Improving Students’ Listening Ability by Emphasizing on Students' Acquiring Successful Strategies

syamsul ma'arif Kamis, Maret 31, 2011 | ,

Syamsul Ma'arif, M.Pd
Abstract: Listening, the most frequently used form of language skill, plays a significant role in daily communication and educational process. In spite of its importance, listening ability development has received only slight emphasis in language instruction.
Therefore, to make students function effectively as listeners, it is important for EFL teachers to prepare students for successful listening comprehension by emphasizing on implementing successful strategies.
Key words: facilitating, listening ability, emphasizing successful strategies

Among four language skills-listening, speaking, reading and writing- listening has been called the neglected skills for some decades (Tompkins & Hoskisson, 1995:81). Listening skill has not been given proper attention of the teachers in teaching and learning English as a second or foreign language in secondary school in Indonesia (Suparmin, 1999:221). According to Saricoban (1999), listening is one of the fundamental language skills. It is a medium through which children, young people and adults gain a large portion of their education, their information, their understanding of the world and of human affairs, their ideals, sense of values, and their appreciation.
Listening is the most used skill since both children and adult spend approximately 45 percent of their communication time to listening, only 30 percent to speaking, 16 percent to reading and a mere 9 percent to writing (Rivers & Temperly, 1978:62). In principle, the objective of listening comprehension practice in the classroom is to prepare students to understand actual speech and real-life listening situation. Therefore, listeners must be able to understand natural English speech to meet their own needs as members of the English-speaking community.           
This paper will explain how listening comprehension can strengthen the process of language learning. How students can use strategies to facilitate that process, and how teachers can look after the development of these strategies.
Listening Comprehension and Language Learning
It is now recognized that listening comprehension plays a key role in facilitating language learning. Gary ( (1975) stated that giving more attention to listening comprehension, especially in the early stages of second language learning and teaching, provides advantages of four different types: cognitive, efficiency, utility, and affective.
For the cognitive advantages of emphasizing listening comprehension in initial stages of learning second language is to give a more natural way of learning language. This idea is in line with Krashen’s theory in language acquisition about the important of comprehensible input in learning language. Processing and decoding auditory input requires recognition knowledge. On the other hand, encoding and generating speech output requires retrieval knowledge. Therefore, speaking should not be place before listening because more concentrating on speaking leaves little room for listening and little room for comprehension or understanding meaningful messages.
Related to the cognitive advantage is the efficiency advantage. Language learning can be more efficient if learners are not immediately forced to produce all the language material to which they are exposed. The comprehension period appears to hasten learning to speak (Dulay et al, 1989:3). This allows for more meaningful language use earlier in the course, since students can use all of the limited knowledge in their Short Term Memory (STM) to concentrate on meaning. A preliminary emphasis on listening is also more efficient because students are exposed only to good language models (the teacher or the recording) instead of the imperfect utterances of the classmate.
The third advantage is the usefulness of the receptive skill or the utility advantages. Since people spend most of their time in listening, they will make a greater use of their comprehension skill. Whereas speakers can, at their own pace, use paralinguistics and other communication strategies to maintain communication, the listeners must adjust to the speakers tempo and activate their storage vocabularies.
The final advantage of an emphasis on listening is the psychological advantages. When the learners are not forced to produce oral skill in early stages, there will be less potential embarrassment about producing sounds that are difficult to master. Once this pressure is eliminated, they can relax and focus on developing the listening skill and on internalizing the rules which will facilitate the emergence of the other skills.
In conclusion, the listening comprehension is a highly integrative skill. It plays an important role in the process of language learning and in facilitating the emergence of other language skills. For these reasons, an awareness of emphasizing on effective listening comprehension strategies can help students capitalize on the language input they are receiving.
Listening comprehension strategies
Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input. Listening strategies can be classified by how the listener processes the input.
Top-down strategies are listener-based; the listener utilizes background knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener to interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next. Top-down strategies include: listening for the main idea, predicting, drawing inferences, summarizing
Bottom-up strategies are text based in which the listener relies on the language in the message, that is, the combination of sounds, words, and grammar that creates meaning. Bottom-up strategies include: listening for specific details, recognizing cognates, recognizing word-order patterns
Listening comprehension tends to be an interactive, interpretative process in which listeners use prior knowledge and linguistic knowledge in understanding messages. Listeners use metacognitive, cognitive and socio-affective strategies to facilitate comprehension and to make their learning more effective. Metacognitive strategies are important because they regulate and direct the language learning process. Research shows that skilled listeners use more metacognitive strategies than their less-skilled counterparts (O'Malley & Chamot:1990, Vandergrift:1997). The use of cognitive strategies helps students to manipulate learning materials and apply specific techniques to a listening task. Socio-affective strategies describe the techniques listeners use to collaborate with others, to verify understanding or to lower anxiety.
Training students to become strategically smart
Strategy training or development is defined as teaching explicitly how, when, and why to apply language learning and language use strategies to enhance students' efforts to reach language program goals (Cohen, 1998). With respect to explicitness of purpose, Wenden (1987) asks, "Should students be informed of the value and purposes of the training or not?" (p. 159). At the two extreme ends of the explicitness continuum, two types of instruction can be identified--direct instruction(informed training) and embedded instruction (blinded training).
In direct instruction, learners are informed of the value, purpose, and importance of the strategies taught. That is, learners are not only instructed in the use of the strategy but also in its rationale. Furthermore, learners are provided with feedback about their performance so that they can estimate the effectiveness of the training (Wenden, 1987). This type of direct and informed training has been favored by a number of researchers, such as Brown, Armbruster, and Baker, (1986), and Wenden (1987).
In embedded instruction, learners are presented with activities and materials structured to elicit the use of the target strategies, but are not informed of the reasons why the approach is being practiced or when a certain strategy is appropriate to use (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Wenden, 1987). As Wenden (1987) indicates, the focus of blind instruction is on learning something rather than on learning to learn. It results in improved performance of the task to which it is tied. But the shortcomings of such training lie in the failure to maintain and transfer the strategy taught. That is, learners do not tend to continue to use the strategy and have difficulties in identifying similar situations for strategy application. Given this, Derry and Murphy (1986) suggest a combined type of strategy instruction. That is, learners can first be trained in a separate strategy program and then given opportunities to apply the strategies in content classrooms.
Other than the content and integration criteria, the affective dimension, social-psychological variables to predict the use of language learning strategies, has also gained attention. The variables of social-psychological including anxiety, motivation, and attitude toward the language community are considered as important factors when conducting and evaluating strategy instruction.
Mendelsohn (1994) develops "strategy-based approach" to the teaching of listening, strategy instruction becomes the core of the listening program and the organizing framework around which the listening course is designed. Each of the strategy-instruction units concentrates on one or a cluster of associated strategies. He offers some principles for the structure of a unit in such a course:
  1. attend to awareness and consciousness-raising,
  2. use pre-listening activities,
  3. focus the listening,
  4. provide guided activities,
  5. practice with real data, and
  6. use what has been comprehended.
Chamot and O'Malley also develop a content-based instruction model for language learners, namely, the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA). This approach is perceived as a social-cognitive learning model, in which collaborative learning, learners' prior knowledge, and metacognitive awareness and self-reflection of learners is emphasized (Chamot et al., 1990). Part of CALLA is devoted to providing explicit instruction of language learning strategies within the context of academic content areas. CALLA consists of five phases: preparation, presentation, practice, evaluation, and expansion.
Another established instruction model is proposed by Oxford (1990). She provides a guideline for instructors in the teaching of learning strategies. It includes eight steps, in which the first five involve planning and preparation, and the last three concern conducting, evaluating, and revising the training program. These steps are:
1.      determine the learners' needs and the time available,
  1. select strategies well,
  2. consider integration of strategy training,
  3. consider motivational issues,
  4. prepare materials and activities,
  5. conduct "completely informed training,"
  6. evaluate the strategy training, and
8.      revise the strategy training.
To conclude, the above explanation indicates that instruction in strategies can help students take advantages of the language input and to improve their performance on listening tasks.
Integrating three phases activities in the teaching of listening
The teaching sequence of pre-listening, while-listening, and post-listening activities is not new. This sequence of teaching strategy can guide students through the mental process for successful listening comprehension and promote the acquisition of strategies in three categories: planning, monitoring, and evaluating (Vandergrift:1997).
Pre-listening activities are important. During this initial 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 and relevant cultural information. Second, a purpose for listening must be established so that students know the specific information they need to listen for. By using all the available informations such as pictures, heading questions, diagrams, etc., students can make predictions to anticipate what they might hear. The pre-listening activities also can help students make decision about what to listen for and to focus attention while listening.
            During the while-listening activities, students continue to monitor their comprehension and make decision about strategies will be used. They need to decide what is and is not important to understand. This can be done if the teachers have set up the questions and the students have read all of them. They need also to focus their attention on the elements of the text in order to gain the main idea of the text or specific information, and to do the task individually since all of the students have to listen and comprehend the text. In this phase the teacher should not intervene the students.
Students need to evaluate the result of decisions made during a listening task. In post-listening activities the teacher can stimulate students to talk and actively participate in the task. He/She can tell students to compare their notes and discuss what they understood in pairs or small groups and can encourage students to respond to what they heard. For example, asking questions like “Do you agree?” and encourage debate. Telling students to write a summary of the main points in pair is also good activities in this final phase. Then the teacher has them compare their summaries and check if they covered all the main points. The teacher has to decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task, and modify strategies if necessary.
Many teachers still tend to test the listening rather than teach it
It has often been said that many teachers test the listening rather than teach it (Field:2003). This way is not entirely wrong since we have little option to use some kind of procedures to assess the listeners’ understanding. Assessing listening comprehension is different from assessing other skills such as speaking and writing. What is wrong is not what the teachers do and the type of the task they employ, but how they make use of the answers. The teachers should not only judge the successful listening simplistically in terms of correct answers to comprehension questions and tasks. Teachers usually overlook the fact that there are many ways of achieving correct answer.
A learner may have identified two words and made smart guess using appropriate strategy, another may have constructed meaning based his recognition of what was said. For example, Students A arrived at the answer as a result of his understanding 90% of a 100 words text. On the other hand, student B understood only understood 20 words but managed to get the correct answers by employing appropriate strategies. From this view it can not be said that student B is worse listener than student A because those two students are listening in different ways and need different support from the teacher.
The main aim of a listening lesson is diagnostic—identifying learners’ problem and putting them right therefore wrong answer are more informative than right ones (Field:2003). The process of gaining the answers is more important than the product of listening (students score). For a diagnostic aim, the teaching of listening needs a change in lesson shape. Instead of long pre-listening period which some teachers employ, it is more fruitful to spend more time in post-listening period. This way learners’ problem can be identified and the strategy used can be developed.
Making use of listening comprehension checklist
A teacher should provide a time for students to evaluate the result 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 discussion can also stimulate students’ reflection and be worthwhile evaluation. They are encouraged to share individual steps leading to success such as how someone guessed the meaning of 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 checklist such as suggested by Mandelsohn (1994). This instrument can guide students in preparing themselves for particular listening task and for evaluating their performance afterwards (see appendix 1 and 2).
Appendix 1 encourages students to reflect on the different cognitive steps to be taken in preparing for a listening activity and evaluating the subsequent results. After the pre-listening activities, students complete the first part of checklist (before listening) to check whether or not they have considered all the elements and whether they have performed all the necessary steps for success before they begin to listen. After listening and attempting to complete the listening task, students complete the second part which will help them to evaluate their performance in a systematic fashion, particularly if they have difficulty completing the task. This self-evaluation will help students to adjust their strategies for the second attempt. Room for a written reflection at the bottom of instrument supports students to reflect on the process individually and concretely state what they will do to improve their performance the next time. To make more meaningful the checklist can be translated into a native language.
Appendix 2 can help students to develop strategies for listening without the benefit of pre-listening activities. If students are to develop real life listening skills they must learn to develop strategies that will help them understand the gist of the text as well as the details. Students listen to the oral text and attempt to identify main elements of the text. After the first listening, they will write their hypothesis for each element in the “Guess” column and write the reasons why they arrived at their hypothesis in the “Reason” Column. Each student then work with a partner to compare answers and discuss potential differences. Based on their discussion, they indicate other possibilities for which they will listen during the second time through the text. After second listening and class discussion to verify the answer, each student is encouraged to reflect on the process by identifying specifically what he/she will do differently next time.
Making use of performance checklist can help students become more aware of the process of listening.
Teaching the strategy of listening lesson is very crucial. The strategy employed in correct phases of listening activities can facilitate the learners’ understanding in listening lesson. The teachers should not only judge the successful listening simplistically in terms of correct answers to comprehension answer. An emphasis on acquiring successful strategy will be helpful for the learners’ listening skill. By raising students' awareness of listening as a skill that requires active engagement, and by explicitly teaching listening strategies, teachers help their students develop both the ability and the confidence to handle communication situations they may meet out of the classroom. In this way, the teachers give their students the foundation for communicative competence in second language.

