Importance of Teaching Listening Skills

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Listening comprehension is an important language skill to develop. Language learners want to understand target language (L2) speakers and they want to be able to access the rich variety of aural and visual L2 texts available via network-based multimedia. Furthermore, listening comprehension is at the heart of L2 learning and the development of L2 listening skills has demonstrated a beneficial impact on the development of other skills (e.g. Dunkel 1991; Rost 2002). Therefore, it is important to develop L2 listening competence; yet, in spite of its importance, L2 learners are rarely taught how to listen effectively (e.g. Mendelsohn 2001, 2006; Berne 2004; LeLoup & Pontiero 2007).

In addition, listening is an essential skill which develops faster than speaking and often affects the development of reading and writing abilities in learning a new language (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992; Oxford, 1993). According to them, the main reason is that one receives input through listening to instructions or explanations prior to responding orally or in writing. Listening is not an easy skill to acquire because it requires listeners to make meaning from the oral input by drawing upon their background knowledge of the world and of the second language (Byrnes, 1984; Nagle & Sanders, 1986; Young, 1997) and produce information in their long term memory and make their own interpretations of the spoken passages (Murphy, 1985; Mendelsohn, 1994; Young, 1997). In other words, listeners need to be active processors of information (Young, 1997). Meanwhile, Vandergrift (1996, 1997, and 2003) asserts that listening is a complex, active process of interpretation in which listeners try to suit what they hear with their prior knowledge. According to Richards (1983), this process is more complex for second language learners who have limited memory capacity of the target language. Therefore, it is necessary for them to utilize various listening strategies.

As most English teachers Iran believe, although we have learned a lot about the nature of listening and the role of listening in communication, L2 listening has been considered to be the least researched of all four language skills. This may be due to its implicit nature, the ephemeral nature of the acoustic input and the difficulty in accessing the processes. In order to teach L2 listening more effectively, teachers need a richer understanding of the listening process. Research into L2 listening is important because a better understanding of the process will inform pedagogy. According to Vandergrift (2007), students who learn to control their listening processes can enhance their comprehension; This, in turn, affects the development of other skills and overall success in L2 learning.

1.2. Statement of Problem

Listening comprehension may seem relatively straightforward to native language (L1) speakers but it is often a source of frustration for second and foreign language (L2) learners (e.g., Graham, 2006). Further, little attention has been focused on systematic practice in L2 listening (see DeKeyser, 2007) i.e.; on the integrated instruction of a sequential repertoire of strategies to help L2 learners develop comprehension skills for real-life listening (Berne, 2004; Mendelsohn, 1994; Vandergrift, 2004).

A review on recent research on second or foreign listening instruction suggested a need for an analysis of the effectiveness of metacognitive instruction for developing L2 listening comprehension. Current approaches for effective L2 listening are toward real-life authentic ample-input listening with more of top-down approaches and process instruction. Most of the studies, support real-life listening with authentic materials (Buck, 2002; Goh, 2008; Richards, 2005; Vandergrift, 2007; Veenman et a1., 2006).

Top-down approaches have drawn more recent favors than bottom-up approaches (Goh, 2008; Rost, 2002; Vandergrift, 2004). Process listening was favored to product listening (Vandergrift, 2004; Field, 2003; Buck, 1995; Krashen, 2008). Interest was also indicated in raising student awareness of the listening process (Vandergrift, 1999; Mendelsohn, as cited in Vandergrift, 2004). Among the approaches to L2 listening, metacognitive instruction for L2 listening was noted to be a most recent trend (Annevirta et al., 2007; Beasley et al., 2008; Chen, 2007; Derwing, 2008; Field, 2008; Goh, 2008; Graham et al., 2008; Lee & Oxford, 2008; Vandergrift, 2007; Veenman et al., 2006; Zohar & Peled, 2008).

