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Is there any way out of the old conundrum that you cannot teach listening

but can only test it?

By Dr. Zoumana KONE

Institut pédagogique national de l’enseignement technique et professionnel (IPNETP)

Listening, listening material, testing material, testing procedures, teaching procedures


In order to answer that question, the author examines approaches of listening and a typology
of listening materials found in current course books. After setting criteria to evaluate listening
materials, he shows that some of them rather test than teach. Examining testing materials, he
finally draws a conclusion that some course books use the procedures used in listening tests
and examinations. In that case, it is obvious to state that listening cannot be taught but can be
only tested. By examining approaches in psycholinguistics, linguistics and semantics he
establishes pedagogical objectives enabling teachers to effectively teach listening in
classrooms. Pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening phases have been outlined.

Mots clés
Compréhension orale, matériel de compréhension orale, matériel de test, procédures de test,
procédures d’enseignement


En vue de répondre à cette question, l’auteur examine les approches utilisées en compréhension
orale et une typologie des matériels de compréhension orale couramment trouvés dans les manuels
de classe. Après avoir défini des critères d’évaluation de matériels de compréhension orale, il
démontre que certains d’entre eux au lieu testent la compréhension orale la testent plutôt de
l’enseigner. Après avoir examiné les tests de compréhension orale, il en tire la conclusion que
certains manuels utilisent les mêmes procédures que les tests et examens. Dans ce cas, il est clair
que la compréhension orale ne peut pas être enseignée mais plutôt testée. A partir d'un cadre
théorique fondé sur, des approches psycholinguistique, linguistique et sémantique, il établit des
objectifs pédagogiques permettant aux enseignants d’enseigner effectivement la compréhension
orale en classe. Les phases de pré écoute, écoute et post-écoute ont été soulignées.

Language teaching has for the most recent years concentrated on the inculcation of language
skills that are more or less categorised overt linguistic behaviour. Speaking and writing have been
characterised as observable physical acts, in other words, active or 'productive' skills. Conversely
reading and listening can be found in the category of 'passive and receptive skills, in the sense that
the listener or the reader does not produce any utterance at all, but rather intakes sentences either in
written or oral forms. He/she then tries to analyse them in order to understand their meanings.
However, there is still doubt whether listening is a passive skill, for the listener processes

Listening is most of the time taught to students in the format of listening comprehension:
students listen to an oral production done either by the teacher reading aloud, or from a tape
recording. Then various activities, following the listening act can take the form of multiple-choice
questions and comprehension questions, which are means of testing comprehension rather than
teaching listening. This format has been going on for many years and the old conundrum finds its
place here, in the sense that we can only test listening comprehension rather than teach it. In trying
to find a solution to this problem in the course of this article, first we shall look at procedures found
in listening comprehension course books. Looking at these materials is a very decisive way to
revealing approaches in listening comprehension course that in their turn will enable us to
corroborate or solve the conundrum. Secondly, we will look at areas such as psycholinguistics,
semantics and linguistics that will pave the way in providing us with means of formulating
objectives essential to a new format for teaching listening comprehension. The third step will
obviously deal with how to teach effective listening comprehension in forms of activities, tasks and
exercises drawn on direct cast from areas such as psycholinguistics, semantics and linguistics.
These will ease the difficulties that learners face when dealing with listening comprehension.

1. Approaches in Listening Comprehension

1.1. The Nature of Listening Comprehension

Language teaching is essentially teaching second or foreign language learners’ skills that
will enable them to speak, to write, to listen and to speak the second or foreign language.
Approaches, methods, techniques and procedures have been developed to deal with teaching the
language in general and each skill of the language in particular. Some approaches have particularly
concentrated on one or two skills at the expense of the others. The advent of Audiolingualism and
the Communicative Approach has cast a new light on listening to the second or foreign language1.
With the introduction of the tape recorder to a small extent and the language laboratory to a greater
one, the teaching of listening has been rather done in the format of listening comprehension. This
has been due to the difficulties that learners face when in contact with native speaker language. The
teaching of listening is in this case viewed as providing students with means to cope with native
speaker language such as survival situations i.e., shops, restaurants, hotels, etc. According to Byrne
(1976: 9)

In order to be able to cope with real-life language situations, the students need regular and
frequent training through a programme of listening comprehension which exposes them in the
classroom to suitably varied models of natural speech from the earliest stages of the language
course. In short, they have actually to learn to listen, just as they have to learn to speak.

1.2. A Typology of Listening Comprehension Materials

To Reviewer N01: This is from me after I have read several articles, books and reviews. This sentence is also a
general fact in the Applied Linguistics world as in French a sentence like "le soleil se lève à l'est et se couche à
l'ouest" is called "une vérité universelle". [Enlever cette note après qu'il l'ai lue]
Listening comprehension techniques and materials have been based on the same format.
Traditionally, listening comprehension consisted of the teacher's reading aloud and making
questions and comprehension questions that were most of the time factual questions rather than
inferential ones. Gradually new features have been introduced such as filling in the blanks left in
the transcript (on the text read by the teacher). With the introduction of modern technology in the
classroom, tape recorders have replaced the teaching voice by providing different sorts of accents,
background noise particular to places such as the restaurant, the street, etc., to convey an
impression of real-life situations.

