Variables Affecting Listening Comprehension in English Among Third Year High School Students of LSPU- SPCC, 2012- 13. Chapter 2
Review of Related Literature and Studies
Based on the rationale and the research problem raised in the previous
chapter, the relevant literature and studies in the field are presented in this part.
This chapter focuses on the nature of listening comprehension, the listening
comprehension process, and listening difficulties for language learners, which
are considered to be the theoretical and conceptual framework for the present
study. The variables affecting the listening comprehension level are introduced in
this chapter as well as the levels of listening comprehension in English as a
Second Language (ESL).
Nature of Listening Comprehension
It is believed that listening is a significant and essential area of
development in a native language and in a second language; therefore, there
have been numerous definitions of listening by Bentley & Bacon, 1996; Gary
Buck, 2001 which present different views of scholars towards the concept.
Listening, an important part of the second language learning process has
also been defined as an active process during which the listener constructs
meaning from oral input; Bentley & Bacon, 2006.
Gary Buck, 2001: 31; points out that “listening comprehension is an active
process of constructing meaning and this is done by applying knowledge to the
incoming sound” in which numbers of different types of knowledge are involved:
both linguistic knowledge and non-linguistic knowledge. To put it in another way,
Gary Buck (2001: 31) concludes “comprehension is affected by a wide range of
variables, and that potentially any characteristic of the speaker, the situation or
the listener can affect the comprehension of the message”.
In other words, comprehension of a spoken message can either be
through isolated word recognition within the sound stream, phrase or formula
recognition, clause or sentence, and extended speech comprehension (Scarcella
and Oxford, 2002. On the other hand, Wolvin and Coakley, 2000 stated that
listening is the process of receiving, attending to and assigning meaning to aural
stimuli. This definition suggests that listening is a complex, problem-solving skill.
The task of listening is more than perception of sound; although perception is the
foundation, it also requires comprehension of meaning. This view of listening is in
accordance with second-language theory which considers listening to spoken
language as an active and complex process in which listeners focus on selected
aspects of aural input, construct meaning, and relate what they hear to existing
Through the years, numerous definitions of listening have been proposed
as being mentioned, nevertheless, perhaps the most useful one of Wolvin and
Coakly, 2005 defines listening as the process of receiving, attending, and
understanding auditory messages; that is, message transmitted through the
medium of sound.
Listening Comprehension Process
Listening is probably the least explicit of the four language skills, namely
reading, speaking, writing and listening, making it the most difficult skill to learn. It
involves physiological and cognitive processes at different levels (Field, 2002;
Lynch, 2002; Rost, 2002) as well as the attention to contextual and “socially
coded acoustic clues” (Swaffar & Bacon, 2003).
The listening process can be diagrammed as below in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. The Listening Process
(Adapted from Wolvin and Coakly, 2000)
The process moves through the first three steps - receiving, attending, and
understanding - in sequence. Responding and remembering may or may not
follow, as it might be desirable for listeners to respond immediately or to
remember the message in order to respond at a later time.
There has been much debate about how the knowledge is applied to the
incoming sounds, but the two most important views are: the bottom view, and the
top-down view. These terms refer to the order in which different types of
knowledge are applied during comprehension according to Gary Buck, 2001.
Listening Difficulties for Foreign Language Learners
Listening knowledge of a foreign language is often important to academics
studies, professional success, and personal development. Listening in a
language that is not the learner’s first language, nevertheless, is a source of
considerable difficulties for L2 learners. Some authors (Underwood, 1989;
Thompson and Rubin, 1996; Goh, 2000) indicate that problems with foreign
language listening may be either listening problems or language problems,
depending on the listeners’ learning abilities and skills.
It can be seen that beginning L2 learners have to deal with a great deal of
difficulties in listening comprehension as listening in somehow is a receptive skill.
