Have you ever listened to someone speak in a foreign or second language and thought to yourself, ‘Why are they speaking so fast?’

Have you ever played a video in class that you thoroughly researched, were very excited about and thought you students would enjoy ... only to find yourself staring at a sea of blank faces?

I know both of these have happened to me and I also know listening is a big problem for a lot of us teachers. As research shows (Graham et al., 2014), we are often aware of its importance but aside from using a few tricks and engaging materials, we struggle to see how we can help our students learn to listen.

You may remember I am a self-confessed listening geek: I did a Master’s and a doctoral thesis on listening pedagogy; I have previously written about various aspects of listening, including harnessing online videosdesigning and conducting an authentic listening course and doing pre-listening activities.

But one question that I have often wondered about and I often get from the teachers I work with is: what exactly are the difficulties students face?

So, I thought I would answer this important question in this article in preparation for my upcoming interactive workshop at the Pavilion ELT online festival Is the future perfect? The festival will take place on 23, 24 and 25 May and I will be in the company of some truly great speakers!

In anticipation of my talk, ‘Learning to Teach Listening: Do’s, Don’ts and Technology for Engaging Listening Activities’, let’s have a look at what the research says about listening difficulties, what students themselves say about listening difficulties and what we can do about them.


Listening difficulties: insights from the research

An old adage in English Language Teaching has us convinced that listening is the ‘Cinderella skill’ (Mendelsohn, 1994) and this is still true to an extent. However, there has been a clear uptick of studies on listening in the past 15 years and listening difficulties in particular have been the subject of a comparatively significant number of studies in the listening literature.

What have these studies found overall? Well, the first thing that is clear is that various features of the oral input, including vocabulary, grammar and the topic, seem to be the biggest hindrance for L2 listeners. This is unsurprising, since we know that for example lexical knowledge is one of the strongest predictors of listening performance (Wolfgramm et al., 2016). Processing, involving factors such as working memory and perception, are also a key difficulty.

Another big group of factors that seem to impact listening are those related to the individual listener, such as their concentration and anxiety. Finally, listeners may also struggle with the speed of delivery in the foreign language, where they perceive too many words being uttered too quickly. Interestingly, although this is an experience most of us can relate to, some studies question this: for instance, Sheppard and Butler (2017) found no correlation between articulation rate and learners’ success in decoding phrases.


What learners say about listening difficulties

Because listening difficulties are such a big part of the listening experience, and one that makes learners feel like they have ‘no control’ over their listening, I of course went and asked them directly what their biggest issues were (Bruzzano, 2021).

The results from my survey with 84 learners of English, aged 16–19, showed that these are the difficulties they struggle with the most:

  • unknown words
  • open-ended questions
  • uninteresting and unknown topics
  • complex grammar
  • accents
  • having to listen while writing answers to comprehension questions
  • insufficient time between questions
  • having to listen while reading questions
  • listening to long speeches

When I interviewed a subset of these learners, most of these difficulties were confirmed and two more emerged: the speed of delivery and the learners’ emotional states, including their listening anxiety and their test anxiety.


Leveraging and overcoming listening difficulties: a learning opportunity

Now that you know what some of the most common issues are with listening, consider this: how much time do you spend discussing them with your students? We are all pressed for time all the time, but it might be worth remembering to introduce a post-listening ‘debriefing’ stage in our lessons.

Ask the question: what difficulties did you have? Listen to their answers and help them pinpoint exactly what went wrong beyond ‘they talked too fast’. There are two main reasons why this is beneficial: first, higher metacognitive awareness will help students be more successful in their listening. Second, discussing their difficulties and modelling potential strategies to solve them will give them some sense of control over an activity they often perceive as largely unpredictable and uncontrollable. In ‘Listening: the forgotten skill 2 – overcoming listening barriers’, Lesley Lanir provides a clear step-by-step framework to do this post-listening work.

And of course, you can always join me and Sheila Thorn for two listening-themed talks on 24 May!



Bruzzano, C. (2021). Listening in English as a foreign language: a multiple case study of teachers’ and learners’ practices and beliefs in an Italian secondary school. University of Leeds.

Graham, S., Santos, D. & Francis-Brophy, E. (2014). 'Teacher beliefs about listening in a foreign language'. Teaching and Teacher Education, 40: 4460.

Mendelshon, D. (1994). Learning to Listen: A strategy-based approach for the second-language learner, Carlsbad, USA: Dominie Press.

Sheppard, B. & Butler, B. (2017). 'Insights into student listening from paused transcription'. CATESOL Journal, 29: 81107.

Wolfgramm, C., Suter, N. & Göksel, E. (2016). Examining the Role of Concentration, Vocabulary and Self-concept in Listening and Reading Comprehension. International Journal of Listening, 30: 2546.