The selection and use of input is the central aspect of teaching listening. How we identify sources, select among them, and construct tasks around them are the most salient decisions in the teaching of listening. The central issues considered in this chapter are: authenticity, relevance, genres, difficulty, grading, and simplification.

This chapter deals with six important notions in the teaching of listening:

  • defines the concept of relevance and argues that relevance should assume a central role in the teaching of listening
  • outlines the concept of authenticity and argues for a modified student-oriented view of authenticity
  • examines the notion of genre, how it relates to teaching listening, and exemplifies teaching approaches with two different genres
  • defines the notion of “difficulty” in terms of cognitive load and suggests using this measure for grading listening material
  • examines the practice of simplification, and argues for a user-oriented notion of simplification
  • looks at the role of “teacher talk” in teaching listening and examines the variables that make teacher talk more or less effective

1 Relevance

The term “relevance” has been widely discussed in educational and communication contexts.

According to Sperber and Wilson (1986), human cognition has a single goal: we pay attention only to information which seems to us relevant. If our entire cognition – our powers of attention, perception, and interpretation – is organized most naturally and most readily around “relevance”, it certainly makes sense to place relevance of input as the top priority in teaching. Relevant material, “the right stuff” according to Beebe (1989)1985 is central to all progress in language learning.

Relevant material for listening can be obtained through selection or adaptation. An example of a pedagogic study for selecting material to maximize relevance was conducted by Day and Yamanaka (1998) (not included in Ref). They surveyed a target population of students to identify the types of topics that students found most interesting and most useful for their English study. Given a list of topics and subtopics, students ranked the topics in terms of interest or relevance to them as discussion topics. Materials for listening were then found or developed for each of the topics selected as relevant by a majority of students. While no approach can guarantee relevance for all students, the approach used in this materials design study, used the aim of relevance as its guiding principle.

Teaching Principle: Relevance

Learning materials (topics, inputs, tasks) are relevant if they relate to learner goals and interests, and involve self-selection and evaluation.

Adaptation can be realized through adapting or adding to existing input material in order to make it more relevant to the needs of a learner group. A materials design study Rost (1999) added recorded topical interviews conducted by students to assigned course listening material in order to increase student motivation and course relevance. Students rated the value of the course more highly than a control group that did not use the additional material.

2 Authenticity

Situated language is the basis of natural, real-time language use, and comprehension of this situated, “authentic” language is the target of virtually all language learners.

This issue of “authenticity” is on the most controversial issues in the teaching of listening, one that engenders heated discussion among teachers in both SL (second language) and FL (foreign language) settings. At one end of the spectrum are those who define “authenticity” as any and all language that has been actually used by native speakers for any “real purpose”, that is, a purpose that was real for the users at the time the language was used by them. While this approach is laudable in its valuation of “real context” and “real language” as central to language instruction, it devalues the role of the “addressee” in making the language authentic.

As is now well-established in pragmatics (c.f. McGregor, 1986; Rost, 1990; Goodwin and Duranti, 1992) not included in Ref, the closer a participant is to the “control center” of an interaction, the more immediate is the purpose for the interaction, and the more “authentic” and meaningful the discourse becomes.

[insert illustration from Rost, 1990, p. 5 [figure 1.2, with caption]]

If we accept the notion of discourse control as leading to authenticity, then for purposes of language education, only those inputs and encounters that involve the students’ own purposes for listening can be considered “authentic”. In this sense, any source of input and interaction that satisfies the learner’s search for knowledge and allows the learner the ability to control that search is authentic.

Authenticity in the virtual world

One of the correlates of connectivity, community, and shared knowledge is that online education is highly authentic in nature. Ironically, the virtual world is more real than the usual classroom. Because students can access actual databases and experts, their learning activities are realistic. The lack of realism in traditional instruction has often been identified as a major weakness of education at all levels. Indeed, one of the reasons that students often give for disillusionment with school or college is that it lacks “real-world” relevance.

