Listen Up! Why Listening is the Most Important English Language Skill

Listen Up! Why Listening is the Most Important English Language Skill

The most important language skill? Listening! The most challenging language skill? Listening!

The most important language skill or ability for (native and non-native English) teachers and students of any subject? It’s listening!

Deficiencies in listening comprehension can lead to:
  • Work, Business, and/or School Problems: The inability to listen can keep you from getting hired or promoted—and from making sales or keeping customers. It can get you fired, expelled, or banished; squander meeting or class time and energy; sabotage professional success and assure failure in pursuing short–or long-term–work/life goals. 
  • Relationship Failures: The most common complaint in marriage or close social relationships is, “You never listen to me.” Poor listening skills or lack of interest in hearing with understanding are the most common cause of divorces and break ups. And associations that do survive are likely to be fraught with conflict, mental strain or stress, mistakes, and confusion.
  • Danger, Harm, or Destruction: It’s downright dangerous at times not to  listen. It can lead to serious injury, physical or psychological damage, and even death or destruction. There are stories of industrial accidents, plane crashes, and fatal medical errors caused by the ignoring of warnings, the misinterpretation of instructions, and other lapses in aural understanding. Other effects are the deterioration of hearing, memory, and brain cells.
What are some possible results of “non-listening” in these situations?


The most challenging language skill? It’s listening, by far. And what are the causes of “pseudolistening” or other types of turning away, ignoring, or tuning out? For native and non-native speakers of English, here are the major impediments to real and relevant listening.  
  • Pretending to listen to be polite or to avoid hurting a speaker’s feelings—or to get others to listen to you.
  • Substituting conclusions, judgments, corrections, and advice for sincere listening with the intent to comprehend.
  • Thinking about what you are going to say next, what you believe or feel, what you want to “contribute” to the discussion, and/or how you appear to others.
  • Hearing only what you think you already know, what you want to hear, or what is “wrong” with the speaker’s arguments.
  • Being preoccupied with other matters—or getting bogged down in irrelevant details by listening too closely and missing the point or message.
  • Having impaired hearing that results in loss of confidence or fear of rejection if you ask others to slow down, speak up, repeat, or rephrase what they’re saying.
There’s so much humor about the decline of human interest and skill in listening that it isn’t even funny. Do any of these images make you laugh? Or do they just cause you to nod and understand? 


And what about developing listening abilities during the process of language acquisition? In classes or self-study—with or without practice materials, can we teach (ourselves or others) to listen effectively? Other than taking and sharing the above advice, can we do exercises or engage in activities that practice good listening skills? Perhaps—by taking or providing direction in attending to features that promote understanding. Helpful listening materials often contain these elements: 
  • Speech excerpts are short and sweet at first. Words that listeners need to understand are easy to distinguish from background chatter, which is simply conventional everyday conversation.
  • As in real life, contexts, visuals, and printed words offer listening hints. Choosing among possibilities mirrors the strategy of “Checking Comprehension.” Checking their responses provides feedback on their progress.
  • Segments offer “Task Listening” by having listeners respond physically to what they hear. For instance, they might draw lines, mark pictures, choose among alternatives, or respond in other relevant ways.
  • Talk or stories containing connected speech are on topics that listeners easily relate to. Before checking their guesses, they can fill in audio gaps with background knowledge or reasonable expectations.   
  • Listening exercises or activities provide for slowdown, repetition, restatement, and/or summary. Perceiving the value of these helps learners to request them in real-life situations.
  • When the content of aural material is “Listening Skills,” it provides direct instruction or advice in how to improve one’s oral/aural abilities. Focusing on the simulated intents and purposes of recorded speech reminds learners to listen for these in real life.

Here are six short excerpts (one from each of the Six Levels of WorkLife English Listening/Speaking) of lesson examples targeted at various levels of language proficiency, followed by the page(s) containing the “Tapescript” segment(s) from the relevant Audio. In each, listeners attend to a different feature that may help them develop an overall listening strategy:
  1. Chapter 1 / Things--from Part Two of Listening in the Skills Book (Level 1): language learners hear contextualized “Conversations about Things.” To complete “Minimal Listening Tasks,” they need only to recognize familiar vocabulary, match it to pictures, write numbers, and circle words.  “Context clues” are so obvious that they begin employing the strategy of listening for a purpose. Confidence begins.
  2. Chapter 1 / Getting There—from Part One in Listening/Speaking (Level 2), English in Everyday Life: learners hear and read “Directions,” natural content requiring understanding of key words. They respond “yes” or “no” according to what they think they heard. Being introduced to “Little Words & Sounds in Conversation” helps them stop listening too closely to every (irrelevant) syllable. They begin physical “Task Listening” by drawing lines on a map.
  3. Chapter 1 / The Arrival—from Part One in Listening/Speaking (Level 3), An Immigration Story: text users begin listening to connected discourse. The first time they hear each “story,” they identify its speaker and context. Next, putting aside insignificant “Words & Sounds in Conversation,” they attend to main ideas by focusing on stressed words only. By noting the functions of contractions and reduced forms, they again practice separating what’s important from audio material they can skim or skip over.  
  4. Chapter 1 / Beginnings—from Part Two in Listening/Speaking (Level 4), Cross-Cultural Communication: text users notice “appropriateness,” identifying each introduction or greeting as “Formal” or “Informal.” By inferring who is conversing with whom, they prepare to speak appropriately themselves. They engage in small talk both passively and actively, by relaxing and participating in what’s expected.   
  5. The Introduction: Learning to Listen—from Listening/Speaking (Level 5), Language & Culture in Depth: intermediate language learners get the point of a teaching story from which they can infer the characteristics of effective vs. ineffective listening.
  6. The Introduction: Listening to the Media—from Listening/Speaking (Level  6),Issues & Answers: advanced English speakers get a short lecture on listening strategies. Then they hear simulated excerpts of audio from the media. Their focus is on the purpose of each speech.


Find the full chapters of these excerpts + corresponding Tapescripts in these Listening/Speaking Instructor’s Editions from Authors & Editors:


Additional Resources: 


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About Work/Life English
Work/Life English is dedicated to advancing the lives of native English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers by improving their English comprehension and communication skills. Over the past 35 years, we have created a variety of fun, effective English language improvement tools for adults, young adults, older youth, youth in transition, teens, secondary students, new Americans, low-literacy learners, and anyone else who can benefit from improved English! For more information, visit
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