Listening -the often ‘mis-taught’ skill. Part one: the issues undermining aural skills instruction

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Listening is a very important skill, definitely the most crucial to first language acquisition. Yet, in my experience and in my review of the relevant literature, I have found it to be the one that is possibly taught and resourced least effectively. This is hardly surprising, in that of all four macro language skills, listening is  the most ‘obscure’ in terms of what we know about the processes it involves. Why? Because it is difficult for researchers and teachers to decode what ‘goes on’ in the listener’s head as s/he attends to aural input. Hence, there is little valid research evidence on which to build a reliable pedagogic reference framework for listening skills instruction.

I have decided to split this article in two parts as the subject matter requires more extensive treatment than other topics I have previously tackled in my blog and because the psycholinguistic rationales for the arguments are complex and require lengthier explanations. Let us look at the main issues undermining effective listening skills instruction

The issues

Chambers (1996), cited in Macaro (2003), provides an interesting list of the issues undermining the development of the skill of listening in the typical modern foreign language classroom (in England):

  1. Typically, classroom listening activities involve listening to a recorded extract in conjunction with an exercise – which is not the way we usually listen in real life;
  2. Correcting of the exercise is the final stage of the activity. There is rarely a logical link to the next classroom activity;
  3. Listening becomes a test of comprehension rather than a learning experience;
  4. Progression in listening follows the sequence found in the course-book which does not include important steps, especially the building up of listening strategies;
  5. Listening is not integrated with other skills or to other tasks such as role-play;
  6. Listeners are not encouraged by the teacher to use inferencing from localized information and prior knowledge;
  7. Lack of differentiation: the whole class is set to work at an identical speed, which generates anxiety in less confident learners
  8. The stop-start button is misused by the teacher interrupting the listening track. This denies the learners the opportunity to listen to enough text to be able to put it into some sort of global context (by using top-down processing skills)

Another issue that undermines the effectiveness of listening skills instruction relates to the top-down processing vs bottom-up processing dichotomy. Until recently (the late 90s) most cognitive accounts of L2 listening comprehension posited that we understand aural input mainly through the use of our knowledge of the world (or ‘schemata’ as they are called in psychology). Thus, if we are listening to a text about a house, we apply our knowledge of what a house looks like and what usually happens in a house. By matching our expectations with key words we grasp here and there, we can infer the gist of the text.

More recent research, however, especially Ross (1997), Tsui and Fullilove (1998) and Wu,Y. (1998) have found that bottom-up processing, that is the understanding of the lexis and grammar/syntax of a text is as – if not more – important. This finding is crucial to the effectiveness of any sound listening-skills instruction approach, since – unless we stage listening activities simply as comprehension tests – it implies that listening activities should be preceded by a pre-listening phase in which the students have the opportunities to be acquainted with at least some of the vocabulary and grammar structures present in the to-be-listened-to text in order to ease up learner cognitive load and facilitate comprehension.

The issue of cognitive load in listening comprehension tasks refers to another serious pitfall of listening skill instruction, especially vis-à-vis the materials available in books and specialized websites: the fact that the progression of the listening activities employed on most courses is less mindful of the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner than of the (usually fairly vague) evaluative criteria set by the Ministry of Education of a country (e.g. the English national curriculum) or by examination boards.

One cognitive challenge which is usually ignored by course-book authors/publishers is speed of delivery. Speed of delivery should start from relatively slow at the beginning of a unit, when the target lexis and grammatical / syntactic structures have not been automatized (thereby enhancing cognitive load on Working Memory) to near-native speed at much later stages. However, not to sacrifice the feel of authenticity that many teacher wants to find in the listening extracts, I guess, this never happens and progression occurs along other dimensions of cognitive challenge, mostly lexical and syntactic complexity and length. This is a serious shortcoming, as both in first and second language acquisition contexts, caregivers/teachers talk to children/students at a slower pace and with greater clarity than they would to L1/L2 expert speakers.

Brown (1995) identified other challenging features of listening texts which increase the listener’s cognitive load, which, in my view, all authors of published courses should heed when planning for progression:

  1. How many individuals (participant in discourse) and objects are involved; the fewer the easier;
  2. How clearly distinct the individuals or objects are from one another;
  3. How simple the spatial relations are in the text (for example when listening to directions);
  4. Whether the chronological order of the telling matched the sequence of events in the text;
  5. Whether inferencing is necessaryto relate each sentence to the preceding text; the less inferencing the easier;
  6. How self-consistent is the new information with itself and with the information the listener already has.

Moreover, teachers need to consider two important factors when staging listening comprehension activities which, according to Rubin (1994) will affect students’ performance. One is the fact that tasks requiring the deployment of a different skill or make demands on the listener’s memory pose added challenges to our learners. Let us not forget that the learner-listener has to hold in his working memory the information s/he needs to complete the listening comprehension task whilst noting down the answers and simultaneously attend to the ongoing text – an impossible task for many beginner or less able learners. The second factor noted by Rubin was the fact that apprehension/anxiety correlates significantly to lower performance in listening comprehension. These two factors, in my experience are often not heeded by some language instructors.

Another important issue that often undermines successful listening skills instruction is the range of listening tasks students are usually involved in which is usually fairly narrow. As already discussed above, students are usually involved in closed-questions listening comprehension tasks (e.g. true or false). This lack of variety may affect students’ motivation to engage in listening activities in the classroom and at home. As I will explain in the second part of this article, there is more to listening activities than the test-like approach to aural comprehension found in most textbooks.

And how about videos? Videos are very beneficial in helping learner to access text. One problem, though, which often undermines their impact on listening proficiency; often, the visual support may lead to undermining the need to actually listen. What they see – especially in videos aimed at beginners – often cues them so patently as to what the actors are saying, that the learners are not really processing languages to grasp meaning, but images.

Last, but not least, many of us – including myself, in recent years – do not involve students as often as we should in (cognitive and metacognitive) listening strategies instruction aimed at enhancing their performance in listening tasks. Researchers (e.g Bacon,1992) have identified a vast array of strategies learners can deploy prior to listening and while listening, which appear to be conducive to enhanced comprehension skills.

In conclusion, I have outlined a number of issues that undermine listening skills instruction in the typical secondary school classroom (at least in British educational settings). The second part of this article will concern itself with the possible approach L2 educators may want to take in order to address such issues effectively in their teaching settings.