Greg Kearsely, (in Online Teaching)

What many teachers are referring to when they seek “authentic input” is the characteristic of “genuineness.” Genuineness refers to features of colloquial style of “real time” planning (many people say “lack of planning”) that characterize everyday spoken discourse:

  • natural speed
  • natural phonological phenomenon natural pauses and intonation, use of reduction, assimilation, elision
  • high frequency vocabulary
  • colloquialism, such as short formulaic utterances, current slang, etc.
  • hesitations, false starts, self-corrections
  • orientation of the speech toward a “live” listener, including natural pauses for the listener to provide backchanneling (e.g. nodding, “um-hmm”) or responses (e.g. “Yes, I think so.”)

The reasons for preferring “genuine” input are obvious. If the target of the learners is to be able to understand “genuine” spoken language, as it is actually used by native speakers, then the targets need to be introduced into instruction.

If at one end of the spectrum are those who argue for “authenticity” (or at least genuineness) at all times for use as input, then at the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that “authentic” input is too difficult for the students to handle or impossible for the instructor to provide. A mediating factor in the use of authentic listening material has been task design (Nunan, 1999). By designing tasks which preview key vocabulary and discourse structures in the input, chunk the input into manageable segments, and provide selective focus on particular elements of the input, teachers can utilize authentic material in ways that are motivating and useful to learners at all levels.

Teaching Principles: Authenticity and genuineness

1. Language input should aim for “user authenticity”, first, by aiming to be appropriate to the current needs of the learners, and second, by reflecting real use of language in the “real world.”

2. Language input should aim to be “genuine”, i.e. involving features of naturally occurring language with and between native speakers: speed, rhythm, intonation, pausing, idea density, etc.

3 Genres

One aspect of the “authenticity” and “genuineness” arguments that often goes unexplored is the treatment of genres. In principle, learners should be exposed to a wide range of oral genres in order to “develop a feel” for the range of spoken language. “Developing a feel” goes beyond becoming familiar or comfortable with different genres and discourse types. By becoming familiar with the understanding different genres, learners can begin to adopt “point-driven” strategies for understanding rather than “information-driven” strategies for understading. (Olsen and Huckin, 1990; Tauroza and Allison, 1994)

Genres differ, not primarily by the situations in which they are most often found, but more by their underlying organization and purposes for use. The five main types of “rhetoric” that have been used since ancient times often serve as a basis for an initial classification of genres. These types apparently correspond to universal thinking processes, although there are countless variations and cultural styles associated with each of them.

From a purely cognitive perspective, part of the listener’s initial task is to determine the “genre” –  what kind of text it is – and then to activate the kind of listening orientation that is most useful to the interpreting the text. Knowledge of a genre allows the listener to focus on essential information, as outlined in the table below (based on Rost, 1987).

Type information organization purpose for listening speaker focus
1. Narrative temporal sequence to find out what happened events, actions, causes, reasons, enablements, purposes, time, proximity.
2. Descriptive spatial/sensory sequence and coherence to experience what something looked or sounded or felt like objects, situations, states, attributes (definitions)
3. Comparison/ Contrast point-by-point organization, leading to single conclusion to discover how two things are alike and unalike instances, specifications, equivalences
4.Causal/Evaluation syllogistic / logical explication to understand the causes and effects of certain actions value, significance, reason
5.Problem/Solution problem/proposal/effect of proposed action to hypothesize on the effects of proposed solutions cognition, volition

Of course, texts seldom exist outside of a social context in which they are composed and intended to be understood; rather, they are always embedded in a social context and often intertwined with various other speech acts (e.g. persuasion, apology, congratulations). For this reason, understanding a text is always more complex than simply decoding its information and argument structure.

The following sub-sections provide illustrative overviews of the general understanding processes for two main categories of texts, narratives and descriptions.

Teaching Principle: Genres

Learning materials should include a range of genres and discourse types that learners are likely to encounter in their contact with the target language.

