Design Successful Learning

Chapter 7 (from Rost, Michael. (2016). Teaching and Researching Listening, 3/e.  New York:  Routledge.)

Approaches to Teaching Listening

I am often asked about my early influences on my approach to teaching listening – and I love to reflect on this! I think it wasn’t until about 5 years into teaching – and having successfully attempted to learn two new languages — that I began to formulate an inclusive approach. My rookie “mistake” up to that time was in trying to come up with one single “this is better than all the others” approach. The epiphany I had was that multiple approaches can be valid at the same time – the human mind is a complex thing – and perhaps need to be valid at the same time for any of them to be valid…

This chapter from my book “Teaching and Researching Listening” represents somewhat of an evolution in my career. I think you could argue that all seven of these approaches are valid, and their underlying hypotheses about the nature of learning and acquisition are valid as well.


Early views of teaching languages considered listening to be a passive skill that would develop naturally with speaking and reading. A dominant model during this period was the well-known audio-lingual method(often called the Michigan Method because some its early pioneers taught at the University of Michigan),a style of loosely based on behavioristtheory. Practitioners treated language proficiency fundamentally as behavior that could be “trained”through a system of graded input and reinforcement for correct responses. Language instruction often included a language lab, in which the instructor would present correct audiotaped models of sentences and the students would have to repeat them verbatim (i.e. listen and repeat) or provide grammatical transformations (e.g. listen and change the sentence to a question, change the verb to past tense) or lexical transformation (e.g. change‘the boy’to ‘the girl’). Students were expected to acquire the language through repeated oral manipulation of these highly comprehensible and graded pieces of well-formed input.

It was not until the 1980s that language educators systematically began to challenge established structural approaches. Three major objections began to emerge: (1) that language was acquired in a far less orderly way than structural approaches would predict (Long, 1985O’Malley et al., 1987);(2) that listening was an active skill, with a discernable set of decoding and comprehension sub-skills (e.g. Munby, 1981Morley, 1990); and (3) that oral communication needed to be an integral part of language instruction, with interactive listening playing an important role (e.g. Pica, 1987Prabhu, 1987).

New research questions began to emerge, questions about how exactly people acquired languages, and what role instruction might play in this “big picture.” This emergence of second language acquisition as a definable profession in the 1980s gave listening a much more defined and prominent focus in language instruction. Prior to this time, there had been some “boutique methods” that had focused on listening, notably Total Physical Response (Asher, 1969), Suggestopedia (Lazonov, 1977),and The Natural Approach (Terrell, 1977). These methods did not gain much traction in the main stream of language education, in part because teachers were required to obtain special training and licensing, and in part because the claims made by the proponents of the methods were not based on replicable research.

Since the formation of applied linguistics as a profession with direct influence on the teaching of languages, seven strands of research have developed that impact the teaching of listening.

7.1 Affective Filter Hypothesis

In neurology, a cognitive filter refers to top-down influences originating in the prefrontal cortex, a key area of the brain that is involved in “cognitive branching”, allocating attention to multiple tasks, and “metacognitive monitoring”, detecting how well one is doing with particular tasks (Chrysikou et al., 2014).A group of applied linguists coined the term “affective filter”, apparently based on this neurological metaphor, to account for how affective variables—motivation, attitude, anxiety, and self-confidence—influence the process of L2 learning (Dulay & Burt, 1977).

The Affective Filter Hypothesis, one of the five hypotheses of Krashen’s influential Monitor Model, attempts to account for the apparent influence of affective factors on second language acquisition (Krashen, 1982). Affective factors refers to cognitive variables such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety that clearly influences how a person approaches a language learning opportunity. According to this hypothesis, affect stimulates or inhibits acquisition by facilitating or preventing the learner from comprehending language and finding ways of making that language comprehensible.

The “filter” metaphor was proposed as part of the internal processing system (“Language Acquisition Device”) that subconsciously screens incoming language based on affect: the learner’s motives, needs, attitudes and emotional states. According to the hypothesis, those aspects of a learning experience that are congruent with the learner’s motives, needs, attitudes, and emotions tend to lower this filter, and allow increased learning to take place. Those aspects of the learning experience that are incongruent tend to raise the filter and inhibit learning.

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Enjoyment removes barriers to learning. Any L2 listening experience, activity, or game that the students enjoy is generally beneficial. It is important for the students to feel relaxed before they can be expected to take on challenging tasks. This is particularly true if students have had persistent negative experiences with learning the L2 in the past (e.g.Park et al., 2014Yamauchi, 2015).
  • Collaboration boosts learning. Using student-centered and collaborative learning formats, such as pair and group work, and employing task types, such as collaborations, friendly competitions, and listening games, and technology tools that learners enjoy, may help learner relax, become more engaged, and make greater progress in listening (Du, 2009Swain, 2013).
  • Motivation determines outcomes. By taking into account learners’ motives and their attitudes about listening, the instructor can better select input or point learners to the best resources and opportunities for input. Choosing listening content that appeals to the students—current dramas and television shows, games, YouTube videos, music, comedy, or relevant political discussions—can help students lower their affective filters toward listening, and get more out of the learning experience (Phillips & Carr, 2014).
  • Individual differences matter. Because learners differ in many aspects, effective instruction needs to take into account differences in learners. This includes individual opportunities to select input of interest, and experimentation with learning styles and task types that may best trigger involvement and acquisition for each learner (Hurd & Murphy, 2014).

7.2 Input Hypothesis

The input hypothesis, which was also part of Krashen’s overall Monitor Model of L2 learning (Krashen, 1982), has had a sustained impact on teaching approaches to listening. The input hypothesis was developed as a corollary to what Krashen referred to as the natural order of language learning. Krashen suggested that if there is a natural order of acquisition for all language learners, there must be a consistent way to map and guide progress for everyone, without accounting for individual differences. The input hypothesis suggested this underlying consistency: Second languages are acquired only “by understanding messages or by receiving comprehensible input” (Krashen, 1985;2014). In other words, by encountering input that is progressively more complex, the learner naturally acquires listening ability, which is the basis for language development.

This hypothesis has two main corollaries:

  • Speaking is the result of acquisition and not its cause. Speech cannot be taught directly, but rather emerges on its own as a result of building overall competence via comprehensible input.
  • If input is understood, and there is enough of it, the necessary grammar the learner needs to learn is automatically provided. The language teacher does not need to teach the structures (syntactic or lexical) along a continuum of learnability or difficulty—a natural order will be provided in just the right quantities and automatically reviewed if the student receives a sufficient amount of comprehensible input.

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Learners need to understand. Instruction should aim only to provide comprehensible input, that is, input at an 1 level, slightly above the learner’s current level of competence in terms of vocabulary, syntax, discourse features, length, and complexity. Planning large amounts of appropriate input that is scaled to the right length and graded according to overall receptive difficulty will help build up learners’ capacity for managing L2 input, and stimulate learner’s built-in syllabus (Corder, 1967Ellis, 2015).
  • Multimodal processing boosts learning potential. Comprehensible input may be aural, written, or visual or a combination of modalities. Context should be enhanced in whatever ways will ease processing. Input with visual and other sensory support will tend to be more comprehensible. Using media involving visuals and audio, and with multiple modes of presentation (e.g. video with subtitles), will increase context, reduce cognitive load, and improve comprehension (Clark et al., 2006).Instruction should also include extensive listening to assure ample amounts of input (Rendaya & Farrell, 2010).
  • “Pushing” output boosts capacity to listen. While the successful development of a listening ability—and successful language acquisition—requires extensive L2 input, successful learning also requires opportunities for output (Swain, 2000). Speaking ability will tend to emerge naturally as a result of extensive work with authentic listening input. Particularly in EFL contexts that may have a paucity of authentic input, teachers should aim to provide rich listening input that contains useful models of culture, interaction styles, and colloquial pronunciation and vocabulary, so that students’ emergent speaking can be modeled on this input (Zhang, 2009).

7.3 Interaction Hypothesis

The Comprehensible Output hypothesis maintains that spoken output is essential for sustained development. The reasoning is thatL2 learning takes place when a learner notices a “gap”in his or her linguistic knowledge of the second language while attempting to express an idea. The learner becomes aware of this gap when he or she attempts to say somethingand the listener does not understand. The learners start to seek resources (knowledge) to be able to modify their output (writing or speaking) so that they learn something new about the language and become more “comprehensible”. In this way, “comprehensible output”facilitates second language learning because it enhances the noticing of input and increases motivation for interaction.

