Reflective listening – a skill to improve your speaking

This lesson features one of my favourite classroom routines – reflective listening. The title says “a skill to improve your speaking”, in truth though it is a skill to improve your English full stop. It’s an excellent method of improving both your grammar and vocabulary too. And the good news for IELTS candidates is that it can work in exam situations too.  What I do here is briefly:

  • explain what it is
  • how it can help improve your general speaking and language skills
  • give you some phrases to help you use it
  • suggest a way you could apply it in the exam
  • give you a couple of practice suggestions

What is reflective listening? It’s sharing language

Put very simply, all it means is that when you speak to someone you repeat back the words you hear. So if someone says:

“The Olympics are a waste of money. It’d be much better if the money was spent on social housing and improving the lives of ordinary people.”

You do NOT say:

“I agree. You are quite right about that.”

or

“I think you are wrong. The Olympics are great because they make a lot of people happy.”

Those are “male responses” where you just try and make your point. What you DO do is think “like a female” and talk about what the other person has just said. You could try:

“I hear what you say about the Olympics being a waste of money. Just think how much better it would be if the government spent that money on building new houses.”

or

“I see what you mean about their being a waste of money and social housing should be a priority I agree. But don’t you think….”

The difference is that in the second set of examples you actually use/reflect the same language as the other person: this is good for communication, good for vocabulary and for grammar.

Better communication through reflective listening

Reflective listening works as a general communication technique because:

  1. people are more likely to talk to you if you show that you share or understand their ideas – we like people who are like us
  2. if you simply state a different point of view, it makes it harder for the other person to talk to you – they need to think of something else to say
  3. if, however, you show you understand their point of view, you have something to discuss together even when you disagree
  4. for second language learners, it’s a great way of making sure that you understand what the other person is saying – it’s easy to get trapped into a conversation where you are talking about two different things.

A special case – checking understanding

If you think you may not understand what the other person has said. Don’t ignore the problem. You could say:

I don’t understand [You may sound stupid - that's not good]

Can you repeat that please ? [You may still not understand if all they do is say it again]

The best (though hardest) option is probably to reflect what they said :

“Are you saying that….?” or

“Do you mean that……?

Better vocabulary through reflective listening

We really “learn” words by using them. If we hear a word that’s good. If though we hear a word and then repeat it, we are much, much more likely to be able to use it for ourselves later. If you look at the examples from above:

“I hear what you say about the Olympics being a waste of money. Just think how much better it would be if the government spent that money on building new houses.”

“I think you are wrong. The Olympics are great because they make a lot of people happy.”

In the first example the speaker is one step closer to learning and using the phrase “a waste of money”, the second speaker is now one step behind.

Better grammar through reflective listening

Grammar works in much the same way as vocab here. Sometimes the best way to learn grammar is not to focus on rules, but just use it- not everyone is comfortable with deductive thinking. If you look at the examples above, the first speaker helps herself learn the second conditional by repeating/reflecting what she heard:

“The Olympics are a waste of money. It’d be much better if the money was spent on social housing and improving the lives of ordinary people.”

“I hear what you say about the Olympics being a waste of money. Just think how much better it would be if the government spent that money on building new houses.”

Some phrases to make it work for you

Really to make this work, all you need to do is understand the concept that we can learn better by reflecting what people say when we speak and that listening is not a passive skill! It may help if you have some ready-made phrases though to lead you into reflecting language. The ones below are just to start you off:

Checking understanding

Are you saying that….?

Do you mean that…?

Agreeing

I couldn’t agree with you more when you say….

It’s a good point you make about….

You’re quite right about……

Disagreeing

Actually I’ve got a different point of view about…..

I’m not sure I agree when you say

In the IELTS speaking exam

This technique is mostly going to help you before the exam in learning better spoken English. However, it does have a possible use in part 3 of the speaking test. What you may try to do there occasionallyis to repeat/reflect the question before giving your answer. This works in 3/4 ways.

  1. You buy a little thinking time before you need to give your answer.
  2. You make sure you are thinking/speaking about the right topic. By repeating the question, you are less likely to go off topic.
  3. Sometimes one word just leads to another. Just by saying the word in the question can help you think of more words – something that may not otherwise happen.
  4. You are more likely to get the grammar right if you repeat the question. If it asks you to talk about what will happen in the future, you are more likely to use future tenses if you start with a future tense from the question.

Notes

  1. This technique is much less appropriate in part 1. There the questions are designed to be very simple and you will sound strange if you repeat them.
  2. Do not overuse the repeating the question technique. You are unlikely to impress the examiner this way.

Practice suggestions

If you have a speaking partner, try this: talk about a topic such as education and try and work out what exactly you agree and disagree on and why. To do this, you will almost certainly need to repeat/borrow each other’s language. The “why” part is important because it forces to say what exactly the other person said. If you don’t have a speaking partner,you could try listening to a podcast and pausing it occasionally and either:

  • summarising what you have just heard, or
  • saying whether you agree or disagree with what has been said

Either way you should find yourself using much of the language you have just heard.

For teachers in the classroom the idea is simply to ask another student whether they agree with what the first student has said and why. Students start listening to each other and sharing each others’ language. Perfect.

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4 Responses to Reflective listening – a skill to improve your speaking

  1. Andre Ferraz August 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    That was a really good piece of advice!
    I’ll take my IELTS exam next week and I feel really confident about the reading, listening and writing tests once I’ve practising a lot for almost 4 weeks.
    Now I’m focusing mainly on my yet to be improved skill: speaking.
    I can pronounce a really high range of words correctly, just need to practise a little bit more to acquire confidence enough to talk fluently. I’m sure the advices available in your blog will help me considerably. Thank you very much, Dominic!a

    • Andre Ferraz August 25, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

      I’ve been practising*

      • Taniya October 10, 2014 at 11:56 am #

        Wish you all the best

  2. Sam February 17, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Hello there ,

    I would like to say that what is done to explain how to do the speaking test- in what it is supposed to be a good appropriate way – is quit useful and very interesting . The above mentioned techniques can help very much in improving the speaking test precisely as well as speaking skills in general .Eventually I would like to say it is a well done project so keep it up .

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