Preparing Students Facing Listening Comprehension Test

Wakhid Nashruddin
State College for Islamic Studies at Cirebon

Listening is tested in many language proficiency tests, such as TOEFL®, IELTS®, TOEIC®, and also UAN (National Final Examination), and usually comes at the beginning of the test. Unfortunately, the preparation of it seems to be forgotten, to be put aside, comparing to other language components-reading, grammar, and writing. This study will try to collect ideas in how to improve listening skill from others’ experiences in teaching listening. The ideas will be gathered from some resources; journals, text books, and activity books. EFL learners will improve their listening skill by doing extensive listening, listening while reading the transcripts, and other techniques, while teachers will guide them through the process.

Key words: receptive skill, accustom, comprehend

Listening is a difficult skill in second language learning as also other skills of language—speaking, reading, and writing. This fact is caused by many problems, starting from the difference of sounds between first language and second language, learners’ lack of vocabulary, learners’ grammatical unawareness, until pragmatic differences. EFL learners need to be prepared handling tests in listening comprehension.

Many language proficiency tests present listening comprehension questions, usually, at the beginning of the tests. After listening comprehension, there will be probably grammar and reading comprehension questions, or even writing task. So sometimes, test takers are not ready yet to answer questions, but should deal with the questions. In such situation, before taking the test, teachers should prepare the students to be able to answer the questions although with a little time to engage. Teachers are demanded to provide students with techniques and skill to answer the questions quickly.

Is listening easy? In second language learning, understanding a language is not simple, especially when people have to listen to it. The process of acquiring that skill normally takes a lot of time, though it can be years. As an illustration, when babies start learning a (first) language, it takes at least two years for them to understand the language, and still, after two years it does not result to full comprehension. The babies, in fact, are exposed to the language every day, since most parents talk to them, because of their happiness to their baby born. Of course, this is different to the learning of second language(s), since babies, who know nothing about the language, are in different physiological and psychological condition; what we can see here that it needs time before someone can understand second language(s).

Considering that the process of gaining listening skill can take so much time, this paper would not be able to present “magic” ways in improving listening skill, in a very short time. This paper tries only to provide some suggestions to prepare students facing listening test.

Research shows that students can make use of many alternative media in improving their listening skills. Recent studies have dealt with internet, utilizing its rich and authentic materials for listening practice. Barin (2008: 1) shows the effect of internet-based listening tasks on listening comprehension, and the conclusion is that “the students who used Internet-based listening tasks were more active and successful than the traditional group.” Yumarnamto & Wibowo (2008: 1) also did an internet-based study, investigating the use of “Podcasts and Videocasts from the Internet to Improve Students’ Listening Skill.” The result of their study shows that by using podcasts and videocast in listening activity, their students’ ability in listening is significantly improved. Juniardi (2008: 1) also has the similar result studying the effect of podcasting program in improving students’ listening skill.

From those previous studies, the importance of using internet in improving listening skill has been discussed. However, when students face listening test, they do not only depend on their skill, but they also should have strategy in order to understand the questions. Skillful people may fail on tests because they do not apply any strategies in doing the test. This article tries to provide the students or test takers to be with techniques or strategies in doing listening tests. Teachers can also inform or train their students using the techniques or strategies.


Two approaches on listening comprehension are bottom-up and top-down. The two approaches make use of many elements for comprehension; words, phrases, sentences, and also the context of utterances (linguistic and non-linguistic context). The difference relies on the sequence of understanding of a text.

Bottom-up point of view looks the process of listening as the way to get information from the (listening) text. This approach believes that linguistic knowledge decides whether or not the listener understands the text. It starts from the very low level of recognition; listening to sounds, phonemes, words, sentences, considering the structures of each sentence, and also take non-linguistic context into consideration. The comprehension also may try to guess what a speaker is saying (Brown, 1996: 10). Buck (2003: 2) explains that this process of listening constitutes the sequence from audio input transferred into phonemes (the smallest unit sounds that have meaning), which is then used to recognize words, analyzed at syntactic level, continued with the prediction of semantic contents, forwarded to the understanding of meaning through basic linguistic meaning, and ended by listener interpreting the literal meaning based on the context of communication.

In top-down point of view, the schemata or background knowledge plays an important role in the listening process. The schemata will help the understanding of a text because the knowledge can make the listener know what topic is being talked about, and if the listener knows about the topic, it will make him/her get the meaning because s/he has already known about the topic. Buck (2003: 3) points out that in the top-down process, any knowledge to understand a text is used randomly as needed by the listener. In this way, listeners do not rely on their understanding about words first, than understanding sentences, but they try to understand, for example, from the context, listeners analyzing the sentences, then finding out what words are important for comprehension, until they can understand the content of the text. The problem may appear is not “the lack of skill” in receiving information and using context, but more on “the ability to apply it when listening to foreign language” (Ur, 1984: 21).