However, the listening process is often described from an information processing
perspective as “an active process in which listeners select and interpret
information that comes from auditory and visual clues in order to define what the
speakers are trying to express” (Thompson & Rubin, 2006, p.331). Considering
various aspects of listening comprehension, Underwood (2000) organizes the
major listening problems as follows: (1) lack of control over the speed at which
speakers speak; (2) not being able to get things repeated; (3) the listener’s
limited vocabulary; (4) failure to recognize the “signals”; (5) problems of
interpretation; (6) inability to concentrate; (7) and established learning habits.
Underwood (2009) sees these problems as being related to learners’
different backgrounds, such as their culture and education, she points out that
students whose culture and education includes a strong storytelling and oral
communication tradition are generally “better” at listening comprehension than
those from a reading and book-based cultural and educational background.
Moreover, learners whose native language possesses the stress and intonation
features similar to those of English are likely to have less trouble than the
learners whose L1 is based on different rhythms and tones. Under these
assumptions, the learners in the present study, of Vietnamese background that is
characterized by the language of different tones, appear to operate under the
least-optimal English language learning circumstances, and therefore face lots of
difficulty in listening comprehension.
Goh (2000) investigated listening comprehension problems in students in
college EFL studies. The data were collected from learner diaries, small group
interviews, and immediate retrospective verbalization. Findings include ten
listening comprehension problems in relation to three cognitive processing
phases - perceptions, parsing, and utilization, proposed by Anderson (2009).
First, in the perception stage, learners reported most difficulties as: "do not
recognize words they know," "neglect the next part when thinking about
meaning," "cannot chunk streams of speech," "miss the beginning of texts," and
"concentrate too hard or unable to concentrate." (Goh, 2000). Second, in the
parsing stage, Goh (2000) found that listeners complained of problems such as
"quickly forget what is heard," "unable to form a mental representation from
words heard," and "do not understand subsequent parts of input because of
earlier problems." Third, in the utilization stage, "understand the words but not
the intended message" and "confused about the key ideas in the message" were
often mentioned. These reported difficulties partially reflect Underwood's (2000)
views on L2/FL listening problems. However, as learners attempt to incorporate
certain strategies into the listening process, they are likely to face different
challenges or problems.
Investigations of Hasan and Yagang (2004) attribute the difficulties of
listening comprehension to four sources: the messages, the speaker, the listener
and the physical setting. Higgin studied Omani students’ problems in listening
comprehension and found that the factors which facilitate or hinder listening are
speech rate, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Flowerdew and Miller (2006)
investigated learners’ strategies and difficulties in listening to academic lectures.
They found that students’ problems were speed of delivery, new terminology and
concepts, difficulties in concentrating, and problems related to physical
characteristics, listener characteristics, and process characteristics. Further
research investigated the role of temporal factors facilitating or inhibiting
successful listening as noted by Higgins, 2007. Theoretical explanations of
listening comprehension provide us with clues about the problems which learners
face when they listen to a spoken text.
Student- Related Variables
This part of the chapter is presents supporting studies that had been
conducted regarding the relationship existing between students or listener related
variables and the listeners’ listening comprehension.
If the gender of the listener or the student is considered then shall the age.
Much of the research concerning the role of age in second language acquisition
has centred on identifying the close of an alleged critical period for L2 acquisition,
indicating that there is gradual linear decline in learners' ultimate attainment in L2
as a function of age, and this decline continues until puberty (Johnson &
Newport, 2009, et. al. as cited by Wendy Wang in her study.
According to Golchi (2012) in his study, it revealed that age had a
significant positive correlation to listening comprehension in English because of
the years of exposure to the language and the level of training.