In general, comprehension historically has received only minimal treatment in the teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL), but it is, in fact, one of the most important skills a second language (L2) learner must master to succeed in academic studies (Jung, 2003, Thompson & Rubin, 1996). For learners to become proficient in listening comprehension, they must “receive comprehensible input” (Vandergrift, 1997, p. 495) as well as have ample opportunity to practice using, or producing, the language. In second language acquisition, listening comprehension used to be considered a passive activity; thus, it did not merit researchers’ attention (Jung, 2003; Thompson & Rubin, 1996; Vandergrift, 2004). It had been assumed that a learner’s ability to comprehend spoken language would develop entirely on its own in an inductive way through repetition and imitation. As recently as the 1970s there were no textbooks devoted to teaching the skill of listening in a second language. It was assumed that the ability to comprehend spoken language would automatically improve because learners with exposure to the oral discourse would learn through practice.

Listening texts are a relatively recent addition to the ESL or ESL curricula; the focus of earlier second or foreign language learning texts which included a focus on listening comprehension was primarily on testing students’ ability to listen to oral discourse and then answer comprehension questions based upon the information (Carrier, 2003; Field, 1998). Today, however, a growing body of research indicates that the focus has shifted to actively and intentionally teaching strategies for “learning how to process, comprehend, and respond to spoken language with greater facility, competence, and confidence” (Rost, 2007).

Despite, recognizing the importance of listening strategies for the development of foreign language proficiency, very limited studies have been performed in Iran concerning the strategies employed by Iranian EFL learners in relation to listening proficiency levels. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to determine how strategies training may benefit L2 learners in their development of listening comprehension.

1.3. Significance of the Study

The current study addresses the need for further research in the area of systematic teaching of listening strategies. Accoding to Carrier (2003), for L2 learners, the ability to use strategies effectively in their academic listening is crucial (Carrier, 2003). He believed that learners need to be able to actively and selectively choose the strategies most applicable for a given listening situation and evaluate strategy effectiveness in their everyday learning tasks. As Carrier (ibid) indicated in her study, students can benefit from instruction in strategies for academic listening in a variety of settings and incorporating many types of media.

This study adds to the growing body of research of how adult EFL students pursuing academic study may benefit from explicit, systematic teaching of listening strategies. Doing this research contributes a method to introduce and model L2 listening strategies. Results of the study provide insight into participants’ self-perceptions of their use of listening strategies both before and after systematic classroom instruction.

1.4. Research Questions

The following research questions formed the basis of the study:

1. Does explicit listening comprehension strategy training based on CALLA instructional model increase Iranian EFL learners’ listening comprehension

2. What metacognitive listening strategies, based on Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire (MALQ), do Iranian EFL learners report before and after metacognitive training program?

1.5. Research Hypotheses

Based on the above questions, the following hypotheses will be estimated:

1. Explicit listening comprehension strategy training based on CALLA instructional model cannot play any role in increasing Iranian EFL learners’ listening comprehension.

2. There is no significant difference in using metacognitive listening strategies, based on Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire (MALQ) by Iranian EFL learners before and after metacognitive training program.

1.6. Limitations of the Study

One limitation of this study relates to the selection of participants. It was anticipated that the body of participants was likely to be of predominantly one language and cultural background. While this could provide insights into the strategy use of that particular language group, it might preclude broader multicultural generalizations of the study. In addition, it was impossible to randomize the selection of participants because of the structure of the research. The study needed to be conducted as a component of regularly scheduled EFL coursework. Limited randomization was provided in the anonymity of participant responses on the research instrument questionnaires as well as with proficiency leveling.

Participants’ prior exposure to listening strategies instruction or to the manner in which such instruction may have taken place is another area that was impossible to determine. Indeed, students may consciously or unconsciously use strategies transferred from their learning and listening experiences in their first language. In addition, instructors may offer strategies instruction without intentionally planning to do so. If students have friends who are native speakers of English, spend much time watching American movies or listening to news broadcasts, or in other ways have a lot of exposure to English outside of class time, they may have adopted a variety of listening strategies that their classmates who do not engage in such activities have not.

1.7. Definition of Key Terms

The following terms are used throughout this study and are defined as related to use in this research.