The discussion about two approaches here is just an overview; for more detail discussion, if you are interested in it, you may refer to Penny Ur’s Teaching Listening Comprehension (1984: 11-21), Gillian Brown’s 2nd edition of Listening to Spoken English (1996: 10-12), and Gary Buck’s Assessing Listening (2003: 1-30).

Related to the two approaches, they should be used in the teaching of listening comprehension since they are beneficial for training the skill. EFL learners should be introduced to the second point of view, since it can be a strategy to listening comprehension. Teachers may ask students to use their schemata to predict what topic is being discussed, and using their linguistic skill to comprehend more about the text.


The strategies presented here are just a few, from many of them. I would like to divide the strategies into two categories, first is before-test phase and second is while-test strategy. The reason for doing the distinction is because students need to have the “skill” itself (before test) and they should also know how to answer questions (while test). Students should know some basic ideas in improving their listening skill, and understand when a certain kind of question demands a certain answer.

A. Before-test Phase
Familiarize the Students with the Form of the Test.
Before facing any test—listening test is our focus here—test takers should be familiar with the forms of the test. In National Examination (UAN) for students of senior high school level in Indonesia, for instance, students will have fifteen questions on listening. The questions are divided into four kinds of questions; questions about pictures, question and response, short conversation, and short talk. The questions are all in form of multiple choices. From fifty questions in UAN, for students of senior high school level, fifteen of them are listening questions; three questions about pictures, four questions about question and response, four questions about short conversation/dialog, and four questions about short talks (e.g. text, announcement).

Extensive listening
Make the students realize and believe that practice makes perfect. In this sense, students should know that in preparing listening test, they cannot rely more on their teachers teach or train them in the classroom. They themselves should practice their listening skill, not only in the classroom, but also outside the class. The basis of the idea comes from Harmer (2007: 303). He suggests extensive listening in accordance to extensive reading since he believes that extensive listening will have a good effect as well as extensive reading.

A suggestion about improving second language listening comprehension comes from Field (2003). He (2003: 325-332) promotes what he calls “lexical segmentation in L2 listening.” The purpose of lexical segmentation in “the identification of words in connected speech” is to train students with using their knowledge of phonetics (Field, 2003: 327). Continuing his explanation, he suggests one technique in lexical segmentation is “to dictate ambiguous sentences, then to disambiguate them by adding additional words” (Field, 2003: 328)
e.g. T dictates: an ice cream . . . (Ss write) . . . T continues dictation: a nice cream dress

Reading the Transcript
Obermeier (2000) and Karlsson, Kjisik, & Nordlund (2003), support the use of reading the transcript in listening training. Obmeier (2000) suggests that students may re-read the transcript and check unfamiliar word so that students’ vocabulary will also increase. This will help students comprehend the text being learned or the other texts. The learning of the transcript will help them able to recognize words when the words listened on the next time. Alternatively, Karlsson, Kjisik, & Nordlund (2003) propose that students can also try to transcribe the listening text, and then replay the tape to check whether or not the transcription is correct. By doing this, again, students can check and recheck their comprehension on a listening text.

B. While-test Strategy
Many writers have tried to write books about preparation of dealing with tests, IELTS®, TOEFL®, IELTS®, or other tests. The following are techniques from TOEFL Secrets: Your Key to TOEFL Success© published by MO Media (2002: 15-18). While other TOEFL® preparation books provide practices of listening by giving plenty of listening practice, this booklet provide the strategy for finding the answer efficiently. The techniques can also be applied in any listening test, not only for TOEFL. The techniques for short conversations are using pictures, using multiple inputs, catching main ideas, paying attention to voice changes, remembering specific information, interpreting, and finding hidden meaning. Longer conversation—academic conversation, class discussion, academic talks, and lectures—can also use those strategies.

Using pictures
In certain tests, for example IELTS®, pictures are presented in the test booklet. This is to help test takers answer some questions related to the pictures. The pictures bring details and may function as clue or description in listening comprehension (Ur, 1984: 30-31). A good point is to imagine that you are in that situation in the picture. By being in the pictures, test takers can understand more about situation and condition going on.

Using multiple inputs
When students listen to the questions, they also read the possible answers in the booklet test. Use the written answer on the booklet to check their listening. They are probably not good in listening, so they can make use of texts (answer options) to guide them.

Catching main ideas
Main ideas are usually words that come up frequently. Pay attention to such repeated words can help students determining the main idea. This is a simple way, and for facing a test teachers should not burden their students with such complicated explanation—for example the main idea is the idea of the text. Such explanation should be given during the teaching of listening comprehension.

