Listening Comprehension: Some Notions and Strategies

The idea that the meaning of a message is not fully contained in its words or manner of presentation, but rather evolves from these in the relationship between the message's emitter and receiver, is not an uncommon one. The

Louisiana Foreign Language Content Standards

recognize this reality in a focus statement for its "Communication Strand", where, in the 3rd paragraph, the foundational theory for the "modes of communication" is the notion that "meaning lies within the listener, viewer, or reader, and that within dialogue (whether oral or written) meaning is constantly being negotiated." The statement continues "This concept of negotiating meaning is especially important when dealing with persons of another culture or who speak another language."

We all know that negotiating from a position of weakness is the fool's strategy. Our strength in deriving relevant meaning in our own native language brings into play a multitude of learned behaviors and skills, often performed unconsciously: our general and field-specific knowledge, a battery of similar experiences, semantic parsing, querying, our notions of non-verbal language, our previous exposure to and recognition of discrete components in the specific communication act, our daring, our patience and tolerance for information gaps and inference, creating effacing and replacing horizons of expectation, to name a few in this devilishly complex node of communication assistants.

Unfortunately, we are not equipped with a fully portable version of these, and we walk into our second-language learning experience with a nearly blank slate. We grope in relative darkness for a long time before we realize that our ears are little more that assembly-line workers in the manufacture of sense, that words are too often empty vessels, that morphology cannot measure meaning, and that grammar is groundless by itself. In addition, our frustration at not being able to grasp most of the meaning often brings a sense of intellectual resignation.

Our textbooks and other canned curriculum materials often give us a false impression of the content-to-meaning relationship in messages, by presenting an abundance of scripts which are not only created solely for student consumption, but which are written either to present structures or to serve out totally reliable answers to relatively unauthentic and decontextualized questions. Even the realia is chosen to provide precise answers to discrete item queries. Because it is often clipped and reset (edited sometimes) on the textbook page with little regard to the context in which target language speakers use it, it does not do nearly enough to bring our students into the target culture.

While I do not discount the value of materials produced by educational publishers in providing students with listening activities for which they can accomplish 100% of the goals, and in calling students attention to the context of targeted structures, I like to think that the ultimate goal of every student is to walk away from an authentic speech encounter with some notion of its meaning. It is not language acquisition research, but rather common sense that dictates the need for early practice at this. Using authentic materials in the semi-controled environment of multi-media, where learners can sometimes play it again, provides them with the chance to evolve their own succession of horizons of expectations and to fashion their own communication assistants.

With patience, repeated exposure to authentic speech, successful students begin to use what they do have to shape and transform what their ears pick up. These aids may include some rudimentary grammar observations, cognates, vocabulary recognition, guessing and hypothesizing from guesses, etc. A number of them are outlined in articles about strategies in listening comprehension, listed in this site's bibliography .

One of the things we can do as teachers or highly motivated learners is to sequence activities for expanding comprehension, and perhaps to bring into play a variety of subdomains in which our several intelligences can operate. A good foundational article for this is the one by Randall Lund in the bibliography: "A Taxonomy for Teaching Second Language Listening."

My suggestions do not conform to any paradigm suggested by Lund's matrix, but they do take into account a number of opportunities offered by the world wide web. They focus mainly on news broadcasts. News may not be of interest to all students, but there are some important reasons why I have chosen it.

News is an almost unavoidable consumer product, which has taken on many different formats in order to win public attention. It seems to be in plentiful supply on the net, downloadable and often in the slim format provided by RealAudio.

The ability to read from a French-language newspaper is part of the basic information gathering skills expected of all foreign-language professionals, as well as of students at a certain point in their studies (for example, and to a limited extent, fourth-semester college students). This skill is strongly implicit in the National Standards document (Communication 1.3, in a "Sample Progress Indicator" for Grade 12). Because of the many different things reported, newspaper reading is a way to begin enlarging the topical variety necessary to upward movement on the Oral Proficiency Scale. It is also gives students an extended and significant encounter with a vocabulary particularly rich in cognates, and is itself a major resource for the study of contemporary culture. Finally, it is authentic, containing everyday language as well as a credible notional variety. The same can be said of opportunities provided by newscasts. I have suggested below activities are sequentially arranged to help learners progress in the recognition-comprehension continuum. There is no compelling reason for doing all the activities.

I would begin by saying that learners need to think through the kind of information contained in English-language newscasts they have heard (categories of news, order of category presentation).

Provided the French newscast has been downloaded that day, learners can go to English-language WWW news sites like CNN or Rueters to read the day's report. There will be enough similarities in the international news to make the CNN or Reuters reports valuable precontact experiences.

News from Reuters Online


Perhaps students could even listen to an appropriately short newscast in English, either on the radio or the WWW. This will do two things: 1) It will help to shape up their idea of how news is formatted, framed and presented (order of, kinds of news, etc.), and 2) These initial English-language experiences will provide some of the specific content material for the learner's horizon of expectations before encountering the French audio document. Learners could engage in guessing which news items might show up in a French broadcast, ranking a pool of likely candidates according to the degree of probability. One activity would be to make a master list of key words in English (words repeated often, words germane to the topic, etc.). Another activity might be look up the French equivalents of a small number of key words to see if they will show up in French broadcasts. Still another might be to observe how each candidate story is treated, and what its relative place of importance in the English-language newscast or report is, and ask themselves how this might play out in a French-language broadcast.

Next, learners might find a French-language newspaper on the www, scanning it as quickly as possible to determine if relevant topics are treated. Here is a page with pointers on how to read a French-language newspaper:


During a reading, learners should be active, looking for the same key-word vocabulary they had seen in their English source, and noting cognates. They might also make a list of vocabulary they have no idea about. They should be thinking about what stories appear in both the English and French sources, and and comparing them for content and approach if possible. A final task might be to draw up a list of words they would expect to hear in radio or television coverage, and guess at what kind of on-sight video footage they would see on a television news broadcast.

When they first listen to the French-language news broadcast, learners should not attempt to take in all the details at one time. With software like RealAudio, it is possible (in the case of an archiveable download) to stop the delivery to contemplate a particular news story. If it is streamed RealAudio, the student can stop it at a certain point and play it again. It may also be possible to make a temporary alalog or digital recording. Learners might first identify the subjects of the news stories and count them. If they are in a group, they might compare their findings. Next they might determine whether the topics treated correspond to their anticipations formed while experiencing the English-language news, or the French-language print news. A similar activity might occur with vocabulary. Learners see if words encountered during a reading of French print news occur in the broadcast, or they might search for the French equivalents of key words listed during their encounter with English-language news.

Moving up a level, learners might ask themselves if the radio presentation of each topic is more detailed or shorter than what they encountered in either the English-language source or the French-language print source, asking which details are missing and are missing from the radio version or which, in the radio broadcast, are supplemental. Learners might attempt to identify or replicate topic or summary sentences for each story, or they might write their own short summary in French. They might attempt a title for each. Knowledgeable teachers might make a transcription from which several cloze-procedure dictations could be made, depending on their chosen focus. Finally, learners can attempt information gap exercises where there are parallel (English & French) treatments of news topics, writing in English information that was missing in the English-language stories or interpreting into French material which was absent from the French-language story

Just a note about variety, there are other speech samples which can be examined on the radio and television link page : vocal music, several kinds of news magazines (RFI), and an ever-expanding set of other topics.

TennesseeBob Peckham
Director, the Globegate Project
University of Tennessee-Martin