Listening: “an active process in which listeners select and interpret information that comes from auditory and visual clues in order to define what is going on and what the speakers are trying to express” (Thompson & Rubin, 1996, p. 331). For this study, the focus is on listening for academic purposes. That might include listening during academic lectures, seminars, group work, or any other aural discourse that is likely to occur in an academic classroom setting.

Metacognition: “Metacognition refers to the learner’s knowledge of whatever strategies s/he might use for specific tasks and under what conditions those strategies will be most effective” (Pintrich, 2002).

Strategy training: “teaching explicitly how, when, and why to apply language learning and language use strategies to enhance students’ efforts to reach language program goals” (Carrell, 1996; Cohen, 1998; Ellis & Sinclair, 1989, as cited in Chen, 2005, p. 5).

CHAPTER TWO

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

2.1. Overview

This chapter presents a brief historical timeline of the teaching of listening comprehension in EFL and ESL context. Of note is that listening research and teaching has a relatively short history as compared to that of reading, writing, grammar, and speaking. Certainly, the process of learning how to listen in a second language shares features with learning to listen in one’s mother tongue; however, some features are different. The literature provides insight into these similarities and differences. Within this section, top-down and bottom-up processing as they function in the L2 listening process are explained, as is the interaction between the two processes. Finally, learning strategies, in particular, those used in the L2 listening process are presented. In most of the research accomplished to date, strategies have been classified in a descriptive manner. Researchers agree to the dearth of studies showing what types of intervention-or instruction-of listening strategies will help L2 students to improve their listening comprehension. It is to this end that the current study was undertaken.

2.2. History of Teaching Listening Comprehension

Though one of the most important but also most difficult skills a second language (L2) learner must master to succeed in academic studies, L2 listening comprehension has not received the research attention it deserves (Jung, 2003, Thompson & Rubin, 1996). Though the focus in teaching today is on presenting listening as an “active receptive skill which needs special attention in language study” (Morley, 2001, p. 72.), listening was traditionally considered to be a passive skill, unlike speaking or grammar (Vandergrift, 2004). Even as recently as the 1970s there were no textbooks devoted to teaching the skill of listening in a second language.

One hundred and fifty years ago, it was thought that speaking and writing in a second language were productive, or active skills, while listening and reading were receptive, and thus passive. In some of the earliest recorded language classes, listening was not taught at all. In one of the earliest of the language teaching approaches, Grammar Translation (Felder & Enriquez, 1995; Flowerdew, & Miller, 2005), teaching was conducted in the learner’s native tongue, and only the grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary of the foreign language, generally Greek or Latin, were taught so that learners could translate texts.

The first of the language teaching methods that touched upon the importance of listening comprehension is known as the Direct Approach (Felder & Enriquez, 1995), in which learners were immersed in the target language, with the L2 being the language of instruction (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005). Taught inductively, learners mastered the grammar by creating rules based on their ever-growing experience with the language. Correctness in all aspects of the language was emphasized. In the Direct Approach, by necessity, listening comprehension played a major role. However, the development of listening comprehension was not actively taught; it was assumed that learners would pick up this skill in an inductive way, through repetition and use. Certainly, with its focus on inductive learning, no listening strategies were actively taught in the Direct Approach.

Although listening comprehension was a component of the Grammar Approach also, students were constantly tested on their listening ability only as it related to their ability to simultaneously read and listen to a recorded piece of discourse and make sense of the grammatical and lexical rules of the language. One major drawback of this method was that the classroom activities did not relate in any meaningful way to everyday listening activities outside of the classroom (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005). Students using this method were called upon to fill in missing words, a task they could easily perform without having any idea of the actual meaning of the discourse.

The Audiolingual Approach (Larsen-Freeman, 2000), which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, required the listener to recognize and practice utterances and then create similar utterances patterned after the ones they had heard in a dialogue. It was during this time and with this approach to teaching languages that the audio-cassette language labs became widely used (Ross, 2003). The language lab focus was based on drill and practice, requiring much repetition and error correction with the goal of instilling in students correct patterns of discourse. Developing listening comprehension strategies, again, was not the focus of this approach; rather listening skill was taught only as it pertained to the manipulation of newly learned grammatical and lexical structures. An unfortunate result was that in their learning process, students interacted much more with machines than with other humans. Then focus shifted toward student interaction in authentic language situations so that students could have exposure to comprehensible input as well as practice using the target language in real life situations. While cassette language laboratories are still in use today, many of these have been replaced or supplemented with computer laboratories and digital language laboratories. Emphasis on authentic tasks and projects, particularly those using the Internet, has become highly regarded (Ross, 2004).

