Listening Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

Listening Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

by Steven Brown

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This volume was conceived as a "best practices" resource for teachers of ESL listening courses in the way that Vocabulary Myths by Keith S. Folse (and Writing Myths by Joy Reid) is one for reading and vocabulary teachers. It was written to help ensure that teachers of listening are not perpetuating the myths of teaching listening.

Both the


This volume was conceived as a "best practices" resource for teachers of ESL listening courses in the way that Vocabulary Myths by Keith S. Folse (and Writing Myths by Joy Reid) is one for reading and vocabulary teachers. It was written to help ensure that teachers of listening are not perpetuating the myths of teaching listening.

Both the research and pedagogy in this book are based on the newest research in the field of second language acquisition. Steven Brown is the author of the Active Listening textbook series and is a teacher trainer.

The myths debunked in this book are:

§  Listening is the same as reading.

§  Listening is passive.

§  Listening equals comprehension.

§  Because L1 language ability is effortlessly acquired, L2 listening ability is too.

§  Listening means listening to conversations.

§  Listening is an individual, inside-the-head process.

§  Students should only listen to authentic materials.

§  Listening can’t be taught.

Editorial Reviews

College English Association of Ohio

Steven Brown's *Listening Myths* has won the College English Association of Ohio's 2014 Nancy Dasher Award. The qualifications for the award are:

· The book must be scholarly.

· The book must include high-quality research work.

· The book must provide an original contribution to the field.

· The author must live and work in Ohio.

· The book must be peer-reviewed.

· The book must be published by a reputable university press.

Steve Brown, Professor of English at Youngstown State University, is also the co-author of Second Language Acquisitions Myths (same series) and the recently published Third Edition of Understanding Language Structure, Interaction, and Variation.

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University of Michigan Press
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Listening Myths

Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

By Steven Brown

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-03459-8



Listening is the same as reading.

In the Real World ...

I took my first foreign language class, Spanish, in seventh grade. It was the 1960s in California and, though I certainly didn't know it then, audiolingualism was the methodology of choice. I remember memorizing dialogues; for years, I could remember isolated snatches of them. I remember reading about culture and seeing Mexican textiles on the walls. What I don't remember is any listening exercises beyond repeating sentences played on reel-to-reel tape.

After exhausting all the Spanish classes at Sunset High, I went on to the University of California at Santa Cruz. My high school Spanish satisfied whatever language requirement was in place at the time, and Spanish classes were at 8 AMon top of a hill, so sloth won out over what really was a fondness for studying languages. Incidentally, despite its current bad reputation, audiolingualism was strong enough to last for years; I can get by in Spanish-speaking countries to this day, as long as I'm asking for the restroom and not trying to discuss philosophy.

At the beginning of the 1980s, I found myself teaching English in Japan. This was the era of the Communicative Revolution — or so we thought. One of the things in the air at the time was the absolute necessity of teaching listening skills. Real skills, real teaching — meaning an exclusive focus in the lesson on how to listen. This may seem obvious now, but it was anything but then. The local TESOL affiliate JALT, the Japan Association for Language Teaching, sponsored numerous presentations on how to teach listening. A major factor generating interest in listening was the fact that so many of our Japanese students were so bad at it. The Japanese educational system was then very focused on teaching students to read English, by which was meant, translate English into Japanese. In order to read English, students were also taught to analyze English grammar. Little oral work was done and virtually no listening tasks; indeed, many classes were predominately in Japanese. As a result, students left high school or university without much knowledge of spoken English and thus had a difficult time understanding what was said to them in English.

So, let's teach them to listen, we thought. The research base, or even the teacher lore, that would tell us how to do this was still slim, but beginning to grow. The University of Michigan Press had published the first American textbook devoted to listening comprehension in 1972 (Morley, 1972). Jack Richards had written what came to be a seminal article on listening in TESOL Quarterly(Richards, 1983). By 1985, a survey in the TESOL Newsletter reported 76 different listening textbooks being used in North American English language intensive programs (Works, 1985), but that number includes test-preparation materials, course books with some listening, and songbooks, and it reflects a rapid growth of titles in the early 1980s. One of the first listening-oriented JALT presentations I attended was by Dale Griffee, who was working on incorporating listening with English through drama (Griffee, 1982).

There were still plenty of materials that basically had the teacher read a passage and then ask comprehension questions, but some practitioners began to adopt a format of pre-listening, listening, and post-listening.

In either case, basically what we were doing was replicating reading lessons.

What the Research Says ...

