Intensive Listening and ESL

Intensive listening is listening for the elements (phonemes, intonation, etc.) in words and sentences. This form of listening is often assessed in an ESL setting as a way to measure an individual’s phonological,  morphological, and ability to paraphrase. In this post, we will look at these three forms of assessment with examples.

Phonological Elements

Phonological elements include phonemic consonant and phonemic vowel pairs. Phonemic consonant pair has to do with identifying consonants. Below is an example of what an ESL student would hear followed by potential choices they may have on a multiple-choice test.

Recording: He’s from Thailand

(a) He’s from Thailand
(b) She’s from Thailand

The answer is clearly (a). The confusion is with the adding of ‘s’ for choice (b). If someone is not listening carefully they could make a mistake. Below is an example of phonemic pairs involving vowels

Recording: The girl is leaving?

(a)The girl is leaving?
(b)The girl is living?

Again, if someone is not listening carefully they will miss the small change in the vowel.

Morphological Elements

Morphological elements follow the same approach as phonological elements. You can manipulate endings, stress patterns, or play with words.  Below is an example of ending manipulation.

Recording: I smiled a lot.

(a) I smiled a lot.
(b) I smile a lot.

I sharp listener needs to hear the ‘d’ sound at the end of the word ‘smile’ which can be challenging for ESL student. Below is an example of stress pattern

Recording: My friend doesn’t smoke.

(a) My friend doesn’t smoke.
(b) My friend does smoke.

The contraction in the example is the stress pattern the listener needs to hear. Below is an example of a play with words.

Recording: wine

(a) wine
(b) vine

This is especially tricky for languages that do not have both a ‘v’ and ‘w’ sound, such as the Thai language.

Paraphrase recognition

Paraphrase recognition involves listening to an example of being able to reword it in an appropriate manner. This involves not only listening but also vocabulary selection and summarizing skills. Below is one example of sentence paraphrasing

Recording: My name is James. I come from California

(a) James is Californian
(b) James loves Calfornia

This is trickier because both can be true. However, the goal is to try and rephrase what was heard.  Another form of paraphrasing is dialogue paraphrasing as shown below


Man: My name is Thomas. What is your name?
Woman: My name is Janet. Nice to meet you. Are you from Africa
Man: No, I am an American

(a) Thomas is from America
(b)Thomas is African

You can see the slight rephrase that is wrong with choice (b). This requires the student to listen to slightly longer audio while still have to rephrase it appropriately.


Intensive listening involves the use of listening for the little details of an audio. This is a skill that provides a foundation for much more complex levels of listening.


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