said.

A comparison with a new FCE group

At the moment I also happen to have an FCE group who passed their PET (B1) exams earlier this year and are thus comparatively unfamiliar with the new exam format. The abovementioned methods work a treat with them and on the surface it would seem that their listening is a lot better. They are able to take more detailed notes, and seem more able to pick out pre-taught vocabulary items and discourse markers and realise how they affect their answers. Granted, there may be other factors involved in the two groups’ performance, but logic suggests that 18-year olds who have been studying FCE for at least a year should be better listeners than a post-PET group of 15 year-olds.

A possible explanation: fossilisation and pressure

I would dare say that the intensive group have a ‘fossilised’ approach to listening, much in the same way as the term is often used to describe the way students systematically make grammar and vocabulary errors when producing English. I think that in being more open to new methods, the younger FCE group are able to put them into practice more effectively than the older group which reverts back to their own way of doing things.

The nature of the course has a lot to do with it too. In an intensive course where the pressure is on, students may feel they don’t have time to try out new strategies, believing a new approach may not pay off, and they instead stick to the principle of gradually improving listening by simply listening. On the other hand, the less experienced group don’t feel such pressure and trying something new is a free hit as there is no exam looming on the horizon and subsequent pressure to succeed.


As with language acquisition in general, the more time you have to practice something and the more times you are exposed to an item such as a discourse marker or new vocabulary, the more likely it is to stick. So perhaps I should have a little patience.

However, the fundamental point I’m trying to make here is that students have to be willing to improve their listening sub-skills in new ways and need to move away from the ‘practice makes perfect’ mantra.

Have any other teachers experienced this? And would you agree that that skills and approaches can become fossilised as well as language?


  • May, P. (1996). Exam Classes; Oxford: OUP.
  • Prodromou, L. (1995). The Backwash Effect: from Testing to Teaching, ELT Journal Volume 49/1 (13-24); Oxford: OUP.

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