Experiential Listening: Teaching Listening from a Holistic Perspective

Experiential Listening: Teaching Listening from a Holistic Perspective

By: Michael Rost

I became interested in the role of listening in language learning early in my career. As a novice teacher in a high school in West Africa, it gradually became clear to me that the most successful students in my classes were the best listeners. It wasn’t that they understood more or had a better command of English, but these successful students were obviously engaged, curious, and invested. They wanted to be involved. Over my first few months of teaching, I came to equate successful listening with these same affective qualities: engagement, curiosity, and personal investment.

Indeed, during the invaluable two months of my Peace Corps teacher training in Togo, it was hammered into the young cadre of trainees that the primary goal of teaching large classes was keeping everyone engaged. We learned the art of rapidly pacing activities, providing precise directives, assigning everyone clear roles for exercises, leading choral repetition, inserting intermittent “busy work” that everyone could do, and offering personalized feedback.

And we learned the art of storytelling.

We developed the skill of creating continuing, drawn-out stories in short dialogue-based vignettes. An entire class might be based on just an eight-line dialogue, eventually transcribed on the blackboard (as we didn’t have textbooks), depicting the drama of one of our lead protagonists. We learned to develop believable characters, based on the students’ local experience, and to craft surprising story lines, often involving family dramas and personal challenges.

Above all, our primary goal was to get the students invested, to be willing to work to understand the language in the story. We wanted the students not only to internalize the current scene, but to build a sense of anticipation for the next episode. Of course, we were given models of time-honored African stories to use as sources, but I believe it was the story-teller’s belief in the power of the story that made it all work.

My stint as a teacher/griot at Lycée Tokoin in Lomé, Togo certainly helped ignite my passion to explore listening. My experience there planted the seeds of two principles that have sustained me in my career: (1) Listening is the natural basis of successful language acquisition, and (2) Personal investment—anticipation, engagement, curiosity, pleasure—is the source of energy for improving listening ability.

Based on this principle of learner engagement and incorporating research discoveries about the listening process, I now call my approach “Experiential Listening” (Rost & Brown, 2022).

Experiential Listening

We can think of Experiential Listening as a holistic approach to teaching based on engaging the full personal “listening space” of the learner. We could also call this figurative zone the “engagement space” or the “involvement space”—this is where the listening happens (or doesn’t).

The defining factor here is the listener having an active, agent in the learning process. Being at the center of the communication process, it is the listener who is responsible for completing the exchange cycle, through complementary activities of comprehending, interpreting, and interacting. We often view listening from only one of these angles or perspectives, but it is beneficial for us as teachers to see the whole circle.

The first perspective, Comprehension, is a very familiar one. This is the “objective” realm of listening, in which the listener deciphers the linguistic elements of the input. For the neuroscience buffs, it is Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, connected by a neural pathway, which are primarily involved in language processing and comprehension of input (Friederici, 2011).

Comprehending consists of five overlapping psycholinguistic processes:

  • Decoding the sound and other sensory signals in the input
  • Identifying key words and syntactic structures in the input
  • Inferring the sense of any ambiguous or undecodable structures
  • Organizing the incoming input with prior knowledge
  • Encoding the new information to long-term memory


Engaging in these processes will improve comprehension and add positivity to the. listener’s experience.

The second perspective, Interpretation, is familiar to us in our first language, but is often neglected in second language teaching.

Interpretation is the “subjective” domain of listening, in which we focus on the personal relevance of the input. In brain science terminology, interpretation of meaning involves a system of “higher order” regions in the frontal lobe of the brain that are involved in paying attention, determining relevance, organizing information, and making decisions (Friederici, 2011).

Interpreting also involves five interrelated cognitive processes, which are always imperfect and incomplete (which may be why teachers can be uncomfortable working them into language lessons):

  • Building an internal “representation” of the input that makes sense to you
  • Reflecting on the meaning of your representation in light of your prior experiences
  • Considering why any new information is relevant to you
  • Judging the validity and truth-value of the input in light of what you already know
  • Framing the event in a larger context, reflective of your purpose for listening


As with comprehension processes, engaging in these interpretation processes improves the listener’s overall experience—and drives engagement, giving a sense of purpose for listening.

The third perspective, Interaction, is the “social” sphere of listening, which is the heart of engagement. Interaction in listening focuses on the social or “shared” meaning of the input. In brain science lingo, the “social brain” is the network of brain regions that are involved in understanding other people and their intentions and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) (Friederici, 2011).

Interacting comprises five related social processes:

  • Showing the speaker that you are attending to their intention to communicate
  • Monitoring your emotions while listening and gauging how you want to respond
  • Protecting the relationship with the speaker as you interact (i.e., maintaining social norms of politeness, etc.)
  • Confirming-Clarifying any ambiguous information or intentions (when possible)
  • Responding to the speaker in a relevant way (Even if the listener does not explicitly respond to the speaker, the listener does formulate a response internally.)

