Listening: theory and practice in modern foreign language competence

Author: Larry Vandergrift


Second language (L2) listening comprehension is a complex process, crucial in the development of second language competence. Listeners use both bottom-up processers (linguistic knowledge) and top-down processes (prior knowledge) to comprehend. Knowing the context of a listening text and the purpose for listening greatly reduces the burden of comprehension. Teachers can help students develop sound strategies for comprehension through a process approach to teaching L2 listening. This will help students learn how to listen and develop the metacognitive knowledge and strategies crucial to success in listening comprehension.

Table of contents

Introduction and definition

Research has demonstrated that adults spend 40-50% of communication time listening (Gilman & Moody 1984), but the importance of listening in language learning has only been recognized relatively recently (Oxford 1993). Since the role of listening comprehension in language learning was taken for granted, it merited little research and pedagogical attention. Although listening played an important role in audio-lingual methods, students only listened to repeat and develop a better pronunciation (for speaking). Beginning in the early 70's, work by Asher, Postovsky, Winitz and, later, Krashen, brought attention to the role of listening as a tool for understanding and a key factor in facilitating language learning. Listening has emerged as an important component in the process of second language acquisition (Feyten, 1991). This research base provides support for the pre-eminence of listening comprehension in instructional methods, especially in the early stages of language learning.

Listening is an invisible mental process, making it difficult to describe. Listeners must discriminate between sounds, understand vocabulary and grammatical structures, interpret stress and intention, retain and interpret this within the immediate as well as the larger socio-cultural context of the utterance (Wipf, 1984). (Rost, 2002) defines listening, in its broadest sense, as a process of receiving what the speaker actually says (receptive orientation); constructing and representing meaning (constructive orientation); negotiating meaning with the speaker and responding (collaborative orientation); and, creating meaning through involvement, imagination and empathy (transformative orientation). Listening is a complex, active process of interpretation in which listeners match what they hear with what they already know.

Listening processes

There are two distinct processes involved in listening comprehension. Listeners use 'top-down' processes when they use prior knowledge to understand the meaning of a message. Prior knowledge can be knowledge of the topic, the listening context, the text-type, the culture or other information stored in long-term memory as schemata (typical sequences or common situations around which world knowledge is organized). Listeners use content words and contextual clues to form hypotheses in an exploratory fashion. On the other hand, listeners also use 'bottom-up' processes when they use linguistic knowledge to understand the meaning of a message. They build meaning from lower level sounds to words to grammatical relationships to lexical meanings in order to arrive at the final message. Listening comprehension is not either top-down or bottom-up processing, but an interactive, interpretive process where listeners use both prior knowledge and linguistic knowledge in understanding messages. The degree to which listeners use the one process or the other will depend on their knowledge of the language, familiarity with the topic or the purpose for listening. For example, listening for gist involves primarily top-down processing, whereas listening for specific information, as in a weather broadcast, involves primarily bottom-up processing to comprehend all the desired details.


Research from cognitive psychology has shown that listening comprehension is more than extracting meaning from incoming speech. It is a process of matching speech with what listeners already know about the topic. Therefore, when listeners know the context of a text or an utterance, the process is facilitated considerably because listeners can activate prior knowledge and make the appropriate inferences essential to comprehending the message (Byrnes, 1984). Therefore, teachers need to help students organize their thoughts, to activate appropriate background knowledge for understanding and to make predictions, to prepare for listening. This significantly reduces the burden of comprehension for the listener.


Listeners do not pay attention to everything; they listen selectively, according to the purpose of the task. This, in turn, determines the type of listening required and the way in which listeners will approach a task. (Richards, 1990) differentiates between an interactional and a transactional purpose for communication.Interactional use of language is socially oriented, existing largely to satisfy the social needs of the participants; e.g., small talk and casual conversations. Therefore, interactional listening is highly contextualized and two-way, involving interaction with a speaker. A transactional use of language, on the other hand, is more message-oriented and is used primarily to communicate information ; e.g., news broadcasts and lectures. In contrast with interactional listening, transactional listening requires accurate comprehension of a message with no opportunity for clarification with a speaker (one-way listening). Knowing the communicative purpose of a text or utterance will help the listener determine what to listen for and, therefore, which processes to activate. As with the advantages of knowing the context, knowing the purpose for listening also greatly reduces the burden of comprehension since listeners know that they need to listen for something very specific, instead of trying to understand every word.