The format still broadly remained the same till the advent of the communicative language
teaching methodology which brought an emphasis on form and meaning and activity such as pair
and group work in information-gap and information transfer activities, (Littlewood 1981: 65-75).
Thomas (1982: 192) states thus:
As a result of these promptings, the profile of what we now regard as good material for
listening comprehension has changed considerably and, let it be said, for the better. When we
examine more recent materials we can expect to find:
a. Authentic or 'authentic - like' taped materials;

b. Contextualized situations, i.e. new vocabulary and ethnographic information;

c. A 'multi-skill approach’, i.e. listening forms part of a chain of activities, so that learners
listen either in order to do something or as a result of something;

d. Training in how to approach listening texts.

The common strategies taught to learners nowadays is how to predict what speakers will say
and the most common exercise is to get learners extract the gist or specific information, often by
means of table or grid, while listening to the text. Activities have been devised in the format of pre-
listening, while listening and post-listening. Activities in predicting occur in the pre-listening stage.
Thomas (1982: 193) puts again that it is argued that, if learners are orientated towards particular
information, which in practice is frequently achieved by a picture or a short reading text, they will
be more likely to hear it or to recognise any deviations or omissions.

A set of while-listening activities which can have some variants are the following:

a) Filling in the blanks with the key words heard: students are required to slot in the transcript
words they may recognise while listening to the tape. (Kennedy & Bolitho 1984: 110);

b) Multiple-choice statements: students tick in the appropriate box while listening to the tape.
(Kennedy & Bolitho 1984: 112);

c) Listening for main and subsidiary points: students extract gist from discourse they hear;
d) Information transfer – completing a map: students while listening try to follow or mark in
pencil the route which the speaker describes;

e) A variant of d) is to ask students to draw geometrical figures or complete a street map report
of a car crash for example;

f) Note-taking: students take notes while listening to a tape;

g) Jumbled paragraphs / sentences: students rearrange a text, a poem, a song while listening;

h) Discriminating between pairs e.g., teens and tens (fifteen, fifty).

As stated above, after while-listening activities, post-listening activities follow. Most of the
time, they are based on what the listener will do with the text (transcript), the information that he
has previously extracted from the discourse previously heard. This involves relating the text to the
learning context. Thus, this post-listening phase is carried out as a group exercise, with learners
working together, comparing conclusions and reporting to the teacher. Role-play and writing a
paragraph are also used as post-listening activities. Now a looking at some materials including
some of, or all activities stated above is necessary.

1.3 Looking at Listening Comprehension Materials

If we open students’ course books of listening comprehension, each claims to teach students
listening comprehension. Richards (1985: 202-207) lists some criteria for evaluating activities and
exercises. We shall use them and check with materials which are either available to us or found in
Thomas’ survey of listening materials (1982).

1.3.1 Criteria for Evaluating Activities and Exercises

a) Content Validity

This criterion aims at checking whether “the activity functions, listening or something else
and how closely the input or task relates to micro-skills that listening comprehension involves”.
According to Richards (op. cit.) many listening comprehension tasks contain activities that depend
more on reading or general intelligence than on listening skills. In order to evaluate content validity
two factors are used: memory and purposefulness.

b) Listening Comprehension or Memory?

Richards (op. cit.) states that “Many listening activities focus on retrieval of information
from long-term memory rather than on the processing activities themselves. An exercise involving
listening to a passage and responding to true/false questions about the content of it typically makes
use of memory rather than comprehension". Thomas (1987) uses materials such as Listen to this (by
Underwood 1971) to draw our attention on the fact that he does not agree with the author claiming
that choice items do not test comprehension, but draw attention to focal points in the test. The same
remarks are aimed at What a Story by the same author (1976) whose exercises function as test
questions that structure the text for the student according to the main points of information. Doing
so, they aim at comprehension not at ‘isolated’ words, but at part of the ‘action’. Some additional
exercises test vocabulary recognition. The third book in Underwood’s trilogy, Have you heard
(1979), bears the same criticism even if apart from several types of exercises which check
comprehension (e.g. multiple-choice, true or false), there are exercises which give intensive
listening practice in order to build up vocabulary recognition or involve matching definitions with
words on the tape, and writing exercises. The latter focus on functions for pair/group work. Thomas
(1982: 193-195).