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Communicative Approach (Oxford et al., 1989)-one in which error was tolerated, provided the learners’ intended message could be conveyed and understood–became popular. The Communicative Approach, in which the focus is on use of authentic language, places the learner in a real exchange of meaning; the learner must process input and produce output such that each participant can understand the other. Once again, we see that listening strategies are assumed but not actively taught. Within this method, two schools developed–those who embrace the Cognitive Approach (Ellis, 1999) and those who embrace the Sociocognitive Approach (Warschauer & Meskill, 2000).

Another approach which came into existance was Cognitive Approach, the first of the two schools, which focuses on the view that all language learning is a “unique psycholinguistic process” (Warschauer & Meskill, 2000, p. 3). Learners are said to have a built-in cognitive ability to interact with and communicate in language that is both meaningful and comprehensible to them and construct their own meaning. Making errors is seen as a positive learning process through which learners construct the rules of the target language based upon input/output. Technologies that support this learning theory/style include “text-reconstruction software, concordancing software, telecommunications, and multimedia simulation software” (p. 4). Teachers can easily manipulate authentic text to create meaningful exercises (cloze-type), and students can use all sorts of software and Internet access to discover “computer microworlds that, at their best, simulate an immersion or a ‘linguistic bath’ environment” (p. 5). They can experience the target language by conducting searches, interacting with and manipulating their findings. In many cases, students need not actually interact with other humans at all.

The other school within the Communicative Approach embraces Sociocognitive Approaches. This school of thought contends that learners benefit greatly from interaction with people. Students need to interact with other humans in authentic language situations so that they can have comprehensible input as well as exposure and practice in the types of speech acts in real life outside the classroom. Authentic tasks and projects, particularly those utilizing the Internet, are highly regarded in this approach. Teaching methods that exploit computer-assisted discussion have become accepted. We see synchronous and asynchronous chat becoming a major component of language learning. While this medium is seen as somewhat artificial, it is still said to give students authentic practice in extended discourse and to provide an extra layer of language practice for students, one that is democratic. Students who are hesitant to use oral language in the classroom have greater opportunity to use language without fear of making mistakes and thus losing face. The result can be class discussions that are both highly democratic and collaborative.

Next in the progression of accepted language teaching approaches is one known as the Task-Based Approach (Brown, 1987; Bruton, 2005). This approach requires the learner to listen and, based on the input, complete some sort of task, perhaps note-taking or filling in a chart or form. The tasks tend to be oriented to real-world needs of the learner but are frequently based upon discourse (lectures or passages) that is at least partially contrived. While not exactly authentic, these types of activities provide practice in completing the types of tasks students might be called upon to use in real life, such as noting information or completing forms.

In current language learning approaches, we have the Learner-Strategy Approach (Floweredew & Miller, 2005; Mendelsohn, 1994). This approach accounts for learners’ needs to initiate and recognize their own listening strategies – what works for each individual learner. The Learner-Strategy approach examines listening comprehension from the perspective of individual learners and their independent learning with activities created to help learners discover what particular strategy works for them, including foci on schema activation, authentic tasks, presentation of many types of activities in many different contexts, and total interaction with the task. It is in this approach that metacognitive realization plays a significant role. Metacognition refers to the learner’s knowledge of whatever strategies s/he might use for specific tasks and under what conditions those strategies will be most effective (Pintrich, 2002). Pintrich pointed out that metacognition refers to knowledge of strategies; having the knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that the learner actually uses the strategies. It is important, however, for learners to identify which of their own listening strategies produce success, and it is helpful for them to share their strategies. Not only does the sharing help them to activate schemata and to recognize how the strategy works for them, their sharing may also serve to activate other learners’ schemata and be instructive for fellow learners. Both learner and fellow students become more autonomous and develop more control over their own learning, the goal of this particular approach. The more aware learners are of the learning process, more specifically, their own learning process, “the greater the chance they can influence conscious learning” (Nakatani, 2005, p. 77) and enhance their own strategic competence.

