A Study Of Dalat City Army Academy English Language Essay

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The era of fast and strong globalization today has made learning foreign languages, especially English, a vital necessity. The need to learn foreign languages is made crystal clear by many outstanding figures. As the world becomes smaller, in fact, a "global village", "communication among people has expanded way beyond their local speech" (Ellis, 1997, p.3). Nunan, likewise, stresses that knowing at least one other language is "one of the defining characteristics of the educated individual." (Nunan, 1999, p.71). McKay, too, emphasizes that "a foreign/ second language forms a permanent part of all types of curriculum" (McKay, 2002, p.5)

The ever increasing demand for foreign languages in general, and English in particular, has brought about significant changes in the English language teaching profession whose goal is to produce more effective learning for students' English competence improvement. In other words, training learners to be able to use English for communicative purposes has become the goal. Learners, therefore, should develop four major skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, among the given four skills, it is now generally recognized that listening plays a key role in facilitating language learning. As Rost (1994) points out, listening is very important because it provides input for the learners. Unless the student has an understanding of language input at the required level, any learning simply cannot occur. Listening, therefore, is essential not only as a receptive skill but also for the developments of spoken language proficiency in general.

In many colleges and universities of Vietnam, listening, like other skills, has played a very important part in learning a foreign language and has been recognized as one of the principle objectives of many language courses. However, Vietnamese students in general, and at Dalat Army Academy in particular, face many difficulties with regards to their listening capabilities. After having taught English at the foresaid Academy for several years, I believe to have discovered several key factors that prevent an improvement of their listening ability. Basically, those non-English majored military students' listening abilities have been challenged and tested but not given sufficient support, taught, and given guidance on how to listen to English or how to build up their listening skills. Students usually have difficulties understanding what is being said. Failure to comprehend makes them give up easily. It is, therefore, no surprise that when asked to rank the four macro-language skills in order of difficulty, my students put listening at the top of the list.

As pointed out by many authors, for more successful listening, learners should be adequately supported through various pre-listening activities such as previewing questions, topic lead-in, and pre-discussion of relevant topics before listening to the actual text (Rubin, 1988; Thompson & Rubin, 1996). In other words, appropriate preparation before listening and giving them a better chance to comprehend the content of the target language is vitally important for students' successful learning in a foreign environment (Vandergift, 1999). This leads me to think that providing my students with such listening supports as question preview and vocabulary instructions may greatly benefit their listening abilities. This, in turn, leads to a strong incentive for me to investigate the effects of two listening strategies, question preview and vocabulary instructions, on enhancing listening skills for non - English majored military students at Dalat ArmyAcademy.

To carry out my research, the first step, hence, is to ask myself the following research questions:

Do the two different listening supports, question preview and vocabulary instructions, influence my students' listening capabilities in different ways? If the answer is yes, then which one leads to a more effective comprehension?

Does each individual kind of listening support lead to the same effect on students of different English listening proficiency? If the answer is no, then which one is effective for high level and low level students?

What are non- Englishmajored military students' perceptions of the two supporting activities?

Literature review

Contained within the complex structure of language learning, listening is defined and distinguished as one of the four key language skills that decide overall language competence. "Listening comprehension precedes production in all cases of language learning, and there can be no production unless linguistic input was provided and became comprehensible intake for a listener."

(Byrnes, 1984, p.318-319)

Listening is an ability marked by the process of decyphering auditory input. The definition of listening comprehension goes a step further and actually incorporates the process of decoding auditory stimuli by manifesting itself into a mental representation that fuels and interprets the intention of a speaker. In this essay, theoretical literature, ideas, quotations, and sources which are related to my thesis will be gathered and quoted. First, possible factors that might affect listening comprehension will be suggested. Next, literature related to the two types of listening supports will be analyzed. Then, previous studies which compared the relative effectiveness of two strategies will be delved into in order to familiarize myself with what the previous studies have already revealed and also to chart areas requiring further study. The pros and cons of Listening Strategy Instruction will then be discussed, followed by a summary and finally, some ideas are presented to link to the next methodology.

