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Listening Extra

Page history last edited by Martin Warters 13 years ago



Listening is the other key skill which may be considered under the umbrella term 'comprehension', and as such:

...it is simple common sense to assume that reading and listening will share a number of underlying characteristics.
(McDonough & Shaw, 1993:126)

We shall take a closer look at the similarities (and indeed the differences) between reading and listening below. However, it is worth taking into account from the outset that compared to reading there is little direct research on second-language listening comprehension and most of what we know about the subject is drawn from native-language research into Psycholinguistics, Semantics, Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis and Cognitive Science (Richards, 1985: 189). Nevertheless, this in no way reduces the importance of the skill of listening on the language teaching program and learners should be exposed to a variety of situations in which they are asked to understand and act upon spoken input.

Mary Underwood (1989: 4) cites Kathleen Galvin's five main reasons for listening and notes that "the reasons our students have for listening will generally fall under one or other of these categories":

a. to engage in social rituals

b. to exchange information

c. to exert control

d. to share feelings

e. to enjoy yourself

Clearly this list greatly simplifies the numerous reasons we have for listening in daily life and we might dwell on the multifarious nature of the skill for a few moments in order to extract certain salient features which will ultimately serve us in our consideration of the skill as a classroom activity. McDonough and Shaw (127-128) offer an incisive overview...

1. There is a great range and variety of input.

2. In some situations we are listeners only, in others our listening skills form just a part of a whole interaction, and an ability to respond appropriately is equally important.

3. As we noted above, we listen for different purposes -to get information, to socialize and/or to be entertained- so the degree of attention and possibly the strategies used will differ.

4. Related to this is whether we are listening in a face-to-face exchange or through another medium such as the radio: in some cases there may be interference or background noise that may affect our ability to process what is being said.

5. The people involved -how many, their roles, and our relationship with them.

6. In many situations there is a visual element which gives important clues beyond the words actually used.

Organizing Principles

Reading and Listening: Similarities

Michael Rost (1990: 9) comments:

The notion of listening is often paralleled to reading, in which there are texts with which readers interact.

Moreover, since both spoken and written texts in English are derived from the same linguistic rules on the face of it at least there would appear to be some common ground between the two. We shall however see in due course that an analysis of spoken and written discourse reveals quite a different story.

Swan (1990: vii) refers to the "untidy" aspects of the language and here there may also be said to be a parallel between spoken and written English. In spoken English these "untidy" aspects include pronunciation, irregular pauses, false starts, hesitations, self-revisions and backtracking. Rost (1990: 9-10) notes that "these features do have correlates in drafts of written texts (e.g. irregular and illegible scrawls, lines crossed out, arrows inserted), but most early written drafts are not made available to readers. Listeners, on the other hand, have "access to the speaker's on-line planning and editing" and must somehow bring order to what may at times appear to be a chaotic script.

Finally, like reading, which was traditionally seen as a passive skill, the skill of listening is now similarly regarded so that like the reader, the listener is constantly involved in guessing, anticipating, checking, interpreting, interacting and organizing. Later in this unit we shall see that the listener very often plays a part in shaping conversational exchanges. McDonough and Shaw (1993:129) offer the following resumé between listening and reading skills:









We have looked at the similarities between reading and writing, let us now centre our argument on the differences. These may be analyzed under two broad headings:

  • the communicative medium which separates the two skills and;
  • the production factors in speech which affect what the listener hears in the reception stage of listening.

Turning our attention to the first, it is perhaps axiomatic (but by no means insignificant to the comprehension process) to draw a distinction between the mediums of sound and print when distinguishing between the very different skills required in reading and writing. In terms of analyzing these skills as temporal processes it is clear that the listener's task is a relatively transient one since what has been heard cannot usually be recaptured once it has passed, whereas the reader has the opportunity to refer back and check comprehension. Rost (1990: 10) cites Halliday's (1986) distinction between 'dynamic' and 'synoptic' messages in spoken and written language respectively. Secondly, the listener's role is not always that of listening to a one-way flow of information from one speaker to another. Brown and Yule (1983: 2-3) distinguish between "transactional" and "interactional" where the former is...

...the language...used to convey factual or propositional information...we assume that the speaker (or writer) has primarily in mind...the efficient transfer of information and the latter the language to establish and maintain social relationships...a great deal of everyday human interaction is characterised by the primarily interpersonal rather than the primarily transactional use of language.

It will be seen, therefore, that the listeners' role changes from situation to situation so that at certain times they will be listeners only, and at others the skill of listening will form just a part of a whole interaction in which an ability to respond is equally important. We will expand on this theme at a later stage.

With regard to the production factors that distinguish reading and writing McDonough and Shaw (1993: 130) note that:

information presented in speech tends to be less densely packed than it is on the page, and it may also be more repetitive.