How to implement Experiential Listening in a language class

Just as I realized that improving my Togolese high school students’ listening required—above all else—getting them involved (my “aha moment”), making a shift from the traditional approaches to teaching listening to this more holistic approach requires a conscious change of mindset.

To develop this learner-centered approach to listening, it is essential to consciously include—even overemphasize—subjective (interpretive) and inter-subjective (interactive) activities as part of listening instruction. In a nutshell, the new paradigm has to be: teaching listening = probing the listeners’ subjective and inter-subjective experience (Rost, 2016).

We can bring about this shift by making adjustments in three instructional areas:

    1. Input: Choosing and staging the most “impactful” input that promotes engagement

    2. Interaction: Creating and monitoring participation-based activities that require an exchange of ideas
    3. Feedback: Providing feedback that draws attention to subjective and interactive skills and strategies

1. Input: Choosing input texts for experiential listening

Because the goal of experiential listening is engaging the learners in meaningful learning experiences, the optimal type of input is usually a text involving an interesting conflict—just the kind of thing that worked with my “model students” in Togo. I call these “impact texts,” an audio or video text—a short story, a song, a dramatic scene, a lecture, or presentation extract, an emotional conversation or confrontational debate. To create an impact, the text should contain a diversity of ideas and a range of possible conclusions. Essentially, listening to the text should invite curiosity, discussion, and values clarification.


Input Genres

Instructional Focus

Sample Sources

Short story

Activate curiosity, narrative imagination

Stories with “big ideas”
Human interest stories

Myths and fables



Elicit emotional response

Powerful songs

Upbeat songs

Songs from around the world (with captions)


Dramatic scene

Promote values clarification

Movie scenes

Sources for movie clips


Provocative lecture extract

Provoke critical thinking, questioning, values clarification

TED talks for language learners

Saving the planet


Revealing interview

Stimulate curiosity and discussion

Robin Williams


Bob Dylan


Confrontational conversation

Prompt emotional involvement

Roger Federer

Celebrity interviews

Cultural comparisons

Controversial conversations



2. Interaction: Creating participation-based activities

The “default methodology” (in literally every country I’ve visited) for teaching listening is simply to play an extract from an audio or video source or to deliver a live presentation and then ask questions about it. Research on language acquisition has shown however that this methodology misses many intervention opportunities for helping learners improve their skills and strategies while they listen (Baralt et al., 2016; Rost & Brown, 2022).

Here are five optional “intervention points” in the listening process. At each point, a focused activity can be inserted to develop learners’ skills and strategies in the subjective and intersubjective domains of listening.

A prototypical lesson can be based on the stages of listening: pre-listening, while-listening, immediate post-listening, and follow-up post-listening (Rost, 2020).

  • Pre-listening stage

Before listening to an extract, usually a video or audio clip, provide some type of short pre-listening activity to pique interest and activate expectations. This can be an open-ended opinion question or a prediction activity. The goal of pre-listening is to build curiosity and a desire to participate.

  • First listening stage

In an experiential listening approach, it is important to delay comprehension checking in order to build up subjective listening skills. After the first listening to an extract, which can be paused periodically, ask pre-comprehension questions about students’ impressions and interests: What is interesting to you? What is new to you? What is unclear to you? What questions do you want to ask? If the students are simultaneously reading the extract, the instructor can have them indicate (underline or star) which parts were of most interest, and then share their ideas with a classmate.

  • Second listening stage

In this experiential listening approach, it is useful to help learners slow down the listening process so that they have an opportunity to consider the ideas they are listening to, not merely trying to catch up with the language flow. Slowing down the process entails providing some type of scaffolding task: a graph or chart to be filled in, an outline or partial set of notes to be completed, an illustration to be labelled.

  • Immediate post-listening stage

After the second listening to an extract, an objective comprehension check can be given. A global comprehension check will include these types of questions: What was the main idea? What is (Speaker A)’s reasoning? Why does (Speaker A) believe (that)? What is your opinion of what (Speaker A) said? Why do you think so?

A more detailed comprehension check can include a set of multiple choice or True-False questions that exhaustively cover the entire extract. Students can compare answers before checking as a whole class, as this type of peer exchange tends to build relationship and establish a collaborative classroom culture.

  • Follow up, post-listening stage

In the following class meeting, or in a journal response, the instructor provides an opportunity for students to reconstruct the previous text and recall the previous group discussion. Reflective questions can be posed to facilitate this review: What were the main points of (the text)? What were the main ideas in your discussion?

3. Feedback: Drawing attention to subjective and inter-subjective skills and strategies

I’ll be the first to confess that I often overlook the role of feedback in teaching—and often need to remind myself that giving explicit feedback, as exhausting as it can be, is an essential aspect of holistic—whole brain—teaching.

