by Stephanie Walla on May 17, 2016


Listening Myths Five Years On

Steven Brown

I recently had a chance to both write a handbook article and give a presentation on current approaches to teaching listening. The preparation for both gave me a chance to look back at Listening Myths five years after its publication (Brown, 2011). I want to look at four themes that I cover in the book that have, if anything, increased in importance: vocabulary, pronunciation, affect, and captioning.

One of the major themes of Listening Myths is the necessity of acquiring a robust, active listening vocabulary. Often vocabulary teaching is assigned to a reading class. In those already packed classes, there is little time to practice the spoken versions of the words and phrases. So, when students listen, they frequently do not recognize the words they know. There are really two problems here: word recognition (breaking up the speech stream, recognizing where one word ends and the other begins) and vocabulary knowledge.

To help with word recognition, Prince (2013) argues for dictogloss as a solid element of a listening comprehension program. Dictogloss is a technique in which students hear a passage (a paragraph or so) spoken at normal speed and then pairs or groups of students reconstruct that passage from notes. The point is to use their own resources to get a good approximation of the meaning, not an exact copy. Dictogloss, Prince suggests, may be effective because it helps students note the presence of unknown words and it highlights chunks of language.

Vocabulary knowledge is crucial to good listening. Staehr (2009) found that vocabulary breadth accounted for 49% of the variance (what is to be explained) in listening scores. That is, the primary difference between those who did well on their listening tests and those who did not was the size of their vocabulary. Matthews and Cheng (2015) update those findings, determining that knowledge of the 3000 most common words from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English would predict 52% of listening scores.

To fully know a word is to know its pronunciation, and the relationship between pronunciation and listening has been more extensively discussed in the past five years than perhaps ever before. (See, for example, Grant 2014 and Jones 2016.) Learners need to work on recognizing thought groups, on stress and intonation, and on individual sounds. There are a number of ways to go about this in the classroom, and I suggest several of them in Listening Myths. Working with the transcripts of the listening audio available in teacher’s manuals, students can group the script into thought groups, drawing lines as the teacher reads. They can then practice with each other. The teacher may also dictate individual words and the students may put them into columns (stress on the first syllable, the second, the third). To practice reduced forms, teachers may dictate, for example, Whaddaydthink? and students write What do you think?

 Listening Myths looks at the role of individual differences in listening.  One slight surprise in this area is the mushrooming of research into the role of affect on listening in the past five years. The existence of an anxiety specifically related to listening was proposed by Elkhafaifi in 2005. Since then, several studies, including those by Golchi (2012), Zhang (2013) and Brunfaut and Révèsz (2015) have found that anxiety has a negative effect on measures of listening. The question remains: What do we do in the classroom to alleviate this?

Captioning is looked at in the context of the use of multimedia. This is another area of listening research that has been very popular in the past five years. Vanderplank (2010) summarized a decade’s worth of research into video captioning (same language as the audio) and video subtitling (translation of the audio) and found widespread agreement that both are (captions more so) useful for the development of word recognition, for comprehension of details, and for reducing anxiety. Winke, Gass and Sydorenko (2013) argue that captioning helps learners chunk speech and perhaps improves their vocabulary. Vanderplank (2016) suggests that captions today offer both increased learner autonomy and the potential for virtual communities.

Thus, the necessity of vocabulary knowledge; the role of bottom-up processes, seen in the intersection of pronunciation and listening; the role of affect; and the use of technology remain as important today in listening as I thought five years ago. New studies continue to clarify and expand the story of listening research and its classroom applications.



Brown, S. (2011). Listening myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brunfaut, T. & Révész, A. (2015). The role of task and listener characteristics in second language listening. TESOL Quarterly, 49, 141-168.

Elkhafaifi, H. (2005). Listening comprehension and anxiety in the Arabic language classroom. Modern Language Journal, 89, 206-220.

Golchi, M.M. (2012). Listening anxiety and its relationship with listening strategy use and listening comprehension among Iranian IELTS learners. International Journal of English Linguistics, 2, 115-128.

Grant, L. (ed.) (2014). Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.  

Jones, T. (ed.) (2016). Pronunciation in the classroom: The overlooked essential. Alexandria VA: TESOL Press.

Matthews, J. & Cheng, J. (2015). Recognition of high frequency words from speech as a predictor of L2 listening comprehension. System 52, 1-13.

Prince, P. (2013). Listening, remembering, writing: Exploring the dictogloss task. Language Teaching Research, 17, 486-500.

Staehr, L.S. (2009). Vocabulary knowledge and advanced listening comprehension in English as a foreign language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 31, 577-607.

Vanderplank, R. (2010). Déjà vu? A decade of research on language labs, TV and video in language teaching. Language Teaching, 43, 1-37.

Vanderplank, R. (2016). ‘Effect of’ and ‘effects with’ captions: How exactly does watching a TV programme with same-language subtitles make a difference to language learners? Language Teaching 49, 235-250.

Winke, P., Gass, S. & Sydorenko, T. (2013). Factors influencing the use of captions by foreign language learners: An eye-tracking study. Modern Language Journal, 97, 254-275.

Zhang, X. (2013). Foreign language listening anxiety and listening performance: Conceptualizations and causal relationships. System, 41, 164-177.

Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: