US-China Foreign Language, ISSN 1539-8080
May 2011, Vol. 9, No. 5, 315-323
Strategies to Overcome Listening Obstacles and
Improve the Listening Abilities*
JIA Xiao-yun, FU Gui-rong
University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, Shanghai, China
As we all know that listening comprehension is one of the most important parts in language communication, which
is the foundation to develop other language skills. However, nowadays, most of the students do better in reading
and writing English than they do in listening and speaking, which means they may read and write, but they can not
express themselves, let alone to communicate with others in English. It is partly due to our educational system and
partly due to the teaching methods. Since we can not change educational system, the only thing we can do is to
improve our teaching method. So in the process of teaching, it is extremely important to make students aware of
their obstacles in acquiring listening skills and developing their listening ability. This paper first introduces the
background of the study and the nature of listening comprehension, then lists and analyses the obstacles that
students may encounter when engaging in listening comprehension tasks and the factors that lead them to failure in
understanding the listening materials. Based on the authors’ many years’ teaching experience, the paper finally
provides some available and effective strategies to overcome these obstacles in order to better help the English
learners improve their listening ability.
Keywords: listening comprehension, obstacles, strategies
With Chinese economic development, international communication plays a more and more important role.
It is necessary for students to master a foreign language in daily communication. As we all know, listening and
speaking are not only the important forms of communication, but also the most direct language activities for
people to convey information and express their ideas. According to a recent research, 70% of our working time
is spent on some forms of communication. The famous linguists Gilman and Moody (1984) pointed that adults
spend 40%-50% of communication time in listening, Celce-Mureia and Olshtain (2000) also said, we listen two
times as much language as we speak; four times as much languages as we read; five times as much language as
we write. Besides, the study of listening is the “polestar” of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) theory
building, research and pedagogy. O’Malley and Chamot (1990) and Vandergrift (1999) asserted listening
comprehension as “keystone” and “keyrole” respectively. Through listening, listeners can build an awareness
of the interworking of language systems at various levels and thus establish a base for more fluent productive
skills (Peterson, 2001). Thus, we can clearly see the importance of listening comprehension in communication
Sponsored by USST (University of Shanghai for Science and Technology) Human and Social Science Project for 2010 (No.
JIA Xiao-yun, associate professor of College of Foreign Languages, University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.
FU Gui-rong, postgraduate student of College of Foreign Languages, University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES316
process and academic success. However, in China, things are quite different. For many college students, the
incompetence of listening skill is considered as an obstacle to communicate efficiently with others in English.
A variety of reasons, ranging from learning environment, learning method to learners’ attitude, can account for
the learners’ deficiency in listening. In traditional teaching, teachers usually pay more attention to the words
and sentence structure, so the grammar- and vocabulary-focused teaching style dominates the whole class,
which makes the classroom dull and the students passive to learn English. Moreover, while reading and writing
are the major focus in the process of teaching, listening and speaking are neglected, which leads to the
phenomenon of “Dumb English”. How to improve students’ listening ability has become one of the major
concerns for many teachers. At present, many scholars have conducted a lot of research on studies of listening
comprehension strategies theoretically, but there are few studies concerning the obstacles of English learners’
listening comprehension. Moreover, the research on application of listening comprehension strategies is not
sufficient or systematic. Being English teachers, the authors think it is really necessary and meaningful to
explore the major obstacles existing in the teaching of English listening comprehension, and make a good study
of these strategies to overcome these listening obstacles in order to help the English learners improve their
The Nature of Listening Comprehension
In order to lay a theoretical foundation for the present study, it is necessary to examine and understand the
nature of listening comprehension. As far as listening comprehension is concerned, the earliest definition is
given by Tucker (Wolvin, 1982), according to him, listening is an analysis of the impressions resulting from
concentration where an effort of will is required. Later, another leading scholar Jones (Wolvin, 1982), treated
listening as a selective process by which sounds communicated by some source are received, critically
interpreted, and acted upon by a purposeful listener. Among many definitions, Hirschi’s (1979) was viewed as a
simple, but a clear one. He defined that listening can be regarded as the process whereby the human ears receive
sound stimuli from other people and through a series of steps interprets the sound stimuli in the brain and
remembers it. So from the above definitions, we can draw a close conclusion that listening is a complex and
interactive process, in which listeners use the already-known knowledge to make new information processing,
then further take spoken text as input to construct meaning of the utterance within the creative mental activity. In
other words, the listening comprehension can be regarded as a dynamic process rather than static one, listening
process is a listener’s progression through a spoken text rather than a product. It is a comprehensive language
skill. So we can see that this active and complex comprehension processes mainly consist of the act of
interpretation and the reconstruction of meaning, since the meaning is not as stable property of texts, but as a
shifting, variable phenomenon. When listening, listeners should make complex processing to the language
signals that they hear, and make it consistent with the speaker’s real intention and store it in short-term memory.
Under the combined effort of a number of micro-skills, such as association, prediction and interference, and
according to the context features of the contents, and their own linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge to judge,
predict, confirm and revise, listeners can achieve a thorough understanding of what they hear.
Common Listening Obstacles
As the grammar-translation method has been traditionally preferred as a teaching method in English
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES 317
teaching, teaching of listening is greatly ignored; everything about English is focused on grammar, vocabulary,
reading and translation which are mostly dealt with in Chinese. So when teachers give lectures in English,
students find it difficult to understand, let alone get the meaning from the tapes. After the reform of different
forms of English test, listening comprehension takes up more and more parts of the whole test, the students
who are frustrated with listening are undoubtedly anxious. It is said that “Anxiety has a negative effect on
listening comprehension”. Anxiety is a kind of fear, especially as caused by uncertainty about something,
which inevitably results in psychological obstacles. Generally speaking, psychological obstacles can be mainly
reflected from two aspects: On the one hand, it may be caused by nervousness or anxiety, that is, the state of
being too nervous; on the other hand, the state of being unable to focus one’s attention on the materials while
listening. Accordingly, in regular listening practice, students can not concentrate on the listening content. They
are easy to be distracted because of being fatigued after listening for a long period, let alone in examination,
where they can not adjust themselves to the listening materials and the delivery rate. Undoubtedly, they become
much too nervous and blank-minded to assure continuity and accuracy of listening in such kind of state. Thus,
“mental block” will be set up in their minds which will prevent them from fully profiting from the language
they are being exposed to, even though they intend to be active in listening. In addition, the pressure for
immediate response in limited time adds more to their psychological burden.
According to an American scholar Wong (1993), phonetics is crucial in listening comprehension. But
unfortunately, many students are poor not only in their phonetic knowledge, but also in their pronunciation and
intonation which severely hinders their improvement in listening ability.
Wrong pronunciation. The present practice in English teaching is that students have very limited
opportunity in obtaining any listening input before and after class. On the one hand, since many teachers prefer
to talk in Chinese rather than in English, students do not know the basic knowledge about phonetics, nor do
they have chance to imitate as well. On the other hand, with the influence of the accent, they could not
distinguish many consonants, such as: /l/ and /n/, / / and /s/, /v/ and /f/, neither could they tell the different
pronunciation between “work” and “worker”, “village” and “villager”, “teach” and “teacher”, etc.. How can
they understand the words, a sentence, a short dialogue or a passage correctly? Pronunciation is an important
factor affecting good listening comprehension. As an American phonetician Gimson (1978) said, “To learn to
speak any language, only 50-90% of the syntax and 1% of the vocabulary will be enough, but the phonetic
knowledge must be close to 100%”. In daily communication, phonetics is the basis for listening. If there is no
phonetics, there would be no listening comprehension; if there were no listening comprehension, phonetics
would lose its existing value. Phonetics is defined as the study of the phonic medium of language; it is
concerned with all the sounds that occur in the world’s languages. Sound is the direct medium of listening and
speaking and the basic component and element of languages as well, good listening comprehension first
demands good pronunciation. And learners’ inaccurate pronunciation will affect the understanding of some
information, which will definitely bring about some listening comprehension obstacles.
Misunderstanding of intonation. Most students know that statement is read in falling tone, question is
always uttered in rising tone, but it is not always the case. A lot of written expressions vary in meanings with
the intonation patterns they carry. For example, “Thank you” with a falling tone may show the speaker’s
genuine sincerity in expressing his gratitude, while a rising may indicate he is casual. Therefore, without fully
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES318
aware of the knowledge of intonation, students can not understand the real attitude and purpose of the speakers.
Unknowing about the phonetic phenomena. Listening comprehension does not refer to the understanding
of individual word, for the tapes students hear are mostly recorded by native English speakers who speak very
fast by using lots of stressed syllables, liaison and contractions. If students do not pay any attention to them in
their daily studying, they are obviously prevented from understanding what is spoken in tapes.
Vocabulary and Grammar Obstacles
Language study involves the study of speech sounds, grammar and vocabulary, which proves the most
important and difficult part. Wilkins (1972) asserted, “without grammar very little can be conveyed, without
vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”. The obstacles of the kind are caused by lack of vocabulary and grammar
knowledge, which may lead to many misunderstandings. While listening, students always meet a lot of new
words, they keep thinking hard for the meaning of the words and miss the following sentences, which cumbers
them to grasp the main idea of the whole passage. Sometimes, even if they get the meaning of the individual
word or phrase, they still have some difficulties in understanding the sentence, for they do not know the
sentence structure. For example, “He asked the girl sitting there”. Whether it means “He asked the girl to sit
there” or “He asked the girl who was sitting there” totally confuses students. But if they know the structure, it
can be easy to choose the latter one. Another example “You should have come yesterday”, this sentence
contains the usage of subjective mood. It means, “You should come yesterday, but in fact you didn’t come”.
From the above, it is quite easy to see that the knowledge of language is really the basic and main point in the
process of listening comprehension, and learners should have a firm master of it. Only in this way can it
guarantee a more successful listening communication. In a word, vocabulary plays an important role in English
learning; it is the foundation of a language. The number of vocabulary is a very basic factor in listening
comprehension. Listeners must have sufficient vocabulary for their improvement in listening because
vocabulary can affect listening comprehension directly. While grammar is another important factor that
influences listening comprehension and also the primary framework to constitute sentences and passages, so if
one fails to master the basic knowledge of grammar, the obstacles will also be caused.
Non-linguistic knowledge refers to the knowledge of cultural background, including social value, arts,
religion, law, geology, history and culture. Listening materials contain a wide range of knowledge, from
geography to history, news to conventions, and so on. It is of great importance in knowing them while listening
is practiced. Students may feel it easy to catch words but hard to understand the content due to different cultural
interpretations of the same words or events. As a Chinese well-known scholar, Mr. HU Wen-zhong (1997) once
said “If one does not understand the cultural background, just learning language materials, it is as if only to
grasp the shell and not comprehend their spirit”. So background knowledge has a close relationship with
listening comprehension. Listening comprehension is not only the process in which linguistic knowledge,
cultural background knowledge and professional expertise interact with each other, but also the process to make
inference logically, to predict and correct continuously according to one’s already-known background
knowledge. Therefore, students should try their best to enrich their background knowledge.
Strategies to Overcome the Obstacles
As for the present level of the students’ listening ability, it is of little effect only to input a lot of listening
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES 319
materials, but to use the following strategies to help the students overcome the obstacles, thus students’
listening ability can be improved.
Interests Stimulation and Confidence Establishment
Psychological research suggests that the best emotional background of the “mental activity” is the
interaction between the interests and happiness. So is the case of the English language learning. Without
interests English can not be learned well, furthermore, without interests, we can not talk about English listening.
As Rubin (1994) and Vandergrift (1999) have noted, listening is anything but a passive activity. It is a complex,
active process in which the listener must discriminate between sounds, understand vocabulary and grammatical
structures, interpret stress and intonation, retain what was gathered in all of the above, and interpret it within
the immediate as well as the larger social cultural context of the utterance. Coordinating all of these involves a
great deal of mental activity on the part of students. So students must change the passive listening into the
active listening. First, students can find some simple and interesting materials, such as English stories, films
and songs with clear pronunciation and slow speed or even communicate with foreigners, gradually they will
find English is such a beautiful language that they begin to stick to practicing it and get more and more
interested in it. Second, teachers help students to establish their self-confidence. One of the important effects is
that if teachers believe in students, they believe in themselves. Teachers should comfort the students when they
do not do well in their listening and have a sincere talk with these students about how to improve their listening
skills. Consequently, in their cooperative listening environment, students will definitely have a clear idea that
“learners need to develop autonomy, not dependence” (Brown, 1994, p. 44) and language can not be taught but
only learned (Gethin, 1998). Achievement appears to be closely linked to self-determination. Students should
do virtually listening practice themselves without relying on teachers or others. In addition, proper ways will
help them a lot. Before the listening begins, reading questions help eliminate interference problems. With a
purpose to listen, students will not feel the burden. While listening, students should take notes, for taking notes
helps to recall the topic and to keep the main idea and the key words in mind, which makes listening more
efficiently. Last but not the least, overcoming the fear of hearts is a long-term process requiring patience and
more practice of the skills. In a word, “practice makes perfect”, only more listening practice with
self-determination can students improve their listening abilities.
