Teachers, instructional designers and language researchers have become
increasingly interested in listening. The cumulative research on listening and
the growing array of listening materials available to language learners has
provided us with an expanding wealth of resources, delivered in innovative
technologies. At the same time, this current abundance has created a need
for a fresh form of guidance. More than ever, practitioners are in need of
clear principles to guide interpretation of research and to inform selection
and use of appropriate resources.
We have found that one robust concept, active listening, can guide practitioners
in identifying key principles in listening research and applying these principles
in a methodical way. By active listening we are extending the connotation of ‘being
animated when you listen’. We are referring to a broader range of cognitive
and emotional activity that could be described as ‘engaged processing’.
The purpose of this introductory section is to bring together relevant
research that has contributed to our understanding of this core concept of
active listening and to draw key implications for practice. We will organise
the range of listening research and implications into five interactive frameworks,
each with an overriding focus:
Affective Frame – focus on enhancing the listener’s personal motivation and
Top Down Frame – focus on deepening the understanding of ideas and making
Bottom Up Frame – focus on perceiving sounds, recognising words and
syntactic structures more accurately.
Interactive Frame – focus on building cooperation, collaboration and interdependence
during the listening process.
Autonomous Frame – focus on developing effective listening and learning
Each framework provides a unique focus on the listening process as
well as insights into how listening is learned and can be taught. By understanding
the complementary character of these different perspectives, we
can appreciate that listening development requires integration of multiple
Here is an overview of the first frames
Imagine this scene: Some students sit silently in the classroom and feel overwhelmed and even
oppressed by the listening activities the teacher presents. Because of the
anxiety they feel, they tune out, have little or no engagement, perform
poorly – and then feel even worse! Other students feel activated whenever
there is a listening activity, welcoming the engagement and the challenge.
They have no trouble tuning in, doing their best, and they usually make progress
in listening with seemingly minimal effort.
These two types of students represent the poles of affective involvement in
listening. What makes someone want to listen? What makes someone else
avoid listening? Research in the Affective Frame addresses this issue and
other issues related to motivation and personal engagement. Research in
this framework situates the listener as the focal point of communication, an
individual with affective needs and reactions, with a motivation for listening.
Key research findings
1. The impact of motivation
Motivation is one of the key factors influencing the rate and success of
second language (L2) learning and the level of engagement a learner is
willing to undertake. Strong motivation can even compensate for weaknesses
in language aptitude and for a scarcity of learning opportunities.
We all know stories of amazing learners, like Mawi Asgedom, the Ethiopian
refugee turned motivational speaker, who overcame daunting life circumstances
and found a way to acquire a second language at the highest
level, against all odds. Motivation is a cognitive force that allows the
learner to maintain attention and focus. (Asgedom refers to his own motivation
as a kind of ‘mental karate’ that provides him with a means to cut
through distractions.) As a kind of fuel in the learning engine, motivation
has been shown to amplify intensity of effort, intellectual curiosity and
self-confidence (Aragao, 2011). Increases in motivation have also been
shown to defuse anxiety and aversion to risk-taking, two factors that
tend to impede language acquisition (Gardner et al., 1997).
2. The importance of the instructor
We have all had teachers in various subjects who have helped us ‘come
out of our shells’ through the force of their personality, their passion
for their subject, or the way they invited us to approach learning. The
influence can be short-term, assisting the learner to perform better in a
specific task, or long-term, leading the learner to make strategic changes
to their learning style (Williams and Burden, 1999). Classroom studies
have shown that learning outcomes can indeed be influenced by several
‘pedagogic agents’, factors that are under the control of the instructor (Ko,
2010). One set of factors is course-specific – decisions about the syllabus,
teaching materials, teaching methods, learning tasks (Ahmed, 2009).
Another set of factors is teacher-specific performance – ways of showing
enthusiasm for learning, ways of giving feedback, ways of building relationships
with students, ways of structuring learning activities that
enhance group cohesion and group support (Imai, 2010).
3. The value of goal orientation
Tasks pitched at the right level – not too difficult and not too easy – often
lead to active engagement. Appropriately challenging tasks are likely to
activate optimal levels of both emotion and cognition (Swain, 2010).
