If you’ve ever met an elite athlete or a master chef or an award-winning actor, you may think they have somehow risen to the top of their trade through “natural talent” and maybe some “lucky breaks.” But if you get to know them better, you’ll probably find that they regularly engage in some difficult practices that have allowed them to master their craft.

This is what I call “deliberate practice”, a term I first heard used in this specific way by Anders Ericsson, a Danish learning psychologist.

Deliberate practice refers to a learning approach of analyzing component skills in an overall performance and practicing those sub-skills that need most improvement (Ericsson, 2016). Think about it: this doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We actually tend to avoid practicing what needs most improvement, and instead practice the skills that we’re most good at.

Even if we do practice our “weaker skills”, there is a bit of a trick here. There is not necessarily a relationship between how often you practice, how “easy” the skill feels for you, and how well you execute that given skill. As many teachers can attest, it is entirely possible for a student to learn a skill incorrectly, or to introduce bad habits, or use a practicing style with a faulty mindset.  In effect, bad habits, or a problematic mindset, or poor form may actually prevent learners from ever mastering the target skill. For this reason, it is essential to have an experienced guide who has mastered the skills the student is pursuing (or is a learning expert who has accurately analayzed those skills) to set up a practice that correctly models the target skills. The guide must also  systematically observe the student while practicing in order to give corrective feedback. The observer needs to be honest about giving corrective feedback as well – too often, teachers and coaches want to go easy on their charges…

OK – so on to the deliberate practice of listening. To be effective, deliberate practice should be focused on a single learning objective, provide multiple opportunities (5-10 typically) for repetition and feedback, and offer ample time for reflection and de-briefing of what has been practiced and learned. 

Here is a summary of types of “deliberate practice” to improve listening: 

Area of Practice Form of Practice/
Learner Shift
During Practice
Lower level skills   
speech processing: minimal pairsseries of pairs of phonological phrases that are identical or “minimally different” (e.g. Do you repair clocks? Do you repair clogs?); students listen and say “same” or “different”.improved ability to detect minimally different words 
speech processing: noticing assimilations  series of very short (5-7 seconds) bursts of speech, with recognition practice (such as T/F questions or fill in blanks) for problematic sequences (such as phrases with assimilated sounds)improved ability to listen to fast speech, improved ability to decode assimilated phrases; improved interest in hearing spoken language variations
speech processing: word stress series of phrases, delivered orally;students repeat or indicate the stressed syllables; or students do “word spotting”, writing down any words they have heardimproved ability to attend to stress, pick out target words; improved ability to distinguish word boundaries   
speech processing: detecting sentence stress series of sentences (or “idea units”); students indicate the most stressed word in eachimproved ability to identify words in the stream of speech 
speech processing: parsing grammatical structuresseries of short comprehensible sentences (or “idea units”) with complex grammar, slightly above students’ productive ability; students choose correct written form of utterance, or write/fill in blanksimproved ability to segment speech into component words; improved ability to make grammatical sentences from words recognized in speech 
Vocabulary recognition: picking out words in a stream of speech series of short extracts (25 words) with m/c or blank fills in for identifying which target words were utteredimproved ability to recognize words; improved ability to identify boundaries of “unknown words” 
Grammatical parsing: making sense of phonological strings series of short extracts (25 words) with target grammatical structures blanked out; listeners attempt to fill in missing partsimproved ability to understand unsimplified/natural speed speech; improved ability to construct grammatical sentences in speech and writing  
Higher level skills   
Memory Building:Questions about reconstructing a story series of short stories, involving multiple actions and sequences improved attention span, improved recall 
Recognizing Literal Meaning:Questions about facts, details, or information explicitly stated in the audio story series of short extracts (25-50 words) with questions or T/F paraphrases about literal meaning (what was explicitly stated vs. inferable)increased awareness of literal vs. implied meaning 
Understanding Vocabulary: Questions about the meanings of words as they are used in the context of the extract  series of short extracts (10-25 words) with questions (synonyms, rephrasings) about specific vocabulary itemsincrease in receptive vocabulary 
Making Inferences:Questions asking students to make inferences as they listen to audio stories, interpreting what is said by going beyond the literal meaning  series of short statements (10-25 words) with questions about what can be inferred from what was spoken improved ability to listen “actively”, making inferences while listening 
Identifying Main Idea:Questions asking students to identify the main idea or gist of an audio storyseries of short extracts (30-60 seconds) with questions (T/F) or m/c or open-ended about the main idea improved ability to listen selectively for most important information 
Summarizing Content:Questions asking students to summarize the content of an audio storyseries of short extracts (20 seconds, 100 words); students work alone or in pairs to create short (10-20 word) summaries improved ability to focus on main ideas, ability to formulate coherent short summaries 
Determining Point of View:Questions asking students to determine a speaker’s point of view or perspective in an audio storyseries of short extracts (30-60 seconds), such as movie scenes (in audio only or video formats), in which the characters have identifiable perspectives or emotional states. improved ability to discern differences of emotional states in characters 
Analyzing Reasoning:Questions asking students to analyze a speaker’s reasoning or draw conclusions based on an audio extractseries of short extracts, personal opinions about a topic or issueimproved reasoning ability; tolerance for differing viewpoints
Finding Evidence:Questions asking students to identify statements or details in an audio story that provide evidence to support inferences, interpretations, or conclusionsseries of short stories (2-3 minutes), involving problem-solution structure improved critical thinking while listening