According to Osada (2002), with the development of research, new theories, and development of second language curriculum, researchers’ interest in listening comprehension has grown. The 1990s showed a far greater interest in this skill than had previously been realized. Today, it is a widely accepted belief (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005; Jung, 2003; Savignon, 2001; Wilson, 2003) that all skills, certainly including listening comprehension, require active negotiation with the language. Savignon (2001) likened the collaborative process involved in oral/aural communication to the game of football. The different strategies players use and the different moves they make as they avoid, block, or tackle the opposing teams’ players are similar to the strategies language learners use to negotiate meaning with their interlocutors in the new language. Not only do learners need to know the sound system, grammar, and syntax of the new language, but they also need to understand the pragmatic, or discourse meanings of the language.

A final learning approach that is worth mentioning here is the Integrated Approach (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005). Teachers of today recognize readily the need to actively teach strategies for developing accuracy in listening comprehension. The goal is to make students able to listen for and identify main ideas as well as details, to develop their critical listening and thinking skills, and to enable them to manipulate the language and show that they comprehend and can use what they have heard. An expected outcome is for students to be able to use heard information and present it in an intelligent and intelligible way. In the Integrated Approach, we see complementary strategies at play as students use aspects of the various approaches to language teaching and learning to comprehend, manipulate, and produce language in authentic, meaningful language tasks.

2.3. Different perspectives toward listening

2.3.1. Listening as Negotiation of Meaning

That most people’s daily experiences are often not linked to reading and writing- but to situations where the spoken word is the dominant medium has already been noted in the context of first language (LI) listening (see, for example, Bohlken, 1999; Frest, 1999; Furnis, 2004). In academic contexts, for example, research on LI listening has shown that listening comprises more than 50% of college students’ total average communication day – followed by reading (17%), speaking (16%) and writing (11%) (Emanuel et al, 2008). With the significant role that listening plays in our lives, therefore, it would be worthwhile to examine what facilitates and/or hinders listening.

Changes in listening behavior have been associated with different factors including purpose for listening (Wolvin & Coakley, 1996), types of interaction possible or required in a listening situation (Rost, 1990; 2002), personal dispositions (Sargent, Fitch-Hauser, & Weaver, 1997), gender (Sargent & Weaver, 2003), and cultural context (Keiwitz, Weaver, Brosius, & Weiman, 1997). Imhof (2004) posits that, while listening, individuals tend to “adjust swiftly to perceived characteristics of the [listening] situation” (p. 43) such as the status they hold as compared to their speaking partner. In a study of listeners and speakers with English as a first language (ELI), Harms (1961) found that listeners’ comprehension was highest when listeners held the same status as the speakers. These findings accord with the results of the Varonis and Gass’ (1985) study on EL1-ESL and ESL-ESL interlocutor dyads, which demonstrated that meaning negotiations occurred less frequently between EL1-ESL interlocutors than ESL-ESL. Varonis and Gass (1985) concluded that ESL speakers recognize “the inequality of the conversation situation” (p. 85) and thus are reluctant to attempt any further negotiation of meaning. In a critique of the cognitively-oriented L2 listening studies that have ignored the social context in which conversation occurs, Carrier (1999) argued that unequal status between ELI and ESL interlocutors hinders negotiations of meanings and thus has an adverse effect on comprehension. Carrier also suggested that “status unequals may perceive their relationship as sharing no common base socially, occupationally, and economically” (p. 74). In the context of L2 classroom settings, Pica (1992) reported that social relationships between teachers and students give them unequal status as interlocutors, which can hinder “L2 comprehension, production and ultimately acquisition” (p. 4). In an interesting case study of an intermediate level learner’s progress in listening comprehension during and after a pre-sessional English for Academic Purposes course, Lynch (1997) reported the discrepancies between performance within the sheltered setting of the language classroom and success in real interaction in the (non-sheltered) academic world. The study, which included evidence from performance (entry and exit listening tests), process (negotiation of meaning in the classroom) and perceptions (of listening difficulties after the course), pointed to the ways in which the listener’s fears about being labeled as an ESL student hindered his negotiations of meaning in the classroom and ultimately his performance. When asked to make a conscious effort in applying meaning negotiation strategies (which he had learned in the sheltered language course) in his academic courses, the ESL listener replied, “But I am the only foreign student and so I cannot interrupt very much” (Lynch, 1997, 394). These results are in line with other work on first language listening, which demonstrate that inter-individual differences affect patterns of communication between listeners and speakers (Beatty, Marschal, & Rudd, 2001; Imhof, 2004).

