When asked about approaches to teaching listening, I often recommend that teachers identify an initial philosophy around which to plan their instruction. This is often more effective than trying a smorgasbord of interesting listening-based activities or simply flooding the students with listening input.
My own basic philosophy for teaching listening is “comprehension building”, which is essentially a “contructivist” ideas – that is, it is an approach that demonstrates to the students that it is the listener who must “construct meaning”.
The first approach, comprehension building, focuses on ways of intervening with the listener as an active constructor of meaning, to help the listener become involved in the understanding process. Comprehension buildingrefers to a style of systematic intervention by the teacher to lead students toward deeperlevels of understanding of what they hear and read, to improve their overall literacy in both listening and reading.
Early research on reading and listening comprehension instruction centered around techniques that teachers could use to encourage students to approach a text in ways that promote more complete comprehension (see Flavell, 1979 for a review). These techniques have evolved over time into pedagogic approaches placing the listener as “agent” in a comprehension building process, and recruiting complementary forms of cognitive processing.
One early model called “experience-text-relationship (ETR) method” valued identifying text cues that triggered connections to the listener’s/reader’s personal experience and background knowledge (Au, 1979). The teacher was encouraged to use classroom discussion to guide students systematically through the cognitive processes related to understanding an extended texts — thereby increasing their engagement, understanding, and enjoyment of the experience.
A second model, called “K-W-L” (for “what you know already”, “what you want to know”, and “what you learned” from the text), focused on orienting students to the kind of active thinking required to comprehend challenging texts (Carr and Ogle, 1987). The K-W-L method was proposed as an antidote to excessive teacher-led questioning, aiming to allow students to assume more “agency” as listeners and readers (Powley, 2018; Walsh & Sattes, 2017) .
A third model, called “reciprocal teaching” encouraged comprehension building through cycles of student-led questioning. Questioning cycles focus on four comprehension strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing (Palinscar & Brown, 1984). Using the RT approach, students work in a small group with a relatively lengthy text—typically a story involving an unusual problem and a solution. Toward the end of the activity, the students try to clarify any difficult words or phrases—a recognition that vocabulary knowledge underpins comprehension (Kim & Phillips, 2014; vanZeeland & Schmitt, 2013). Clarifying helps a student develop the ability to self-monitor, an essential component of independent listening or reading. The student then generates a summary that identifies and describes the main ideas of the text. Finally, the student predicts what is likely to occur next and provides evidence from the text already read to support the prediction. The role of group leader then rotates to the next student, and the process continues until the students have read and discussed all of the assigned text.
A fourth model, QAR (Question-Answer-Relationship) also placed the reader/listener as the central agent in the learning process, asking the students to consciously consider “sources of information”: what information is explicitly provided and what information the listener needs to construct. Specifically, listeners assess whether the speaker provides specific information explicitly or whether they will have to go “beyond the text” (Raphael & Pearson, 1985).
Research has established that nearly all such instructional techniques are generally effective at building comprehension, when compared with control groups who did not receive any direct comprehension instruction (Baker et al., 2015).
Current iterations of comprehension building focus on what may be termed “quality questioning”— ways of guiding students toward cognitively deeper understanding. A concurrent goal of a quality questioning approach is metacognitive:to lead students into a greater awareness of how they actively “process” texts as they listen or read. In this way, comprehension building instruction encourages more independent learning (Kaur, 2014; Vandergrift & Goh, 2012).
Most students do not come to school with these thinking skills, nor do they develop them automatically as they progress through school. Research findings do, however, seem to be clear that (1) students with these skills learn and achieve at higher levels than their peers, (2) students can learnthese thinking skills and associated behaviors and, (3) most students will require direct instructionto develop these skills (Abrami et al., 2015).
Summary: Teaching Approach Essentials in Comprehension Building
Comprehension Building Texts
Learner Mindset Shift
Form of Practice (interventions)
Monitoring/ Evidence of Uptake
(example: a university lecture segments)
Live/Video informational presentations
(examples: TED Talks; online university classes and online tutorials; audio books)
• developing curiosity
• seeking deeper levels of comprehension
• making personal connections with the text
• advance organizers
• “quality questioning” by the teacher (with reflection time)
• peer questioning tasks
• multiple listenings with remedial questions
• students show willingness to probe more deeply
• students reflect before answering
• greater interaction in peer and group tasks
• recognition and use of precise/advanced vocabulary
• students self-report greater understanding and more satisfaction with listening work
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.