Definition of listening

There are different points of view on the definition of listening.

According to Field (1998, p.38), listening is "an invisible mental process, making it difficult to describe. Listeners must discriminate between sounds, understand vocabulary and grammatical structures, interpret stress and intention, retain and interpret this within the intermediate as well as the larger socio-cultural context of the utterance."

Underwood (1989, p.1) suggests that "listening is the activity of paying attention to and trying to get meaning from something we hear so that the listener must recognize and interpret the other factors which are used to convey the messages".

Likewise, listening is basically defined as a process in which certain areas of aural input are selected, meaning from passages constructed, and what is heard is related to listeners'prior knowledge (O'Malley, Chamot and Kupper (1989).

Similarly, Anderson and Lynch (1988) define listening as "the means to immediate oral production, the imitation of spoken forms". Again, listeners not just hear the input but also actively process the message to comprehend. The ultimate goal of listening comprehension is, therefore, helping learners not just to comprehend but also to be able to talk and write about what they have heard.

Buck (2001, p.31) emphasized the active process of constructing meaning by involving both linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge when listening. He made it clear that "comprehension is affected by a wide range of variables, and that potentially any characteristic of the speaker, the situation or the listener can affect the comprehension of the message".

Despite some slight differences in definitions, listening can generally be understood as "a language skill involving a wide range of "sub-skills". It is more than simply hearing; it is "decoding" sounds and understanding the meaning behind those sounds."(Forseth, 1996)

How listening comprehension is affected

To improve students' listening, the factors affecting listening comprehension must be considered. Boyle (1984) states that three possible groups influencing listening comprehension include (1) the listener him/herself, (2) the speaker, and (3) the material and medium factor.

As related to the listener, such things as degrees of exposure to the target language, general background knowledge, intelligence and intellectuality, feeling and emotions as well as age/ sex and education background, all of these play different parts in their comprehending process. The listener's familiarity of a given topic, motivation, attention span, and/or concentration ability, for example, can lend a hand to how much a listener can comprehend. Understanding the target language including phonology, lexis, syntax, and cohesion has their parts, too.

Similarly, the speaker factor is affected in different ways, too. First, the listener's comprehension is much influenced by the speaker's language ability. Second, the speaker's pronunciation, accent, word variation, and voice could strongly impact listening. The third factor affecting listening is speed of speech delivery. The final influence of speaker on listening is the prestige and characteristic of the speaker him/herself who uses the words or expressions connected to his or her prestige and personality.

The material and medium factor also affects listening in four different ways which include the language used to convey the message, the difficulty of content and concepts, acoustic environment, and lastly, the non-language support such as gestures, visuals, etc….

As can be seen, there are innumerable factors affecting listening comprehension. However, due to time limitation, this research will not put forth all the likely factors. It will, instead, narrow down the range of those factors to explore how the two listening support strategies, question preview and vocabulary instructions, help improve students' listening comprehension. The next parts are literature review related to these two listening strategies.

Question preview in Listening Comprehension

While some researchers including Buck (1991), Cohen (1984), and Shohamy & Inbar, (1991) consider question preview as an effective tool for listening comprehension other researchers such as Ur (1984) and Weir (1993) contradict them. The former suggest that question preview gives useful clues guiding the students during the listening process. The latter, on the other hand, argue that question preview may change the nature of listening process as it disturbs listeners' attention regarding actual input.

To examine the effects of question preview on listening comprehension, Buck (1991) did a research with two learner groups, one with and the other without question preview before listening. In 2004, Chen (2004) also conducted similar experiment to junior high school students. The results from both research show that learners benefited significantly from question preview: they understand better and the listening became less difficult. Chen also found that question preview benefits listeners of high and intermediate proficiency levels much more than those of low proficiency level. The result also suggested that question preview promoted information prediction and top-down information processing of test takers.

