Listening is a “black box”

Many teachers and language acquisition researchers, myself included, have often bemoaned the “under-appreciation” of listening in language teaching.  You will often hear (in fact, I’ve often said it too) that listening is  the “forgotten skill” or the “missing element” in language teaching.  Certainly, it’s true that more attention has been give to the explicit teaching of reading, writing, and speaking — and much more seems to be known about how to teach, practice, and evaluate progress in these other three modalities.  

Listening seems to be a “black box” – we know there’s something important inside, but we can’t see through the encasing covering it to detect the inner workings …

In the area of listening assessment, most tests of listening focus on “product”, that is, the comprehension of information, particularly in short conversations or short monologues . The conversation or talks are always followed by questions about main ideas, speaker attitude or stance, effectiveness of a transaction, facts and details, and inference about ideas or intentions that are not explicitly stated.  These are good types of questions, and it is important to assess the process of getting to these results as well.

What is missing?

What may actually be missing in our understanding of the teaching and testing of listening is that listening is always an “enablement” for some cognitive state (such as “understanding” or “empathy”) or for some social performance (such as answering a question or completing a transaction).  It’s always that we are listening to do something. In this functional sense, we may indeed say that purpose-driven listening is a type of “selective listening.”

Note-taking is an online (real time) behavior that provides a peak inside the black box

This is a lengthy pre-amble to highlighting a role for note-taking in academic listening, or even more broadly to the role of note-taking or memory aides in all contexts of listening. Though in the past some tests did not allow students to take notes, ostensibly to assess short-term memory more validly, most testing procedures now do permit note-taking during the listening segment and consultation of notes during the question portion of the exam.  We might see this context as “listening to retain information.” The follow up questions become the “social performance” and the note-taking becomes the intermediary task that supports and enhances performance in the test.  

  Is note-taking teachable?

 If we assume that note-taking can enhance listening performance, then it makes sense to identify the underlying quality of effective note-taking. With my authors in the Contemporary Topics series, we identified three areas of “teachable” note-taking quality: 

1. Completeness

Does the note-taker represent the totality of the listening segment (i.e. lecture)?  The main benefit  here might be from training the mind not to wander, rather than from having a complete representation of the lecture text. A  related benefit is in promoting resilience – though all listeners, and especially L2 listeners, will experience gaps and obstacles in following a text, an efficient listener will not give up and abandon efforts at following the entire text. 

2. Organization

Does the note-taking attempt to organize the notes in a consistent and comprehensible manner?  Are related ideas connected and presented in a hierarchy? The benefits here are in maintaining a meta-awareness of the overall text, as well as in creating a document that can be reviewed and studied later. 

3. Selectivity

Does the note-taker capture and represent what is considered to be the main ideas and most important facts in the lecture?  The benefit here is in cognitive training to evaluate the relative importance of various statements and sections of the lecture.  


Is note-taking learnable?

Our purpose in presenting this type of quality rubric was both to provide students with learnable structures for improving their listening (i.e. enabling skill to discuss ideas, formulate questions, and answer test questions later) and to give us, as lecturers, materials writers, and course organizers, a vehicle for organizing lectures into teachable chunks, and to grading the relative difficulty of lectures.  

Here’s the rubric, on a 5 point scale:   


Contemporary Topics

Note-taking Rubrics and Feedback

Student:  _________________________

Lecture title and date : ________________________

Area Rating Scale Criteria Comments 
Complete (Notes follow the lecture) 5 4  
2 1 0
All main ideas are clearly recorded and can be quickly identifiedMost main ideas are recorded, but some are difficult to identifySome main ideas are recorded, but they are not fully clear or very easy to identifyOnly one or two main ideas written and unclearly recorded A few main ideas are recorded, but they are not clear or easy to recognizeNo main ideas were recorded   
Organized (Notes are easy to review) 5 4 3  
2 1 0
Notes are recorded using a clear, comprehensible note-taking systemNotes are generally clear using a slightly inconsistent note-taking systemNotes have some elements of basic organization, but sections are sometimes unstructuredNotes have little organization with many unstructured sections Notes have confusing structure, with most items noted randomlyNotes have no obvious organization with completely random recording of items     
Selective (Notes contain key ideas recorded by constructing, paraphrasing or summarizing information) 5 4 3  
2 1 0
Notes show consistent attempts to select, paraphrase and summarize key ideas Notes display frequent attempts to select and paraphrase and construct key ideasNotes show efforts to record and summarize some key ideas combined with some unimportant informationNotes contain generally unimportant information and/or many quoted sentences with little paraphrasing or summarizingNotes are mostly quoted sentences or phrase with little effort to construct key ideas.Notes contain only quoted sentences or phrases with no effort to construct key ideas   
Total Score                                     

Grading Scale: 

 14-15            A

12-13             B

  9-11             C

  7-8               D

  0-6               F

Is this a valid element of teaching academic listening?


I have found this type of simple rubric useful – both in teacher training and in classroom teaching.  It is consistent with the literature on note-taking quality and the correlation of “good notes” to performance on subsequent comprehension measure, so it has “construct validity”.  It is practical in the context in which it is being used – it’s easy to implement in the classroom – so it has “ecological validity.”  And it also has what I like to call “pedagogical validity”: it allows for students to see their own progress, in this case in their listening ability, particularly selective listening The addition of the “comments” column in the evaluation form allows for the teacher to make specific notes of how the student can improve – this helps to open up a dialogue about note-taking and about learning to listen more effectively.

About The Author

, Note-taking as a selective listening skill, Lateral Communications
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.