TEACHING AND LEARNING CONSTRUCTIVE LISTENING SKILLS: A STUDY AMONG EFL LEARNERS
(Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Kemahiran Pendengaran Berkonstruktif: Kajian Dalam Kalangan Pelajar-Pelajar EFL)
Jayanthi a/p Muniandy
This article is a report of an action research project conducted in a listening course for EFL students in one of the colleges in Penang, Malaysia. It aims to identify the effectiveness of constructive learning theory in teaching and learning listening skills as the existing teaching practice in the listening course is not rewarding. Four main purposes of listening; comprehensive, critical, appreciative and therapeutic listening were investigated in relation to constructive theory. Young Learners’ Language Strategy Use Survey (YLLS) was conducted to determine the students’ preferred strategies in learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Besides, pre-test and post test were employed to identify the efficiency of constructive approachs in teaching and learning listening in EFL classroom. Throughout the entire course, students were observed intently on their involvement in classroom activities. The results from the YLLS questionnaire and classroom observation reveal that listening and speaking become their preferred learning strategy. The findings from pre-test and post-test show EFL learners have improved their listening skills by using constructive approach. In conclusion, constructive listening skills that include prior knowledge, social interaction, motivation and construction of meaning that relate to real world truly help the students to progress in the listening skills. Thus, the college system plays an important role to implement a new listening skills syllabus that contains constructive learning theory to enhance students’ listening skills in English language.
Keywords: Action research, Teaching, Learning, Constructive Listening, EFL learners
Makalah ini membincangkan kursus pendengaran dalam kalangan pelajar yang menguasai bahasa Inggeris sebagai bahasa asing di salah satu kolej di Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. Objektifnya ialah untuk mengetahui keberkesanan penggunaan teori konstruktif dalam pengajaran dan pembelajaran pendengaran sebab sukatan pelajaran kolej kurang berkesan. Kemahiran pendengaran merangkumi pemahaman, kritikal, penghargaan dan emosi dikaji dengan teori konstruktif. Kajian Pengunaan Strategi Bahasa dalam Kalangan Pelajar Remaja (YLLS) diadakan untuk mengetahui strategi yang digemari oleh pelajar dalam penguasaan bahasa Inggeris. Selain itu, ujian pra dan pasca dijalankan untuk mengetahui keberkesanan teori konstruktif dalam pengajaran dan pembelajaran kemahiran pendengaran. Sepanjang kursus tersebut, pelajar diperhatikan secara intensif terhadap penglibatan mereka dalam aktiviti yang dijalankan. Keputusan daripada kajian YLLS dan pemerhatian dalam kelas membuktikan bahawa strategi pendengaran dan lisan adalah strategi yang paling digemari. Data dari pra dan pasca ujian menunjukkan pelajar berupaya memperbaiki kemahiran pendengaran dengan mengunakan teori konstruktif. Kesimpulannya, teori konstruktif meliputi pengetahuan lama, perhubungan sosial, motivasi dan pemahaman definisi membantu pelajar dalam pembelajaran kemahiran pendengaran. Oleh itu, sistem kolej perlu mengimplimentasikan sukatan pelajaran baru yang mengandungi teori pembelajaran konstruktif untuk menambahbaik pembelajaran kemahiran pendengaran dalam bahasa Inggeris.
Katakunci: Kajian Tindakan, Pengajaran, Pembelajaran, Pendengaran Konstruktif, Pelajar –pelajar EFL
Listening is one of the basic language skill courses offered to the foreign students. These students are mainly from Middle East countries, Mongolia, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. The students are placed according to the scores that they obtained from English Placement Test. There are four levels or classes of English Language Course; beginner, lower-intermediate, intermediate and upper-intermediate.