c) Purposefulness and Transferability

These criteria check whether “the activity reflects a purpose for listening that approximates
authentic real-life listening”, in addition they check whether “the abilities the exercises develop
transfer to real-life learning purposes, or whether the learning is simply developing the ability to
perform classroom exercises. As an example Richards states that an activity that makes use of news
broadcasts as input, should reflect the reasons why people typically listen to news, such as listening
for information about events. Cloze exercises requiring the learner to supply grammatical words
after listening to the news item do not reflect the purposes for which people listen to news
broadcasts. In that case, we can say that these cloze exercises test grammar rather than teach the
ability to transfer information by extracting the gist. In the survey of Thomas (1982: 196), Focus
Listening (Cole, 1981), bears this characteristic for ‘despite the functional component, the main aim
of each unit as stated in the teacher’s book seems to be to practise tenses, time phrases, question
words, etc. The book does not emphasise neither on the nature of the taped materials, nor on its

The listening text is used as a means to present vocabulary and situations which students
develop in pairs and groups. The same criticism is found out about Listen to Maggie (Gore 1980).
Thomas points out that the material mixes intonation discrimination, text comprehension,
vocabulary items, and intensive listening items, even if this is justifiable, bearing in mind the
ground covered. Unfortunately the connection with techniques in listening is a tenuous one.
According to him the book is concerned with a ‘pot-pourri’ of problems, some relating to grammar,
some concerned with listening, some intonation difficulties are given extended treatment.

d) Testing or teaching

Here Richards (op. cit.) puts these questions essential for checking whether the activity or a
set of procedures test or teach:

Does the activity or set of procedures assume that a set of skills is already acquired and simply
provide opportunities for the learner to practice them, or does it assume that the skills are not known
and try to help the learner acquire them?
To exemplify this, Richards adds that a great many listening activities test rather than teach.
For example, a set of true/false questions following a passage on a tape might indicate how much of
the material the learner can remember, but this kind of activity in no way helps the learner develop
the ability to grasp main ideas or extract relevant details…” Activities that teach rather than test
may require much more use of pre-listening tasks and tasks completed as the student listens. In
Improving Aural Comprehension Joan Morley (1972), writes in the introduction: “the listening
lessons in units one through seven helps the student focus his/her attention on listening,
remembering and uniting facts in each of these concept areas: numbers, letters, directions, times,
dates, measurements, proportions and amounts”. Further is written the aim of the material: “the
main emphasis of the workbook is on factual listening. Secondary emphasis is on abstracting,
analysing and organising. In order to reach these two goals, the students are asked to do things in
each lesson: write material from dictation and listen to and answer aural comprehension questions.

The aim of the material matches the exercises in the very sense that without any preparation
the student is asked to listen to the direction and write a number in the blank. This goes against
Richards’ advocacy of pre-listening activities before the listening phase. In addition, the aural
comprehension questions following the dictation phase test comprehension, memory rather than
teach how to deal with numbers. The whole material is constructed on this framework. Materials
already cited above, such as Have you Heard, Listen to this, and What a Story bear the same

e) Authenticity

To check authenticity in the materials, we should ask this question: “To what degree does
the input resemble natural discourse?” (Richards 1985: 203) He explains that many current
commercial listening materials are spoken at an artificially slow pace, in prestige dialects that are
not typical of ordinary speech. They are often oral readings of written material articulated in a
precise “acting style”, lacking the pauses and self-corrections of natural speech. According to him,
the value of such materials must be examined in the light of Krashen’s proposal. Krashen (1982)
points out that authentic learning experience should provide an opportunity for acquisition; that is,
they should provide comprehensible input that requires negotiation of meaning and that contains
linguistic features a little beyond the learner’s current level of competence. Thomas (1982)’s
survey, states that Listen to Maggie centres half of the dialogue material on telephone
conversations. This is very restricted for students and especially for students abroad. Focus on
Listening does not provide authentic material and corroborates Richards’ claim.

As we have seen, materials cited above are claimed by their authors to teach listening
comprehension. But a close look at them by using six criteria for evaluating whether their activities
or exercises test rather than teach, finds them shifting from their goals and the finality is that they
test rather than teach. As testing has a great deal of importance in this problem, why not look at
some testing materials.

1.4 Looking at some procedures in testing materials

To look at some testing procedures in testing materials, we shall use some well-known tests.
The analysis of contents and techniques ranges over the four language modes of listening, speaking,
reading and writing. We shall concentrate on listening and its combinations with other skills such as
Listening Comprehension and Speaking, Listening comprehension and Writing.

Listening comprehension, intrinsically, is done by the use of recordings or reading aloud by

the examiner through features below:

- Spoken texts requiring written open-ended answers

- Spoken texts requiring multiple-choice answers

- Responding to oral instructions

- Identification of sounds (Segmental phonemes)

- Identification of meanings carried out by stress and intonation

- Identification of true/false statements, using dialogues

- Third party interventions (e.g. dialogues with questions by third party speaker)

- General interpreting (from English to L2)

Listening comprehension and speaking is concerned with oral summaries of a passage recorded
or read aloud, while listening comprehension and writing deals with note-taking of short
lectures; writing up and dictation.

