Listening Comprehension

Listening comprehension is often referred to as a receptive skill where the word “receptive” takes on the connotation of passivity. Rather, listening is an active process which entails the use of cognitive strategies such as guessing, clumping together known material so as to attend to the unknown, recognizing linguistic and semantic patterns, and using one’s past experiences to anticipate contextual elements. The purpose of listening, then, is twofold:

  • 1) to participate in discourse and
  • 2) to obtain information; i.e., listening serves a need or a purpose.

Thus, the kinds of activities and tasks that are used to develop this skill must represent this need to listen, while involving both the problem-solving and information-getting processes.

Listening constitutes discerning meaning by actively participating in the information getting process; however, meaning is contingent upon context: without a context, meaning is difficult to discern. Knowing and comprehending the context become the key elements in developing understanding. This is best exemplified by the illustration given in Roger Tremblay’s module for the development of listening comprehension.* He describes a situation similar to the one given here. If one hears the exclamation “Shut the door!”, everyone would understand that to mean that the person wants the door closed. However, what is not known is the underlying context of the exclamation. For example, one context may relate to a person who is studying and, because there is far too much noise for him/her to concentrate, he/she wants the door closed. Another may find a person talking on the telephone who wishes some privacy in his/herm conversation. Consequently, he/she asks to have the door shut. Or, a person is taking a shower and someone has left the door open allowing the cold air to enter, thus prompting a request for the door to be closed. Therefore, hearing the exclamation “Shut the door” does not necessarily ensure that full comprehension has been attained; rather, it allows for a number of interpretations to occur.
Context, then, is a necessary element of a given speech act which ensures a greater possibility for the attainment of full comprehension.

In general any given context will consist of the following five basic elements

  1. the participant, i.e., those persons involved in the communicative act;
  2. the relationship existing between the participants (for example, client/ sales clerk, parent/child, waiter/customer, etc.);
  3. the communicative intent(s) used for participating in the speech act (for example, persuading someone to do something, asking for information, refusing an invitation, etc.);
  4. the medium though which the message(s) is being transmitted (for example, radio, telephone, loudspeaker, person to person); and
  5. the antecedent or other circumstances pertinent to the context (for example, time, day, place, past events and experiences, shared beliefs, values and assumptions, a shared linguistic code, etc.) which will affect the speech act.

Each of these elements, then, plays an important role in defining the context and awareness of them is needed in order to be able to fully comprehend the message(s).

Knowing that these elements pertain to a context is an important aspect in the development of appropriate listening tasks for the second language classroom. Further, not only should the tasks bear in mind the context, but also as Dunkel states, “…response tasks should be success-oriented and should focus on training [students to listen for information or to become full discourse participants], not on testing listening comprehension” (1986, p. 104). Thus, extensive practice in information-seeking and information-getting is essential before the skill can be evaluated. Indeed, if students are to be able to understand oral language, they must not only be provided with appropriate examples of contextualized speech, but they must also be given sufficient exposure to these contexts as a means of properly developing this skill. In order to attain this goal, two practices should be closely followed.

First and foremost, authentic texts should be used whenever possible, or, at the very least, contextualized texts, i.e., texts which one would naturally hear in a given context in real life. This will ensure that the students will listen to language that communicates a message and not just employs a certain linguistic form, which happens to be the one in development. For example, discerning the difference between a [p] and a [b] sound from a list of words that may or may not be related is an activity representative of decontextualized, non-communicative language use. In addition, this type of activity serves only to make students aware that there are phonemic differences which can cause comprehension problems, but as such do not communicate an intent. Therefore, if the goal is communication, then the type of oral text being used to develop the skill needs to reflect this notion and the task used to demonstrate what is being understood must predicate this philosophy.

