Essay – Active Listening: a principled approach towards autonomy and metacognition



Dear Drama gamer friends, I bear good news!

I was accepted at the University of Birmingham into their TESOL Masters programme!!!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when that happened.

Well, I’ve just finished my first module and decide to share with you all my first essay on Active Listening.

I hope you enjoy reading it as I did researching and writing about the topic.


1.   Introduction

The Cinderella of the four skills (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002), listening was often overshadowed by its ‘elder sister’ speaking and treated either as a passive activity meriting little classroom attention (Vandergrift, 2004) or as a mere means to reinforce language input (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002) and testing comprehension as a product. However, the concept of listening as a skill to be explored in class has sprung and increasing academic studies that promote the perception of listening comprehension as process have emerged (e.g. Vandergrift, 2004; Goh and Taib, 2006; Rost, 2013; Rost and Wilson, 2013). While academia blooms in research regarding listening as a truly active skill which deserves special attention and ought to be taught in terms of subskill strategies so that students can ‘listen to learn’ (Vandergrift, 2004), classroom instruction seems not to have adhered to this new wave, as Field puts it:


“The teaching of listening has become more sensitive to learner needs, but our listening lessons remain predictable in form and content, and the presuppositions which underlie them are left unquestioned.”

(Field 1998:2)


This paper proposes an examination of my own current practice in teaching listening and observing if praxis corresponds with modern academic methodological propositions. Also, approaches and techniques will be exposed as a suggestion for improvement. At the same time, a reflection on the benefits the suggested approaches and techniques can have on the learners the author currently works with will be presented.


  1. Current practice in listening instruction

This section intends to depict how listening instruction is practiced in my classroom. The analysis of procedures and rationale were divided in pre, while and post due to the standard format of the listening lesson (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002) still remaining as the same three-stage process.

It appears that the principles behind aural comprehension lessons nowadays include at heart the attempt to recreate and stimulate learners to better cope with listening in their real lives. Nevertheless, it would be ludicrous to infer teachers are able to cover every possible scenario in which learners might find themselves. Ur (1984: 2) affirms to be possible to list some examples of the types of listening we might expect reasonably educated people living in a developed country to be exposed to. Therefore hoping that an examination of the results might bring some useful conclusions, meaning the teacher can only prepare the class bearing in mind a certain audience and hope the assumptions made may actually aid students during real life linguistic needs.

The audience described above by Ur matches the one who attends the lessons here analyzed: a majority of German or Swiss adults who work for multinationals or have frequent contact with other non-natives.

Now that the structure, principles and target audience of the lessons are outlined, common practice in the instruction of listening for this audience will be observed during pre, while and post-listening phases. In order to exemplify how my personal teaching can be improved, three different activities taken from materials most frequently used by me in the classroom will be analyzed in the following section.


2.1 Pre-listening phase

A story, vocabulary elicitation through brainstorming, an image used to generate discussion: these are the most common techniques used by this author to introduce a topic.

The rationale behind this practice is the attempt to activate students’ schemata, set the context, create motivation for listening and encourage both top-down and bottom-up processing. Richards (1983) calls this knowledge that we have in advance about the subject-matter or context of the discourse in real life situations ‘script competence’ and that is precisely what pre-listening activities attempt to recreate.

As for the practice of motivating students to create expectations about the text, it has been said that expectation and purpose for listening are closely linked together and these previously forged assumptions actually generate opportunity for success in listening, for ‘heard discourse which corresponds closely to what the listener expects and needs to hear is far more likely to be accurately perceived and understood than that which is unexpected, irrelevant and unhelpful’ (Ur 1984: 3).

Hence, the approach presented here is aligned with current ELT pedagogy, which supports the instruction of listening as a means to capacitate learners to deal with authentic listening situations by enforcing several means of data processing.

We shall take the lesson prepared around Material’s extract 1 as a practical example.

Material’s extract 1


(Doff, Thaine, Puchta, Stranks, Lewis-Jones. Empower A2 2015: 81)


The proposed pre-listening activity seemed to lack in incentives to activate mental data processing based on decoding the sounds in a linear way, gradually combining increasingly larger units of meaning (Vandergrif, 2004), known as bottom-up processing. Consequently, the teacher provided students with four chunks of language: Rio de Janeiro, Olympic Games, support and demonstrations[1]. These prompts were used to generate a brief discussion about the pros and cons of holding the 2016 Olympic Games – a means to retrieve students’ knowledge of vocabulary units that could be key to decoding the text later on.