3.1 Narrative

The narrative is the most universal rhetorical form. Narratives follow a time, event, change sequence that is understood and enjoyed by people in every culture. Narratives are an unparalleled teaching device for cultural values and facts as well as for morals. Narratives also have great value as second language teaching devices.

Narratives vary in complexity, but always involve some element of: time orientation, place orientation, character identification, events, complications, goals, and meaning.

Time orientation: when are the actions happening, what is the historical setting, in what order, what events are left out

Listeners typically assume paratactic organization (that is, the first event is told first, followed by the next event, etc.), unless time markers indicate backtracking or jumping forward in time.

Place orientation: where is the action happening, what aspects of the setting are significant for the narrative

Listeners typically assume prototypical settings — (that is, prototypes, or “typical cases”, based on their personal experience), unless specific descriptions contradict them

Character identification: who is in the story, who is/are the main character (s), who are minor (“supporting”) characters, who are peripheral (“throw away”) characters, how are they all related

Events/problem/complication/ goal: what about the setting is “problematic”, what complicates it, how can it be solved

Meaning of the story: Most stories are told with some “point”, often with a moral lesson or a principle that confirms some aspect of the relationship between the speaker and listener

Although the underlying “semantic structure” of narratives have a great deal in common, the surface features of narratives vary widely. In order to teach listening to narratives, the teacher also needs to familiarize learners with transitional elements that help them decode the story as well as content themes in the story (cf. Hatch, 1992). Not included in Ref

3.2 Descriptive

Like narratives, descriptions — of people, places, and events — are universal. However, unlike narratives, there are many more variations, and cultural differences in how descriptions are likely to unfold.

Oral descriptions of people, places, and things tend not to follow a fixed pattern, but often exhibit – somewhere in the text – characteristics of prototypical descriptions: features that are specific or peculiar or otherwise memorable, features that evoke a feeling or strong impression in the speaker, features that lead to a story or anecdote about the object or place or person being described, features that provide a link to other topics shared by the speaker and listener.

objects – appearance, parts, functions

places – spatial/geographical organization (left to right, front to back, etc.)

Linde and Labov (1975) not included in Ref analyzed apartment descriptions and found that many speakers gave their listeners a spatially-oriented “walking tour”, pointing out their own likes and dislikes in terms of layout and furnishings as they proceeded. They also found that much of the description of an apartment — or other place assumed to be familiar to the listener — is considered “given” and not described. Only those aspects of the description that differ from the norm, and are therefore “new” are included in the description.

Hatch (1992) not included in Ref notes that when we listen to certain genres, we expect characteristic syntactic a and lexical patterns. For example, in descriptions, we tend to find copula sentences (it’s very warm, it’s basically blue), relative clauses (it’s a narrow room that leads to the outside porch), presentatives (there’s a big oak door, there are two small windows in the back wall), as well as descriptive adjectives of size, shape, color and number.

4 Difficulty

The organization of a text (often called a “formal schema”) contributes to its ease or difficulty in understanding. For example, understanding a three-minute segment of an academic lecture is considered to be more challenging than understanding a three-minute story. Similarly, the language that is used in the text contributes to its difficulty. For example, a text with a lot of complex and embedded sentences may be more difficult to understand than one with shorter, simple sentences. However, Brown (1980;???1987?1995) has argued that the central feature in difficulty of a text is not the language itself, but the content.

QUOTE BOX: Brown on cognitive difficulty

It is usually supposed that listening comprehension is difficult for foreign or second language learners simply because aspects of the language are difficult for learners. …There remain, however, other aspects of the input which may contribute to making listening comprehension difficult. One aspect, which still appears to be strangely neglected is the question of the intrinsic cognitive difficulty of the text.

(Brown, 1995: 59-60)

Brown defines cognitive difficulty in terms of factors that make four central listening processes (identify information, search memory for information you already have, file or store information for later cross-referencing, and use the information in some way) easier or difficult to perform. Based on a long series of interactive listening experiments (Brown, 1980, ??? 1987? 1988, 1992 ??? 1994?), Brown and colleagues have proposed six principles of cognitive load that affect listeners.