Moreover, they underline the fact that spoken English is more informal and less complex in grammar and discourse structure than written English. Furthermore, with new starts in mid-sentence, changes in topic, hesitation, half-finished sentences, spoken English tends to leave a broken, sometimes disjointed impression.

Richards (1985: 193-197) lists nine of what he calls "medium factors" which influence what a listener must do to process speech. By paring down Richards' original list of nine "medium factors" to seven of what we have called "production factors", the complexity of the reception stage in listening is brought fully into focus:

  • Clausal Basis of Speech: 
    The unit of organization in written discourse is the sentence, while in spoken language it is generally delivered one clause at a time.
  • Reduced Forms: 
    In speech words are often slurred or dropped and the position of consonants and vowels is affected. This has much to do with the fact that in speech there is not always time for the tongue to assume the required position to articulate a sound. Elliptical forms are also common.
  • Ungrammatical Forms: 
    Because of the effort speakers put into planning and organizing the content of their utterances in ongoing time, grammaticality is often less relevant than ideational coherence.
  • Pausing and Speech Errors: 
    Pauses, hesitations, false starts, corrections make up between 30-50% of what we actually say in natural speech. Pauses can be silent or filled with utterances like oh, hmm, well, etc.
  • Rate of Delivery: 
    Eliminating pauses gives the impression of faster speech. Fast speakers say more than 220 wpm and slow speakers less than 130 wpm.
  • Rhythm and Stress: 
    English is a stress-timed language. Within an utterance, only particular syllables are stressed, and the remaining syllables in the utterance, no matter how many there are, must accommodate to the rhythm established by the stressed syllables, which occur at more or less regular intervals.
  • Cohesive Devices: 
    Many of the discourse markers used in spoken discourse are different from those used in written discourse.

Processing Sound, Meaning and Response

The discussion so far will give the present reader some idea of just how complex the skill of listening actually is. Richards' list alone demonstrates the numerous micro-skills the listener may need to bring into play merely to process incoming sound and there are many more which space does not permit us to mention (For a complete list of the micro-skills involved in listening, and the other three skills, see John Munby's (1978: Chapter 7) taxonomy of over 260 skills). But if we couple this with the fact that the listener has to interpret what is heard according to his/her knowledge of the world and, on top of this, is very often required to respond in a face-to-face context which involves amongst other things a consideration of roles, then an image begins to emerge of just how complex the listening skill is when looked at in its entirety.

The multi-faceted concept of processing sound prompts a variety of questions although for our purposes it will be useful to narrow our field of enquiry down to the following: What do we listen for? and What is actually processed?

Much of the literature on comprehension suggests that 'propositions' are the basic units of meaning involved in comprehension and that these are identified by the listener who makes use of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of syntax of the target language and knowledge of the world. Syntactic knowledgeenables us to eliminate redundant material in speech (i.e. repetition, hesitation, pauses etc.) and organise it into meaningful sections or 'chunks'. Yet it is not this information which is actually stored. Research indicates that syntax is lost to memory within a short space of time and so it is only the meaning or proposition which is stored and this itself is a product of our knowledge and understanding of the world. It may also be that the process of identifying syntactic clues is bypassed so that a proposition is identified immediately.

We will remember Schema Theory (originally proposed by Bartlett in 1932) and the way that our knowledge of the world is used in the process of reading. Our knowledge of the world is also brought to bear on how we interpret what we hear. Schema theory itself has evolved since the time of Bartlett and a modern development of the theory is the idea of cognitive frames posited by Minsky (1975). A further elaboration is Schank and Abelson's (1977: 422) script theory which describes the role of our prior knowledge in comprehension.

A script is a predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions that define a well-known situation. A script is, in effect, a very boring little story.

A restaurant script would include the sequence of actions that a customer might expect to do (enter, wait, be shown seat, look at menu and so on).

The reception and interpretation of speech forms are the first two parts of a three-level hierarchy in the listening process. We might regard the first two levels as essential components of the hierarchy since they are always in evidence. However, the final level -the response - is not necessarily an integral part of the process although in a typical situation the listener may be required, or at least have the opportunity, to respond to what is said. Since each listener's response is dependent upon a unique schema or script built up through personal experience in life, the ensuing conversation cannot be fixed in advance and may change direction at any given moment. Listening is thus a very open-ended activity.