Some Preliminary Definitions — —

We have long been teaching listening just as we teach reading. That makes a certain amount of sense, since both are more like each other than they are similar to speaking and writing, the other classic language skills. Both reading and listening used to be thought of as passive skills, while speaking and writing were active. That view was abandoned in the 1980s as people began to see, through research, just how active the processes of reading and listening are. At that time, the terms active/passive got replaced with the notions of productive/receptive. I'm not sure that "receptive" does justice to how we listen to other people, though. It may be true that learners are only receiving meaning when they listen to pre-recorded audio, but does "receptive" really characterize the joint meaning-making that goes on during a conversation? Listening to the radio or a lecture is non-reciprocal listening. Participating in conversations and discussion requires reciprocal listening. We can also call reciprocal listening "interactive" or "interactional" listening. Richards (1983) contrasted interactional listening, by which people maintain social contact, with transactional listening, by which people accomplish goals such as buying a train ticket, with relatively little personal connection between speakers.


As I've said, we have taught listening as if it were reading. But are listening and reading the same? At some level, the answer to this question is no. There are several differences between listening and reading. For instance, students can skim a text quickly to get a good idea what it's about, but listeners can't skim. The language comes rushing at them. Listening must be done in real time; there is no second chance, unless, of course, the listener specifically asks for repetition. When students read, cognates (words that are similar in two languages) help understanding, but while cognates may look alike on the page, their sounds may be quite different and they may be less useful while listening. Listening also involves understanding all sorts of reductions of sounds and blending of words (Whaddayuwannaeat?). There are false starts (I, I, uh ...) and hesitations (Um, like ...) to be dealt with. Listeners give back-channel cues (Uh-huh, Really?) to show they are listening and understanding. Spoken language in general is "looser" than written language; we use a lot of pronouns (it, that), string together clauses with conjunctions (and, but, so) rather than use subordinate clauses (while, because), and rely partly on gestures and body language to get our points across. Rather than define listening negatively against reading, however, let's define it in its own terms, as given in Tables 1 and 2.


Listening, most basically, is making sense of what you hear. Hear is a term with some problems inherent in it, however. Think of the difference between the everyday meanings of listen and hear. A few years ago, one of my local radio stations ran a series of testimonials from its listeners; one listener said, "I hear you guys everywhere, even when I don't listen." If you listen to something, it implies some degree of focus on your part. In this case, the listener was hearing the radio station in stores and from the windows of others. Her radio was not on; in her mind, she was not listening. You may listen to the radio, but you hear a noise outside. You may hear the birds outside your window, listen for a few seconds, and then stop listening as something else catches your attention.

So perhaps it's better to say that listening is making sense of aural input. What does make sense mean? It means that, again, listening is something that takes effort. We use our knowledge of individual pieces of language like sounds, words, and grammatical patterns in concert with our knowledge of the topic, situation, and context to arrive at an understanding of what is being transmitted to us. Because all we know is not necessarily relevant to a given piece of speech, this knowledge implies the selection and sorting of information. Finally, then, listening is a very active process. (See O'Malley, Chamot & Küpper, 1989, pp. 419–422, for a classic definition of listening.)

And yet, if, in the paragraph above, I replaced listening with reading, aural with written, and speech with text, I'd have a pretty decent definition of reading. So maybe the question of the difference between listening and reading lies elsewhere.

But before we go further, perhaps I'd better state the obvious. This entire discussion is in the realm of additional, L2, language learning. If you are reading this from the perspective of a teacher of L1 English speakers, you will see the relationship between oral language and written language differently. You may accept the consensus that Sticht and James (2002/1984, p. 294) enumerate in this way:

(1) oral language skills develop to a fairly high level prior to the development of written language, (2) oral and written language share essentially the same lexicon (vocabulary) and syntax (grammar), and (3) beginning readers draw upon their knowledge of oral language in learning to read.

Sticht and James are clearly talking about young children learning to read in their native language. In an L2 context, particularly in an EFL environment, learning to read English may come before learning to speak it. Many English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students, those attending American universities for example, may be able to handle sophisticated specialized vocabulary and syntax in their academic field, but struggle to understand teenaged servers. Thus, the role of oral abilities and written abilities in language learning, and the connection between them, is not so straightforward in L2 research.