I taught the listening course many times at this college. Either by tradition or my own teaching style, I always do the best to get students’ attention in the classroom. I would also ensure that they could fully understand a listening piece before moving on to the next one. However, many of my students were not motivated in class as students frequently absent from class, come late to class or doze off while teaching. So I decided to talk to the students and conducted Young Learners’ Language Strategy Use Survey (YLLS) to determine students’ interests and capabilities in order to form appropriate lesson plan for them. I found that students have high interest in listening and speaking from the YLLS questionnaire. However, they felt bored and reluctant to participate in class as most of the exercises provided in the textbook are quite simple and uninteresting. They also felt they had not learned much in the class. Therefore, I planned to employ constructive listening skills in my class as it involves socio-interaction and thinking skills.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
In order to boost students’ attention in the classroom, I used constructive learning theory in teaching listening skills. Therefore I raised two research questions for this study:
i. How are the purposes of listening and constructive approach related to one another?
ii. How efficiently does the constructive learning theory help in teaching and learning listening among EFL learners?
Listening is a communication channel that most frequently used but the surveys show that listening skills are the least developed (Galvin, Prescott & Huseman, 1992). Conaway (1982) also states that listening has been regarded as the most widely used language skill in the classroom and it plays an important role in one's academic success than reading skill or academic aptitude.
Listening course for English as Foreign Language (EFL) learners is a difficult task but it can be easier by activating prior knowledge, assisting students to identify the purposes for listening and using well-structured speaking tasks (Brown, 2006). There are various types of purposes of listening such as discriminative, comprehensive, evaluative, appreciative, emphatic, relationship, reflective, interpersonal and many others (Thompson, Leintz, Nevers & Witkowski, 2004; Weisglass, 1990; Rost, 2002).
However, the focus of this study will be only on four main objectives of listening; comprehensive, critical, appreciative and therapeutic listening. The main reason is because teaching and learning listening among EFL learners is more to listening for understanding, gathering main ideas and supporting details, constructing meaning, integrating with people (either support or argue) based on a topic of the listening and also listening for enjoyment (Kline, 1996).
Flowerdew (1994), who agrees to Brown (2006), Weisglass (1990) and Rost (2002) suggests that to be a successful academic listener, a student needs relevant background of
knowledge, the ability to distinguish between important and unimportant message, and have appropriate skills like note taking. These recommended criteria are related to the constructive learning theory. This is because constructive approach allows students to construct meaning based on their prior knowledge and integrate with people. This approach is merely on students' active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking regarding a learning activity, which they find pertinent and applicable to the real world context. According to this learning theory, the learners ‘construct’ meaning based on their prior knowledge and experience to apply them in new situations and integrate the new knowledge gained with pre-existing constructs (OTEC, 2007).
I carried out some changes to the way of managing my listening class. I taught the listening course to intermediate and upper-intermediate students. There were 24 EFL students from various nationalities. We met six hours per week for three months course from January to March 2010. We used New Headway Intermediate and New Headway Upper-intermediate as our textbooks. Bearing the purposes of listening, I employed constructive learning theory in my teaching for the three parts of listening: pre listening, while-listening and post listening.
1. YOUNG LEARNERS’ LANGUAGE STRATEGY USE SURVEY (YLLS)
Before the lesson for new cohort begins, I conducted a survey using Young Learners’ Language Strategy Use Survey (YLLS) that was designed by Cohen & Oxford (1990). The questionnaire was given to the students in the second week of the semester. The reason of using this instrument is because all of my students were young adults with 17 to 22 years old. Besides, it is simple and easy to comprehend as this questionnaire is categorised into four strategies such as listening, vocabulary, speaking and translation. The questionnaire is to measure learners’ interest and capabilities as it gives information about the way one tackles the tasks of learning a foreign language. The students were given 20 minutes to fill in the questionnaire as they only required marking the statements that best describe them. This instrument is valid and reliable because it is used all over the world and can give more information about learning techniques, once one have filled in all the questions (Thompson et al., 2004). The result of this questionnaire is discussed in the findings. As a result I used constructive learning theory for my teaching based on the scores the students obtained in the YLLS questionnaire. A sample of the questionnaire can be referred to Appendix 1.
2. NEW HEADWAY
I used New Headway Student Book (Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate by Liz and John Soars, 2003) as the main textbook to teach listening skills for EFL learners. The book consists of listening, reading, grammar and writing. However, only the aspect of listening was focused here. Since this book is mainly consists of while listening and post listening activities thus, other supplementary materials were used to support in teaching and learning listening skills.
Besides that, other equipments that were used for teaching listening in a classroom were cassette player, television and person. According to NCLRC (2004), teaching listening in an EFL classroom involves sender (i.e. a person, radio, television) to send message, and receiver (the listeners). Wong (2005) says that listening courses are combination of paper-based materials in the form of a course book, and sound-based materials in the form of audio on tapes/compact discs.
In a listening class, students were introduced on certain topics through pre-listening activities. According to Kline (1996) the main reason of having pre-listening is to build the listeners with certain background of knowledge on particular subject before the while-listening process. This is because students must have a specific purpose for listening. Therefore, my students were exposed to purpose of listening either listening for information, appreciation, emphatic, evaluation or combination of two or more.
This will enable them to gain a clear picture about a particular topic. Thus, I gave detailed explanation of each purpose of listening to the students for every topic in each session for nearly 20 minutes. Later I asked the students to give their ideas, views or suggestions on the topic to be discussed either individually or in group. In order to receive an attentive response from the students, I encouraged them to speak in the class, draw a mind-map on the topic, brainstorm ideas in group, fill in pre-listening worksheet, or bring them out of the class for observation or interviews. I also conducted other pre-listening activities as suggested by Underwood (1989) like decipher and talk based on pictures, list of items, making list of possibilities, ideas and suggestions, reading comprehension, labelling and informal talk and class discussion. These kinds of activities enable students to make predictions about lexis and content, create awareness of topic features and also able to provide information that would be available or related to the real world (Withnall, n.d).
After the pre-listening activities, I played the whole listening text through an audio player for the very first time to the students based on a particular topic that was done in the pre-listening activities. Later, I questioned them on their understanding. I played the same text again with pauses if they had difficulties in comprehension. The objective of while-listening is to create complete attention to listening task and demonstrate interest, look for meaning from the message that was heard, constantly check their understanding of message by making connections, confirming predictions, making inferences, evaluating and reflecting, take more meaningful notes, distinguish message from speaker, consider the context of the message, withhold judgement until comprehension of message is complete and finally follow up on presentation by reviewing notes, categorizing ideas, clarifying, reflecting, and acting upon the message as pointed out by Underwood (1989). Besides that, I also played a list of words, phrases or sentences for the student to repeat and follow the intonation and stress. The reason is learners also would be able to recognize the pronunciation of words, stress, rhythm and intonation in order to employ them in their own speech (Underwood 1989).
In learning through watching a movie, I played 20 -30 minutes of particular scenes from a movie. Then I replayed the main ideas of that scene. After that, I went through or discussed the exercises that they had done while watching to that particular scene. The students played an essential role in giving the answers. Students’ participation were observed and recorded to identify their capabilities to construct meaning and interact based on the message that they had listened.
Activities like marking or checking items in pictures, putting pictures in order, arranging items in patterns, form or chart completion, labelling, true or false statements, multiple-choice questions, text completion, spotting mistakes, predicting, and seeking specific items of information were conducted in while-listening to help learners develop the skill of extracting messages from a sender (Underwood, 1989). I employed these tasks as
they allow learners to achieve the difficulty of listening text and exploit the purpose and value of the text. Therefore, I gave my students some time to perceive, evaluate and think about the message.
Finally, I conducted post listening activities to ensure that my students have understood of that particular topic. They performed based on what they have heard to clarify meaning and extended their thinking through the activities. The main objective of conducting post-listening is as a practise for exams. The activities of post listening reflect the performance of students whether they have failed to understand or missed some parts of the listening message (Underwood, 1989). Therefore, In order to determine students’ understanding I made the class more interactive, lively and interesting by providing various types of listening activities in the classroom. For example, writing activities like writing on board, worksheets, or personal journal, game activities like word puzzle, formation of main ideas with chronological order and speaking activities like debate, forum or telling story. Besides, other tasks like completing a form or chart, extending notes into written responses, summarising, using information for problem-solving and decision-making activities, identifying relationships between speakers, establishing the mood, attitude and behaviour of the speaker, role-play and dictation (Underwood, 1989) were also used. Participation of students is essential in teaching and learning listening skills through constructive approach.
PRE-TEST AND POST-TEST
Pre-test is to measure students’ listening skills before they were exposed to teaching and learning listening skills through constructive approach whereas post-test is used to analyse students’ performance at the end of the teaching and learning listening skills, after the exposure of constructive approach. These tests were employed to gauge the effectiveness of constructivism in listening. The pre-test was conducted in the second week of the semester whereas post-test was done during the last week of the semester. For each test I played the listening cassette for two times for the students and they had to complete the test in 45 minutes.
The questions in the pre-test consist of multiple choices, arranging the main ideas in correct sequence, complete sentences based on pictures and arrange the pictures in correct order whereas the post-test comprises of writing true or false statements, fill in the missing gaps and fill in information in table. The questions were developed based on the purposes of listening and also from the perspective of constructive learning theory, which involves more thinking skills and activation of existing knowledge to infer or construct the meaning of the message. Different kinds of questions help to determine students’ capabilities in answering various questions in different context. Two sets of pre-test and post-test papers were designed for both intermediate and upper-intermediate learners and the papers were moderated and verified by two English language lectures.
All the above-mentioned activities were based on the topics from the textbook and the supplementary materials that were employed. Students were required to identify the purpose of listening in each activity and the ideas of those activities were taken from Underwood’s (1989) recommendations. These activities also pertinent to constructive approach for learners to construct meaning, develop understanding on a message and interact to make decision, solve problem or evaluate.
All the subjects’ scores and performance were recorded and analysed. Their scores on tests and results from questionnaire were recorded in mean score and standard deviation to perceive the learners’ performance and the effectiveness of constructive approach in teaching listening skills.
Figure 1: A Flow-Chart of Methods that were Used in Teaching and Learning Listening Skills through Constructive Approach.
RESULTS AND FINDINGS
Students’ performances were gauged through four tasks: Questionnaire, classroom observation (pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening) and pre-test and post-test.
Research Question 1
Table 1 depicts the results that were obtained from the YLLS questionnaire. The table is divided into four categories based on language learning strategies: listening strategies, vocabulary strategies, speaking strategies and translation strategies. The mean score of listening strategy (5.99) is the highest followed by speaking (4.63), vocabulary (2.94), and translation strategy (1.33) as shown in Table 1. The results show that both intermediate and upper-intermediate students mostly use listening and speaking strategies in the learning process compared to other strategies. The mean scores for listening and speaking under the category of high are 6.04 and 3.14 respectively. The data also reveals that the subjects have difficulties in vocabulary and translation strategies to perceive and convey messages.
Table 1: The Mean and Standard Deviation of Four Learning Strategies that Employed by Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate Students
Note: 1) High - Always or almost always used, usually used, 2) Medium – Sometimes used, 3) Low – Generally not used, never or almost never used.
However, the four strategies (listening, vocabulary, speaking and translation) are essential in teaching and learning listening among EFL students. All these strategies are inter-related with the purposes of listening: comprehensive, critical, appreciative and therapeutic listening. These are exposed through the pre, while, and post listening activities and exercises, where subjects are required to convey, interpret, and construct the message using the above strategies. The result from the YLLS questionnaire indicates the significance of the four strategies for the subjects to interact and transact the meaning of the message to the class and also to the facilitators. This shows the relevance between the four strategies and constructive approach that stresses on social interaction and construction of an understanding (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Weisglass, 1990; Kline, 1996; Zhang, 2007).
Based on the classroom observation for the first four weeks students performed in average in pre listening, while listening and post listening activities. This was because they had difficulties in interpreting and conveying the message because lack of knowledge on vocabulary. They also had problems to put on the words in correct sentences. Thus, many of them unable to respond effectively during the listening class. There were also some students who asked assistance from friends of the same nationality to explain or convey about the ideas. These students attempted to participate in classroom discussion and also in other kinds of activities although they were not good in speaking. However, there were some students that have lack of confidence to share their knowledge and also afraid of making mistakes. Thus, I had to do more discussion (open-talk) and role-plays to make the students involve in the classroom activities. Besides that, time-to-time of motivation is the main source to make the students to join the classroom activities.