* An English Teacher of MAN 1 Jombang. This article is presented on MGMP English teachers MAN se Kab. Jombang meeting on 8 April 2008
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Appendix 1
Performance Checklist
Student Name : ____________________________    Date : ______________________
Before listening
I understand the task (what I have to do after I have finished listening

I Know what must I pay attention to while listening

If necessary, I have asked the teacher for clarification

I have tried to remember all that know about the topic

I have tried to remember what I know about the type of the text I will listen to and the type of information I will probably hear

I have made predictions on what I am about to hear

I am ready to pay attention and concentrate on the text to hear

I have encourage myself

After listening
I concentrate on the task to be accomplished

I attempted to verify my predictions

I revised my prediction accordingly

I focused my attention on the information needed

I used background noises, tone of voice, and other clues to help me guess the meaning of the words I don’t understand.

I used key words, cognates, and word families to understand the text.

I used my knowledge of the context and of text organization to understand the text.

I have encourage myself

(Place a check mark “ √ “ in each verifying column)
In order to improve my performance, next time I will ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Appendix 2
Performance Checklist
Student Name : ____________________________    Date : ______________________
After First Listening
Before Second Listening
Guess?          Reason?
Other possibilities?

(time/time of day/season)



What is it about?

(goal? Circumstances?)

 (Place a check mark “ √ “ in yes column if it is verified.
What I found easy : ______________________________________________________
What I found difficult: ___________________________________________________
What I will do the next time: ______________________________________________
         Source: adapted from Mandelsohn (1994:94)

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