Potential Challenges for Academic Listening & Corresponding Strategies

Baby listening

From the time one attends university, one may come across people or materials with spoken English from a different background. It may cause difficulty to understand at first. However, since this is common experience at work or during the studies, every one needs to tune into a range of accents used to speak English.


  • When it is possible, find out where s/he comes from, from the content of the speech, documents that accompany it, or ask the speaker. It helps you tune into the accent.
  • Treat his/ her slides as subtitles or written texts as visual aids
  • Pay attention to his/ her body language or gestures
  • Take extra time to study the subject matter
  • Work with a study buddy when possible
  • In the long run, you can get used to listening to different accents by practice. You may listen to online audio-visual materials from different countries or find chance to communicate with people from all around the globe by joining activities that involve people from abroad or travelling overseas, etc.

People have different speaking paces, and sometimes the reason why you feel that a speaker speaks fast is that his/ her speech is rich in content.


  • Control your anxiety levels when you lose track on the spot. Wait for a point to re-focus soon.
  • Read written materials when applicable to help to fill in some gaps
  • Try to take some notes when you can, so that you have something to return to them or study further later.
  • With such preparations, you may ask your classmates or colleagues or even ask the speaker.

Besides the accents, speakers may also have different speaking features that make it harder for the listeners to follow. Use of or under-use of these speaking features may hinder understanding.


  • Keep an eye on the presentation slides or other documents to help you figure out points that you miss or fail to understand clearly.
  • Look for clues (e.g. body language, pictures, change of voice) for assisting the understanding.
  • May clarify with the speaker in Q & A session. In the long run, you can equip yourself by taking courses in phonetics and phonology or reading books on this aspect to acquire the knowledge, the technique or even the ‘feel’ for coping with these speaking features.

Research has shown that understanding technical or discipline related vocabulary is one of the toughest challenges for students at English medium universities. It is especially problematic when one comes across a new area of study.


  • Look for or keep a glossary of key words. Such a glossary may be found in the notes, books, readings or recommended websites. When no existing glossaries can be found, create one for yourself.
  • Consult subject-related dictionaries or websites.
  • Apart from the meaning, make sure you learn the pronunciation of the key words.
  • When possible, ask your classmates or other people you know.

Occasionally, the speaker may skip certain information or jump in the thinking process. Or, one may miss some information when s/he loses concentration or loses track of the speech.


  • Try to review your lecture notes within a day of the class.
  • List confusing points during class and ask the speaker during the Q and A or when s/he invites questions.
  • Sometimes, you may be able to apply your prior knowledge of the subject matter to make educational guesses on parts that you miss. Try to confirm if your understanding is correct as you listen on. Speakers may repeat on key points or mention certain data again as s/he touches on a related point.
  • Over the years you work with your degree subject or field of work, accumulate your knowledge actively and systematically.

Speaking and listening is always a negotiation of meaning, even for people speaking the same type of English. There are times that you may have some questions unanswered even after using all the strategies mentioned above and your own strategies.


  • Familiarize yourself with materials at hand and stay attentive.
  • Keep a list of questions so that you can deal with them later.
  • Look for chances to ask your questions, ideally after restructuring and refining them.
  • Remember that asking questions is part of being an active listener.

Resource: Kohnke, L. et al (2018). Academic Listening Survival Strategies: A Guide for Students at English medium Universities. Open Educational Resource. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329738313_Academic_Listening_Survival_Strategies_A_Guide_for_Students_at_English_medium_Universities

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