Subjects performed better at the end of the semester. They became more interactive and tried to interact the meaning of a message by relating to the events that happening in the world today. They shared their existing knowledge to the whole classroom and managed to break the listening barriers that they had before. When the students were asked about their progress in listening skills, most of them answered that motivation and various kinds of activities helped them to improve. This revealed that teaching and listening through constructive approach really improved the subjects’ listening skills and also managed to build self-confidence in them. They are also capable in identifying the purpose of listening and determining main ideas in the listening piece.
In short, listening involves a great deal of effort of focusing on hearing input, create meaning and relate the message to existing knowledge (Redmon, 1996; Hasan, 2000) and constructive approach emphasizes thinking skills that are developed through accurate understanding on the message that they hear. Thompson et al. (2004), Weisglass (1990), Rost (2002) and Flowerdew (1994) affirm that listening is an active process that involves interaction and activation of prior knowledge. Thus, it can be said that purposes of listening and constructive learning theory are inter-related and they can help the students to make meaning and perceive a message by activating their existing knowledge.
RESEARCH QUESTION 2
Table 2 shows the results of pre-test and post-test from intermediate and upper-intermediate students whereas Figure 1 depicts the subjects’ overall scores in both pre-test and post-test. The grading scale of the results is Grade A (80% - 100%), Grade B (66% - 79%), Grade C (50% - 65%) and Grade D (0% - 49%). The passing marks are from Grade A to Grade C whereas Grade D is known as failed.
Table 2: The Percentage of Subjects’ Scores in Pre-test and Post-test from Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate Classrooms.
Tests (Percentage % of Subjects’ Scores)
Figure 2: The Percentage of Subjects’ Scores in Pre-test and Post-test
Figure 2 shows the percentage of subjects’ scores in both pre-test and post-test. The result reveals that 71% passed and 29% failed in the pre-test. However, with the constructive approach in teaching and learning cycle in listening produced 96% passed in the post-test with only 4 failures. The main reason of high failures in the pre-test was the subjects had difficulties in understanding the message from the sender. However, at the end of the course they have learned to infer and construct the content of the message, interact and convey the meanings and identify the purposes of listening. Their well performance can be referred to their scores in the post-test. The result shows that 46% of the subjects scored an A compared to 25% in the pre-test. The findings determine that constructive approach contributes efficiently in teaching and learning listening skills.
This reveals that teaching and learning listening through constructive approach is essential to allow listeners to employ their thinking skills relate to the message that they received. As
Richard (1983) states that learners need the ability to identify the purpose and scope of a lecture, identify the topic of a message and follow topic development, and identify the role of discourse markers in signalling the structure of a message. In order to be effective listeners, they need to focus more specific than just attending to what is being said. Therefore, Thomas and Dyer (2005) define that effective listening is a skill that can be achieved through study and practice.
In conclusion, my effort to teach listening skills through constructive learning theory really helped my students. They managed to overcome listening barriers and able to interact with one another with ideas, expression and critical thinking. It is true that constructive learning theory plays an essential role in teaching and learning listening skills (Glasserfeld, 1989; Weisglass, 1990; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Rost, 2002). Moreover, data and studies show that the ideas of constructive approach truly related to the purposes of listening. It means learners are required to interpret, feel, express, evaluate, convey, construct, interact and understand the meaning of the message that they have received.
The results show that initially the subjects had low self-confidence, inability to speak and express their ideas or perceive messages and many other barriers but they progressed through the exposure of constructive approach in teaching and learning listening skills. As said by Thomas and Dyer (2005), lessons and activities are important elements to develop the listening skills among learners. I found my students have improved and developed their listening skills through variety of activities. Most of the activities that were carried out were taken from Underwood (1989). Weisglass (1990) says that learning listening skills through constructive approach will help learners to think critically, comprehend messages, and express feelings that make sense in our society or world by only triggering their prior knowledge.