Another study to examine the effects of question type and question preview on EFL Listening Assessment was also conducted by Teng (1999). Beside studying the effects of question types such as multiple - choice, wh-questions, and close items, he also investigated question preview on EFL listening comprehension. Once more, research findings show that question preview has positive effects on listening performance.

The results from those researchers trigger some questions in me. I wondered if my students gain similar benefits with question preview. I would also like to see if previewing questions is the most helpful listening strategy for non-English majored students at my school, Dalat Army Academy.

Vocabulary Instruction in Listening Comprehension

As stated by Rixon (1990) "one of the most obvious sources of listening difficulty for a learner of English is the way in which it is pronounced"(p.39). Noticing that the loose relationship between English sounds and spellings often presents hurdles for learners' listening comprehension, he sees the need to reinforce the relationship between sounds and spelling and, thus, encompass spellings and pronunciation teaching in the vocabulary instruction.

Tsai (2005) also conducted a study to investigate the relationship between receptive English vocabulary sizes and listening comprehension competence of college EFL students. The research findings showed positive correlations between the subjects' listening vocabulary levels test and listening comprehension test and between the reading vocabulary levels test and listening comprehension test.

The study helped confirm that learners with wider bank of vocabulary achieve better listening comprehension. It also indicated that vocabulary instruction is beneficial for learners.

There was another study investigating the effect of lexical collocation instruction on Taiwanese college EFL learners' listening comprehension (Hsu, 2005). The study found out that those with the highest mean score in the comprehension test have previously received lexical collocation instruction. Moreover, the data also revealed that lexical collocation instruction was selected as the most favored instruction type while no instruction as the least.

Chiang's experiment (2000) to differentiate the effects of a number of approaches to vocabulary presentation on the listening comprehension in Taiwan offered noticeable results which indicated that giving vocabulary clues in advance could provide better text comprehension. The view that vocabulary instruction is beneficial for listening comprehension is clearly supported by his research results. One thing to note is his finding that vocabulary visual and sound clues made no difference on students' listening comprehension was in no way similar to that of Rixon's (1990).

In order to determine the impact of vocabulary instructions on listening comprehension, I will conduct an experimental study on non-English majored students to find out if vocabulary instruction is a better listening strategies than question preview.

Different Types of Listening Strategies - A Comparison of their Relative Effectiveness

An experiment to compare the relative effectiveness of different pre-listening activities was done by Elkhafaifi (2005). The study also examined whether their effectiveness varied as a result of multiple exposures to the listening passage. The findings showed that, despite pre-listening treatment, the more the students were exposed to the listening passage the better their listening comprehension performance was. Also, those who experienced question preview activity got significantly higher scores than those who completed the distracting activity.

Chu's study (2004) on the effects of vocabulary and question type instruction (similar to question preview) on listening comprehension of EFL elementary school students showed that the use of vocabulary was most beneficial to students in listening comprehension. The use of question type was also beneficial but not as much as vocabulary. One noteworthy point was students showed positive attitude toward pre-listening vocabulary teaching and previewing of questions. The study, however, didn't investigate if different types of pre-listening activities have different effects for different listening proficiency students. It, thus, left some space for further study.

An experiment to compare the effects of four types of listening support was also conducted by Chang and Read (2006). The result, however, was totally different from what Chu's study had indicated. In their study, the learner's level of listening proficiency played a significant role in interaction. For all proficiency levels, question preview was the most useful form of support while vocabulary instruction the least.

In the context of Vietnam, Le Thi Xuan Anh's study (2001) on students at tertiary level showed a correlative relationship between the learners' listening abilities and their strategy choice. Pham Thanh Vinh (2002) examined the difficulties in listening faced by first-year English majored students at Da Nang College of Education. Phung Thi Hoai Thu (2008) dealt with listening difficulties perceived by teachers and students while using the new grade 10 English textbook at Que Vo II upper-secondary school in Bac Ninh. These studies focused on either the general principles for teaching listening skills or the problems faced by learners in learning listening and then suggested solutions to improve their listening skill. Besides, their research subjects were either English majored students at the tertiary level or high school students. There hasn't been any research on non-English majored students, let alone non-English majored military students.

