How To Listen In English: A Simple Technique

How To Listen In English: A Simple Technique cover

Do you often feel left behind during English listening exercises? Learn here how recognizing the context of a dialogue and looking out for keywords are two ways you can use anticipation to get better results.

Ever felt overwhelmed by listening tasks during an English session?

It’s a routine many of us are familiar with: The teacher cues up an audio track and instructs us to jot down the correct answers to a series of questions.

With our pen poised at the ready, we wait intently as the track starts and the voice actors begin to engage in a scripted conversation.

But all of a sudden, we’re out of our depth.

Words seem to whizz past at an incomprehensible speed and as hard as we try to scribble down the correct answers - we’re left with a blank piece of paper at the end.

As the recording ends, the teacher looks at us expectantly, waiting to hear our perfect answers. Gulp!

This is a natural and expected difficulty of learning a new language. Our brains are just not accustomed to such a rapid flow of unfamiliar sounds. When we hear a new word, it’s natural for us to panic and frantically rack our brains for its meaning, leaving us missing the next vital chunk of dialogue.

But there is a way to approach these dreaded tasks which makes them much easier to handle. It’s a technique which involves a small amount of preparation but often delivers startling results in how well we are able to perform.

This technique can be summed up in one word: anticipation.

What is listening anticipation?

Anticipation is about predicting what a possible answer or answers may be before starting the listening task. It works in two ways. First, we can often guess what the answer may be from contextual clues. This might mean the title of the module or any accompanying images on the page.

For example, if the listening task is called A Dinner Party, we can fairly confidently predict that someone is heading to a dinner party. But what if that’s not the correct answer. Well, anticipation also helps by providing us an alternative answer which makes sense.

For example, if we expect to hear “dinner party’ but instead hear “cocktail party”, we can make a judgement call that this is the correct answer to the question.

Predicting Keywords

Another way anticipation works is through the use of keywords. Keywords are phrases or individual words which we would expect to hear as the answer or surrounding the answer.

To give an obvious example, if we have a question about the time that something happens, we already have an idea of what type of answer to expect. In this case, a time i.e. eleven thirty (11:30am / 11:30) or midnight (12:00am / 0:00) or half past twelve (12:30pm / 12:30).

Keywords could be many different things: an activity, a season, a name, an emotion, a physical object, and much more. But by anticipating the form of the answer like this, we’re halfway there to picking up the right answer when we finally hear it.

However, keywords are not limited to telling us the type of answer to expect. They can also tell us specifically when to listen for the answer. If we have a question which asks “Why did James lose his job?” there are numerous words which might ‘signpost’ when we’ll hear the desired information.

For example, we might hear the word company, or boss, or the verb fired or the phrase made redundant. These are all words we could feasibly predict and which could either be the answer to the question or signal when the answer is about to be revealed.

A Night Out

Let’s take a look at some example questions and see how this would work in practice. This fictional listening task is called A Night Out. Already, we might be able to anticipate some of the language we will hear.

  • Where is Pete going this evening?

As noted, we could use contextual clues here such as the name of the module in the course book or any images that accompanied the listening exercise. Maybe Pete’s going to watch a sports game? Or maybe to indulge his hobby of ten-pin bowling or a similar social activity? Perhaps he’s off to the pub or going to a restaurant with friends?

  • What’s the address of the house?

This is typical question where keywords really come into their own. An address can be expressed in a few different ways: a house number or a street or road name. Equally, it might be an apartment number with a name for the apartment block. Essentially, we’re listening for numbers and words like road or street. We may even hear the name of the neighbourhood so we should be listening for unfamiliar words.

  • How will he get there?

How do we normally get to places? Well, there’s only so many options available. We could drive or take a bus or a metro, we could cycle or walk, we could take a taxi. The keywords are obvious here: modes of transport or verbs which indicate methods of travelling (driving, cycling, or taking the train etc).

  • What time does he expect to return?

As we saw earlier, anything containing a time is a pretty obvious pointer as to what we should be listening for. We could hear the time expressed in a colloquial manner (e.g. ten to twelve / 11:50 am / 11:50) or in a conventional manner (e.g. eleven fifty / 11:50 am / 11:50). We might even hear time expressed as a rough approximation (e.g. a little after one) or as a span of times (e.g. between twelve and one). Either way, we’ll be listening intently for numbers.

Beware of ‘Red Herrings’

Red herrings is an idiomatic term for misleading clues which aim to lead us away from the correct answer. Listening tasks often include these to make it a little harder. For example, they might use one of our anticipated keywords in a negative (e.g. We’re not going to a restaurant) or include one in a question (e.g. Are you taking the metro?). We have to be particularly vigilant around these as they can undo all our hard work.

Listen for words indicating the negative (e.g. not) or concentrate on who is giving the information to help to determine whether it’s the correct answer or not. Also, characters may give one answer and then clarify it with another answer. Be aware.

Listening Script

Now we’ve done our preparation, it’s time to check out the actual conversation. Here we’ll reproduce it in writing so you can locate the actual answers to the questions:

  • Mum: Are you staying in for dinner tonight, Pete?
  • Pete: No, actually I’m going out.
  • Mum: Oh are you? Anything exciting planned?
  • Pete: It’s Rebecca’s birthday. You know Rebecca, don’t you? She’s having a meal in La Cantina to celebrate.
  • Mum: That’ll be nice! I hear that’s a lovely restaurant. Are you meeting her there?
  • Pete: No, we’re going to have a couple of cocktails at Rebecca’s first. She lives on Charles Street, so it’s not far from La Cantina.
  • Mum: Well, I hope you’re not going to get too drunk. You’re not driving, are you?
  • Pete: No, of course not. I’m going to take the bus.
  • Mum: That’s a good idea. Do you know what time you’ll be back?
  • Pete: I’m not sure, but it’ll be before twelve because I have to work tomorrow. Actually, I think about eleven thirty because that’ll be the last bus of the night.
  • Mum: Okay, great. Well, make sure you don’t make too much noise coming in the house!


Let’s look at the correct answers from the listening script. You can see that many of them we were able to anticipate or to get a good idea of what type of answer to listen for.


  1. Where is Pete going this evening?
  2. What’s the address of the house?
  3. How will he get there?
  4. What time does he expect to return?


I highly encourage you to answer the above questions on your own before checking the answers below.

  1. Where is Pete going this evening? Rebecca’s house/A restaurant for a birthday meal
  2. What’s the address of the house? Charles Street
  3. How will he get there? He’s taking the bus
  4. What time does he expect to return? Eleven thirty


Try this technique out next time you have a listening task to do with your teacher. It only takes a minute or two to anticipate the answers and it can have a profound effect on your ability to perform the task.

Hero image by averie woodard (CC0 1.0)