Cognitive Load: Principle 1

It is easier to understand any text (narrative, description, instruction, or argument) which involves FEWER rather than MORE individuals and objects.

Cognitive Load: Principle 2

It is easier to understand any text (particularly narrative texts) involving individuals or objects which are clearly DISTINCT from one another.

Cognitive Load: Principle 3

It is easier to understand texts (particularly description or instruction texts) involving simple spatial relationships.

Cognitive Load: Principle 4

It is easier to understand texts where the order of telling matches the order of events.

Cognitive Load: Principle 5

It is easier to understand a text if relatively few familiar inferences are necessary to relate each sentence to the preceding text.

Cognitive Load: Principle 6

It is easier to understand a text if the information in the text is clear (not ambiguous), self-consistent and fits in readily with information you already have.

The implications for teaching and testing are that if we wish to grade the texts and tasks that listeners will encounter, we need to take into account the cognitive load of these text and tasks we are presenting. If we wish to simplify a text (e.g. by shortening it) or a task (e.g. by providing initial vocabulary or other information), we need to consider first the factors of cognition – the listening processes – that make a listening activity difficult.

5 Simplification

Simplification of input is a form of ” social accommodation“, a term first used in social psychology (Giles, 1962),1979 to refer to mutual movements of interlocutors toward the discourse and behavior standards of the other. Simplification of input is one common method of making discourse accessible to L2 users and rendering “difficult” texts useable for language learning purposes.

Simplification of input can be achieved in two basic ways:

1. Restrictive simplification: operates on the principle of using and highlighting familiar linguistic items and frames

  • Lexical: using a simpler term (or higher frequency term) for a more complicated one (or lower frequency one), less slang, fewer idioms
  • Syntactic: using simpler syntax, shorter utterances, topic-fronted utterances (e.g “(e.g. The man at the reception desk, I gave the package to him.) less pre-verb modification (I only want coffee vs. I want only coffee.) to make utterance easier to process and analyze
  • Phonological: emphasizing word boundaries by slowing down or exaggerating speech patterns
  • Discoursal: for conversation: using prototypical question-answer patterns (yes/no questions, non-inverted questions (You can sing?), either-or questions (Where do you live? Do you live in the city?) or other familiar, recognizable patterns (e.g. tag questions: You’re from Osaka, aren’t you?)
  • Discoursal: for monologues: using prototypical rhetorical patterns such as direct temporal organization, avoidance of tangential information

It is important to note that not all intended simplifications by the speaker have the effect of simplifying the input for the listener. In research (e.g. Pica, Doughty, and Young, 1987) and in teaching, it is known simplifications do not have consistent effects at making listening texts more accessible or comprehensible.

2. Elaborative simplification: operates on the principle of enriching the input

  • Phonological: use of higher pitch and more pitch variation to promote attention
  • Lexical: providing rephrasing of key words and ideas, use of definitions, use of synonyms
  • Syntactic: providing rephrasing of difficult syntactic constructions, to provide more time for processing of meaning
  • Syntactic: use more subordinate clauses and embeddings to make utterance relationships more transparent (e.g. That’s the place where I grew up)
  • Syntactic: supply optional syntax (I think that he’s here. vs. I think he’s here.)
  • Discoursal: providing explicit frame shifts (well, now, so, okay, the next thing I want to mention is , One of the main issues is …) to assist in identifying of idea boundaries and relationships (temporal relationships: and, after that/ causality: so, then, because/ contrast: but, on the other hand/ emphasis: actually, in fact)
  • Discoursal: providing direct repetition of words, phrases, whole utterances
  • Discoursal: providing narrative examples of key ideas

Teaching Principle: Simplification

Simplification of input is effective for language learning only if it helps the listener become more active, that is, more able to activate background knowledge, make inferences, and more willing to respond to what she hears.