Listening in language learning and teaching

Listeners use metacognitive, cognitive and socio-affective strategies to facilitate comprehension and to make their learning more effective. Metacognitive strategies are important because they oversee, regulate or direct the language learning process. Cognitive strategies manipulate the material to be learned or apply a specific technique to a listening task. Socio-affective strategies describe the techniques listeners use to collaborate with others, to verify understanding or to lower anxiety. Research shows that skilled listeners use more metacognitive strategies than their less-skilled counterparts (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990, Vandergrift, 1997a).When listeners know how to

  1. analyse the requirements of a listening task;
  2. activate the appropriate listening processes required;
  3. make appropriate predictions;
  4. monitor their comprehension;
  5. and
  6. evaluate the success of their approach,

they are using metacognitive knowledge for successful listening comprehension. This is critical to the development of self-regulated learning (Wenden, 1998).

Teaching listening

(Mendelsohn, 1998) notes a gap between the interests of listening researchers and classroom practitioners in that classroom materials do very little to develop metacognitive knowledge through raising learners' consciousness of listening processes. It is imperative to teach students how to listen. This shifts the emphasis of listening practice from product to process and the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student, thereby helping students become self-regulated learners.

The following pedagogical sequence (Vandergrift, 1999) can develop an awareness of the process of (one-way) listening and help students acquire the metacognitive knowledge critical to success in listening comprehension. A pedagogical sequence for development of two-way listening skills used largely in interaction with another speaker can be found in (Ross & Rost, 1991) or (Vandergrift, 1997b).

Planning for the successful completion of a listening task

Pre-listening activities help students make decisions about what to listen for and, subsequently, to focus attention on meaning while listening. During this critical phase of the listening process, teachers prepare students for what they will hear and what they are expected to do. First, students need to bring to consciousness their knowledge of the topic, their knowledge of how information is organized in different texts and any relevant cultural information. Second, a purpose for listening must be established so that students know the specific information they need to listen for and/or the degree of detail required. Using all the available information, students can make predictions to anticipate what they might hear.

Monitoring comprehension during a listening task

During the listening activity itself, students monitor their comprehension and make decisions about strategy use. Students need to evaluate continually what they are comprehending and check:

  1. consistency with their predictions, and
  2. internal consistency; i.e., the ongoing interpretation of the oral text or interaction.

Teacher intervention during this phase is virtually impossible because of the ephemeral nature of listening. Periodic practice in decision-making skills and strategy use can sharpen inferencing skills and help students to monitor more effectively.

Evaluating the approach and outcomes of a listening task

Students need to evaluate the results of decisions made during a listening task. The teacher can encourage self-evaluation and reflection by asking students to assess the effectiveness of strategies used. Group or class discussions on the approach taken by different students can also stimulate reflection and worthwhile evaluation. Students are encouraged to share individual routes leading to success; e.g. how someone guessed (inference) the meaning of a certain word or how someone modified a particular strategy.

In order to help students consciously focus on planning, monitoring and evaluation before and after the completion of listening tasks, teachers can develop performance checklists (see, for example, Vandergrift, 1999, 2002 ).Instruments such as these help students prepare for a listening task and evaluate their performance.


L2 listening competence is a complex skill that needs to be developed consciously. It can best be developed with practice when students reflect on the process of listening without the threat of evaluation. Using listening activities to only test comprehension leads to anxiety which debilitates the development of metacognitve strategies. Strategy use positively impacts self-concept, attitudes, about learning and attributional beliefs about personal control (Borkowski et. al., 1990). Guiding students through the process of listening not only provides them with the knowledge by which they can successfully complete a listening task; it also motivates them and puts them in control of their learning (Vandergrift, 2002).


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Richards, J. C. (1990). The Language Teaching Matrix. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ross, S. & Rost, M. (1991). Learner Use of Strategies in Interaction. Typology and Teachability. Language Learning 41:235-73.

Rost, M. (2002). Teaching and Researching Listening. London, UK: Longman.

Vandergrift, L. (1997a). The Strategies of Second Language (French) Listeners: A Descriptive Study. Foreign Language Annals 30:387-409.

Vandergrift, L. (1997b). The Cinderella of Communication Strategies: Receptive Strategies in Interactive Listening. Modern Language Journal 81:494-505.

Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating Second Language Listening Comprehension: Acquiring Successful Strategies. ELT Journal 53:168-76.

Vandergrift, L. (2002). 'It was nice to see that our predictions were right': Developing Metacognition in L2 Listening Comprehension. Canadian Modern Language Review 58:555-75.

Wenden, A. (1998). Metacognitive Knowledge and Language Learning. Applied Linguistics 19:515-37.

Wipf, J. (1984). Strategies for Teaching Second Language Listening Comprehension. Foreign Language Annals 17:345-48.

Related links ESL Magazine Online, Current Perspectives On Improving Aural Comprehension. Kyoto Sangyo University, (Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language) Paradigm Shift: Understanding and Implementing Change in Second Language Education. College Writing Programs, (Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language) A Guide for the Teaching of Second Language Listening.

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