The question that arises, then, is what is such a text? For example, if the field under study is that of planning a vacation to a second language area, students can be asked to listen to weather reports to determine which place has the best weather conditions at the desired time of travel. The students would be asked to take down notes and from this information-seeking process they can discuss which area would be most appropriate to visit and why. This type of task, then, involves both information-seeking and decision-making processes, which actively involve the students in listening for a reason or a need. As the field of experience is being developed the students could then be asked to listen to a recorded message that relates to arrival and departure times of flights in order to determine if their flight is leaving on time, if it is delayed and if so, by how long. This kind of activity forces students to attend to certain information, a skill related to selective attention – a metacognitive learning strategy. Therefore, the listening tasks associated with these messages must be purposeful and based on strategies which promote the information-seeking and problem-solving processes.

The second practice relates to teaching students to use learning strategies to discern meaning. Many of these strategies are used naturally in one’s first language, such as hypothesizing, predicting, and anticipating, but these skills must be brought to a conscious level in a second language classroom, at least in the beginning, in order to develop and enhance listening comprehension. In this regard, one should be aware of the two forms of listening to which a learner can be exposed to and participate in, that is:

  • 1) interactive listening, which involves the listener in an active exchange with the speaker, meaning that the speaker and the listener are constantly switching roles and are involved in a continual negotiation process within the speech act, and
  • 2) noninteractive listening, which involves the listener in receiving one-way messages in which information is supplied to the listener and no overt reaction is required, such as in the case of listening to prerecorded flight information, a weather broadcast on the radio, a news broadcast on television, a P.A. announcement in a schools, etc.

It is this latter form, for the most part, which is the precursory step to the former, and which ultimately, leads to the development of the production skills. As a result, there are three phases involved in the development of listening comprehension, these being:

  • 1) the pre-listening phase,
  • 2) the actual listening phase, and
  • 3) the post-listening phase.

The pre-listening phase is composed of two parts which relate to strategies already used in one’s first language: 1) the anticipation of elements and 2) the contextualization of the situation or main context. To anticipate elements, students must raise to a conscious level those general elements they have previously experienced in their first language as they relate to the particular context or situation to be listened to. Whereas contextualization, on the other hand, is a complementary activity, which takes a new situation and analyses discrete aspects relating to such elements as the participants, the relationship between/among participants and so forth, employing students’ past experiences as reference points.

This pre-listening phase can be viewed as the “setting of the stage”, since it provides the students with a frame of reference from which to select the strategies needed to carry out the task. In order to facilitate this process, however, students could be made consciously aware of the kinds of information they may be lacking in the areas of social, cultural and linguistic information which could impede their ability to comprehend the text (Dunkel, 1986). In this case, some preteaching of key concepts may be required as a means of raising to a conscious level what students know and do not know in order to put them at ease with unfamiliar texts.

Generally, there are two kinds of activities which a teacher can use “to set the stage”. Brainstorming is one way in which teachers can make students more consciously aware of the anticipatory elements that could be heard in a given context. These brainstorming activities can consist of a review of the key vocabulary or phrases that might be associated with the context and the key messages which might be shared. These lists, either verbal or written, can be created as a whole group or individually. Further, in the brainstorming activity, students can be asked to ascertain whether or not they believe that the list, either drawn up by the students or provided by the teacher, does contain the elements that they would have anticipated for this particular context. This can be done by either checking off the items prior to the listening activity itself and later verifying them in the actual listening activity, or a survey of the class can be taken by asking the students to raise their hands if they think a particular element will be heard in that context, and the number of responses tallied and placed on the board to be verified in the listening activity.

A second way in which to “set the stage” is to describe to the students the type of oral text (interactive/noninteractive) that they will be listening to and to ask them to discern the following kinds of information:

  • 1) the kind of relationship(s) that might exist between speakers, if any exists at all,
  • 2) the general kinds of information that they might expect to hear,
  • 3) where they believe this type of text would most likely occur and so on.

Once again, the answers given would be verified in the listening phase. This kind of activity, then, raises to a conscious level what students have often already experienced in their first language and demonstrates to them how this knowledge is valuable in the second language classroom as well. The use of pre-listening activities, then, is an important aspect of the development of listening comprehension, since they teach students to anticipate the semantic and linguistic elements that are most often associated with a particular situation or context. The ability to anticipate will assist in developing a tolerance of ambiguity and risk-taking behaviours, which is particularly important for all students, especially those at the Beginner level.