Simplification often has the immediate beneficial effect of helping learners understand the ideas in what otherwise might be an inaccessible text, and thus reducing frustration. But because simplification of the input itself necessarily alters the original text and mitigates against the satisfaction of having a “genuine” listening experience, it is important for teachers to use simplification judiciously.

Other means of achieving greater comprehension without altering a text are often preferable, and typically much easier to administer. They include:

1. Direct repetition: Repeating the text by replaying the audio or video extract or repeating the text orally.

2. Simplification of the context: Preparing for key concepts in advance is the chief means of simplifying the context for the listener. Presenting or eliciting vocabulary and ideas that will be part of the text generally help adjust the listener’s “cognitive context”. As Lynch (1996: 26) says, “the more we know, the less we need to rely on language to understand the message.”

3. Chunking the input: Presenting the input in short chunks (e.g. 1 to 3 minute segments), followed by opportunities for clarification before continuing.

Focusing particularly on interactive discourse between a native and non-native speaker, Bremer et al. (1996) offer a helpful summary of the range (encouraging participation, raising transparency, and raising expectations) and types of discourse structuring (offering turns, segmenting and slowing down, “meta” comments, etc.) that will help prevent understanding problems and promote repair of problems when they occur:

(from Bremer et al. 1996: 180)

Encouraging participation Raising expectability Raising transparency
Raising accessibility Raising explicitness
open topic management Discourse:

metadiscursive comments on:

activity type, topics, shared knowledge

(a) perceptual:

short utterances

salience of elements (articulation, volume)


(pauses, rate of delivery, chunking, avoid false starts

Full forms instead of:



reduced forms

lexicalizaton of important information

slow down rhythm for turns TOPICS:

announce by paralinguistic markers, announce content explicitly

(b) of lexical meaning:

high frequency vocabulary, recourse to L1 code switching

meta-discursive comments on:

discourse function of utterance

discourse structuring

discourse context

(if relevant) acknowledge language problems LOCALLY:
left topic dislocation
(c) of conceptual meaning:

linking complex topics to “here and now”

absolute instead of relational reference to time

possibility of re-runs by (modified) repetition
giving room:

offer turns

open questions

allow for pauses

help other with formulations

TEACHING CONCEPT Simplification and shared knowledge

Speakers often do not consciously script features of “simplified language” into their speech. Rather, they tend to “pitch” their discourse at their intended audience, taking into account their own perceived importance of the topics and sub-topics as well as the interests and expectations of their audience and the amount of background information available to them.

Lynch (1996: 25) provides an interesting example of two pieces of spoken discourse on the same specific topic to illustrate how texts on the same topic differ, in terms of simplification as well as features of assumed shared knowledge and interests.


The two examples below are transcripts of reports on the same event, covered by different BBC1 television news programmes on the same day. Most people find one of the reports simpler than the other. Do you? If so, why?

Example 2.5

The film Amadeus, about Mozart, picked up eight Oscars at last night’s award ceremony. The award for Best Supporting Actress wne to Dame Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India. She hs fot flue and did not collect it herself but is said to be delighted. She was also to have been present at the funeral today of Sir Michael Redgrave. He was buried this morning. His three children were there, and many other acting friends.

Example 2.6

The film world’s most famous awards, the Oscars, were announced in Hollywood last night, with the usual mix of surprise and disappointment. British films did not do as well as was hoped, although there was one top award for a British star. Most of the Oscars went to the American film Amadeus. This is a story about the composer Mozart and won eight Oscars, including Best Film of the Year. Some people had been waiting three days for a glimpse of the celebrities arriving for the ceremony. The American pop star Prince was among them, dressed in purple. But one of the top awards did go to a British star. Dame Peggy Ashcroft won her first Oscar at the age of 77, for Best Supporting Actress in the film A Passage to India.