Pronunciation and Intonation Improvement
The process of listening comprehension begins with the distinguishing of the sound. If the students do not
have good pronunciation and intonation, they will not distinguish the meaning that they heard. So it is very
necessary for them to master the phonetic symbol well from the very beginning. Correct pronunciation and
intonation are not only the foundation of listening and speaking, but also the important factors to understand the
reading and writing materials. Besides, they permeate the whole process of English learning. Therefore, it is
necessary to master correct pronunciation and intonation.
Practice through imitation. A basic approach adopted in the learning of pronunciation is imitation. But
mechanical imitation is not sufficient. It has to be guided with the help of theoretical knowledge of the features,
structures and uses of English intonation. Based on our teaching experience, we believe that students should
take the following steps to imitate effectively: (1) Select the simple, short dialogues, stories and movies, listen
to them until very familiar to the materials; (2) Mark out carefully on the structures of the scripts and pitch
changes of these intonation patterns and incorrect pronunciation, including the sentence and word stress,
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES320
rhythmic groups and pauses; (3) Practice imitating them again with the marked scripts; (4) Record the imitation
and compare with the original recording; (5) Find out the differences and further refine the marked scripts; and
(6) Repeat this process until the imitation is almost exactly the same as the original recording.
The advantage of the procedures is that students are completely and actively involved in. They can do all
these on their own. After they stick to practising more than five passages, they will definitely make progress.
More communicative and contextual practice. Acquisition takes place most successfully in
communication situations, where practice is meaningful and interesting. Littlewood (1984) stated,
“Communicative interaction provides a situation in which internal processes can create and integrate
knowledge outside the control of the teacher and the consciousness of the learner” (p. 91). Through
communicative pronunciation and intonation practice, it can not only arouse students’ interests but also help
students internalize phonological knowledge. On the other hand, errors should be corrected immediately at the
drilling phase. In this way, more opportunities will be provided for students to practice the language of giving
opinions, expressing agreement and disagreement in English, because many linguists believe that “Language
learning is a development process which is largely a subconscious activity” (Kumaravadivelu, 1991). So the
teacher can make students talk by asking students questions and give them enough time to discuss in group.
After their exchanges with each other, they can reach an agreement and write down their answers. Since they
have fully prepared for the answers, they will definitely present them in a very confident and fluent way. So we
can figure out that it is the responsibility for the teacher to push students a step further. Such activity will
encourage students to form their own evaluating judgment according to what they have learned. It is very
helpful for students to develop a habit of talking in listening.
Vocabulary Enlargement and Grammar Mastery
Vocabulary and grammar are two keys in mastering foreign language. So is the case for listening
comprehension. Thus, enlarging the vocabulary and mastering the grammar will undoubtedly improve listening
Application of the integrated approach in learning vocabulary. Limited vocabulary is one of the main
things that interfere with listening comprehension. It is no use mechanically memorizing English dictionary or
word list in an alphabetical order, students should be taught integrative principles of language and different
skills in the development of vocabulary, such as word building, synonym explanation. In other words, teaching
activities had better involve breadth and depth in intensive reading as well as extensive reading. With regard to
vocabulary size, in general, it is divided into two parts—high-frequency words and low-frequency words. In
teaching activities, more emphasis should be laid upon high-frequency words for there are more opportunities
for learners to encounter them in listening and reading. Usually, to a great extent, whether a learner can obtain a
successful comprehension depends on his/her vocabulary knowledge of words at this level. In high-frequency
words teaching, besides the basic meanings of words, synonyms and polysemy, collocations of words had
better be taught together, which can improve learners’ depth of vocabulary knowledge. As low-frequency
words have their own characteristics, students will meet many of them only once or twice (Nation, 2004, p.
159). It is far better to teach students strategies to cope with low-frequency vocabulary in reading rather than
teach them high-frequency words. In a word, presentation of a word through different channels can satisfy
students’ different learning styles and reinforce the mastery of a word.