Listening, Reading, and Language Proficiency — —

Since Alderson raised the issue (1984), researchers have been interested in the role our L1 abilities play in our second language. Alderson located the issue in terms of reading research. Do good readers in L1 have a leg up in L2 reading, or must some threshold of general proficiency in the language be crossed before that native language ability can be taken advantage of? Vandergrift (2006) examined the roles of language proficiency and first language listening ability in a group of English-speaking eighth graders studying French. Vandergrift reviewed past studies of reading and came down on the side of those who believe that L1 reading abilities (e.g., efficient skimming, scanning, guessing from context) can't be transferred to L2 when proficiency is low; once learners progress and understand more of the L2, then they are able to make use of L1 abilities (p. 8). In his own study of listening, Vandergrift (2006) concluded that L2 listening comprehension ability is a combination of L1 listening ability and L2 proficiency, but that L2 proficiency contributes more. Furthermore, there were different kinds of questions in the tests that the students were given, and Vandergrift sees L2 proficiency, particularly vocabulary knowledge, as being important for answering "literal" (specific information) questions (p. 13). Vandergrift reminds us that just knowing a word is not enough, that students must also be able to recognize that word when it is spoken, to match their knowledge with the input. To that end, it helps to have some idea of what is possible in that particular slot, and teaching strategies such as using context is therefore necessary. I will have more to say about strategies in Myth 8.

Comparing Listening and Reading in Research — —

An early study that compared reading and listening was done by Lund (1991). Lund tested beginning and intermediate university students of German as a foreign language in the United States using a written text (a text is a piece of discourse, written or spoken) with oral features and an interview. One group of students read the text while the other group heard the same text, as if it were a radio feature story. Each student then wrote as many of the main ideas and details as possible in five minutes, then heard or read the text, and recalled it again. The ideas in the text were scored according to a scale of their importance to the text (main ideas were rated higher than small details). Readers overall recalled more ideas than listeners did, but there was a difference in the kinds of ideas recalled. Listeners recalled a higher proportion of the higher-order, main ideas, than the readers did, while the readers recalled more details. Also, it seemed that listeners, while understanding a lot of the main ideas, had to fill in the gaps in their understanding by guessing at context, and this led to more erroneous answers. Lund pointed out that the gaps were often at the word level. Cognates are not as available for use in listening as they are in reading, because though they look alike on paper, they sound different when pronounced. Furthermore, when listeners encounter a word they don't know, they frequently respond by focusing on that word and thus stop listening to the rest of the text. Lund saw the recall task, in which learners stop between listenings/ readings to write down what they remember, as being potentially a useful classroom activity, at least for intermediate students, because it allows them to develop an overall meaning for the text and provides an opportunity to work out what they don't know, thereby preparing them for the next listening. Lund also suggests combining reading and listening by using transcripts of the spoken text (sparingly) to increase comprehension. Some teachers also show movies or television shows with subtitles at lunchtime. We will talk more about listening-while-reading later (see pages 1116).

Park (2004) also compared two groups reading and listening to the same text, in this case through a study of Korean university learners of English. Park reported that listeners performed better on global comprehension questions — those that required inference and synthesizing. Readers did better on factual, local questions. In other words, he confirmed Lund's findings. Park began the study by assessing students' knowledge of the topics and their linguistic knowledge (defined as vocabulary and grammar). Linguistic knowledge was a factor in both groups; those with more knowledge of English, perhaps not surprisingly, performed better on the comprehension questions. Background knowledge had only a moderate effect on reading comprehension, but played a much larger role in listening comprehension, perhaps because the listeners did better on main idea questions and background knowledge helps with those questions. Still, linguistic and background knowledge together only accounted for 14 percent of the variance for the listeners and 20 percent for the readers, which means that something else, we don't know what, explained more than 80 percent of the results.

A comparison of online listening and reading tasks was undertaken by Absalom and Rizzi (2008). Six stories, each less than five minutes long, were recorded from Italian radio. The audio was transcribed to form written texts. Fourteen students volunteered to study one text a week in two groups, listeners and readers. There were a number of interesting results. First, listeners went deeper into the material in the sense that they went beyond the text to look up topics on the internet and look up words in a dictionary. They seemed to want to understand the material more fully than any of the readers did; none of the readers used outside sources, even though they wound up giving incorrect answers. Absalom and Rizzi characterize this as a "deep" approach and contrast it with the surface approach of the readers, who seemed to want to just finish the task. They say that perhaps the readers were comfortable with their understanding and had strategies for reading text, while the listeners were anxious about listening. Even though the listeners either chose or needed to work harder, they also stayed more motivated than the readers did throughout the study and, ultimately, remembered more information than the readers.

In a study in which the same learners both read and listened to the same passage, within a two-week period, advanced university students of Spanish recalled the same amount of information in either modality, while intermediate students recalled significantly more main ideas when they read, but not significantly more details (Mecartty 2001). Readers recalled more information from the beginning and middle of the text, while listeners recalled more information overall (and more main ideas) from the end, perhaps suggesting further research.

In a study that was primarily concerned with acquisition of Spanish verb morphology, Lesser (2004) found that readers recalled more ideas than listeners.


Excerpted from Listening Myths by Steven Brown. Copyright © 2011 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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