Teaching Principle : Use of simplified vs. genuine texts

Although simplified texts have an important role in the development of listening ability, if the simplified texts no longer reflect features of “genuine texts” — those used for authentic purposes among users (not learners) of the language, they have less long-term learning value. Whenever possible, simplified texts should preserve features of naturalness and include some language that has not been modified for learning purposes.

6 Teacher Talk

“Teacher talk” – how the teacher talks to students – is one of the vital sources of listening input for learners, and the art of appropriately engaging teacher talk is something that all teachers strive to develop. This aspect of listening instruction varies from highly interactive casual talk with learners to less interactive extended academic lectures.

In any kind of “teacher talk”, we will find that teachers typically accommodate their speech to the comprehension abilities of their students. Although it is desirable to expose learners to genuine language (rather than overly simplified versions of the target language), it is likewise desirable for learners to become engaged in the processes of understanding in order to trigger both listening development and language acquisition. For this reason, the continual adjustment of discourse in speech to learners needs to be monitored.

Penny Ur (1984) in her book Teaching Listening Comprehension advocates the use of the “live” instructor as a main source of oral input for listening instruction:

…the speaker is actually visible to the listener in most real-life situations, and his facial expression and movements provide some material aids to comprehension, so that it does not seem right to consistently deprive the learner of his presence in classroom exercises. Also if the speaker is (as is generally the case) the teacher herself, the she can adapt the material as she goes through it, varying, pausing and repeating parts to suit the needs of her students. (p. 25)

Ur goes on to talk about the benefits of informal “teacher talk” for the purposes of enhancing students’ listening opportunities:

(It is important for students to) have plenty of opportunity of listening to good speakers of English — of whom the most conveniently available one is their teacher. Informal teacher-chat is excellent listening material, arguably the best there is. It can be interpolated at any stage of the lesson, serving as a relaxing break from more intensive work. It is easy to listen to, since it is “live” and personal — intended specifically for the ears of these particular students by this particular teachers here and now. (p 62).

Ur gives suggestions for such informal “teacher talk” topics:

— a member of your family

— a friend or someone you have met

— something you like doing

— a place you know or have known

— your childhood

— a happy/unhappy/frightening/amusing/surprising experience

— something you did that are proud or ashamed of

— a film or play your have seen/ an article or book you have read

— your favorite hobby/food/clothes

— stories or anecdotes you have heard or read

Teaching Principle : Teacher talk

To develop students’ listening ability, teachers should aim to give all teacher talk (classroom instructions, social chat, praise, as well as content instruction and explanations) in the target language. When necessary to maintain student attention, interest, and comprehension, the teacher should simplify language, but attempt to keep “genuine” features of real spoken language.

[insert table: ACCOMMODATION-CONTROL in INTERACTION; (Based on Berwick and Ross, 1996) ]

Teresa Pica on “wait time”

Research findings suggest that teaching a second or foreign language should be an interactive process between teachers and students and among the students themselves. Students need to comprehend new language, but can best do this when allowed to ask about what it is that they do not understand rather than rely on their teacher or textbook to anticipate areas of comprehension difficulty…what (the research) also suggests is that simply giving students enough wait time to ask questions about or to internalize input that they do not initially understand may have very positive results on their comprehension, without the need for much talk on the teacher’s part at all.

Pica (1994)

On the other end of the spectrum is the less interactive but equally essential aspect of listening that is characterized in lectures. In lecture situations, or other “distance” situations in which the listener exerts less direct influence on the speaker’s ongoing speech adjustments, “teacher talk” is realized more as a priori decisions by the speaker on how to best “deliver” content.

In this realm, as outlined by Flowerdew (1994), the speaker must use rhetorical signalling devices in order to guide the listener, both “micro-markers” such as “well”, “now let’s”, “so” and “macro-markers” such as “Next I will be talking about…” and “Finally, I’d like to look at…”. More importantly, the teacher must use global structuring devices such as graphic organizers and explicit tie ins to prior knowledge (e.g. reading material) to accommodate the input to the listener.