Seright (2011), considered the relationship between age and L2
achievement of adults in the instructional setting. Working with members of the
Canadian Armed Forces undergoing English language training in Quebec, she
used 71 learners who ranged in age from seventeen to 41 years of age with a
mean age of 23 years. Seright divide the students into two groups: an older
group; age 25 and older, and a younger group; age 24 or younger. She found
that the mean gain in listening comprehension by the younger subjects exceeded
that made by the older subjects. Seright notes that this study investigated only
the rate of development but made no contrast in differences in ultimate
Since most of the subjects were not really old enough to experience loss
of auditory acuity and reaction time, Seright suggest other variables to explain
the differences, such as years away from school and associated difficulties in
adapting to formal instruction and perhaps degree of inhibition or confidence.
She notes that this study is consistent with an earlier study by Halladay that
showed that younger adults acquired L2 skills more quickly than older adults. Her
results are thus only a beginning to our understanding of how age affects
On a survey conducted by The Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll on May
23, 2003 they asked about who is the better listener and it resulted to females
with 67%, males with 9% and 24% says that there is no difference out of 1002
males and females with 501 in each gender. In the study of Jie Lin and Fenglan
Wu, 2003 on Differential Performance by Gender in Foreign Language Testing it
showed that female superiority in verbal ability ranged from noticeable
differences in writing and language use to very small differences in reading and
vocabulary reasoning. At the same time, however, evidence also suggests that
males are superior in listening vocabulary, that is, comprehension of heard
vocabulary in both first and second language contexts (Brimer, 2000; Boyle,
2007). In general, despite the female advantage in general verbal ability, there
seems to be no agreement as to whether and to what degree gender differences
exist in different types of verbal ability.
Lin and Wu in their study on Differential Performance by Gender in
Foreign Language Testing (2003), it showed that in terms of sub- test
performances the females had a higher mean in listening comprehension, which
contradicted the findings of a male advantage in listening vocabulary, Brimer and
Boyle which states that evidence suggests that males are superior in listening
vocabulary, that is, comprehension of heard vocabulary in both first and second
language contexts as cited by Lin and Wu. Males had a slight advantage in
cloze, and grammar and vocabulary.
According to Rubin (2011), there are three studies consider how gender
may relate to differences in listening comprehension. Boyle researched Chinese
students of English between eighteen and twenty years old. Using a battery of
tests, some published and some not; including a vocabulary, a listening passage,
a listening conversation, two dictations, vocabulary identification given orally as
well as other items not related directly to listening, he found that males did
significantly better on two tests of listening vocabulary and women did
significantly better on all other tests. It is difficult to agree with Boyle’s conclusion
that females do better on general language ability and males do better on
listening vocabulary, especially since the females did do well on vocabulary
Feyten looked at university students of French and Spanish and failed to
find a significant relationship between gender and any foreign language
proficiency measure. Bacon looked at university students of Spain and also failed
to find significant relationship between gender and listening comprehension.
Markham considered sex bias and perceived speaker expertness on ESL
student listening recall. Working with intermediate and advanced university level
ESL students, he reports that: 1) both groups recalled more from the non- expert
male speaker than from the female non- expert; 2) the advanced group recalled
more from the male expert than from the female expert (the same way was true
for the intermediate group but the means did not differ as markedly); and 3) both
groups performed at a noticeably higher level when the presentation was given
by a female expert than by a female non- expert. He concludes that “gender bias
is a pervasive factor that exerts an influence on ESL students’ recall of orally
presented material” p. 404. However, this result may be truer for some cultures
than for others (over 51% of their subjects were North Asian). As he notes that
perhaps female listeners are gradually conditioned to be more attentive to male
speakers as a result of gender- related status divisions in the speech community.
Thus, with the small amount of research on gender and listening
comprehension is inconclusive.
Interest towards Listening in English
Though hearing impairment is not present, there is a possibility that
students may be uninterested in the topic being listened to that is why they
cannot comprehend. In a research conducted by Christine Goh, in the verbal
reports; one third of their respondents considered the listener’s interest and
purpose a factor affecting their listening comprehension thus, also affecting the
Teacher- Related Variables
This part of the chapter is to present supporting studies that had been
conducted regarding the relationship existing between teachers’ or speakers’
related variables and the listeners’ listening comprehension.