A detailed look at some examination and test and concentrating on listening comprehension and
its combinations gives the following table:
Table 1: Some procedures in well-known listening comprehension testing materials

Listening Comprehension Procedures

testing material

First Certificate in English Multiple choice questions based on spoken passages (30 minutes).
and Proficiency in English
from Cambridge

English as Foreign The passage for Aural Comprehension is to be read by a native speaker. Multiple-
Language: (RSA choice answers are used for comprehension.

Oral assessments in English Aural comprehension: a passage will be read aloud by the examiner and the candidate
as an Acquired Language answers questions on the content.

Arels Oral Examinations Section 3: Part one tests aural comprehension in context [sic]; Part two tests specific
comprehension. Both involve recognition of stress patterns, intonation, etc.

Section 4: (Diploma): The candidate listens twice to an original interview or

discussion, makes notes, then gives a summary interspersed with personal comments.

English Proficiency Test Part 1: 2 tests on listening comprehension. The medium is tape
1) discrimination of individual sounds (58 items)

2) discrimination of intonation patterns (38 items)

English Language Battery Multiple-choice test consisting of two parts. Part One is on tape.

sound recognition (100 items)

Intonation (10 items)

Listening Comprehension (30 items). The candidate hears questions, part of a


TOEFL, Princeton USA Listening comprehension tests the ability to understand spoken English by listening to
voices on a recording, and responding to multiple choice questions (50 items – 40

Part A – responding to short statements and ticking the correct answer

Part B – short dialogues, with a third party asking questions. Candidates tick the right
answer out of four.

Part C – Several short talks and conversations. Examinees respond to several multiple-
choice questions after each talk or conversation.
Let us draw a conclusion from this table. If materials for listening comprehension courses and tests
use the same procedures, then it is obvious to conclude that they do not teach listening but rather
test it. We have seen that a set of procedures ranging from sound recognition, intonation, stress to
comprehensive tests are used in examinations and tests. The same procedures are used as activities
or exercises in listening courses (see 1.3.1 and 1.2 above); in that case these materials do not teach
listening but test it. To depart from this attitude, what procedures can we use to teach listening
effectively? What theoretical basis or approach can be used by teachers or material writers to move
from a testing attitude to a teaching one? The second and third part of this article will help us reach
that goal.

2. Theoretical basis of listening Comprehension

The goal of this chapter is to examine approaches in psycholinguistics, semantics and linguistics
enabling the teacher to teach listening comprehension or the teaching material writer to propose
appropriate listening comprehension material. Procedures and techniques adopted for any teaching
skill are based on a theoretical approach. New light has been cast on listening from
psycholinguistics, semantics and linguistics. The broad goal is to extract findings from these areas
and implement them in the teaching of listening. This will be done by means of expressing
implications for classroom procedures. What the reader must be aware of is that there is little direct
research on second language listening comprehension, and what follows is an interpretation of
relevant native-language research.

2.1 A Psycholinguistics, Linguistic and semantic Approach

Listening induces two participants: a speaker and a hearer. Both are important for
understanding processes in listening. Communication studies qualify them with labels such as
‘emitter’ and ‘receiver’. But between the emitter (the speaker) and the receiver (the hearer or
listener) there are what are called the medium and the message. In order to be able to understand all
processes involved in listening, a detailed analysis of all factors is necessary. To be more specific,
let us say that the speaker encodes the message to be delivered to the hearer by means of words,
sentences and discourse. The message at its delivery has to have undergone the medium factors
such as account, rate, speed, forms, rhythm, stress interactive devices, etc. The hearer at reception
of the message has to decode it by identification, interpretation, through his real-world knowledge.
It will be too broad a work to thoroughly examine all factors involved in listening, in this respect
we shall concentrate on the listener because a “neutral question from both a theoretical and
pedagogical perspective concerns the nature of the units the listener makes use of in understanding
language” (Richards, 1985: 189).

Clark and Clark (1977) suggested that propositions are the basic units of meaning involved
in comprehension and that the listener’s ultimate goal to determine the propositions is represented
in the surface structure of utterances. In order to identify propositions, listeners make use of two
kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the syntax of the target language and real world knowledge. An
illustrative diagram is the following:
1. Listener identifies
2. Listener interprets

To process discourse

3. Listener activates real-

world knowledge

Figure 1: Listening comprehension process

2.1.1 Identifying Propositions

A detailed analysis of these processes conveys detailed explanation. Richards (1985: 190)
states that syntactic knowledge enables the listener to chunk incoming discourse into segments or
constituents. The ability to correctly identify chunks or constituents is a by-product of grammatical
competence. If grammatical competence is needed this means that knowledge of structure of noun-
phrases, verb phrases, and grammatical devices used to express such relationships as
complementation, relativation and word formation in English allows the listener to segment
discourse into appropriate chunks as part of the processes of propositional identification (Richards,
1985: 190). Thus, in order to construct the propositional meaning, the following processes appear
to be involved:

- the listener takes in the words and holds them in short-term memory;

- the listener uses syntactic knowledge to chunk the utterance into segments;

- as the segments are identified, they are used to construct propositions;

- the propositional meanings are then stored in long-term memory and the actual words are
deleted from the short-term memory.