The Comprehensible Output hypothesis developed alongside the Interaction Hypothesis because of the strong link between listening and speaking. According to the interaction hypothesis, interaction contributes directly to language acquisition in three ways: (1) through allowing the learner to provide himself or herself with comprehensible through interaction adjustments (e.g. response shifts, such as requests for clarification which elicit repetitions and paraphrases); (2) by providing negative feedback that allows the learner to see where he or she may be producing errors (e.g. through recasts or reformulations by the conversation partner); and (3) by presenting opportunities for pushed output, in effect forcing the learner to try out new words and structures to get his or her ideas across in a social context (Long, 2015Robinson et al., 2012).

In particular, the kind of negotiation of meaning that routinely takes place during interactions (both NNS–NNS and NNS–NS interactions) is a primary means of listening development as well as language acquisition. The most effective source of comprehensible input is often conversational exchanges following lack of comprehension because the learner must use active clarification strategies to negotiate meaning. Negotiation between learners and interlocutors takes place during the course of their interaction when either one signals with questions or comments that the other’s preceding message has not been successfully understood. The other then responds by repeating or modifying the original message, creating additional input that is valuable for language learning purposes (Ellis, 2012).

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Learners are the ones doing the learning. Listening instruction should allow learners to figure out meanings for themselves and not depend on deductive presentations by the instructor. Listening instruction should promote the use of clarification checks, comprehension checks, and collaborative strategies for approaching meaning (Nation, 2007Spada, 2014).
  • Learning requires negotiation for meaning. Listening instruction should include a wide range of oral interaction tasks that present a need and opportunity for negotiation of meaning and pushed output, such as information gap and opinion gap tasks and role plays, as well as opportunities for learning how to incorporate feedback from learning tasks (Lynch, 2009Maleki, 2007).
  • Feedback is necessary for learning. Listening instruction should carefully monitor whether feedback given to learners about faulty or incomplete comprehension leads to uptake, that is, a repair (a revision of understanding), or a revised response (Robinson et al., 2012).

For the first phase of the task, ask the students to listen without taking notes. You may read the passage aloud once or twice. Following this, ask the students to attempt to reconstruct the main ideas of the text in writing. If the students work in groups they will collectively remember more and push each other to verbalize what they have understood. This is the basic tenet of the dictogloss method created by Swain (1985), and subsequently developed by a number of language teachers and materials writers since that time (e.g. Jibir-Daura, 2013Wanryjb, 1990).

7.4 Processability Hypothesis

Perceived shortcomings of focusing solely on input gave rise to a more specific input-focused approach based on Processability Theory (Pienemann, 2015).

There are two similar pedagogic approaches based on the theory to help L2 learners develop their processing of oral language. The first, enriched input, provides learners with oral texts that have been deliberately “flooded” with exemplars of the target syntactic structure in the context of a meaning-focused task. This approach caters to incidental learning of the target grammar structure through focus on form (Loewen, 2011). The second is through processing instruction, in which pedagogic tasks are designed based on predictions about features of grammar that interfere with acquisition. Learners attend to listening tasks that require them to engage in intentional learning by consciously noticing how a target grammar feature (e.g. passive voice) is used in the spoken input, even though the feature is not explicitly emphasized or “flooded” in the input (VanPatten, 2014).

Ellis (2015) reviews a number of studies using these two approaches. Concerning the enriched input approach, Ellis concludes that enriched input can help L2 learners acquire new grammatical features and help learners use partially learned features more accurately. Ellis contends that this form of grammar instruction is at least as effective as explicit instruction in grammar. Clear positive effects, however, seem to be evident only when the treatment is prolonged. Concerning input-processing instruction, Ellis concludes that processing instruction in conjunction with explicit grammar instruction leads to the most consistent gains in the ability of learners to comprehend target structures being taught. Further, Ellis concludes that effects of processing instruction on both comprehension and accuracy in production are more durable than explicit instruction alone.

While access to suitable input is crucial in language acquisition, successful acquisition depends not so much on what transpires in the ambient linguistic environment, but rather on what transpires in the mind of the learner. There is no isomorphic relationship between input and accessibility, because access to input may be triggered by both external factors (characteristics of the context and input) and internal factors (readiness of the learner). As Carroll (2006) notes, a learner can, on a given occasion, attend to some stimulus in the speech environment, process it, and permanently acquire some bit of knowledge about the L2. On a different occasion, however, the same learner may not attend to the same physical stimulus, may not process the same linguistic input, and may not learn or retain anything about the language. In the final analysis, intake is determined by the listener, not features of the text.