Whether the listener responds or not depends on the social context. McGregor (1986) represents the differing roles and expectations of the listener on a continuum of collaborative discourse:

  • Participant - a person who is being spoken to directly and who has speaking rights equal to others involved in the discourse (e.g. a conversation between friends on a topic of mutual interest and shared background).
  • Addressee - a person in a discourse who is being spoken to directly and who has limited rights to respond (e.g. a student in a traditional classroom in which the teacher is lecturing).
  • Auditor - a person in a discourse who is a member of an audience that is being addressed directly and who has very limited rights to respond and is not expected to respond (e.g. a bus driver announcing the name of the next bus stop to the passengers (audience) on the bus).
  • Overhearer - a person who is not being addressed, but who is within earshot of the speaker, and who has no rights or expectations to respond (e.g. hearing the conversation of a bank teller and customer who is in front of you as you stand in line waiting).
  • Judge - a person who is not being spoken to but is required to evaluate the speaker or the message (e.g. a juror).

Although McGregor's model might appear to be a rather complicated representation of the various roles of the listener it is in fact a vastly simplified overview of the numerous variables that could come into play in real life. Consider, for example, the effect of gender, age, formality, emotions, humor, extraneous noise, interference, visual clues and so on. Such factors determine the communicative function or 'goal' that a particular sentence has when it is uttered and this is explained by Speech Act Theory. Graddol et al. (1994: 120) comment:

The sheer number of different speech acts that sentences can perform makes it very difficult to analyze this aspect of language. A further problem is to decide whether to categorize speech acts in terms of the speaker's intentions, or in terms of the hearer's perceptions of the speech act.

Richard's (1985: 193) offers the following hierarchical summary of the listening process:

1. The type of interactional act or speech event in which the listener is involved is determined (e.g. conversation, lecture, discussion, debate).

2. Scripts relevant to the particular situation are recalled.

3. The goals of the speaker are inferred through reference to the situation, the script, and the sequential position of the utterance.

4. The propositional meaning of the utterance is determined.

5. An illocutionary meaning is assigned to the message.

6. This information is retained and acted upon, and the form in which it was originally received is deleted.

Classrooms considerations

The multifariousness of spoken English raises several questions related to the teaching of listening. One such question is that of input (i.e. the content of listening material) especially with regard to the listening competence of the students. Rost (1990: 158) urges a consideration of:

abstractness of content, cultural aspects of the content, number of information points, media support provided, length of extract, and level of linguistic ability.

Much of this is related to the learner's listening competence and these are input factors which teachers, consciously or not, contemplate in their preparation of the lesson. Yet the difficulty of the text may also be a product of "affective factors of learner interest and motivation" and his/her familiarity with the topic. In short, learners differ not only in ability but in individual preferences for subject/topic area too and this may be an influential determinant underlying the success or failure of the activity. Of course, this idea is very closely linked with 'humanistic'/'affective' approaches to learning which have gained a lot of currency in ELT over the last decade.

Another aspect of the listening skill which has provoked a good deal of discussion is that of authenticity. We will remember some of the main points of the debate from our examination of the skill of reading. Let us briefly remind ourselves of Widdowson's (1978: 80) distinction between genuineness and authenticity. He describes the former as "a characteristic of the text and an absolute quality" and the latter as:

the characteristic of the relationship between the text and the reader (and in our present case the listener) and has to do with appropriate response.

Pre-recorded texts and audio-visual material of native speaker conversations may be genuine examples of 'real' English but they do not necessarily lead to authenticity of purpose for the learner. The real-life conditions of listening that the instructor seeks to create in the classroom may be lost in genuine texts. This is something that Penny Ur (1984) highlights in what she calls 'real-life listening' where listening exercises are judged as valuable to the extent that they simulate the real-life listening conditions that actual users of a language operate in. Ur thus describes the pre-conditions for real-life listening:

  • real-life listening allows access to environmental cues;
  • listening segments come in short chunks;
  • listening requires some show of reciprocity and typically requires frequent listener response.

Some language experts have emphasized the importance using one of the main varieties of English as the basis for the input of listening. However, this is clearly at odds with listening activities in course books which have appeared on the market during the last few years. Most of these books include native speaker English of a 'non-standard' variety as a matter of course. Deller and Jones's (1992: 8) book, Vista, for example, uses listening exercises with "authentic or typical English (with) a variety of accents". It seems that many materials writers are in agreement with the idea that:

students need to practice listening to the kind of speech they will actually encounter in real life.
(Underwood 1989: 98)

Andrewes (1993), however, disagrees with the notion of using authentic English with accents:

(My students) need International English, and International English is Slow English, often with simpler structures and clearer articulation and with fewer idiomatic expressions. This is the kind of English we should prepare the majority of students for.

What Andrewes says deserves closer scrutiny since "the kind of speech" L2 users come into contact with may not in many cases be authentic English. If we consider the growing number of job opportunities in national and multinational conglomerates throughout the world where employees use English as the lingua franca, then perhaps claims like that of Andrewes should be taken more fully into account when writing course materials.

