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CATESOL Book Review: Listening in the Classroom, Teaching Students How to Listen By Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, Editors

Michelle Skowbo

Book Review – Listening in the Classroom, Teaching Students How to Listen

By Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, Editors

Listening in the Classroom: Teaching Students How to Listen Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, Editors

By Natalia Barley and Kara Mac Donald 

Listening comprehension for most learners is a struggle. There are the small handful of learners that just seem to find listening in a foreign language as an easy skill, yet that isn’t the case for most learners. Many teachers too also find teaching listening a challenge as despite doing pre-listening activities and vocabulary preparation, many learners often grasp little of the listening passage. Teachers go back and use a variety of strategies to unpack the details of the passage for students, but they can feel less in control of the process compared to other skills. This book offers both novice and experienced teachers effective approaches to teaching listening, whether the information sheds new insight on instructional practice or simply is a refresher to refine classroom instruction.
Introduction by Tamara Jones

The chapter begins with the author sharing her personal experience being a foreign language learner on a study abroad in Russia and how listening was most difficult for her as she had less control over the process of engaging with the language compared to other skills. She backs up this with citations from the literature on the challenges learners face with listening and it in fact is the predominant skill learners engage with. The author returns to her experience but now as a teacher and the dissatisfaction in helping students build their listening skills, as everything was happening in their heads and she didn’t actually know what they were experiencing/understanding. Like many teachers trained in a product-oriented approach to listening (i.e., essentially testing comprehension) with textbooks that offered product-oriented listening activities, she didn’t feel she knew how to best meet learners’ needs. The book serves to offer teachers ways to create classroom activities that develop learners’ listening proficiency. The second part of the chapter describes key terms (e.g., lexical segmentation, metacognition) that readers need to understand to benefit from the suggestions in the book’s chapters.

Chapter One: Metacognitive Awareness for Listening by Matthew P. Wallace

This chapter too starts with a personal account. The author reflects on an experience teaching listening comprehension in Japan, his assumptions about what would work well to develop students’ listening comprehension, the resulting ineffectiveness of his approach, and the insight he gained from what students wanted in listening instruction and what was difficult about listening. Essentially, his approach was to activate schemata, pre-teach vocabulary, offer an opportunity to listen multiple times, and check comprehension. Students’ listening skills didn’t improve and so he inquired about what they wanted and what their challenges were: strategies to deal with chunks of unknown language/words and connected speech often becoming unrecognizable. The issues his students faced were rooted in metacognition. He describes its three aspects: personal knowledge (awareness of one’s capabilities), task knowledge (nature and requirements of the task) and strategy knowledge (knowing strategies and how to use them) and describes an instructional sequence drawing on metacognition. He also describes teaching metacognitive strategies to raise students’ awareness and offers suggestions for supplemental activities to increase learners’ metacognitive awareness (i.e., strategy checklists, metacognitive awareness survey, listening journals, bottom-up activities). 

Chapter Two: Fostering Word Recognition by Tamara Jones

The author shared a personal account in Belgium of knowing the French vocabulary words for a needed interaction, but failing to recognize them in spoken language. This is so very common for a lot of language learners due to the blending of word boundaries in connected speech. So, despite literature that suggests extensive vocabulary knowledge, listening can still be a big challenge. For English learners in particular, there are particular challenges as spelling doesn’t always correspond directly to the pronunciation, different letters or combinations of letters can have similar/different pronunciation, misinterpreting key content words can skew comprehension and reduced syllables can cause failure to recognize a word. The remainder of the chapter offers ways to address these challenges through teaching sound recognition, sound-spelling correspondence, syllable focused instruction, and word stress instruction. The chapter closes with the reminder that textbook listening activities most often focus on top-down listening strategies and instruction, but in real life outside the classroom learners don’t have the time to devise strategies and explicitly draw on schemata based on an expected set of vocabulary to be used. Therefore, teachers need to integrate more bottom-up listening instruction into the classroom. 

