7 Factors Which Affect Language Learners’ Listening Comprehension

These seven factors can directly or indirectly contribute to your learners' listening comprehension skills and comprehension.

Teacher, I don’t understand. “Huh?”, “What?”, “Can you repeat that, please?” “What did he say?”, “Teacher, we don’t understand.” Do any of these sound familiar? Undoubtedly they do.

When English EFL language learners have listening comprehension problems it can be frustrating. If you use videos, CDs or audio cassette tapes, or even perhaps when speaking your learners can have their lesson input interrupted by a lack of listening comprehension skills. Comprehensible input (Krashen, 1989) is an integral part of any English or foreign language class.

Contributing factors

These seven factors can directly or indirectly contribute to your learners’ listening comprehension skills and comprehension:

  1. Vocabulary

    ELT author, researcher and lecturer Scott Thornbury said, “… count one hundred words of a (reading) passage. If more than ten of the words are unknown, the text has less than a 90% vocabulary recognition rate. It is therefore, unreadable.” (S. Thornbury, 2004) The same then is likely true for a listening passage. Remember, “You can never be too rich, too thin or have enough foreign language vocabulary” as the old saying goes.

  2. Rhyming Sounds

    Have you ever taught or learned poetry? If so, you’ll remember that there are several types of rhyming patterns which can be used. Alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance and consonance, simile, metaphor and allusion, among others, all lend their particular ambience to written or spoken language in English.

    Note: If you’d like or need a quick refresher on these poetic elements, you should read, “How to Evoke Imagery, Emotions and Ideas in Writing Poetry That Captures Your Readers Imagination” and “How to Write Poems That Capture the Heart and Imagination of Your Readers” by the author. (L.M. Lynch, 2007)

  3. Idioms and Expressions

    In every language there are frequently-used idioms and expressions that allow its speakers to convey nuances of thought to one another effortlessly and with greater clarity that simply “explaining” everything verbally. Not only is it helpful to know as many of these as possible, but if you don’t, the meanings of many conversations or spoken exchanges may just be “lost” to the listener.

  4. Pronunciation

    Everyone speaks differently and uses forms of connected speech in distinctive ways. Elements including elision, contraction, juncture, liaison, register, accommodation, aspect, intonation and others, affect pronunciation and speech patterns on an individual basis. When learners are unfamiliar, or even ignorant of, these elements, listening comprehension can be significantly impacted.

  5. Regional or National Accents

    The same sentence when spoken by people from different first language (L1) backgrounds, regional locations, or ethnic backgrounds can be decisively varied. Unfamiliarity with such on the part of EFL learners can cause a definite lack of listening comprehension or “comprehensible input” as mentioned earlier.

  6. Grammar in Context

    When grammar and its aspects are taught as “separate” themes, that is, outside of a relevant context, learners can be “handicapped” as it were by not understanding just how and when particular grammar structures are used by native speakers during an oral discourse or verbal exchange. So when they, the learners, hear a grammar structure that they “know”, but learned “out of context”, they can often “miss it”, misinterpret it or simply not understand what they’re hearing.

  7. Language Rhythms

    One of the big differences between English and say, Spanish, is that one language is “syllable-based” while the other is “accent-based”. This accounts for non-native speakers sounding “funny” when speaking a language other than their mother tongue.

    With epithets like, “oh, she luv-ed him but chew-no it wuzn’t not no guud, mahn for demm boat.”

    These types of epithets derive not from a lack of English or other foreign language skills in particular, but rather from pronunciation based on using an “incorrect” spoken language rhythm.

So, What to Do About It Then?

In the next article segment, we’ll briefly consider what approaches might be taken to address these and other related problems in developing fluent oral discourse and spoken exchanges in English or other foreign languages.

Larry Lynch
Prof. Larry M. Lynch is a bi-lingual copywriter, expert author and photographer specializing in business, travel, food and education-related writing in South America. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape From America, Mexico News and Brazil magazines. He now lives in Colombia and teaches at a university in Cali. Want lots more free tips, help and information on language learning, public speaking, article writing and mental skills development? Then go now to: bettereflteacher.blogspot.com

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  1. I agree that it is sometimes frustrating even frightening for students to be faced with video or music which contain unfamiliar vocabulary, idioms and accents. However, it is also very useful! When teaching we as teachers control the language we use and this limits their exposure to real everyday English. The learning experience should contain natural English unfortunately this is often not the case. Students who are popular music lovers have a better feel for / knowledge of structure and collocations. I frequently use music and lyrics to break the focus and show students how they can pick up new structures and vocabulary through music. Movies have another function, they are very useful for educating the ear to a variety of accents, styles, intonation, etc. understanding every word is not the function. Facial expressions, gestures and the story should all help students to understand what is going on. The comprehension of every word should not be the focus during a listening, unlike the written word.

    • Thanks a lot, it really helps.

  2. In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

    1. Listen to each sentence several times. Alongside listening see and read each sentence in the transcript.
    2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
    3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you have heard it. Being able to repeat a sentence means that a learner has remembered its content.
    4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.
    5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption several times, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you’ve heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you’ve said to the transcript.

    It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording. I believe that for practising listening comprehension and speaking in English it is a good idea to include various practical topics for potential needs of learners with comprehensive vocabulary on each topic. As you know the content of materials matters a great deal.

    It’s possible and effective to practise listening comprehension and speaking in English on one’s own this way through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids to provide additional solid practice and to accelerate mastering of English.


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