This choice of procedure also enabled learners to activate their ‘inside the head’ information (Hedge, 2000) in order to build a conceptual framework for comprehension (Vandergrif, 2004), known as top-down processing. This choice aligns with the paramount concept that both bottom-up and top-down processing skills are to be taught simultaneously (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002) in order to equip learners with as many strategies they can resort to as possible, owing to the fact that if a student fails to make use of one of them, an utterance or discourse may be incomprehensible (Richards, 2015). Apart from these, the activity promoted opportunity for affective connection to the topic and an information gap, which generated expectation and, thus, purpose to listen.

Only then students’ attention was drawn to the first proposed exercise. By then, however, learners had already been encouraged to build their script competence, find purpose, connect personally with the topic, elicit specific vocabulary to aid bottom-up processing and activate schemata to benefit top-down processing. Consequently, their aural comprehension was facilitated in the following tasks. On the other hand, both of these goals could be reached in 5 minutes or so (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). Time management during pre-listening activities is paramount and the 15 minutes usually taken by this paper’s author to fulfill this phase are excessive. Therefore, timing is at the top of the list of improvements this teacher should work towards. Other areas with room for growth are decreasing TTT (teacher-talking time) and being more learner-centered.

Succeeding the observation and analysis of the pre-listening phase, we now move on to the activities involving the act of listening itself.


2.2 While-listening phase

Presenting learners with dialogue from which hardly any extra-linguistic queues (Ur, 1984) can be retrieved, assigning activities that prioritize testing rather than teaching strategies and carrying out the lesson in a teacher-centered manner seems completely out of sync with the current perspective of effective listening instruction (Richards, 2015). Nonetheless, it is still predominantly what is found in teaching materials and, ergo, in language classrooms (Field, 1998).


We shall exemplify with the listening lesson in Material’s extract 2:

Material’s extract 2


(Cotton, Falvry, Kent. Market Leader Intermediate 2013: 8)


If rigorously taught as proposed, the lesson would begin by inviting students to listen for gist via extensive listening, followed by general questions establishing context (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). The four prompted sentences prior to listening are a way to activate processing and guide students’ attention. Consequently, learners will probably focus on identifying words (bottom-up) and ideas (top-down) written on exercise A and bring knowledge of the script into play in order to make sense of content (Hedge, 2000).

The above-mentioned procedure can be especially helpful for learners who tend to focus excessively on understanding every single word emitted, which ultimately impairs comprehension on the grounds that our working memory is limited. Therefore, there should be supports provided to the learner in direct relation to the discourse to be listened to and the tasks to be performed (Vandergrift, 2004), as to optimize the use of the students’ working memory.

Merits aside, noticing the proposed activities for the completion of the while-listening phase – exercises B and C –, it is clear that no other strategies or skills are worked on. Moreover, absent from this lesson would be the opportunity to work on identifying specific information through intensive listening and subskills training (Field, 1998), discussing inferences acquired from the text (Rost and Wilson, 2013), aiding comprehension with visuals and transcripts (Wilson, 2008), developing metacognitive skills (Goh and Taib, 2006), focusing on the process of listening instead of its product (Vandergrift, 2004), among others.

Such heterogeneity of outcomes could be reached by getting learners to listen to the text several times – however, following different instructions each time (Nunan in Richards and Renandya, 2002), then practicing a number of strategies. Yet, due to lack of perspicacity or available time, teachers – including yours truly – merely follow what the course book proffers and vital elements learners could benefit from are left aside. In the words of Field (1998):


“Materials writers do not seem to have responded by designing appropriate exercise types or developmental syllabuses, and (…) teachers do not appear to have incorporated subskills teaching into their practice.”

(Field 1998:113)


Based on the examples presented on this paper, it is observable that the gap between academia and classroom practice when it comes to the while-listening phase is far greater than during the pre-listening one and there is still much room for improvement and implementation of process-focused techniques and subskills training in the instruction of listening.

After recognizing the issues that lie during the listening phase, we shall move on to an analysis of the activities proposed subsequently.


2.3 Post-listening phase


In real life, listening is almost always succeeded by an action inspired by the content of what has been heard. In other words, people react to the acquired information, forming an interactional bond with the message and controlling the propulsion of communication forwards.

As discussed in the previous section, current research in listening instruction has focused its attention on emulating these life-like situations in the classroom so that learners are exposed to more authentic communicative practice. For instance, Harmer (1991) proposes 6 possible purposes for listening in ELT based on genuine daily goals, which require some sort of post-comprehension action: (1) listening to confirm expectations; (2) listening to extract specific information; (3) listening for communicative tasks; (4) listening for general understanding; (5) listening to recognize function; and (6) listening to deduce meaning.

Once the while-listening activities are over, students are usually encouraged to react and interact with the contents of the exposed recordings. Though just how satisfactory these post-listening interactions really are is the real issue to be observed in this section.

Taking Material’s extract 3 as a sample:

Material’s extract 3


(Clandfield and Jeffreys. Global Advanced 2012: 10)


There are two post-listening activities proposed by this course book, exercises 5 and 6. The course of action usually chosen by this paper’s author is to follow the procedure as presented for the first and modify the second.

Exercise 5 offers four pieces of vocabulary from which learners have to, via top-down inference, retrieve as much as their working memory has retained and contrast it to the concepts depicted by the 4 given words. It is a highly cerebral task which demands learners to activate a number of mental processes at once. For this reason, it is usually unrevised and proposed as it is. Alternatively, exercise 6 is often altered and presented in Table 1, as follows:

Table 1: Alternative procedure for Global Advanced (2012: 10) exercise 6


1 Teacher reads task title out loud
2 Students spontaneously come up with a few ideas and report them orally
3 Teacher encourages students to summarize their stories in 5 bullet points
4 Students write individually
5 Teacher draws students’ attention to the audioscript of Shaharazad telling her stories and asks learners to observe the words and expressions she uses to make her stories so riveting and transfer them to the learners’ chosen story
6 Students underline their favorite chunks of language on the audioscript and later add the language to their bullet points
7 Teacher allows a few minutes for students to rehearse telling their micro stories
8 Students rehearse individually
9 Teacher sets task: listen carefully to the other students’ stories and decide who would survive the evil king, like Shaharazad
10 Students take turns telling their stories and later vote on who they believe would survive and why

The rationale behind this modified version is to act in accordance with recent research by helping students construct a plan from the elements of the discourse (Hedge, 2000), expanding learners’ interaction with the content and creating more integration with other skills (Hedge, 2000), therefore propelling the communicative scenario forwards. Furthermore, providing autonomy and personalization-prone activities in the classroom are of the essence nowadays and can be done, for instance, as Nunan points out:


“For example, it is possible to increase learner involvement by providing extension tasks which take the listening material as a point of departure, but which lead learners into providing part of the content themselves.”

(Nunan in Richards and Renandya 2002: 240)


Nonetheless, the lesson would still lack other elements. For instance, post-listening activities could not only intensify linguistic studies, further facilitating bottom-up processes (Hedge, 2000), but also borrow subskill training from other abilities, such as inferencing words from context as done in reading (Field in Richards and Renandya, 2002). The most interesting and promising aspect to be explored during this phase is, however, absent from the practice of this paper’s author: metacognition.

Metacognitive instruction encourages self-reflection through planning, monitoring, and evaluating strategies used for the selected listening text (Mendelsohn, 1998). Goh and Taib (2006: 224) argue that ‘the post-listening stage (…) should not stop with using the information gathered from the listening passage. It should extend further to include learners’ introspection of their mental processes during the listening task’. This kind of instruction should be at the top of the list of improvements in post-listening activities for this papers’ author.

To sum up, the efforts observed here to embody the latest trends in methodology research into classroom practice are more successful during the pre and post-listening phases, being the while-listening phase the one with the most room for growth. Suggested enhancements this teacher may adopt are found in the following section.


  1. Refining current listening instruction: inspiring techniques

This section exposes three techniques which, based on the analysis depicted in the previous section, could possibly be integrated to this author’s current practice of listening instruction, pursuing the enhancement and fine-tuning of classroom procedures in accordance with current research.

Subskill and strategy training, TTT, time management and metacognitive instruction were some aspects mentioned in part 2 which could be ameliorated. It is hoped to find some progress for them in Field’s (1998) research on a new methodology for teaching listening, which will be discussed in 3.1. The following subtopic is devoted to diving further into metacognition based on the findings by Goh and Taib (2006). Finally, the third and last subtopic aims at finding procedural inspiration on how to implement all of the above at once with Vandergrift’s (2004) model for modern listening instruction.