Many course books provide some sort of reference or framework by which the listener can 'key into' the participants in an exchange. This is typically achieved through the use of photographs or biographical data relating to the participants (see extract from Headway below). Reflecting back to Ur's framework for 'real-life' listening, we can see that access to such important "environmental cues" allows us to reconstruct or "simulate" some of the conditions of a genuine conversational exchange within the confines of the classroom.

In a face-to-face encounter the participants will know something about the person they are talking to (i.e. biographical data) and they will certainly be able to make use of visual/paralinguistic features of the conversation since the person can be seen (i.e. using photographs in the classroom). We might therefore conclude that the high frequency of face-to-face exchanges and the use we make of visual clues may be a strong argument for a greater use of video

Another important issue concerning listening input is that of simplification. As we saw in the previous section on reading, there is a weight of academic opinion against text simplification mainly, it is argued, because of the long-term negative effects of habitually making things easier for learners. Nevertheless, many reading and listening texts used in the language classroom are carefully selected and primed by the teacher, and the student eventually interacts with them in simplified segments with glossaries.

On the one hand, we might agree that this type of approach deprives the learner of making sense of what they hear, but on the other hand, if the student is not exclusively exposed to simplified texts then it can be a useful strategy, especially at lower levels, for instilling confidence and motivation.


Underwood (1989: 112-114) offers the following typology of listening activities which she divides into 'pre', 'while', and 'post' listening activities:

Pre-listening activities

  • Looking at pictures and talking about them
  • Looking at a list of items/thoughts/etc.
  • Making lists of possibilities/ideas/suggestions, etc.
  • Reading a text
  • Reading through questions (to be answered while listening)
  • Labeling
  • Completing part of a chart
  • Predicting/speculating
  • Pre-viewing language
  • Informal teacher talk and class discussion

While-listening activities

  • Marking/checking items in pictures
  • Matching pictures with what is heard
  • Storyline picture sets
  • Putting pictures in order
  • Completing pictures
  • Picture drawing
  • Carrying out actions
  • Making models/arranging items in patterns
  • Following a route
  • Completing grids
  • Form/chart completion
  • Labeling
  • Using lists
  • True/false
  • Multiple-choice questions
  • Text completion (gap-filling)
  • Spotting mistakes
  • Predicting
  • Seeking specific items of information

Post-listening activities

  • Form/chart completion
  • Extending lists
  • Sequencing/grading
  • Matching with a reading text
  • Extending notes into written responses
  • Summarizing
  • Using information for problem solving and decision making activities
  • Jigsaw listening
  • Identifying relationships between speakers
  • Establishing mood/attitude/behavior of the speaker
  • Role play/simulation
  • Dictation


From the beginning, we drew attention to the differences between written and spoken discourse. Spoken discourse is "transient" and often gives a "disjointed" impression which makes the processing of sound a complex skill. We looked at McGregor's (1986) model of 'collaborative discourse' and noted how the role of the listener may change according to how much he/she is participating in the exchange. We also observed how Schema theory is brought to bear in the listening process and thus how the listener may change the course of a conversation.

On the question of authenticity we saw that research offers us a similar perspective to that of reading and the focus, therefore, in the classroom should be on the response. Ur's (1984) 'real-life' listening gave us a framework for recreating real-life conditions in the classroom. Grading texts is, like reading, a possibility, and simplified texts do have a place on the curriculum although their frequency of use and learner level may be key considerations.







Discussion 1

Is listening important? Why?





Some suggestions


understanding is an essential part of communicating - what's the point of learning a language if you don't understand what anyone says?

model for pronunciation

model for intonation

good for students to hear variety of accents

 gives students realistic English language situations





Discussion 2

What problems do teachers face when teaching listening exercises?




Some suggestions:


no tapes or tape recorders

no electricity sometimes

only one listening resource - teacher - whose own English may be weak, and also therefore no variety of listening input

teachers themselves don't listen to English and may provide poor model

teachers don't use much English in the classroom


So, should we abandon listening? No, because it is an essential language skill.






Discussion 3

How can teachers work within limitations? What kind of activities can be done?





Some suggestions


A. Teacher becomes the listening resource


- teacher reads transcript (book or own) and students answer Qs

- T dictates, students copy or respond

    • T gives instructions for students to follow (eg. Simon says)

    • T uses English as classroom language - lots of Qs, explanations, etc.



B. Students become the listening resouce


- students read transcript (book or own), other students answer Qs or respond

- students give instructions for others to follow (eg. pic description from before)

- Students give directions for others to draw on a map

- any communicative activity where students are talking and listening together in




(don't forget importance of preparation - without tapes, etc., texts need to sound different, varied, interesting - don't read it for the first time in front of the class, don't read it in a monotone)




remember the importance of students communicating with each other as a way of practising both listening and pronunciation




Planning a listening-based lesson


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