Chapter Three: Recognizing Morphological Markers for Improved Listening Ability by Joseph Siegal

The chapter starts with the author sharing an account between a friend and himself, both native speakers of English, at a distance from one another on campus.  He couldn’t make out if his friend said “I called you” or “I’ll call you” due to the space between them and the wind, and he wondered if he had upset the friend as he missed the call or if he should be expecting a call. Not being able to grasp the morphological markers presented a significant gap in understanding. For language learners, the need to be able to perceive phonemes/morphological makers is highly important to decipher meaning. A brief discussion of the literature highlighting learners may not directly associate morphological markers with listening strategies, the field has strongly focused on top-down listening, and other related topics. However, the field has begun to shift and discussion on the value of bottom-up listening instruction with a focus on morphological awareness from the research is shared. The chapter closes with listening suggestions that address morphological markers at the word level and in connected speech. The author closes by sharing the importance given to morphological awareness in other areas of language learning because of the significance on meaning making. Therefore, incorporating morphological awareness in listening instruction is equally essential.

Chapter Four: Segmenting Streams of Speech in University Discourse: The Role of Lexical Bundles by Valeria Bogorevich and Elnaz Kia

In chapter 4, they share the struggles of their students to understand mini lectures in a university intensive English program. Despite conditional acceptance for enrollment in their respective degree programs, they were unable to adequately complete transcription assignments and gap-fill exercises focused on transitional phrases at the discourse level (e.g., first of all, at the same time). The problem was based on their inability to correctly identify word boundaries. They decided to eliminate even short transcription assignments and focused on better scaffolding the transitional phrases gap-fill exercises by providing a separate line for each word in the transitional phrase rather than one solid line as the blank to fill. This supported their parsing of the connected speech as they understood how many words there were. Drawing on the literature on segmenting speech streams, the authors focus specifically on lexical bundles as they are set collocations and their frequency of use can be identified through a corpus analysis. Additionally, the occurrence of lexical bundles is much higher in the classroom and academic texts than conversational speech. With the value of focusing on lexical bundles established, the authors offer various activities for teaching listening for academic lectures, as well as academic discussion in the classroom. The bottom-up listening and speaking activities assist learners to navigate longer academic discourse.

Chapter Five: Parsing Stream of Spoken Speech by Wayne Rimmer

Chapter five offers another personal recollection of students’ difficulties in parsing spoken language, however, with a distinct focus from the one presented in the previous chapter. While teaching English in Russia, the author realized the role grammar plays in listening comprehension. During a listening activity using a song and a gap-fill based on the lyrics, a segment of the lyrics presented ambiguity for learners to correctly grasp the meaning of the words due to the poetic style and lack of punctuation. This left learners uncertain which  one of two possible meanings was the intended one. Only by going back and listening to the song again and hearing the segment again, was it clear which interpretation of meaning was correct based on verbal pausing between two words. Knowing the ‘sound’ of individual words is not sufficient. Learners need to be able to identify them in context to know their syntactic function. The next section of the chapter examines that parsing is not always a bottom-up process, in that comprehension of individual words and grammar does not solely occur first and is followed by comprehension of discourse features. There is a view that these two processes happen simultaneously and listeners use lexical and non-lexical elements concurrently. And in listening, not only in written texts, punctuation plays an important role in parsing. The chapter closes with suggested activities that focus on heightening students’ sensitivity to the grammatical aspects of speech segments. The author notes that the activities do not reflect more naturalistic and communicative listening activities often found in the classroom, and their structure and nature are based on the goal to develop students’ parsing abilities.

Chapter Six: Sources of Mishearing: Identifying and Addressing Listening Challenges by Marnie Reed

The complaints from students that they can’t understand English outside the classroom was an impetus for the offering of an elective course focused specifically on listening to be conducted by the author and a colleague. In preparing for the course, the author began to focus on some sources of misunderstandings among students while receiving corrective feedback on spoken language and on dictations, offering some insight on the factors that cause errors in capturing spoken language (e.g., intonation, stress, and unstressed words in a sentence). A review of some of the literature on sources of students’ mishearing in a second language are examined. For example, the inability to parse connected speech is challenging, due to the use of patterns of speech segmentation in their L1 for the L2, the time needed to develop auditory perception capabilities, a lack of understanding of intonation use, blending of word boundaries, contracted sounds, deleted sounds, and perception of affix pronunciation. With an understanding of listening challenges for students, the author draws on work that considers the importance of learners’ beliefs on the strategies they use, which influence their language learning success. So, she recommends that first teachers explore students’ beliefs about developing listening skills, followed by inquiring about the strategies they use, and finally, examining their listening abilities. If the outcome from these three inquiries is in alignment with each other, she indicates no mediation is needed. If they aren’t, she presents some activities that can assist in bringing the three in alignment with each other. The activities, strategies and checklists provided in the final segments of the chapter help learners with segmenting connected speech, capturing known vocabulary in connected speech, and interpreting intonation to understand what is said and/or what was the intended message.

