Field notes: What I’m learning about how to teach listening skills.

In 22 years of teaching a second language, I have learned that all students, now matter how good their academic ability in any other area, struggle with listening. I’ve asked them how they see listening tasks, and their answers are pretty consistent. They say things like “you either get it or you don’t”, “sometimes I just have to make random guesses”, “I have no idea how I got that mark”, and so on. They typically don’t see it as something they can practice or get better at, and if I ask them to name a skill they can use to be successful at listening tasks, they struggle to name more than two or three. They will typically come up with things like listening for key words, paying attention, listening for words that they know, or occasionally, using the context. Even students who do well at listening don’t have confidence that what led them to success on one task can feed forward to help them with another.

This summer, I have completed the first two of ten courses towards earning a master’s degree online through Queen’s University. One of my courses focused on self-regulated inquiry and learning, and I chose to do an inquiry project that connected good quality feedback to my use of learning maps as an assessment tool. One of the most important pieces of learning for me was that feedback is more effective if it focuses on skills instead of content. Students need to know what the process is to be successful with any content they may encounter. Before the course ended, I realized that I wanted to know more about how to give feedback in each of the four language modalities that would help students focus on specific skills tied to those areas. I started with listening because I know it’s the biggest area of challenge, which I think makes it my best opportunity to make a difference in student learning through giving better feedback.

Researching listening

As I was researching what self-regulated learning and feedback should look like in second language listening, I came across writing from some of the big names in the field, including Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh. Together with two other researchers, they developed the Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire (MALQ) to measure 5 areas of student thinking when engaging in listening tasks: problem solving, planning and evaluation, mental translation, directed attention, and person knowledge (knowledge about one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a learner). The MALQ can be downloaded here. I’m planning on adapting the wording and using it with my students at the beginning of each course, in the middle, and again at the end to see if how they think about listening tasks changes as a result of practicing strategies.

I also read two articles by Christine Goh:

  1. Exploring listening comprehension tactics and their comprehension patterns (2002)
  2. A self-regulated learning approach to extensive listening and its impact on listening achievement and metacognitive awareness (2018)

These were so full of good information it was hard to condense, but here are the most important things I learned. The focus of these articles is not just to identify what strategies are useful language learning, but how students should use them to make their learning more efficient, and then to make recommendations for classroom use.

Strategies and tactics

Strategies are not new to second language teachers, and are usually included in programs and textbooks, but without any guidance for teachers regarding which ones are most effective, or how they should be used. The first important idea is the difference between a strategy and a tactic. A strategy is a general approach to solving a language learning problem. A tactic is a way in which the strategy can be used. Some strategies and tactics depend on being used in certain ways, and some are more effective than others, but teaching students the range of strategies and tactics available to them will give them many more ways to improve their learning. This is a total game changer for a language teacher, because it gives me ways to make feedback much more specific for my students and help them discover ways to be more successful in listening. This strategy and tactic approach goes far deeper than the checklist approaches that are contained in many listening tasks, which are typically just a box to check if a student says they have used a given strategy.

Making students aware of strategies and tactics is a big step in helping them be active in controlling their own learning. Shifting to a strategy and tactic-based approach causes a shift from a focus on marks to a focus on thinking. It allows students to set goals, do self and peer assessments, and know what they can do (and how) to help them be more successful. Listening happens quickly, requires freedom from distractions in order to access working memory, and because students typically don’t have access to recordings afterwards, reflecting on the learning has to focus on how they built understanding. The more strategies and tactics become familiar and automatic, the better able students will be to simply use them to focus on understanding content, identifying main ideas, making inferences, and so on. Goh suggests that the same processes that apply to reading comprehension also apply to listening comprehension, and as they set goals and prepare to listen, students need to do three things:

  1. set a purpose for listening
  2. establish a meaning for the material being listening to that makes sense in relation to what is heard in the task and a student’s prior knowledge
  3. explain the actions, events or phenomena in what is heard

The research suggests several ways in which information about listening can be gathered, including talking about an activity after it has been attempted, thinking aloud in between repetitions of a task, listening diaries, portfolio use, and planning or reflecting on self-directed or peer-designed listening tasks.

Goh’s distinction between cognitive and metacognitive strategies and tactics is where things get really good from my perspective as a classroom teacher. The tactics she lists can be used with more than one strategy. I’ve made a resource that I’m planning to give to my students and use repeatedly throughout the courses I teach. Here’s what it looks like:


I’ve created a Google Docs version of this list that can be viewed here for more detail. I’m still working on how to introduce this to students. The idea is not that they use all of the strategies and/or all of the tactics on a given assignment, but that they start with 2 or 3 that they practice and get comfortable with. There are four goals here: (1) widen the range of strategies and tactics, (2) learn to choose strategies and tactics that work best with a given type of listening, (3) get better at using them, and (4) engage in dialogue with peers about the process of listening, not just the product.

Usage Notes

Here are some notes I’ve made that I will be using to help me as I implement this in my classes:

  • These strategies and tactics embed self-regulated learning in listening tasks. For example, pre-listening preparation is planning. Selective attention, directed attention, and comprehension monitoring represent the monitoring phase of the self-regulated learning process.
  • Students should use a combination of tactics in applying the strategies. Combinations will vary depending on the task.
  • Comprehension is a dynamic process that involves the interaction of mental techniques.
  • “Directed” attention means that attention should vary. Some parts of a task will be more important than others. Students will learn this through experience.
  • Directed attention means that students ignore all problems and attempt to resolve meaning.
  • The strategy of checking current interpretation with the context of the message and checking current interpretation with prior knowledge are higher level thinking strategies and may not be used at first. They will be used more frequently with skill development.
  • Real-time assessment of input strategies help students learn to vary their concentration, relieve anxiety, and give options for tactics to facilitate understanding.
  • Students’ ability to assess understanding in real time determines whether they give something further attention or dismiss it as unimportant. Their choices here can affect the cohesion or coherence of subsequent parts of the listening.
  • Some of these processes are internal and some are external. Some are observable and some are not. Tracking student use of the strategies and tactics should be done through a combination of talking about an activity after it has been attempted, conferences between teacher and student, thinking aloud in between repetitions of a task, listening diaries, portfolio use with explicit tracking of strategies and tactics to encourage self-regulated learning, and planning or reflecting on self-directed or peer-designed listening tasks.
  • Students who achieve higher scores on listening tasks are generally those who use a wider range of metacognitive strategies. Students who achieve lower on listening tasks generally do not have as wide a range of strategies. Adding more to their abilities will improve their performance.
  • The greater a student’s metacognitive ability, the better their ability to choose appropriate strategies and tasks.
  • Listening performance can be improved through background knowledge achieved through reading, writing and speaking to develop vocabulary and phonological awareness.

Feature image credit www.ilmicrofono.it

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