Paying attention to voice changes
When people speak in a normal tone, and then suddenly change the tone, it is possible that they carry emotional information. For example, when in the middle of a conversation someone rises his voice saying “what?”, it may mean that he is surprised hearing a new information. Such intonation changes will be very useful to find an answer of certain questions.

Remembering specific information
Questions are sometimes based on specific information. It usually carries out adjectives to identify. Students should also pay attention to numbers, sizes, or color. So when people talk about how many things they need, for instance, the next question may be about the number of the tings mentioned. Such specific information will be very helpful.

Students should also try to imagine themselves as the speakers in the conversation. By doing so, they would probably be able to understand why the speakers say certain utterances. When someone says “I’m extremely tired,” she probably needs some rest after working all day.

Finding hidden meaning
Students should also carefully listen to statements after questions, since usually there will be answers, but in form of indirect ones. For example, when a man asks a woman “Will you go to the movie tonight?” and the woman says “I don’t know, I haven’t finished my homework.” She did not respond using a direct answer. Students should be able to see that the woman probably will not be able to go to the movies because she must do her homework.

Academic Conversations
These kinds of conversation are usually on a campus between professors, students, and other campus members. Pay attention to the repeated words in concluding main idea will be very helpful because usually this type of conversation is followed by questions on main ideas and important details.

Class Discussion
In this kind of conversation, the setting is usually in a class, an office, or other campus area, and is between professors and his/her students. Again, students or test takers should be able to find the main idea of the discussion, but usually not details information.

Academic Talks
This kind of conversations is in an orientation meeting on academic courses and procedures or where a professor might discuss a variety of college topics. Students will need to be able to summarize main ideas, but usually not details in it.

Lectures are conversations in a classroom about academic topics. Students should be able to summarize main ideas, and answer questions about who, what, when, where, or why.


From the points of the discussion above, I have discussed some strategies to teach and to prepare students facing listening test. Students can be successful on their listening tests not only when they are good at listening, but also supported by the techniques or strategies during the test. The strategies presented here are divided into two categories, before-test phase and while-test strategy.

Before-test strategies are techniques applied by teachers to teach listening comprehension. They are in form of familiarization of test forms, extensive listening, segmentation, and reading the transcript. Despite the fact that students should be prepared before the test, they should also be prepared with strategies during the test. While-test strategies include using pictures, using multiple inputs, catching main ideas, paying attention to voice changes, remembering specific information, interpreting, and finding hidden meaning. Longer conversation—academic conversation, class discussion, academic talks, and lectures—can also use those strategies.


Buck, G. 2003. Assessing Listening. Edited by Alderson, C. J. & Bachman, L. F. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Barin, M. 2008. The effect of internet-based listening tasks on listening comprehension of Iranian EFL learners. A paper presented at 6th Asia TEFL International Conference, The Association of Teachers of English as Foreign Language in Indonesia, Bali, 1-3 August.

Brown, G. 1996. Listening to Spoken English 2nd ed. New York: Longman

Field, J. 2003. Promoting Perception: Lexical Segmentation in L2 Listening. ELT JOURNAL, 57(4): 325-334

Harmer, J. 2007. The Practice of Language Teaching (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited

Juniardi, Y. 2008. Improving Students’ Listening Skill Through Podcasting Program. A paper presented at 6th Asia TEFL International Conference, The Association of Teachers of English as Foreign Language in Indonesia, Bali, 1-3 August.

Karlsson, L, Kjisik, F, & Nordlund, J. 2003. Autonomous Language Learning Modules at Helsinki University Language Centre, Finland, (Online), (, accessed on 19 Dec 2008)

Obermeier, A. 2000. Listening Training for the TOEFL, (Online), (, accessed on 19 December 2008)

The TOEFL Secrets Team. 2002. TOEFL Secrets: Your Key to TOEFL Success. MO Media (

Ur, P. 1984. Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Yumarnamto, M & Wibowo, Basilius H. S. 2008. Podcasts And Videocasts From The Internet To Improve Students’ Listening Skill. A paper presented at 6th Asia TEFL International Conference, The Association of Teachers of English as Foreign Language in Indonesia, Bali, 1-3 August.


(Nashruddin, Wakhid. 2009. Preparing Students Facing Listening Comprehension Test. Paper presented at 1st National English Teachers and Lecturers Conference, The Language and Cultural Center of State University of Malang, Malang, 21 March) 


About wakhidn

Interested in TEFL

One response »

  1. Nurdiansyah says:

    Nice Blog Sir….. hehehehe

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