Chapter Seven: Paying Attention to Weak Forms by Freddie Gay

The author shares his experience when teaching intermediate English students in Malaysia who had difficulty decoding the weak, or unstressed, forms of ‘grammatical words’, i.e., auxiliary verbs, determiners, prepositions, etc. When looking further into this phenomenon, he discovered that English language learners face a number of challenges with decoding and understanding weak forms. A review of literature revealed several studies that indicate that the learners’ first language interferes with how they perceive phonemes. Moreover, the learners often learn the citation form before the weak form and, as a result, incorrectly assume that the weak form is less common. The students also struggle with identifying the correct meaning of weak forms. Some studies indicate that the classroom practice of linking weak forms to their meanings may be problematic, as not all weak forms carry basic meanings. Instead, explicitly teaching the multiple meanings of grammar words while highlighting their connection to the basic meaning they derive from (e.g., the different meanings of ‘to’ and their connection with the basic meaning ‘facing a goal’) can aid the acquisition process. The author realized that the strategy of listening for content words that he previously used with the students was not working. Informed by latest research, he proposes a different approach to teaching weak forms that consists of several types of activities, described in detail: raising awareness of forms, dictation-based approaches, discovery listening, and addressing polysemy.

Chapter Eight: Listening for Thought Groups by Mark McAndrews

Chapter eight highlights another common challenge in teaching listening: identifying thought group boundaries. The author recounts a conversation with a student, who misunderstood the author’s recommendation: “When you visit Americans, bring something for everyone to eat or drink” and instead came to the party empty-handed. After investigating this instance of miscommunication further, the author discovered that the student instead heard: “When you visit, Americans bring something for everyone to eat or drink.” In writing, a comma clearly indicates thought group boundaries, e.g., a clause. In speech, that function is fulfilled by prosody, i.e., changes in pitch, volume, word duration, and pausing. The author summarizes the recent research on the subject that indicates that highly proficient listeners, such as native speakers, routinely listen for clausal thought groups and are able to accurately identify them between 74-78% of the time. In contrast, this skill is often significantly less developed in ESL learners. To remedy this problem, the author recommends an instructional sequence that begins with explicit instruction reinforced by controlled, accuracy-focused exercises designed for declarative knowledge building. As students make progress acquiring the acoustic form and syntactic function of thought groups, the activities become more open-ended, shifting toward fluency practice. When designing items (i.e., sentences in which the meaning can dramatically change based on how thought groups are marked) for these activities, the author recommends 1) keep vocabulary simple; 2) use different native speakers to record the items; 3) distribute practice over multiple sessions.

Chapter Nine: Listening in Interaction: Understanding Projection by Jonathon Ryan

Preparing language learners to participate in discussions and conversations is the focus of chapter nine. The author shares several personal observations where the learners struggled with turn taking and providing appropriate & anticipated responses during interaction with native speakers. Although these challenges may seem unrelated, they are all connected to the phenomenon called projection, which “concerns the probable trajectories of a current speaker’s turn” (p. 124). The ability to project includes three skills. The first skill, anticipating the next speech act, is based on the knowledge of adjacency pairs, or how speech turns are typically sequenced. For example, an invitation is followed by either an acceptance or decline, which forms an adjacency pair. When responding to an invitation, the speaker will usually offer cues at the very start of his/her turn (e.g., pause, uh, weeeell) before rejecting. These cues signal to the listener what response is likely to follow. The second skill constitutes the ability to project speech completion or continuation. The speakers often use a combination of prosody, grammar, and action resolution to indicate completion of their turn. The ability to interpret these cues allows them to effectively engage in conversational turn-taking. Finally, the third skill involves identifying what type of response the speaker expects in a given conversation (e.g., the expectation of showing concern when the speaker shares that he/she is not doing well). Despite the fact that the majority of day-to-day listening is interactive (e.g., conversations, discussions), classroom instruction overwhelmingly revolves around non-participatory listening, such as lectures, announcements, speeches, etc. followed by retrospection, i.e., reflecting on what was said using the familiar activities, such as comprehension check, note-taking, cloze, etc. The author recommends closing this gap by using conversations that reflect authentic pragmatic variables. He concludes the chapter with a description of a flexible teaching approach and sample activities.