Teachers’ Methods and Strategies
If the listeners are the students then the speakers are the teachers or
instructors. Considering that there are various teaching methods and strategies
to teach listening in L2, Fan Yagang suggested for teachers to design taskoriented exercises to engage the students’ interest and help them learn listening
skills subconsciously; Ur (1984:25) said that, listening exercises are most
effective if they are constructed round a task. That is to say, the students are
required to do something in response to what they hear that will demonstrate
their understanding. She had also suggested some such tasks: expressing
agreement or disagreement, taking notes, marking a picture or diagram
according to instructions, and answering questions. Compared with traditional
multiple- choice questions, task- based exercises have an obvious advantage:
they not only test the students’ listening comprehension but also encourage them
to use different kinds of listening skills and strategies to reach their destination in
an active way. While depending on the teacher on how things flow inside the
classroom because he is the one who can see the needs of the class it is also
the teacher who delivers most of the input in the traditional way of teaching,
which by a fact is still abundant.
According to Kumi Suzuki (2009) the value of use of strategies as a
language teaching method has been acknowledged by some scholars. Oxford
proposes that learning strategies are easy to teach. She mentions that strategy
training is an essential part of language education. Chamot reports that students
would be successful in listening comprehension if they received explicit
instruction in which they were informed of the value and purpose of the
Researchers vary in ways in which they define and categorize learner
strategies. Rubin pg. 15, defines strategies as follows: learner strategies includes
any set of operations, steps, plans, routines used by the learner to facilitate the
obtaining, storage, retrieval and use of information, that is, what learners do to
learn and do to regulate their learning.
Chien and Kao as cited by Shang in a study on Listening Strategy Use
and Linguistic Patterns in Listening Comprehension by EFL Learners (2008),
listening seems to be a most frustrating experience for many learners,
nevertheless; researchers have argued that listening comprehension ability can
be taught and trained by using appropriate strategies. Thus, implying that one
way of improving listening comprehension in English are the methods and
strategies used by the teacher during class to promote listening comprehension
In research concerning strategies, researchers have frequently referred to
successful listeners and unsuccessful listeners. For example, higher-level
students, or successful learners, tend to adopt more strategies than lower-level
students, or unsuccessful learners; Griffiths, 2008; Macaro, Graham, &
English Language Competence
The teachers’ diction is quite influential in the study conducted by Naim
Butt on Listening Comprehension Problem among Students it revealed that
59.66% of his respondents say that the problem always relies more to the
speaker’s accent, 39.33% sometimes on dialect and a tremendous 63.33% as
always on the speakers’ pronunciation.
A study by Rader considered the effect of slowing down speech for thirdquarter university students of Spanish. Rader notes that the nonsignificant results
may be related to: a) the control of background knowledge, b) the high level of
difficulty of the texts, c) the lack of student exposure to authentic extended aural
discourse, and d) the fact that recall was not done immediately after exposure.
This study further illustrates how speed can interact with experimental procedural
issues as well as with both declarative and procedural knowledge. Despite these
criticisms, most research quotes a normal speech rate of 165 to 180 words per
minute (wpm) for native speakers of English e.g. 116. On the other hand, while
Foulke reports a threshold level between 250 to 275 wpm, others (116) state that
comprehension decreases as a function of mental aptitude and difficulty level.
Carver concurs, suggesting that each student has his/ her own level of
comprehension. Tauroza and Allison compared normal speed of British speakers
for four types of speech. They found that while the mean for radio and interview
speech events lies within the range of 160 to 190 wpm, the means for
conversation and lecture categories are outside this range. The mean rate for
conversation in wpm was 210; for lectures, 140. They note further that 33% of
their lecture data was slower than 130 wpm and 23% of the conversation data
was faster than 220 wpm. The issue of normal speech rate is one that still needs
a great deal more research that takes into account all of the variables mentioned
above; Rubin (2011).
