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 involvement.
Top Down Frame – focus on deepening the understanding of ideas and making stronger interpretations.
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 strategies.
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 frameworks.
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 (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
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 success oriented 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).
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.