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Listening strategies

An important step in learning how to be a good listener is to be aware of what you are listening for. Your goal affects the way that you listen. To demonstrate this point, you’re going to listen to a very short conversation and complete three tasks:

Listening strategies

Listening for gist

What is the main topic of conversation?

i. exercise
ii. the weather
iii. the dog

Listening for specific information

What’s the weather like?

i. It’s sunny
ii. It’s cold
iii. It’s raining

Inferring meaning

Do the people go outside?
i. Yes
ii. No

In task one, all three answers – sports, the weather and the dog – are part of the conversation. However, the weather is the most important thing. In this task you were looking for the gist or main idea. You didn’t focus on understanding everything. Rather, you listened to see what was important. Listening for gist is where you focus on the main ideas.

Task two involves looking for specific information: What is the weather like? Looking for specific information doesn’t mean listening and processing every word to find the answer. Rather, it’s about scanning for the needed information.

Task three is about inferring information. The question is simple enough: Do they go outside? Of course they don’t. It’s raining. Notice that they never say specifically that they aren’t going to go outside. It isn’t necessary. Listening for inference means listening between the lines.

Discussion Point

This example was very short so you were probably able to do all three tasks on one listening. However, you should consider what kind of effort it would take to listen to a full conversation or a radio programme. A good listener would choose an appropriate strategy in order to get the information they needed. Most English exams, including the Cambridge exams, test students on their ability to use these strategies.

How would you best listen to the following? You may use more than one strategy depending on your reason for listening:

* a television advert for shampoo
* a teacher giving instructions on a classroom task
* a soap opera
* gossip about someone in your class
* a weather report
* a business presentation for a new product
* travel directions in a strange town or city
* news headlines
* a joke
* a radio traffic report

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