Chapter Ten: Did You Hear That? Note-Taking in the English for Academic Purposes Classroom by William C. Cole-French

As an English for academic purposes (EAP) teacher, the author of chapter nine addresses the challenges students often face in his classroom, particularly with taking notes. He observed that many of his students took notes with plenty of details, and, yet most were unable to answer content questions, even when he confirmed that the answers were captured in the notes. He realized that it was happening because the students are not capturing the overall message. The author notes that note-taking receives a lot of attention in the ESL literature. However, most textbooks offer no skill training for listening and note-taking. Instead, the focus is often on assessing listening comprehension, i.e., listening and answering comprehension questions. Through the review of literature on the subject the author identified the following effective practices on note-taking: using discourse markers to identify most salient information and reviewing and analyzing notes after the lecture to highlight the key points, make connections between ideas, and summarize the overall message. The author recommends using Aristotle’s concepts of rhetoric to help students listen more effectively. The ‘logos’ strategies focus on listening for keywords and listening for ‘cue words’ or discourse markers. Once these fundamental skills are mastered, the students can focus on the ‘pathos’ discourse element that allows them to uncover the structure of discourse, i.e., the key points and supporting details. Finally, ‘pathos’ explores how a topic is personalized to engage and connect with the listeners. Each strategy is supported with activity examples.

Chapter Eleven: Bringing Extensive Listening Into the Second Language Classroom by Francisca Maria Ivone and Willy Ardian Renandya

One of chapter eleven authors recounts her struggle with the slow development of her students’ listening proficiency. She attributed it to the fact that her heterogeneous classroom with students at different proficiency levels, with different backgrounds and interests, was not properly accommodated by the set syllabus. A review of literature on best practices in teaching listening highlighted the need to help learners feel confident and motivated when listening in a language classroom. One way to achieve that is by exposing students to content that is high-interest and is comprehensible. In contrast to intensive listening that is the primary focus of classroom instruction, extensive listening offers a unique opportunity to engage each student and improve listening fluency. This can be best achieved through narrow listening – using texts on a single topic, genre, or by one author. This approach also allows them to improve vocabulary retention, comprehension, and fluency. Other recommended strategies include repeated listening of passages, allowing students to select their own content, keeping listening journals, and reading transcripts while listening to enhance comprehension. The rest of the chapter provides specific strategies and activities for text selection, narrow listening, series listening, listening-while-reading, and progress monitoring.

Chapter Twelve: Learning from Mistakes in Listening by Beth Sheppard

The author begins the chapter by sharing an erroneous assumption she made early in her teaching career that listening must be easier than speaking. As she gained more experience teaching students, particularly at the intermediate level, she realized that this is certainly not the case since native speakers often did not adapt their speech to accommodate non-native speaking listeners. In a quest to help her intermediate students become better listeners, the author provides a review of literature on teaching listening. As mentioned in the previous two chapters, the common practice of assessing listening, rather than teaching how to listen is critiqued. To help students learn how to listen, two key approaches emerge in the literature: a bottom-up approach with the focus on decoding the sound stream into phonemes and words and a top-down approach that emphasizes developing students’ metacognitive skills, i.e., analyzing their own listening process and the strategies they use. With either approach, it is crucial to first diagnose learners’ specific decoding problems. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to one diagnostic method: paused transcription where students listen to a passage with pauses inserted at irregular intervals. During each pause, the students write down the last phrase they heard. The author argues for bringing this technique into the classroom to not only diagnose student errors and help address their source, but to reduce their anxiety and to assure them that mistakes are an important part of learning. The author shares her successful experience implementing paused transcription in the classroom.


For anyone who struggles to assist learners with improving their listening skills, this is a fantastic book. It is super accessible in that each chapter starts with an account from the author/s about an experience as a language learner or English teacher. The accounts are very relatable to readers and introduce the chapter’s focus on an aspect and/or approach to teaching listening. The book is slender, but it offers a wealth of discussion across a broad range of topics encompassing prosody, metacognition, EAP, and extensive listening just to name a few. There is something for just about everyone in this book whether you are new to teaching or a veteran educator.