School- Related Factors
The school is where the listening of the students is to be nourished and
therefore we shall take it also as a factor that may affect the listening
comprehension among students.
The classroom is the place the students spend their listening hours with
and so considered as a variable that affects the student’s listening
comprehension. In a study conducted by Fan Yagang she considered the
physical setting; the classroom, to consider as a variable that affects the listening
comprehension among students. . Not seeing the speaker’s body language and
facial expressions makes it more difficult for the listener to understand the
speaker’s meaning; this happens if the classroom is not spacious enough or if
the room size is not fitted to the class population.
Noise, including both background noises on the recording and
environmental noises, can take the listener’s mind off the content of the listening
passage; this happens when the classrooms are near construction sites, roads or
recreational areas with may cause to having a lot of people with uncontrollable
Speech and Audio- Visual Facilities and Equipment
Listening material on tape or radio lacks visual and aural environmental
clues. Unclear sounds resulting from poor-quality equipment can interfere with
the listener’s comprehension; a lack of equipment and facilities result in poor or
ineffective listening comprehension.
Studies have suggested that visual support can enhance the listening
comprehension. Listening comprehension of high- beginning Spanish students
who watched dramas on video improved significantly over students who received
no video support for their listening training. She argues that video can serve as
haven to enhance listening comprehension if it is selected so that it provides
sufficient clues for information processing. It is the selection that is critical, not
just the use of video alone (Rubin, 2011).
Mendelsohn & Rubin as cited by Suthee Khamkaew (September, 2009) to
improve listening skill, learners can learn through many good practices: listening
to the radio, to tapes, to native English speakers, and even to non-native
speakers of English.
According to Lindsay Miller (June, 2009) on her study Engineering
Lectures in a Second Language: What Factors Facilitate Student’s Listening
Comprehension she emphasized the help of use of visual during lectures.
Students claimed that when lecturers use technical support in their lectures, such
as overhead projectors, visualizers, PowerPoint, or even just the white board,
they are able to focus better on the talk. Some lecturers, of course, are able to
make use of such teaching aids either as a result of natural teaching abilities, or
through practice. The effect on students’ comprehension is often significant. If a
student was having some difficulty with the language and/or the content, a
visually supported presentation is one way of focusing his mind on the topic,
helping him to keep track of the current stage of the lecture.
Secules et. al. considered the impact of video on listening comprehension
of second- semester university French students. The control group used a “direct
method” text and did pattern practice, pronunciation exercises, reading activities
with a focus on grammar and communication activities (question/ answer and
role play). The experimental classes used the French in Action video series. The
research design controlled both teacher and class composition. The treatment
included viewing the dramatic section of the tape, followed by comprehension
questions and guided discussion. Workbooks, audiotapes, structure exercises,
and communicative activities were also used. The experimental group scored
higher overall in listening comprehension than the control group. In particular, the
experimental group outscored the control group on questions involving main
ideas, details and inferences. Similarly, Herron et al. reported that for first year
university French students listening comprehension improved more after one
year’s exposure to a video- based curriculum than after the same length of
exposure to a test and audio- based curriculum.
Levels of Listening Comprehension
In a study of Ina Thomas and Brian Dyer on October 28, 2007 they
discussed the topic, The Problem of Poor Listening Skills, and part of it describes
the three levels of listening. Three levels of listening are described. Effective
communication increases as a person moves from level 3 understanding to level
1 understanding. People at level 1 seek for areas of interest in the speaker’s
message and view it as a chance to learn new and valuable information. A level
2 listener listens to the words and content of the message, but does not
comprehend the words. Level 3 listeners are more focused on talking than on
listening. They tune out the speaker, daydream, form opposing opinions, and
fake attention while thinking about unrelated matters.
Rost and Ross identified two proficiency ranges: elementary and
intermediate/ advanced. Beginning level students were found to have a
persistent pattern of global queries