The Other Kinds of Listening Skills

When we think of listening skills, we usually think of predicting, making inferences, understanding the speaker’s attitude, and the like. But what about giving feedback? That is, the verbal and non-verbal responses a listener gives to a speaker in everyday conversation.  This includes the nods of agreement and the expressions of surprise such as Oh really? and Is that so? In a real face-to-face situation, students may be so focused on the task of comprehending, they may be unaware that a response to the content is expected even as the other person is speaking.

As an illustration of the importance of this feedback, you can ask three students to volunteer and tell you briefly about how they spent the past evening. Warn them in advance that you are going to listen to each student a different way. The rest of the class will observe. During the first talk, let your eyes wander and give no verbal or non-verbal response. During the second talk, keep constant eye-contact and give only non-verbal responses. During the third talk, maintain eye contact and provide both verbal and non-verbal responses.  After all three students have finished, discuss students’ observations. Encourage the three volunteers to share their reactions to your different styles of listening. Discuss cultural differences. You can elicit ideas and form a list of recommendations. For example:

  • Maintain eye-contact. Remember your eyes can express emotions: surprise, concern, doubt, etc.
  • Use nods for agreement or just to acknowledge the speaker’s words.
  • Mm is a sound that can be used to express surprise (sharp rise-fall), confusion (sharp rise), and disappointment (slow fall).
  • Mm-hm is a sound that can be used to express agreement (level intonation).
  • Use expressions to indicate surprise: Really? Oh my! Is that a fact? No way! You’re kidding!
  • Use expressions to indicate agreement: I hear you. I know what you mean. That’s so true.
  • Use questions to encourage the speaker: And then what happened? So what did you do? And what do you think?

To practice being an active listener, you can set up situations in which students must give feedback to one another. For instance, in small groups of three or four, assign one student in the group the role of speaker. He or she must talk for 1-2 minutes on an assigned topic (e.g., your last vacation). The others must provide an assigned form of feedback during the talk: one gives frequent acknowledgement /agreement, another shows surprise, and a third might invite more details.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Where do you come up with all of these ideas? I particularly like this one but I’m afraid to be so cruel to a student by setting them up for the nonverbal rejection. Still I think you have a devious and inspiring mind, thanks.

    PS I loaded the first series of your videos on go there and search for JenniferESL. I also will link them from our “MyESLfrinds” site.

    PPS Did you see my kudos to you on my blog? Here is the link:

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hello! Yes, I wanted to thank you for your extremely kind words on your blog. Thank you also for helping me reach more English language learners by placing my videos on

      As for the demonstration of active and non-active listening, it has to feel right. By that, I mean you must know if your students will be receptive to this approach. There is more than one way to teach active listening skills. You could take the time to find a clip from a movie or TV show that demonstrates good and bad feedback. You could also just model very good feedback while listening to one student speak and then ask the class to note specifically what you did to provide feedback (e.g. made eye contact, nodded, gave responses such as “I see”). Choose the approach that best fits your students and that fits your style of teaching.

  2. Weer says:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s