Meaningful context creation for vocabulary through reading. If a considerable amount of vocabulary
learning takes place incidentally through exposure to new words in meaningful contexts, properly selecting
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES 321
reading materials can help increase students’ vocabulary by creating meaningful contexts. In this sense,
students guess meaning from the context and words parts such as the affix, suffix and roots, which can enlarge
vocabulary size effectively and promote the receptive vocabulary knowledge as well as reach adequate
comprehension. For example, “It is important that people from different cultures come to understand each other
and develop mutual trust. Only when people trust each other, is international cooperation possible”. Suppose
“mutual” is a new word to the students. The students may not understand it in the first sentence, but they can
reach it when they catch the phrase “trust each other” in the second sentence. Let us take another example, “A
middle-aged professor said that his wife was too extravagant, because no matter how much he gave her for the
household expenses, she always ran short”. Even though students do not know the word “extravagant”, from
the context, they can easily guess the meaning. Of course, students are not expected to guess all the unknown
words in a listening text. However, it helps to reach a vague idea of the new words. The most important is to
understand the information that the utterances have transferred, not the individual word. To do more practice is
another way to promote vocabulary knowledge. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. More and more
practice, reviewing and repeating will enforce the memory of vocabulary and transfer the knowledge into
language competence. Listening, reading, speaking and writing are four main skills of communication, and a
good communication proficiency needs constant practicing. On the other hand, practice also can motivate the
development of productive ability of vocabulary knowledge, which will improve vocabulary knowledge in an
Acquisition of grammar knowledge. Grammar learning should be a combination of language input and
output. Teacher’s presentation and explanation of grammar rules are needed in the preliminary stage in learning
process, since through which teachers can help make grammatical items as salient and noticeable as possible,
and students could be afforded repeated opportunity to recognize and internalize the target models. The
activities for practising grammar items are essential but need to be designed in such a way as to appeal to
students’ interests. More importantly, grammar learning should be finally aimed at how to use the grammar
items they learned in real life communication no matter what skills (listening, speaking, reading or writing)
they are applied in. In order to overcome this kind of obstacles, students have to learn it carefully and
systematically, they should not only know the very basic grammatical knowledge, but also familiarize the
structure and usage of all kinds of simple sentences patterns, especially some particular patterns, such as
comparative sentence, inverted sentence, emphatic sentence and ellipsis sentence, etc.. In this way, they can get
the key information, and understand others’ meaning correctly. Let us take an example: “Hardly (scarcely) had
I arrived when the train left”. In this sentence, “Hardly (scarcely)…when…” is an inversion structure of subject
and predicate, and it means several things happen one by one. Thus, the above sentence can be explained as
“just when I got there, the train left”. Another example: “He is anything but a writer”. In this sentence, there is
a structure “anything but” which means “absolutely not”. So the sentence can be paraphrased as “He is not a
writer at all”. From these two examples, we can infer that little and unilateral grammar knowledge would make
people misunderstand the meaning of sentences. In a word, overcoming language obstacles is the primary
problem to be solved in the process of listening comprehension.
Cultural Knowledge Improvement
Cultural knowledge includes the information about the history, culture, custom, politics, economy, etc.,
which play vital roles in listening comprehension. However, many students know very little about them. To
OVERCOME LISTENING OBSTACLES AND IMPROVE THE LISTENING ABILITIES322
enlarge the students’ knowledge, teachers could introduce the background knowledge briefly, making them get
familiar with the culture contents contained in the listening texts. The students should learn to know the way of
life in the target country, the cultural connotations of words and phrases, the cross-cultural differences and the
conventional behavior in common situation (LIU, 1996, p. 7). It is incredible for English learners to ask
questions such as “Are you married”, “How much do you earn?”, “How old are you?”, etc., or not to know
about Thanksgiving Day and the present president of the United States. The students should also make full use
of the reference books, dictionaries and the Internet to collect the information that can facilitate their listening
comprehension, for they can get any information that they are interested in. For example, they can use “Baidu”
or other searching engines, type the words in, then plenty of related information will come out; or if they want
to know something about the history, geography and scientific technology in America, they can also do the
same, then enough information will spring up. They can even do some online listening for the interesting new
from VOA or BBC. Generally speaking, “Rome was not built in a day”, so is the building of culture
background knowledge. It needs a constant, systematic project to work on it. Day by day, students will find
their cultural knowledge greatly improved.
Listening is an important step in communication. But for Chinese students, it is a big headache. Being an
English teacher, it is very important for us to help students improve their listening ability. Thus, we must know
what the obstacles are to interfere with students’ listening comprehension, then in accordance with these
obstacles, we must find some effective strategies to help students overcome them. Firstly, teachers should teach
students to get a correct idea about listening comprehension and try to build the confidence of students by
comforting them when they do not do well in their listening and having a sincere talk about how to improve
their listening skills. Secondly, listening comprehension is a complicated and systematic project, and is
influenced by a great many factors. Teachers should analyze the obstacles that students come across in the
learning of English listening. Only when these obstacles are overcome can students achieve great improvement
in their listening competence and efficiency. Based on the above analysis, this paper lists the major obstacles
that affect the listening comprehension, then mainly focuses on the strategies to overcome them so as to
eventually improve students’ listening abilities. Of course, the theory always goes along with the practice, only
all those strategies are applied into real listening teaching and learning process will students acquire a
satisfactory listening ability.
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