2.3.2 – Listening as Comprehension

Listening has been demonstrated to be one of the essentials of language learning (Rost 2002; Tafaghodtari & Vandergrift, 2008; Vandergrift, 2007). Yet, with the diffusion of new technologies, which have particularly changed the ways in which university students spend their time (Emanuel et al., 2008), listening has become one of the most challenging aspects of L2 development for adult learners (e.g. Hasan 2000; Graham, 2003; Kim, 2002; Vandergrift, 2007). In a review of the recent developments in L2 listening research, Vandergrift (2007) rightly points to the significance that listening has in today’s reality of L2 learners’ lives: “Language learners want to understand target language (L2) and they want to be able to access the rich variety of aural and visual L2 texts available today via network-based multimedia, such as online audio and video, YouTube, podcasts and blogs” (p. 191).

Given its central role in the new media age, listening has remained surprisingly underresearched in the field of L2 education, and those studies which seem to address this neglected aspect of language development have been generally concerned with listening as an end-point, rather than an active process of meaning making. Many, for example, reduce listening to finding the right answer to a set of comprehension questions at the end of a passage. This focus, which reflects the nature of commercial and high-stakes tests, ignores the processes involved in any meaning making situation, listening being no exception. This trend has also fallen short of providing a framework for adequately taking account of the variables which affect listening ability (Tafaghodtari & Vandergrift, 2008).

2.3.3 – L2 Listening: A Cognitive Perspective

Drawing on a wide range of disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology, LI speech education, language pathology and artificial intelligence), current L2 listening theorists recognize that L2 listening draws on multiple sources of information such as linguistic, contextual, and schematic knowledge (e.g., Buck, 2001; Lynch, 1994; Vandergrift, 2006). A consequence of such recognition has been a focus on different textual, cognitive and affective variables such as memory, discourse markers, prior knowledge and anxiety which are believed to affect performance in L2 listening. Based on earlier work by Buck (2001), at least three types of variables are posited to be critical to L2 listening success: linguistic, strategic and learner variables. Linguistic variables entail knowledge of the sound system (phonological), grammar (syntactic), vocabulary (semantic) and contextual influences on interpretation (pragmatic) of the L2 (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005). Listeners use L2 phonological knowledge to segment the stream of sound into meaningful sound units. This includes knowledge about phonemes, stress, intonation, assimilation and elision. Grammatical or syntactic L2 knowledge helps listeners to process or parse the sound stream for meaningful units of language and contributes to comprehension by assigning semantic roles to words (Rost, 2002). L2 semantic knowledge helps listeners assign meaning to word-level units as well as the relationship between those words at the discourse level. L2 pragmatic knowledge helps the listener to infer the speaker’s intention, particularly if there is any ambiguity in the literal meaning of the utterance. This is closely related to sociolinguistic knowledge (e.g., formal/informal registers, idioms and slang) which listeners use to further interpret the utterance (Buck, 2001). These five elements of linguistic knowledge involved in speech perception are an essential part of any model of listening.

Yet, research has shown that listening comprehension is more than speech perception (e.g., Rost, 2004; Schmidt-Rinehart, 1994). Comprehension includes matching what is heard with what is known. According to Rost (2004), the central component in the comprehension process is the activation of schemata in the listener’s memory structures to anticipate and monitor,

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