In order to help shape students’ attention toward subjective and inter-subjective processing, we can provide specific feedback during these various stages of listening.

In the pre-listening phase, the feedback doesn’t need to be oriented toward accuracy, whether the student’s opinion or prediction is correct or incorrect. Instead, we want to assess students’ ability to expand their curiosity and increase their openness to diverse ideas (see Shaules, 2019; Topornycky & Golparian, 2016).

Similarly, in the pre-comprehension phase, the feedback is not really about what the students have understood, but rather about what they find of interest or relevance to them, even if they do not fully understand the content. We want to assess the quality of response: clarity, thoughtfulness, consistency.

In the while-listening phase of a lesson, students should be encouraged to take notes, but they are only for their own use, not for evaluation. The goal of note-taking is to stimulate an exploration of ideas. Instructors should aim to build a collaborative discussion, acknowledging each person’s contribution as valuable.

Even in the post-listening comprehension phase, feedback should aim to encourage active participation in the comprehension process, not to test complete comprehension. After students have attempted comprehension tasks individually, they can compare their task completion with a classmate and discuss the differences (see Zwiers, 2019). In less formal classes without specific or concrete tasks, simply pausing to reflect on what each learner got out of the listening experience will suffice. My go-to “reflection” in my Tokoin classes was simply: Did you like that story? What was the best part of that story?

In all phases of a listening lesson, feedback and evaluation should focus on students’ willingness to communicate with each other (that vital WTC factor!), support for each other (I call this “building the class culture”), use of active listening strategies (e.g., give full attention to partner, paraphrase partner’s meaning), show increased openness to new ideas, ask probing questions, refer back to the input text for support (the “academic listening skills”; see Sato, 2017).

This type of feedback, when given consistently to all students, will begin to expand the listening paradigm to include the subjective and inter-subjective domains.


Teaching listening from a holistic or “whole brain” perspective can be facilitated by conceptualizing listening as listener-centered, inside an “experiential listening space,” with multiple perspectives or domains. By amplifying our attention to the oft-neglected subjective (interpretation-oriented) and inter-subjective (interaction-oriented) domains and decreasing our obsession with the objective (comprehension-oriented) domain, we can improve learner engagement and satisfaction in the listening process.

If this all seems too technical, it may be helpful to think of yourself, the teacher, as the griot, the storyteller, as I did at the start of my own teaching career. Remember: you are the interaction generator; make that your primary concern. As a storyteller or at least the story-selector, you know that there is no story unless you engage your listener. Your enthusiasm and belief in the storytelling process will engage and excite your audience. And any active listening methodology needs to focus on that: ways of getting the learner engaged, involved, curious, invested.



  • Baralt, M., Gurzynski-Weiss, L., & Kim, Y. (2016). The effects of task complexity and classroom environment on learners’ engagement with the language. In M. Sato & S. Ballinger (Eds.), Peer interaction and second language learning: Pedagogical potential and research agenda (pp. 209–239). John Benjamins.

  • Friederici, A. (2011). The brain basis of language processing: From structure to function. Physiological Reviews, 91(4), 1357-1392.

  • Rost, M. (2016). Teaching and researching listening, 3rd Edition. Routledge

  • Rost, M. (2020). Instructional design and assessment of L2 listening. In G. Bodie & D. Worthington (Eds.) The handbook of listening. Chapter 167, pp. 265-278. Routledge.

  • Rost, M. & Brown, S. (2022). Second language listening. In E. Hinkel (Ed.) Handbook of practical second language teaching and learning. Chapter 17, pp. 238-255. Wiley.

  • Sato, M. (2017). Interaction mindsets, interactional behaviors, and L2 development: An affective-social-cognitive model. Language Learning, 67(2), 249–283.

  • Shaules, J. (2019). Language, culture and the embodied mind: A developmental model of linguaculture learning. Springer.

  • Topornycky, J. & Golparian, S. (2016). Balancing openness and interpretation in active listening. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, CELT.uwindsor.ca, 9, 175-184.

  • Zwiers, J. (2019). The communication effect: How to enhance learning by building ideas and bridging information gaps. Corwin.

Michael Rost (Ph.D.) is an independent scholar, author, editor, and teacher trainer—and recent member of the Odyssey Swim Club, doing distance swims in the San Francisco Bay. He has written a number of academic books is author or editor of several language courses, including English Firsthand, Impact Issues, and Pearson English Interactive.

One comment

  1. Dear Michael! Thanks a lot for this interesting article. It helps me to understand better, what happens in the brain, when we listen and on what to focus when we do a listening practice. I didn’t realise the importance of “subject” and “social” sphere of listening!
    One question: As I teach mainly A1/A2 students (German) and they are not able to communicate so much yet, what do you suggest to activate the “subject” and “social” sphere of listening?
    Thank you very much for your time and help!

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