Transitions to Academic Listening

By Peter Matthews and Niamh Mullen. Peter and Niamh completed their LITE Fellowship The Academic Listening Project in 2021.

 

It is difficult to observe the product of listening in others (Lynch, 2011). In comparison to reading, writing and speaking, we know little about the success of our students in listening. This knowledge gap led us to investigate the perceptions of international students whose first language is not English (L2 students) regarding listening in the HE environment at Leeds. While many students in our survey reported that they comprehended ‘all’ or ‘most’ of a typical semester 1 lecture, just under a third rated their comprehension as ‘very little’ or ‘some’. This compares to just under a quarter of respondents judging their comprehension in a typical semester 1 as ‘very little’ or ‘some’. More investigation is needed to understand to what extent reports of low levels of comprehension are related to language proficiency or related to low confidence in listening ability. On a positive note, there was evidence that listening comprehension improves with greater exposure to authentic spoken English as students’ studies progress.

Data from case-study and focus group students also suggest a relationship between the extent of students’ prior exposure to spoken English and their perception of their listening competence. In interviews with students, we found that many students’ prior experience of listening in English was limited to the spoken texts they had encountered in educational settings. These texts often include scripted performances with limited variation in speaker pronunciation. As such, they do not necessarily help students decode the prosodic features of English spoken at a natural speed, nor do they help with processing English spoken with unfamiliar accents – both of which were highlighted as significant challenges for some students in our study. While students may adapt to processing authentic spoken English with exposure during their studies at Leeds, this transitionary period may be a time of anxiety in which valuable information is missed or only partially understood.

To help students with this transition, we have developed a general listening to lectures resource that students can access via the Language Zone as well as a discipline-specific listening resource for PCI students. The aim of these self-study resources is to provide students with exposure to authentic spoken input and focus attention on the features of authentic speech that can inhibit aural processing. The materials are designed for students to complete either pre-arrival or very early in their studies and lessons centre on the analysis of features of academic spoken discourse. This includes raising students’ awareness of features such as word and sentence stress, weak vowel sounds, elision (the omission of sounds or syllables) and catenation (the joining of words in speech streams). These features can be responsible for discrepancies in the way words and phonemes are pronounced in speech streams compared to how they are pronounced in isolation.

The activities below are indicative of how the general and PCI listening resources raise awareness of the features of authentic speech.  In this example, the activities are designed to help students notice and then mark prosodic segments in speech streams.

 

The materials also include activities to develop students’ awareness of the structure and other discourse features of lectures.  This is in response to the importance placed on elements that we grouped as ‘content clarity’ taken from qualitative responses by many respondents in our survey. The aim of these activities is to help students create mental representations of lectures. The areas that are covered include recognising arguments and argument structure; identifying main and supporting points; identifying why and how lecturers synthesise the work of others; and recognising signposting language and other discourse markers.

The example below is taken from the PCI listening resource and is indicative of activities that focus on structure and other discourse features. This is an example of a series of questions designed to raise awareness of the ways in which speakers synthesise the work of others into their lectures.  This activity is then followed up with focus on the language that the speaker has used to achieve this (see underlined words and phrases).

We suggest that a broad range of ‘home’ and ‘international’ students may face challenges in their transition to academic listening. To address this, we are designing a massive, open, online course (MOOC) entitled ‘Listening Skills to Succeed at University’ in collaboration with Skills@Library and Digital Education Service colleagues. This MOOC will be a pre-arrival resource hosted on the Future Learn platform and will be accessible to all potential students. The course aims to support learners in identifying what is involved in effective academic listening, identifying the intercultural aspects of listening and explaining the impact of culture on communication as well as considering how to apply critical listening skills.

Our study found that processing unfamiliar accents from both first and second language speakers can be challenging for some students. In response to this, in a research project lead by Gisela Tome Lourido from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, we have begun to investigate the impact that targeted learning materials can have on the processing of unfamiliar accents.

Our LITE project has shed light on the challenges some L2 students face in their transition to listening in the academic context. The general and PCI listening resources along with the MOOC aim to assist students in this transition. We propose that targeted interventions prior to or very early in students’ academic sojourn can offer significant gains in terms of listening success.

 

Lynch, T. 2011. Academic Listening in the 21st Century: Reviewing a decade of research. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 10(2), pp. 79-88