3.1 Strategy and subskill training

Field (1998) intends to move away from the idea that listening was primarily a way of enforcing language input, thus product-focused, and implement a new concept of listening as a skill in itself, which has to be handled as a process. He proposes a revised instructional model to cater for these new needs, which includes: a shorter pre-listening period lasting a maximum of five minutes and should concentrate on motivating students and establishing context; a lengthy while-listening phase with numerous replays and chances for learners to re-listen and check their work; and an extended post-listening session where micro-listening exercises would aid students to examine gaps in their listening skills.

Field elaborates on subskill and strategy training techniques for the enhancement of aural comprehension, always advocating in favor of using authentic materials and the borrowing of approaches often used for the instruction of reading strategies, applied to listening. He argues that the procedure should be ‘one of analysis leading to synthesis’ (Field, 1998) and subskills, after being combined, ought to be applied to longer listening texts, from intensive to extensive listening.

In sum, the new methodology proposes shortening the pre and while phases so that this extended post-listening phase may be explored in a series of micro-listening activities focusing on diverse subskills and strategies, mirroring reading instruction procedures. The exercises would have to be designed so that firstly, learners are equipped with the subskills that a competent listener could be expected to possess; secondly, learners are familiarized with the features of natural conversational speech; and lastly, learners are trained in some smaller-scale strategy techniques (Field, 1998).

Since the learners who attend this paper’s author’s class have primarily the goal to communicate orally with other non-native speakers and at the moment are not receiving proper training and incentive to develop their own listening skills, Field’s new methodology seems ideal to be implemented as regular classroom practice from now on.

The only reservation would be the premise of only authentic recordings being used, which would not benefit the students in question since most of them use English with other non-natives and wouldn’t benefit much by just listening to native-like recordings. In this regard, balance might be of the essence.

By raising awareness of the skills and strategies used to improve listening, it becomes paramount for learners to also notice and analyze how they listen. More on this, in the subsection below.


3.2 Metacognitive instruction

Goh and Taib (2006) encourage teachers to promote the concept of learners taking an active role in their listening development though reports and discussions about the thought processes undertaken by learners during listening tasks. Their rationale in opting for this approach is that ‘besides helping learners explore new ways of learning, metacognitive instruction also reduces language anxiety and builds confidence when approaching listening tasks’ (Goh and Taib 2006: 230).

Also, they expose a framework for developing metacognition in the language classroom divided in three stages: (1) Listen and answer; (2) Individual reflection; and (3) Self-report and group discussion.

As the target audience in Goh and Taib’s classroom was young learners preparing for exams, stage 1 was composed of test-like activities preceded by no pre-listening phase. The second and third phases are actually the most relevant, owing to the encouragement and development of metacognition.

Stage 2 is when learners are invited to dive into some introspection so they can notice and analyze their own mental processes. The following questions were posed and the purpose for each is also stated in Table 2 below:

Table 2: Individual reflexion questions and purposes

Question Purpose
What were you listening to? Confirm comprehension
What helped you to understand the text? Elicit task knowledge (factors that influenced listening)
What prevented you from getting the correct answer? (Same as above)
What did you do to understand as much of the text as possible? Elicit strategy knowledge (strategies for facilitating listening)

(Goh and Taib 2006: 226)


Stage 3 was mediated by the teacher and it took the form of a discussion in which students reported their findings in groups while comments and follow-up questions were made.

As a result, Goh and Taib observed a greater degree of self-appraisal and self-management of listening on the students’ part after being exposed to metacognitive instruction, being the weaker students the ones who benefitted from it the most. The outcome was that instead of just aiming for scoring higher, learners started to include comprehension development in their list of goals.

Despite the discrepancy in the profiles of Goh and Taib’s and this paper’s author’s learners, the findings reported here are of great use for both audiences. Whether listening in order to score high on an exam or for the sake of understanding what is discussed during a conference call, metacognition allows learners to get a hold of their own development, becoming more autonomous and confident.


3.3 Vandergrift’s model for modern listening instruction

Bearing in mind the shift of concept listening instruction has been through from product to process-based, the opportunities strategy and subskill training bring and the importance of metacognition in students’ development, Vandergrift (2004) embodies the very essence of what modern listening instruction is and presents not only a well-rounded rationale, but also a structured approach on how to tackle the teaching of listening in 5 stages.