Success with appropriate challenges also fuels ‘internal competition’ and
expectations of further success, and helps learners to understand goal
orientations and actively participate in goal-setting (Guilloteaux, 2007;
Guilloteaux and Dörnyei, 2008). When learners understand and participate
in content selection and learning goals, they will exert additional
attention, effort and persistence towards achieving the goals (Williams,
Burden and Lanvers, 2002.) This cyclic relationship of motivation and
effort has come to be known as the active learner hypothesis (Oxford,
2010). Goal-oriented learners in any field, not only language learning,
tend to experience an absorption that psychologists call ‘flow’, a deeply
focused immersion in learning that contributes to a higher level of performance
4. The effect of learner awareness
Only truly motivated learners will be willing to face the long-term
challenges involved in becoming a competent L2 speaker and listener –
challenges that require a strong sense of resilience. Researchers have
found that an entry point into exploring and developing a successoriented
attitude is the notion of self-awareness and bicultural identity.
As learners aspire towards a positive bicultural identity, their motivation
becomes a powerful force for sustaining effort in and enthusiasm for
language learning (Dörnyei and Hadfield, 2013; Lamb, 2004). Many language
educators advocate exploring issues of identity and social persona
as the students become active users of the L2 (Norton, 2010; Morgan
and Clarke, 2011). As a student develops this positive identity, he or she
is much more amenable to considering new strategies – conscious ways
of improving one’s ability in the L2 (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990; Oxford,
2010). Meta-cognition – ways of thinking about how to learn more
productively and experimenting with deliberately using new strategies –
can then become a vital part of the listening instruction (Vandergrift and
Goh, 2012; Rost, 2011).
5. The power of learning styles
Author Barbara Prashnig has argued that people of all ages can learn
virtually anything if allowed to do it through their own unique styles, their
own personal strengths (Prashnig, 1998; 2006). Many L2 researchers and
language educators have embraced this notion, especially given the
diversity of students who undertake L2 learning. Howard Gardner’s seminal
work in the early 1990s established that individuals possess different kinds
of intelligence and, therefore, learn, remember, perform, and understand
in different ways (Gardner, 1991). Several distinct learning styles have
been identified: linguistic (verbal), logical-mathematic, auditory (musical),
kinaesthetic (tactile), visual (spatial), interpersonal (social) and intrapersonal.
(Two others – naturalistic and existential/preferential – are sometimes
included.) Gardner’s model is a much more accessible reformulation of
earlier models of cognitive learning styles, such as the Myers-Briggs
Personality Inventory (Myers, 1980) and the Kolb Learning Style Inventory
(Kolb, 2006; 1985). In Gardner’s framework, each style involves a fundamentally
different type of interaction with input (Jones et al., 2009). For
listening instruction, it has been proposed that engaging in multiple processing
styles and consciously departing from an emphasis solely on the
‘traditional’ learning styles (verbal and mathematical) may have a stimulating
effect on students, particularly those who have never experienced success
with language learning (Lightbown and Spada, 1999). For example, numerous
educators contend that kinaesthetic learning can be transformative for
many students, assisting them in engaging their emotions in the learning
process; kinaesthetic learning is seen as including learning through humour
and laughter (which evokes positive chemical changes in the brain), drama
and creative movement (Martin, 2007; Taylor, 2001; Bell, 2009).
1. This will seem obvious, but stimulating the learner’s motivation is essential in promoting active
listening. Active listening is triggered by affect: how the listener feels
about the listening encounter, his or her level of confidence or anxiety
about making an effort to listen.
2. This one may not seem obvious, but the instructor’s expertise and personal and professional qualities are
vital for creating enthusiasm for learning. How so? The first key is in instructional design.
Selecting engaging tasks will promote active listening: designing motivating learning tasks, generating
enthusiasm towards learning, building positive relationships with students,
rewarding active listening attitudes and behaviours, nurturing
group support among students.
3. This one is less obvious, a cross-over between motivating students and using your own expertise as an instructor.
This is about choices. Offering learners choices in goal-setting and presenting appropriate challenges
will tend to increase the level of motivation (required to become a proficient listener.
How so? Remember that motivation directly impacts attention, effort, and persistence.
4. This one receives mixed reviews, but our experiences is that it provides a key to progress for many learners.
It’s about developing learner awareness concerning the nature of language learning,
particularly the notion of including explicit listening strategy training. Direct inclusion of learner strategy training
is likely to improve learners’ participation and increase their overall motivation for learning.
It also provides an avenue for interaction with the teacher so that you can provide individual coaching.
5. Providing learners with opportunities to experiment with and integrate
different processing styles is likely to lead to greater motivation, more
affective involvement, and better learning results.
This material is adapted from Rost and Wilson (2013) Active Listening. New York: Routledge.