The president of a famous religiously affiliated university was once asked, “What does it take to be a top-notch Catholic university?” His answer was, “First, you have to be concerned with being a top-notch university.”

There is a parallel to language education: If we want to have top-notch language teaching methodology, we first have to be concerned with having a top-notch teaching methodology. This is true whether we are considering language teaching generally, or instruction focusing on any of the particular skill areas, such as listening. We must first be concerned with educational principles.

Some methodologists will challenge this view, claiming that language learning is unique and requires unique teaching methodologies. Indeed, over the past century, a number of very specific language teaching methodologies have emerged, including Total Physical Response, Suggestopedia, The Berlitz Method, Community Language Learning, The Silent Way, English Through Drama, Peak Learning, The Natural Approach. Each of these approaches emphasizes a particular route to language learning, although the goals of native-like comprehension and fluency are the same.

And although proponents of each of these methods have documented dramatic successes and promoted their methods on the basis of these successes, there have not been consistent, replicable findings with any of them. The reasons for their successes when they are indeed successful may be due to factors not integral to the methods themselves: selection of students, motivation of students prior to the course, amount of instruction time, time on task, qualifications of instructors, consistency of the methodology, outside activities of the learners, etc. Because these factors have not been controlled in studies of these methods, it is not valid to claim superiority for particular methods.

Although any instructor of listening, or any other skill, would be delighted to find a “magic bullet” that would work in all teaching situations, this pollyannaish search is probably futile. There are simply too many variations in learner needs, goals, constraints, and learning styles to prevent a single methodology from applying to multiple contexts. Nevertheless, the search for universal teaching principles both within language education and within other fields, has been very fruitful. Recent research on instructional design has suggested a number of principles that seem to underlie effective education. If we are to have high quality language education, it is important to examine the principles in high quality education, generally, and adopt where appropriate.

Out of a number of educational theories, several have been selected for their relevance to language education. Many of these views suggest concepts that may be seem to be in conflict with concepts of “traditional” teacher-led and text-led instruction. The principles that can be derived from these theories provide ways to achieve greater balance of the four approaches to teaching listening we outlined: receptive, constructive, responsive, and transformative.


These theories are concerned with intentions of instruction:

1. Aptitude specific instruction: Instruction that is based on specific aptitudes, interests, abilities, and preferred learning styles of learners, rather than on a priori sequences or fixed methodologies is likely to be more amenable to learners. Instruction and feedback that is geared to individual differences in learning styles is more effective for complex skills and abilities (Snow, 1989;1994 Gardner, 1993 not included in refs).

2. Cognitive Flexibility: Presentation of input that is multi-modal (e.g. video, audio, text, graphics) and features multiple perspectives (e.g. a story told from different points of view) is likely to be processed more thoroughly and be retained in a more meaningful way, and become more useful for language learning purposes. Learning activities that provide multiple representations of content allow for more stable meaning construction on the part of the learner. (Spiro, et al, 1988, Spiro et al, 1992; Clark and Paivio, 1991)

3. Coordination of teaching and learning: Long-term retention of material requires different kinds of “learning events”. Teaching that is coordinated with “learning events” that lead to long-term retention of material (reception, expectancy, retrieval, selective perception, semantic encoding, responding, reinforcement, retrieval, generalization) is most efficient and most satisfying for learners. (Gagne and Driscoll, 1988; Gagne, Briggs, and Wagner, 1992).

4. Modes of learning: Learning takes place primarily by “accretion”, adding to existing schema in memory. Continual “cognitive restructuring” of content requires some form of prediction and reflection. Metacognition needs to be built into the instructional process in order to allow for restructuring. (Rumelhart and Norman, 1981; Norman, 1982; Ausubel, 1978).

5. Positive climate for learning: The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning by: setting a positive climate for learning, clarifying purposes for the learner, organizing learning resources, balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning, and sharing thoughts and feelings with the learners. Instruction is an interactive process and requires open two-way communication. (Rogers and Freiberg, 1994; Combs, 1982; Valett, 1977).

The following theories are concerned with the design of a course:

6. Anchored instruction: A “problem” text serves as a “macro-context” for teaching (Bransford, 1990; Bransford and Stein, 1993); this allows for greater interpretation and construction work by learners, greater response, development of strategies, and focused feedback.

7. Course structures:
Instruction proceeds in “transactions” (what the student needs to find out or accomplish) rather than “presentation units” (what the teacher has chosen to present), as outlined in Component Display Theory (Merrill 1994). This theory suggests that for a given objective and learner, there is a unique combination of presentation forms (e.g. readings, interviews, discussions) that results in the most effective learning experience, and that unique course structures need to be designed for specific purposes, rather than reliance on traditional methods.

8. Spiral learning:
Instruction should be designed and sequenced to facilitate noticing and extrapolation (“filling in the gaps”). Bruner, 1983, 1986, 1990. This entails a focus on inference work by the learners rather than expository work by the instructor.

9. Elaborative sequencing: Instruction should contain learning episodes that increase in
levels of complexity and demands on reasoning; this sequence of instruction creates “stable cognitive structures”. (Reiguth, 1987; Reiguth and Stein, 1983). A principled type of grading of learning experiences is required to lead to stable learning.

10. Criterion referencing: Instructional goals need to be derived from “end stage” performances that learners are targeting and need to reflect the competencies that need to be learned for these performances. Learners need to be given specific opportunities to master the target objectives and obtain clear and expert feedback about the quality of their performance. (Mager and Pipe, 1984; Mager, 1988).

Instructional principles that impact listening

principle instructional design element
Aptitude specific instruction input based on interests and needs of learners; focus on individualizing learning
and increasing motivation
Cognitive flexibility input is multimodal, with multiple representations of content; focus on use of
resources, keeping learning flexible and enjoyable
Coordination of teaching and learning instruction organized into holistic “learning events”, focus on cross-cultural communication
between instructor, learners, other sources
Modes of learning inclusion of metacognitive strategies; focus on developing learning strategies
Positive climate for learning instructor organizes, facilitates, interacts; focus on positive climate for cross-cultural communication
Anchored instruction use of “macro-context” and “problem texts”; focus on integrating listening with other areas of learning
Course structures instruction organized around transactions; focus on developing learner autonomy
jeaSpiral learning focus on inference as primary learning strategy; focus on developing language use
Elaborative sequencing increasing complexity and demands on learners, focus on deepening critical thinking
Criterion referencing agreed instructional goals and clear feedback provide link between teachers and learners; focus on favorable outcomes of learning

Although these ten theories present ideals that often need to be modified by practical constraints, they nonetheless serve as useful reminders of the goals of instruction.