The suggested model below provides an explanation of what each phase consists of and its correlated metacognitive strategy. In other words, it provides a synthesis of both Field’s methodology (1998) and Goh and Taib’s strategy (2006) into a practical procedure for the teaching of listening.

Table 2: Listening Instruction Stages and Related Metacognitive Strategies

Stage of Listening Instruction Related Metacognitive Strategies

Planning/predicting stage

1. Once students know topic and text type, they predict types of information and possible words they may hear. 1. Planning and directed attention

First verification stage

2. Students verify initial hypotheses, correct as required, and note additional information understood. 2. Monitoring
3. Students compare what they have written with peers, modify as required, establish what needs resolution and decide on details that still need special attention. 3. Monitoring, planning, and selective attention

Second verification stage

4. Students verify points of disagreement, make corrections, and write down additional details understood. 4. Monitoring and problem solving
5. Class discussion in which all contribute to reconstruction of the text’s main points and most pertinent details, interspersed with reflections on how students arrived at the meaning of certain words or parts of the text. 5. Monitoring and evaluation

Final verification stage

6. Students listen for information that they could not decipher earlier in the class discussion. 6. Selective attention and monitoring

Reflection stage

7. Based on discussion of strategies used to compensate for what was not understood, students write goals for next listening activity. 7. Evaluation

(Vandergrift 2004: 11)


Looking at the model attentively, it is recognizable that some active role is to be performed by the teacher during the first lessons, since the procedure differs from that which students are used to. However, the idea is that once learners become familiarized with this approach, lessons would become more and more learner-centered and the teacher would have a secondary role in the classroom. Learners gradually become autonomous, confident and practical, managing their own learning process and relying on the teacher for aid and guidance when needed.

Inspiring, principled and adequate to challenges of current language teaching, this model would definitely refine this paper’s author practice in listening instruction and aid her learners both listen to learn and learn to listen.

As mentioned previously, most of the audience in this teacher’s classroom is adult EFL learners who need English primarily to communicate orally with both native and non-native speakers in several business environments – whether formal meetings, informal dinners or semi-formal in-company atmosphere. This approach will work best with these individuals due to the fact that they will be better able to independently cope with variations in discourse – accent, speed, formality, and so on – because they have actively developed a plethora of subskills in class and are aware of their own listening process. Consequently, their primary goal will be reached through successful aural comprehension as a basis for competent spoken interaction.


4. Conclusion

The shift in concept regarding listening as a process observed in academia has not yet been fully transferred to classroom practice, which needs to be revised in order to accommodate autonomy, mental process analysis, confidence building for learners and a review of the role of the teacher.

In order to eradicate these issues we turned to Vandergrift’s 5-stage approach, which supply the rationale and techniques to support my quest for refining my listening instruction.

A more secondary role played by the teacher is sure to decrease TTT in class, handing more responsibility to the hands of students guarantee learner-centeredness, a structured and principled approach to modern listening instruction covers gaps in strategy and subskill training and, finally, the introduction of metacognitive strategy training glues all of the previous together. Alas, Vandergrift provides the approach which most certainly aids this paper’s author to become a better professional and her students to become self-reliant, independent learners.


5. References

Field, J. (1998). Skills and strategies: Towards a new methodology for listening. English Language Teaching Journal, 52, 110-118.

Goh, C. and Taib, Y. (2006). Metacognitive instruction in listening for young learners. ELT Journal, 60, 222-232.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford University Press. pp. 227-257.

Nunan, D. (1999). Second Language Teaching & Learning. Heinle & Heinle. pp. 199-224.

Richards, J. (2015). Key Issues in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press. pp. 369-405.

Richards, J. and Renandya, W. (2002). Methodology in the Language Classroom. An Anthology of Current Practice. Cambridge University Press. pp. 235-253.

Rost, M. (2013). Teaching and Researching Listening. Routledge.

Rost, M. Willson, JJ. (2013). Active Listening. Routledge.

Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge University Press.

Vandergrift, L. (2004). Listening to learn or learning to listen? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 3-25.

[1] The word ‘demonstrations’ was used instead of ‘protests’ owing to its proximity to its counterpart in learners’ L1, German – Demonstration. Therefore avoiding shift in focus from the discussion proposed due to vocabulary misunderstandings.

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