2.1.2 Working out their illocutionary force

According to Richards, theories that describe how pragmatic meanings are understood,
conversational analysis, and discourse analysis derive from speech-act theory. He uses Leech's
theory to explain pragmatic meaning which deals with that “meaning as it is interpreted
interactionally in a given situation". (Leech1977: 1) Speech-act theory is concerned with the
relationship between the form of utterances and their function in social interaction and rests on the
distinction between propositional meaning and the illocutionary force of utterances. In that case
speech-act and other interactional approaches to meaning assume that when we use language for
communication, the meanings that are communicated are a function of the interactions between
speakers and hearers meeting specific circumstances for the achievement of particular goals. To
work out the illocutionary force of utterance listeners use their understanding of the nature and
rules of conversation and their knowledge of the situation, the participants and the position of the
utterance within discourse (Richards 1985:19).

To interpret an utterance, listeners use a body of knowledge a "script or schema knowledge"

they possess about specific situations to infer meaning on what is not specified in the utterance.
Script and schema theory have been developed by Schank and Abelson (1977) (quoted in Richards
1985). Script and schema knowledge is what we know about particular situations and the goals,
participants and procedures commonly associated with them. According to Richards, our
knowledge of dentist’s scripts, cinema scripts, library scripts, drugstore scripts, school scripts, meal
scripts and so on, makes it possible to interpret a great deal of the language of everyday life. The
information needed to understand many utterances is therefore provided by the listeners from their
repertoire of scripts.

In the light of what is said above, we can say that some material writers requesting students
to remember utterances from a tape or a reading aloud in order to deal with multiple-choice
questions or true/false exercises have been wrong. If propositions are retained by memory and
deleted, the schema or script helps them remember what is essential, say, the specific pieces of
information, conveyed by utterances. Indeed, if we are listening and carrying out tasks such as
checking we cannot be listening to new material and storing it for later work. Memory has its
capacity and is easily exceeded at a certain rate. In addition, most materials are intended for the
non-native speaker and he may lack many cultural specific scripts or his individual scripts may
differ in degrees and content from target language scripts. The teacher must provide him with them
before the listening task itself. Again, schema and script are important for prediction. They can be
used during the pre-listening phase which is a preparation for listening. Sheerin (1987) outlines two
ways of preparing students to listen: prediction and interpretation by analogy. She states:

Prediction is a key process in understanding spoken language as many writers (for example, Brown
1978:57-9) have shown. […] Listeners are able to predict and interpret language by analogy with
past similar experiences. In other words, they have a range of stereotyped expectations of particular
people, places, situations, and text-types (cf. de Beaugrande and Dressler 1981:184) […] the ability
to predict and to interpret by analogy are important comprehension skills and ones which the
foreign language learner needs to be able to employ. As language users, learners are perfectly
adept at these skills in their own language (cf. Swan 1985). 2

For a practical application, Ellis (1985: 18) asks teachers to have the students, in pairs or
groups, brainstorm the answers to a question and then feed back their suggestions to the teacher.
This process orientates students to word global background to the tape. Secondly, the teacher
Abstracted from a photocopy, pagination not available.
focuses students’ attention on the subject area of holidays (for example). Students again in pairs or
groups, discuss types of holidays, accommodation, length of stay, means of travel, etc. This activity
allows a great deal of relevant vocabulary to surface and requires very little overt teaching. Thirdly,
students are now placed in groups, one to discuss the advantages of going abroad and the other of
staying at home. Again, they compare ideas; this format will be referred to later in the third part of
our article.

2.1.3 Discoursal factors

At the start of this article we have said that the medium and the emitter (the speaker)
influence the work the listener must do to process speech. Nine discoursal factors (or medium
factors) can be examined in this light. A listener not aware of those factors can be mistaken in
interpreting an utterance. The following have been extracted from Richards (1985: 193-197).

a) The causal basis of speech

The unit of conversational discourse is not the full sentence but the clause. Longer
utterances generally consist of several coordinated clauses.

b) Reduced forms

Speakers allow words which are not usual carriers of meaning to become less prominent by
incorporating such features as assimilation, weak forms and ellipsis.

c) Ungrammatical forms

Ungrammatical forms and constructions are frequent, because of the effort speakers put into
planning and organising the content of their utterances in ongoing time.

d) Pausing and speech errors

Speech contains pauses, false starts, corrections and fillers like ‘kind of’ ‘um’ and ‘I mean’
to indicate that the speaker is reaching for a word.

e) Rate of delivery

There are fast speakers (220 wpm) and slow speakers (130). Fast speakers do not pause
between clauses.

f) Rhythm and stress

English is a stress-time language. This means that the following sentences will take
approximately the same amount of time to articulate because only particular syllables are
stressed, the remaining must fit in the intervals:

The CAT is INTerested in proTECTing its KITTens.


e) Cohesive devices

Coherence in spoken discourse is different from coherence in writing. Unlike writing,

spoken discourse is not planned, organised and the product of one person. Meaning is
constructed co-operatively by speaker and hearer and topics are developed gradually.