Because acquisition of the grammatical system of a second language tends to follow a stage-like pattern corresponding to the complexity of the language, certain linguistic forms in oral input are salient or noticeable to learners onlyafter they have acquired other features. Before certain syntactic forms and certain lexical items are noticeable, these features may be heard by the L2 listener simply as a blur of sound surrounded by other more comprehensible parts of discourse that they are able to pick out.

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Input needs to have the right features. Because different features of the grammatical, lexical, and discourse systems of the L2 are available to learners at different times, depending on the learners’ readiness, listening instruction should select oral input that contains the necessary features for acquisition and create activities that promote noticing of those features. This is what Richards (2005) called listening for acquisition, in contrast with listening for comprehension.
  • Noticing new features boosts listening. Teachers can incorporate intensive listening techniques, such as Lynch’s (2001) proposed proof listening, to enable learners to go over transcripts of natural oral texts systematically, successively identifying particular features that they may otherwise not notice. Teachers can also incorporate input enhancements and design interventions that help learners notice new features (Cárdenas-Claros & Gruba, 2009).
  • Focused recall expands processing capacity. Attending to structural form while listening for meaning requires a gradual increase in processing capacity. Since it is necessary only in speaking or writing to focus explicitly on form, it is helpful to link listening with pushed outputtasksthat force learners to articulate in speech or writing exactly what they have heard. Focused recall in the form of reconstruction of oral input, especially when done as part of a collaborative task, can assist learners in developing more focused attention as they listen (e.g.Basterrechea et al., 2014Zoghi & Hasannejad, 2015).

7.5 Metacognition Hypothesis

Recent studies of individual differences have identified a number of separate “aptitudes” that tend to be associated withsuccessful attainment of listening proficiency. These attributes include ability in auditory discrimination (Wilson et al., 2011),depth of vocabulary knowledge (Staehr, 2009), speed of aural word recognition (Milton, 2009), and span of aural memory (Janusik, 2007). An additional set of aptitudes associated with listening success has been metacognitive awareness, such as awareness of sources of difficulty during listening tasks (Goh & Hu, 2014), and pragmatic awareness, such as recognition of differences in interactional styles (Takahashi, 2010).

Increasing recognition of this aptitude has given rise to a strategic orientation toward listening called a “metacognitive approach.” The advancement of listening strategies is part of an approach to learning that emphasizes metacognition, that is, thinking about the ways one processes or uses language. Metacognitive processing is a form critical thinking, in which we seek to overcome—or at least counterbalance—our instinctive reactive thinking (Vandergrift & Goh, 2012).

A body of listening research since the 1990s focused on strategies, ways that learners think about, plan, and adjust their own listening processes. The underlying claim in this line of research is that better listeners (listeners who tend to make the most sustained progress) are those who are able to learn and implement effective strategies (e.g. Rost & Ross, 1991Vandergrift, 1999).

Instruction in critical thinking can assist listeners with monitoring their own comprehension, clarification requests, and responses. Specifically, they can begin to evaluate input texts as clear versus unclear, relevant versus irrelevant, logical versus illogical, fair versus one-sided, etc. This type of comprehension instruction goes beyond simple comprehension of information into situation comprehension and strategic training in approach comprehension problems (Duffy et al., 2010).

Learning strategiesis a term now used to refer to any attitudinal plans or behavioral devices that students use to acquire knowledge or skills. In particular, the notion of learning strategies is used to focus on those plans that aim to increase transfer of learning from a controlled, pedagogic experience to a more generalized realm. Learning strategies can range from techniques for improved memory of vocabulary to approaches for sustaining conversations with native speakers. Learning strategies have been studied extensively, both in general education and in language education, though precise definitions of what constitutes a strategy and claims about the effectiveness of strategy instruction are seldom agreed upon (Grenfell & Macaro, 2007).

Second language learning strategies are generally divided into two basic classes: those types of plans and decisions adopted to benefit long-termlearning (e.g. joining an L2 conversation website, listening to an L2 news program every evening, making and using an L2 vocabulary building app every day), and those adopted for using the language in a current contact situation (e.g. noting down key words, formulating clarification questions to ask the speaker, reading a related article in the L1 before listening to an interview in the L2).

The latter category, strategies for current use, include four subsets: retrieval strategies, rehearsal strategies, covert strategies to exert control of a situation, and communication strategies to convey or receive a message (Chamot, 2005). Language learning strategies and language use strategies can be further differentiated according to whether they are primarily cognitivemetacognitive,affective, or social.

