Teaching Listening When You Really Don’t Have Time to Teach Listening

Teaching Listening When You Really

by Andrew Griffiths, Daejeon Education Training Institute South Korea


Do you ever find yourself having to rush through your textbook in order to finish your unit / course / semester on time? You’re not alone. There are many reasons this happens, but the result is always the same: certain parts of lessons or units end up being neglected.

In my experience, one of the biggest casualties in these instances is the listening section. As listening and speaking are often taught in close proximity or as part of a mixed skills lesson, teachers under a lot of time pressure often speed through the listening section to engage with the speaking material which is (unjustly) seen as more important. This lays unstable foundations for learning, as listening is at the heart of learning a language successfully (Weiler, 2016).

Teaching Listening When You Really

While the acknowledged ‘best practice’ for teaching listening is to focus on understanding gist before listening for detail (Scrivener, 2011), in my opinion, this technique takes too much time to deliver effectively when a teacher is pressed for time. What I am going to propose instead is a ‘mash-up’ technique combining listening for gist and detail (as well as a little post-listening) that results in effective student listening in a relatively short amount of time. The technique is called stair-cased questions.

Pre-Listening: Introducing the Staircase

In stair-cased questions there are three questions:

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  • A basic question, which is designed to elicit the details of the language contained in the material. The typical question I ask is ‘What did you hear?’
  • An intermediate question, which points students towards the gist. The typical question I ask here is ‘What are they talking about?’

These questions are both introduced in the pre-listening stage. They should be written on the board and their meanings checked with the students. There is, however, one final question which is only introduced in the post-listening stage:

  • An advanced question, which stretches student understanding beyond the listening material. Here, the question will vary according to topic.

These questions are pitched at different levels of difficulty, which is already acknowledged as an effective way to differentiate instruction (Lumsden, 2012), but in addition to this, each question also scaffolds and supports the question immediately above it. As a result, stair-cased questions also give students a chance to engage with questions they might typically deem beyond them.

While Listening: Climbing the Staircase

While listening to the material, the teacher should pause and repeat the material. Aside from giving students some breathing space, it also gives the teacher the opportunity to begin to get answers to the first two stair-cased questions. This allows the students to respond to the material ‘as it happens’:

  • The basic question, “What did you hear?” is about listening for detail, but doesn’t burden each individual student to remember all the details of the text: instead, each individual student only has to contribute a single sentence or phrase that they heard, leading to the whole class building up all the phrases and details in the material collectively. The teacher re-writes the sentences on the whiteboard as they are elicited. The key in this activity is that individual effort is pooled, and so the full details of the text can be uncovered by the whole group – while the simplicity of the task is such that even low-ability students can contribute.
  • The intermediate question, “What are they talking about?” is aimed at understanding gist. The completion of the basic question bolsters the ability of students to answer correctly the intermediate question, as while students are calling out the language and the teacher is writing, the students are in effect experiencing the material again at a slower and more digestible pace and can catch the gist more easily.

Post-Listening: At the top!

In this stage the teacher returns to the stair-cased questions again.

  • Answering the basic question again at this stage finishes the process begun while listening to the material and elicits the language content on the board. This continuous and repeated immersion in the language of the material helps students grasp the detailed components of the material even if they missed it the first time round.
  • The intermediate question is also asked again; even if some students already answered this question while listening, the repetition ensures again that as many students as possible get multiple chances to catch onto the gist of the material.

At this stage a number of quick-fire CCQs should be asked that relate to the intermediate question. For example, in a restaurant dialog, questions about food choices, prices and serving preferences might be useful. These questions relate to an understanding of both gist (answering about general topics and themes) and detail (using details from the text to answer).

  • Finally, the advanced stair-cased question is introduced, which is designed to extend students’ thinking beyond the text: for example, in a restaurant dialog, students can be asked ‘What do you like to order in a restaurant?’ As before, completion of the basic and intermediate questions paves the way for students to successfully answer the advanced question.

In all cases, with all questions, the teacher can accept voluntary answers, or nominate individual students to answer. With the CCQs associated with the intermediate question, I also find it appropriate to ask the whole class questions as well and to get choral responses to get a rough idea of how well the whole class is following the material.


In my experience, student engagement with each level of questioning increases and improves the more the technique is practiced; it was not unusual for me to get 80-90% of ‘hands raised’ when using this technique in a time-strapped public school classroom in South Korea with some relatively low-level students. This engagement reflected not only in student confidence but also in student comprehension as well as subsequent test results.

Many of us will return to our classrooms tomorrow needing to deliver a lot of material in what will seem like far too short an amount of time to do anything effectively. Stair-cased questions offer a method to alleviate this. Next time you find yourself rushed for time in class, try it – and please let me know how it works for you in the comments section below.

A sample text and associated questions:

Server: May I help you?
Customer: Yes please. I’d like the chicken curry, please.
Server: One chicken curry. And would you like anything to drink?
Customer: Yes, I’d like the orange juice please.
Server: One orange juice. Is that for here or to go?
Customer: To go, please.
Server: OK. That’ll be 12 dollars, please.
Customer: Here you go.
Server: Thank you. Here is 3 dollars change.
Customer: Thank you.

Basic stair-cased Question:What did you hear?(Answers: any sentence, word or phrase heard in the dialog.)
Intermediate stair-cased Question:What are they talking about?(Answers: food, restaurant, ordering, etc)
Intermediate CCQs:What food did they order? What drink? (Answers: chicken curry and orange juice)Will they eat here or to go? (Answer: to go)How much is the chicken and the orange juice? (Answer: 12 dollars)
Advanced stair-cased questions:What food do you like to order in a restaurant? (Answers: whatever the students choose)


  • Lumsden, S. (2012, November 24th). Dealing with difference: mixed level classrooms. Lecture presented at 9th DCC KOTESOL Symposium in Daejeon, South Korea.
  • Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching (3rd Ed.). Oxford, UK: Macmillan Publishers Limited. 
  • Weiler, A. (2016). The heart of learning languages: listening. EFL Magazine, April 2016.