For example:

“Well you know, there was this guy, and here we were talking about, you know, girls, and
all that sort of things…and here’s what he says…”

Considering medium factors or discoursal factors we can encourage teachers or material

writers to use authentic materials for listening comprehension classes or courses. These features are
important for the hearer and should not be neglected. In pre-listening stages, teachers can draw
students’ attention on cohesive devices, reduced forms and co-ordinating conjunctions used for co-
ordinating several clauses. Students should be gradually accustomed to hearing these features. This
is why authentic-like or non-authentic materials are a threat for the learners who will never be
accustomed to native language discourse features. Tomalin (1985: 25) proposes the selection of
short extracts of authentic recorded speech and after studying them for meaning with the class, he
uses them to point out different features of speech. Teachers should concentrate on one or two
features at a time. As most natural speech extracts display a particular feature, teachers should look
for extracts which contain these. After they have pointed a feature out to the students, they should
get them to point it out in other extracts. Thus by a process of cumulative experience students learn
to recognise the features of speech and find it easier to understand the meaning of what is said.
Tomalin (ibid) encourages teachers to teach certain basic formulae which speakers use to signal
their intentions in conversation. This will help students identify what is going on in a conversation.
He gives some formulae examples together with an indication of their function.

2.2 Skills in Listening

The advent of the communicative language teaching has not only emphasised the notions of
functions and meanings but also micro-skills in skill of language by means of needs assessment.
That one examines the purposes behind each skill and analyses situations/activities, and tasks in
which students will be involved as second-language learners from questionnaires, interviews, etc.
For our concern, which is listening, listening purposes vary according to whether learners are
involved in listening as a component of social interaction (e.g. conversation listening), listening for
information, academic listening, listening for pleasure (e.g. radio, movies, television), or for some
other reasons, (Richards 1985: 197). He lists in his taxonomy of listening skills thirty-three micro-
skills in conversational listening and eighteen in academic listening. Some of them are provided
hereunder. The reader can refer to the whole list in Richards (1985, 198-199.)

a) Conversational listening micro-skills

- ability to retain chunks of language of different lengths for short periods;

- ability to discriminate among the distinctive sounds of the target language;

- ability to recognise reduced forms of words;

- ability to recognise typical word-order patterns in the target language;

- ability to detect key words (i.e., those that identify topics and propositions);

- ability to guess the meanings of words from the contents in which they occur;

- etc.

b) Academic listening (listening to lectures) micro-skills

- ability to identify purpose and scope of lecture;

- ability to identify topic of lecture and follow topic developments;

- ability to identify relationships among units within discourse (e.g., major ideas,
generalisations, hypotheses supporting ideas, examples);

- ability to identify role of discourse members in signalling structure of a lecture (e.g.,

conjunctions, adverbs, gambits, routines);

- ability to infer relationships (e.g., cause, effect, conclusion).

Micro-skills can be used to design listening comprehension courses. They constitute an area
which helps the listening comprehension course writers isolate particular skills corresponding to
particular language situation in which the learner may be involved, to construct a methodology and
procedures for classroom activities. Together with features of target language discourse, the
instructional objectives for a listening comprehension program can be developed according to
students’ levels. The last part of this article will deal with this aspect.

3. Formulating Objectives And Their Implementation

We shall now turn towards implementing them for the sake of teaching listening rather than testing
it. Firstly, we shall look at objectives and secondly at their implementation.
3.1 Formulating objectives

If we use micro-skills seen in Section 2, we can draw from them a set of objectives for
listening comprehension. Willis (1985: 134) lists a set of enabling skills for listening
comprehension that are presented hereunder:

- Predicting what people are going to talk about.

- Guessing at unknown words or phrases without panicking.

- Using one’s own knowledge of the subject to help one understand.

- Identifying relevant points; rejecting irrelevant information.

- Retaining relevant points (note-taking, summarising)

- Recognising discourse markers, e.g., ‘well’, ‘oh’, another thing is’.

- Recognising cohesive devices, e.g., ‘such as’, ‘which’, including link nouns, pronouns,
references, etc.

- Understanding different intonation patterns, and uses of stress, etc. which give clues to
meaning and social setting.

- Understanding inferred information, e.g., speakers’ attitude or intentions.

3.1.1 Grading complexity

Enabling skills development should be graded in terms of complexity. It is obvious that a

listening material for beginners will be different from that of intermediate or advanced learners.
Complexity grading should be done in relation to four factors i.e., the speaker, the listener, the
content and the support for listening (Cf. Brown and Yule, 1983), they are detailed below:

Speaker = number of speakers, speed of speech, accent

Listener = eavesdropper of participant, required level of response individual interest in topic

Content = grammar, vocabulary, information structure, assumed background knowledge

Support = physical object, visual aids/including video, and printed texts.