As most learning strategy specialists advise, the goal of incorporating strategy instruction into language teaching is not to have students employ—some even use the term accomplish—as many strategies as possible. Rather, the goal is to focus learners’ attention on cognitive plans that they can personally employ to overcome obstacles in language use, and to develop realistic, efficient plans for long-term language learning (Schmidt, 2012).

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Explicit teaching of strategies aids learning. Integration of learning strategies helps students listen more efficiently, and become more autonomous learners who can acquire language on their own. Use of explicit listening strategies can enable students to handle tasks that may be more difficult than their current processing might allow. This stretching of capacity can be instructive to learners, and may motivate them to listen to more challenging authentic input, and find ways to comprehend more than they thought possible (Rahimirad & Shams, 2014Wang, 2015).
  • Strategies must be modeled. Listening strategies that are associated with successful learning can be demonstrated and modeled for less successful learners. Over time, less successful learners can consciously adopt these strategies, and due to the change in learning style, make significant gains in their listening comprehension skills and intrinsic motivation toward listening (Rost & Wilson, 2013).

7.6 Sociocultural Hypothesis

The Sociocultural Theory (SCT)of language acquisition posit that language learning is a complex activity, a socially situated phenomenon that goes beyond paradigms of psycholinguistics (Lantolf, Thorne, & Poehner, 2014). Within SCT, the goals and motives of the learners are of paramount importance, as are the learners’ perception of themselves within their social environment.

One implication of SCT is that second language acquisition is seen as part of acculturation. The degree to which a learner is motivated to acculturate with the target language group will determine the success with which he or she acquires the second language. Motivation for a long-term process like L2 learning, however, is not quite like a light switch that the learner can flick on and off at will. Language learning motivation is developed through positive experiences with acculturation. As such, in SCT language acquisition is determined largely by the degree of psychological distance—the gap between the learner and the target language culture. Social distance pertains to the member of a social group that has contact with another social group whose members speak a different language. Psychological distance is the result of various affective factors that concern the learner as an individual, including culture shock, stress, motivation to be part of the culture, and personal goal-setting (McInerney et al., 2011).

Applicable Principles for Teaching

  • Cognition and emotion are inseparable.Some learning experiences will promote positive emotion—joy, interest, hope, amusement, serenity, gratitude, pride, inspiration, awe. Instruction should aim to provoke and include positive emotion, such as via the use of narratives, to fuel learning (Swain et al.,2011).
  • Participation and learning are inseparable. If we want to enhance learning, either in the classroom or online, we need to enhance online learner participation. Positive experiences with participation in the target language boost acquisition and minimize “social and psychological distance” from the target language speakers (Hrastinski, 2009).
  • Challenge is essential to progress. Effective learning requires experienced teachers who know how to challenge learners, and “mediate” their challenges appropriately. Learners should not be deprived of the struggle necessary for development (Poehner, 2009).

7.7 Active Listening Hypothesis

All listening situations entail some level of activity on the part of the listener. The active listener hypothesisholds that for most L2 learners, the level of cognitive and emotional activity experienced by the learner correlates with the amount ofuptakefrom a listening situation, activity, or task (Rost & Wilson, 2013). In terms of intellectual and social challenge, tasks pitched at the right level—not too difficult and not too easy—will generallylead to the most active engagement. Appropriately challenging tasks are likely toactivate optimal levels of both emotional and cognitive engagement (Swain, 2010).

Success with appropriate challenges may also be instrumental in fueling motivation, leading to expectations of further success and willingness to expend greater effort (Hadfield & Dörnyei, 2013).According to research in the “psychology of happiness”, this cyclic relationship of motivation and effort gives rise to greater achievement, which is exactly the kind of “engaged effort” that motivated learners seek (Crawley, 2015). Goal-oriented learners in any field, not only foreign languages, tend to experience an absorption that psychologists call “flow”, a calm but focused immersion in learning that contributes to a higher level of performance (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 2014).

Rost and Wilson (2013) used the term active listening to refer to listening instruction that promotes “engaged processing”. Engaged processing refers to maximizing cognitive strategy use while listening. The strategies are categorized as: planning, focusing attention, monitoring, evaluating, inferencing, elaborating, collaborating, and reviewing (see Table 7.1). Listening activities are constructed with specific strategy implementation in mind.