Develop your Listening Skills in a Foreign Language with Pre- and Post-listening Activities

To develop your listening skills in a foreign language, break down your practice into carefully sequenced phases that build on each other.


Stefano Lodola

By Stefano Lodola

What is listening?

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down and everyone can easily become frustrated or irritated.

Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing refers to the sounds that enter your ears. It is a physical process that, provided you do not have any hearing problems, happens automatically. Listening, however, requires more than that: it requires focus and concentrated effort, both mental and sometimes physical as well.

The stages of listening

A well-designed listening activity, if it is to improve your listening skills in a foreign language, should be broken down into carefully sequenced phases that build on each other:

  1. The initial pre-listening phase should prepare you by activating your background knowledge and clarify your expectations and assumptions about the text
  2. Holistic listening aims to understanding the gist of the listening text after the first or second listen
  3. Intensive listening aims at a detailed understanding of some segments of the text
  4. Post-listening aims to utilize the knowledge gained from listening


An ideal pre-listening helps you to activate the background information and language components needed to comprehend the text without “giving” this information.

You might want to make list of vocabulary included in the passage before listening. I’d rather avoid looking at a transcription of the text, unless it’s very hard.

The goals in this pre-listening phase are:

  • To activate the vocabulary related to the topic
  • To form some preliminary assumptions about the content of the text
  • To pose some questions that could give a reason for listening

Global comprehension

“Global comprehension” refers to understanding the very general idea(s) or gist of the listening text after the first or second listen. While you might pick up some details after the first listen, your aim should be to focus on the general meaning first, so that you can establish a preliminary framework that will enable you to get more details in the subsequent listens. This is an important step to improv your listening skills in a foreign language.

“Holistic listening” means listening to the “whole” text while “segmental listening” involves listening to specific “segments” of the text. Holistic listening should precede segmental listening, and its aim is to allow students to develop strategies and build stamina in processing listening texts. Segmental listening is very beneficial while doing intensive listening.

To become proficient listeners, you need to be exposed to tremendous listening input and you need training. Input is paramount for your listening skills in a foreign language

In doing while-listening activities, it is important to remember the following:

  • Allow students to listen to the text two or three times as a whole before going to intensive listening
  • Encourage student to focus on global meaning first and don’t pose questions that ask them for details after the first listen
  • Make assumptions after the first listen and verify them after the second listen
  • Focus your questions and attention at this stage on the segments of the texts that are accessible in terms of vocabulary and structures. You don’t need to “get” everything in the text.

Intensive Listening

In addition to global comprehension, we need to focus our attention on intensive listening. This is crucial to help develop effective listening strategies and build bottom-up listening skills, in addition to the top-down skills that are emphasized in global listening activities. This is the natural development of the listening activity to improve your listening skills in a foreign language.

Intensive listening involves zeroing in on particular segments of the text, and this should come only after the students have developed global comprehension of the text. Intensive listening may target different goals such as:

  • Getting a more detailed understanding of some segments of the text
  • Transcribing certain segments in the text
  • Guessing the meaning of a word or phrase from context
  • Looking at certain grammatical structures in the text to see how they can aid comprehension, etc.


A post-listening activity represents a follow up to the listening activity and aims to utilize the knowledge gained from listening for the development of other skills such as speaking or writing.

Like post-reading activities, post-listening activities allow for recycling and further activation of vocabulary and structures as long as they are interesting and engaging and are carefully thought out.

Follow these stages to hone up your listening skills in a foreign language

To become proficient listeners, you need to be exposed to tremendous listening input and you need training (especially at the lower levels of proficiency) on how to develop effective listening strategies.

Listening is a challenging skill, yet, with constant practice, support, and encouragement, you will develop both strategies and confidence.

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