The actual listening activity consists of two phases: the verification phase (the first time students are asked to listen to an oral text) and the comprehension phase (the second time students are asked to listen to the same oral text).

In the verification phase, students can be asked to do any one of the following kinds of activities:

  • 1) verify the elements that they were asked to anticipate in the pre-listening activity,
  • 2) take notes on what they heard,
  • 3) determine where the conversation took place, between whom, and when,
  • 4) provide general details or the main idea(s) of what they heard, or
  • 5) determine the mood of the speakers, the situation, etc.

Cultural nuances can also be attended to in the verification stage by asking students to listen for such things as:

  • 1) dialectical variations for the same word or expression,
  • 2) changes in intonation which can be related to an expression or word, known or unknown to the students, or
  • 3) listening to two similar conversations presented by two different sets of second language speakers and having the students determine the linguistic and/or paralinguistic differences that are evident. In essence, the goal of this phase is to verify the students’ hypotheses regarding the text that they have listened to as a means of developing their ability to anticipate certain messages and as a way of using this particular strategy for listening to authentic oral texts.

In the comprehension phase, students are asked to provide both general and precise details in order to resolve a problem or to meet a specific communicative need. In other words, students carry out listening activities for real-life purposes and within a context which places the students in a situation where the participation in the sharing of information will assist them in carrying out the communicative task. This phase also provides students with feedback on their general comprehension. The kinds of activities in which students can be asked to participate in are, for example:

  • 1) completion exercises in which they are required to use the information given in the text to complete the task,
  • 2) answer, in oral or in written form, questions that relate to the text; however, these questions must go beyond the recall of information, rather focusing on synthesistype questions, such as having the students determine what would be the succeeding events based on the information they have at present, or on evaluation-type questions wherein students are asked to use their past experiences as the criteria to judge whether or not the passage, as they understood it, was consistent with their own experiences*,
  • 3) give, in oral or written form, a summary of what they heard, if appropriate to the context, and
  • 4) fill in a cloze-type activity which would replicate a real-life task, such as filling-in an interview questionnaire.

As can be seen by the examples given, the most important aspect for the appropriate development of this skill is to ask students to carry out real-life tasks. Further, it is equally important to provide students with appropriate and sufficient feedback with regard to their ability to comprehend a text so that they can become more confident in the development of their listening abilities. In addition, it is important to note that the activities associated with this phase must be different from those used in either the pre- or post- listening phases.

The final phase is the post-listening phase which consists of an information sharing session in which the students share the type of information and strategies used to obtain this information and includes a reinvestment stage in which the students carry out tasks which reinforce what has just been acquired. This is an equally important phase, since it develops the students’ ability to take what has been previously learned and apply it to either a similar or different context. Once again the tasks used in this phase must be different from those given in the pre-listening and actual listening phases. Moreover, the kinds of tasks that are related to this phase quite often involve other skills, such as an oral production activity, reading and/or written activity or any combination of these skills. The kinds of oral production activities that can be carried out will depend largely on the type of oral text used. Activities such as oral summaries, classroom discussion or debates on the subject, role-playing or simulations of the situation or interviewing each other as to the kinds of things one would hear in the context presented, followed by a survey of the class results, are tasks which can be carried out. In terms of extending the oral text to a reading comprehension activity, students can read an article or an interview on the same topic and discuss how two different media address the same subject; or students can be asked to research the different ways written texts convey the same information. With regards to writing, students can be asked to write a written summary of the events from a journalist’s perspective, write a character sketch about one of the people involved in the oral text, write a different ending to what they heard and share their endings with the class. A class discussion can arise form this kind of activity. As can be seen, there is a variety of ways in which the post-listening activity can lead to the introduction of another skill, which is, in reality, a transfer (reinvestment) of not only previously learned material, but also a reuse of the information acquired in the listening activity.


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