Each factor can be graded at any point independently or in relation to others.

3.1.2 Teaching objectives

According to Littlewood (1984: 96) ‘when related to classroom practice, objectives should
not be conceived in terms of individual items which should be mastered to perfection, but in terms
of a system which is elaborated globally and increases gradually in communicative potential’. Some
effect might be the following:

1. From the earliest stages, we should encourage learners to have confidence in their own
system and exploit it for communicative ends: a wide repertoire of communicative
activities graded in difficulty is needed.

2. We should encourage learners to compensate for the gaps in their second language
knowledge by using communication strategies.

3. In evaluating learner’s performance, we should give communicative effectiveness

priority over formal accuracy.

These objectives should be set in a format of pre-communicative (pre-listening),

communicative (while listening) and post-communicative (post-listening) activities (cf. Littlewood
1981: 86). We shall use them in setting procedures, in other words, their implementation.

3.2 Implementation

A pre-listening phase should be seen as a preparation for learning. There are three main
focuses at this stage:

a) Establishing the context by having students to predict what they will encounter
(schema, script as in Ellis (1985) and Sheerin (1987) already cited (see above).

b) Creating involvement, arouse expectations (still to be linked with prediction).

c) Clarifying anything which is incidental to the main focus, or will overly impede
comprehension by explaining culture-specific features of the context, by providing
as many as possible contextual clues and providing full background information.
This will enable learners to build up their own set of ‘working stereotypes’ relating
to the foreign culture, increasing the efficiency of their predictive ability, and build
up confidence.

The format at this stage can be the following:

1) Asking questions for prediction (brainstorming)

2) Extracting vocabulary to be taught linking them with the context.

3) The teacher pre-sets three or four questions designed to focus on the main
information in the taped material.
3.2.2 While-listening phase

The listening phase is considered as the appropriate time for intensive listening. Here, there
is a controversy about whether students should listen without understanding any task. To prevent
temptations to testing listening, students can undertake smaller and cumulative sub-tasks integrated
in main tasks. The teacher should provide guidance and check comprehension for further tasks.

a) While-listening tasks

The most frequently used method in ‘while-listening’ tasks is having students answer three
or four gist questions. Here teachers should ensure that, first, questions are aimed at extracting
important information and not minor details; and second, the questions can be only answered
through listening to information on the tape. According to Ellis (1985: 18), recently the trend for
‘while-listening’ activities has been to present them in the form of chart completion. Unfortunately,
course books are often guilty of over-loading or alternatively, of giving insufficient instruction. A
set of while-listening activities can be found in 1.2. We do not need to list them here again.

To help learners understand taped material, teachers should provide visual support in the
form of pictures, graphs, diagrams, maps, etc., because in a listening course based on audio-tapes
learners are deprived of the visual element normally present in any spoken interaction. Visuals can
help learners to predict more accurately, for a picture is worth a thousand words. Another support
provided by visuals during a listening phase is the reinforcement of the aural message or, as part of
a listening task, the focus of learners’ attention on the important parts of the message, this trains
them to listen for specific information (Sheerin: 1987).

There is still a controversy about whether students should be provided with transcripts.
Sheering (ibid.) thinks that full and accurate written transcripts are another important source of
support for foreign learners, because they allow learners to go back after the initial listening and
task completion, so that they can check to make sure they can hear and understand everything, in
this case transcripts are important resources for remedial work.

b) Appropriateness of listening tasks

Teachers and material writers should pay attention to the appropriateness of listening tasks
in order to avoid expecting learners to produce answers that are one hundred percent correct while
undertaking some listening tasks or exercises. Rather, they should aim at requiring from learners a
‘reasonable interpretation in the context’ (Brown and Yule 1983: 57-69 quoted in Sheerin, 1987).
Such a consideration suggests that those listening comprehension exercises which demand exact
recall of verbal detail are particularly misguiding. She explains thus:

It is clear from various studies which have looked at what happens when native speakers are asked
to summarise or recall what they have heard (or read) that they recall conceptual models, not
particular words (see, for example, de Beaugrande and Dressler 1981: 195-8). This being so,
listening tasks for foreign learner should not rely exclusively, or perhaps even mainly, on multiple-
choice items on question which require exact recall of verbal detail.
If we ask students to recall exact words in multiple-choice questions, we are testing memory (see
section on testing) we should aim at teaching students to focus on comprehension rather than exact
words, for as soon as words are intaken and the illocutionary force of the propositions interpreted,
the propositional meanings are stored in long-term memory. Then the actual words are deleted from
the short-term memory (see Clark and Clark, 1977). We can see that there is no need to ask
students to recall exact words.

In addition, listening comprehension tasks should be appropriate to the discourse type. That
is to say that where the main purpose of the discourse is to establish and/or to maintain personal
relationships, it is appropriate to focus on such things as the relationships between speakers, the
interactions, moods, and attitudes of the speakers, and how the interaction is managed. It is not
appropriate to focus extensively on the information on content of what is primarily ‘chat’. Where
the discourse is primarily transactional, however, that is to say primarily concerned with
transmitting and receiving of information content. It should be remembered however, that even the
best and most appropriate listening tasks, be they in the form of grids, charts, illustrations or
whatever, will not in themselves teach listening (Sheerin 1987).