As can be seen, the answer to the relative effectiveness of different types of listening strategies is not systematic and consistent among the different research. The question which type of listening support strategies is the most beneficial for students' listening remains unanswered. Neither is the answer to the relative effectiveness of different types of listening strategies for students at different learning stages (junior, senior high school, and college). Due to the limitation of time and resources, I choose to conduct an experimental study to determine the relative effectiveness of only two different types of listening support strategies on listening performance of the non-English majored military students at my Academy.

Effects of Listening Strategy Instruction

As argued by Rubin (1988) and Thompson & Rubin (1996), listening strategy instruction helps learners better utilize the target language as well as enhance their listening performance. Incorporating pre-listening and post-listening activities into listening training is essential. More specifically, instructors guide learners to plan for the listening task before listening. They then teach learners how to monitor their comprehension during listening and finally after listening, how to evaluate the methods they use to aid comprehension (Van Dergrift, 1999).

Assuming that systematic strategies instruction would improve learners' listening comprehension ability, Thompson and Rubin (1996) conducted an experiment with two groups of third-year students of Russian at George Washington University to see if their assumption was true. The experimental group received strategy instruction for two years while the other got none. The strategies introduced included meta-cognitive and cognitive ones.

The meta-cognitive strategies included such things as how to plan for a listening task and deciding how many times to view a particular segment. Those students were also taught to identify goals of the listening task such as deciding what exactly to listen for. How to evaluate the listening task and monitor the outcomes of the listening task and how to assess the effectiveness of strategies used was also taught.

With regard to cognitive strategies, the students were trained in prediction skills based on resources such as visual clues and logic of the story line. They were also taught to listen to the known and familiar words and phrases, note down words and phrases and pay attention to specific information to answer such questions as who, what, where, when, and how.

In their research, the participants listened to Russian television and movies and video segments designed for learners of Russian. Before and after the strategy instruction was given, they were given pretests and posttests of listening comprehension. The results indicated significant improvement of the experimental group's listening performance. Thompson and Rubin's assumption was confirmed.

Cheng (2002) also did an investigation into the effects of listening strategy instruction on junior high school students in Taiwan. The findings, again, confirmed that listening strategy instruction helped improve students' listening comprehension: those learning with listening strategy instruction performed better than those without. Besides, the results also indicated that beginning EFL English learners' listening comprehension ability was apparently improved by the use of listening strategy instruction. Not only students' attitudes were more positive but their confidence was also enhanced.

Examining the effect of listening strategy instruction for two groups of 56 junior high school students in Taiwan, Huang (2003) also found positive results of listening strategy instruction on listening comprehension. During nine months, the experimental group received four kinds of listening strategies instruction while the other did not. He also found out that scanning strategy meaning listening to keywords or details was favored most by students which was followed by linguistic inferring strategy and then skimming. Note-taking, however, was not considered as an useful strategy. One more thing to note is that strategy training also helped students do better in picture identification questions: they were better able to identify the correct picture after listening to a description.

Though his experiment with industrial vocational high school students last only nearly one semester, Chien's (2005) study also coincided with Cheng's and Huang's findings. Those who received listening strategy instruction not only became more confident and less nervous regarding listening comprehension tests but also made significant progress in listening.

In conclusion, as shown in the brief literature review above, listening strategy instruction is shown to consistently benefit students of different levels. It showed positive effects on most students' listening comprehension ability whether they are learning English in junior high school and industrial vocational high school in Taiwan or learning Russian at a university in America. Yet, studies on the effects of the two kinds of listening supports - question preview and vocabulary instruction in teaching listening comprehension did not show such a high level of consistency. I will, therefore, use the listening strategy instruction to investigate the effects of the two kinds - question preview and vocabulary instruction in teaching listening comprehension for my non-English majored military students at low and high levels at Dalat Army Academy. And how I will do that will be discussed in the next chapter.