We do not need to come back to list formats of while-listening tasks; the reader can find
them in listening materials. They can be adapted to suit students’ needs, in relation to the students’
levels and the whole learning and teaching situation.

3.2.3 Post-listening phase

The post-listening phase is a follow-up of the while-listening one, and chooses the listening
comprehension lesson. There is a need to relate the listening text to the learning context. Two
focuses are necessary:

a) using the information obtained from the listening phase. In this case, the post-listening
phase should, where possible, be carried out as a group exercise, with students working together,
comparing conclusions and reporting to the teacher. In fact, this is a means for finding out how
efficiently students have listened, and also giving them the opportunity of telling each other what
they have found out. Group discussions and reading the transcript (if provided) can also be

b) Language work based on the passage can take many forms such as a question form practised
and extended, role-play, or simulation, or writing a short paragraph as an extension or a summary
of the listening text.


In the course of this article we have tried to find alternatives to listening comprehension,
notably how to teach it effectively. We have found important to examine approaches in listening
comprehension by looking closely at the nature of listening comprehension and a typology of
listening materials found in current course-books. We have listed some of the generally used
activities, and this has demonstrated that some of them are rather testing than teaching. Examining
some testing materials has been necessary to compare their activities and those found in course-
books. This has enabled us to draw the following conclusion: The use of the testing activities in
course books is an advocacy of the risk or need for testing rather than teaching found in some
materials. Before turning towards the way of effectively teaching listening comprehension, we have
looked at its theoretical basis with the help of a psycholinguistic, linguistic and semantic approach.
We have seen how the processes involved in listening, discoursal factors that can help or hinder the
listener workload and micro-skills currently observed in listening situations. Consequently, we have
been able to formulate teaching objectives, drawn from all we have previously examined and their
implementation for the material writer and the classroom teacher: three phases on listening
comprehension course have been outlined.

However, it should be noted that it is difficult to draw a clear cut between teaching listening
comprehension and testing it if the teacher or the material writer does not pay attention to the
appropriateness of tasks that they propose in activities. A quick step is easily made from teaching to
testing if they do not always have in mind this appropriateness and relevancy of exercises for
teaching purposes. Teachers are reminded to avoid multiple-choice questions, true/false and
exercises requiring students to recall exact words or sentences uttered in the listening text. Students
should rather be prepared to predict what would be going on, use their background knowledge to
extract information for general comprehension. By doing so, teachers and material writers would be
involved in teaching listening comprehension rather than testing it.


De Beaugrande, R., and W. Dressler. 1981. Introduction to Text Linguistics, London: Longman.

Brown, Gillian and George Yule, 1983. Teaching the Spoken Language: An Approach Based on
the Analysis of Conversational English. Cambridge University Press.

Byrne, Donn, 1976. Teaching Oral English. Longman.

Clark, H.H., and E.V. Clark, 1977. Psychology and Language. New York: Harcourt Brace

Ellis, M., 1985. ‘Restoring Confidence in Listening’. Practical English Teaching, September 1985:

Kennedy, Chris, and Rod. Bolitho, 1984. English for Specific Purposes, Macmillan.

Krashen, Stephen.D. 1987. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall

Leech, G.N., 1977. Language and Tact. Treer: University of Treer.

Littlewood, William, 1981. Communicative Language Teaching: an Introduction. Cambridge
University Press.

Richards, Jack C., 1985. The Context of Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Schank, R.C., and R.P. Abelson, 1977. ‘Scripts, plans and knowledge’ in Richards J.C (ed.) In The
Context of Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Sheerin, Susan. 1987. ‘Listening Comprehension: Teaching or Testing’ in ELT Journal Vol. 41/2.

Swan, Michael, 1985. ‘A Critical Look at the Communicative Approach (1)’. ELT Journal 39/1:2-

The British Council – English Teaching Information Centre. 1976. Examinations and Tests in
English for Speakers of Other Languages,. England.

Thomas, H., 1982. ‘Survey review of materials for the development of listening skills’. ELT
Journal Vol. 36/3:142-199.

Tomalin, Barry, 1985. ‘Listening comprehension – the extra dimension’. Practical English
Teaching June 1985:pp.24-25.

Willis, J., 1981. Teaching English through English: a course in Classroom Language and

Course Materials on Listening Comprehension

Underwood Mary. 1971. Listen to this. Oxford University Press.

Underwood Mary.1976. What a Story. Oxford University Press.

Underwood Mary. 1979. Have you Heard. Oxford University Press.

Gore Lesley. 1980. Listen to Maggie, Longman.

Cole Frances. 1981. Focus Listening. MacMillan.

Morley Joan.1972. Improving Aural Comprehension. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan

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