Image courtesy of Calsidyrose
Note: This post is my submission for the 1st ELT Research Blog Carnival. If you are interested in knowing more about writing one yourself, please go to the ELT Research Blog Carnival website.

I was barely 16 and has just moved to the ‘big city’ when I started looking for my first job. With a fist full of resumes and a dress shirt and tie on, I wandered up and down the shopping mall looking for help wanted signs when I spotted a notice in the photo store window. Having grown up around photographers and my dad having a photo shop and studio when I was younger, I thought this would make a great fit. I strode up to the counter and asked for the manager. She came out and I politely introduced myself and handed her my resume. She took a minute to look things over before spinning around and grabbing a semi-professional camera off of the shelf. “Sell it to me,” she exclaimed as she handed the camera to me. I was stunned. In that moment, I was caught completely off guard and didn’t know what to do. I took the camera (which was a new model for me) and looked it over. My brain was whirling. I was panicking. All of those things I had prepared myself for before walking into the shop fell away. I knew about photography and cameras, but that sudden disruption to my plan took me off guard.

Now, think about your students at the moment just before you press play on the class CD that came with your textbook. Are they ready, or are they slipping into panic mode? Do they know what is expected of them or are they just left to figure things out as they go along? Compound the problem by making the listening a high-stakes test such as an exit exam. How do you think they feel now? Chang & Read (2006) explore ways of providing support to English language students in a listening task on a test. While the article targets test takers, the methods they use to help students can be used in other parts of the lesson.

The Study

Chang & Read explored four pre-listening techniques to find if there were any differences between them as well as the differences for upper and lower level listeners. I liked how they went about the process, although the sample size was fairly small (around 19-21 per sub-group). Even with that small sample, we can start to see the differences between the four way of providing pre-listening support. The four methods included:

  1. Previewing the questions (ie. students can view the questions well ahead of time)
  2. Repeated input (ie. students can listen to the audio recording more than once)
  3. Topic preparation (ie. students received general information about the listening topic ahead of time)
  4. Vocabulary instruction (ie. students were taught the specific language used in the recording ahead of time)

A week before the test, the third and fourth groups were given time to look over their material (topic preparation text or specific vocabulary). All of the groups were allowed to preview the questions, so the first group became the comparison group.

The Results

For both the lower level listeners and the higher level listeners, topic preparation and repeated input provided the largest change in scores. For the lower level group, topic preparation made the biggest difference. For the higher level group, repeated input was the highest, although the topic preparation was only marginally lower. For all listeners, vocabulary instruction was the lowest, even lower than the comparison group. The authors speculate that vocabulary instruction “drew the [higher level] students’ attention away from extracting the helpful clues that were available from a preview of the test items” (Chang & Read, 2006). In other words, they were listening for the words and not the content.


One of the things that the authors commented on, and I would agree, is that students and teachers focus too much attention on vocabulary instruction as a means of improving students’ listening ability. I believe that there is a small element of that which is true, but allowing students time to prepare for content intake as opposed to structural is far more beneficial than spending time expanding their personal lexis. For EAP students, reading the textbook or supporting material on the topic before the lecture is far better than spending a good deal of time memorizing the academic word list. It’s true, there isn’t always a chance for learners to prepare ahead of time (eg. IELTS or everyday speech), but then it may be more important than ever to help students fine tune their listening for key words or phrases near the beginning of the conversation or listening to understand what the topic is and what they should be listening for.

I don’t have a problem helping students prepare for what they are listening for. Supporting them through these or other means gives them time to learn how to listen without discouraging them. I have started to supply students with additional listening material that they can do on their own time that gives them text (transcripts) with the listening along with questions to help them think through what they are listening to. My students have said that they enjoy this type of listening and they are doing more of it than without that support. The biggest thing that I took away from this study was how little vocabulary instruction helps the students in listening. While it shouldn’t be completely dismissed, the time spent on vocabulary instruction for a listening could be better spent elsewhere.

I would like to know what you think about the study. Share your thoughts and ideas with others by commenting here or sharing on Twitter using the hashtag #eltresearch. Thank you!

Oh, and I did get the job at the camera shop after all of that. I ended up working in the photographic field for many years before becoming an English language teacher.


Chang, A. C-S., and Reid, J. (2006). The effects of listening support on the listening performance of EFL listeners. Tesol Quarterly, 40(2). 375-397. Retrieved from

10 thoughts on “Preparing

  1. So schema activation i.e. topic preparation was the kicker, eh? I’d argue that makes sense, given anyone who has tried a blind listening and compared it with topical pre-discussion. When you say “received general information about the listening ahead of time” though, that includes what? I’m sure schema activation hardly compares to specifics about the listening itself e.g. who is speaking, why they are speaking about this topic, background specific to the topic of that listening, etc.

    I’m not surprised about the low result for pre-teaching vocabulary. In the end, vocabulary in listening goes by so quickly that it is likely we fill the gaps in our minds anyways, provided we understand most of the non-technical lexis to get the gist. Where vocabulary teaching comes in handier is likely for writing or reading about the topic.

    1. Vocabulary is one of those things I am having a difficult time with lately. It seems like we spend a great deal of time on it with very little benefit. I am exploring the best ways in which to have students build their personal lexis without focusing too much on definitions. Contextual use seems to be the way I am leaning.

      In regards to schema building, that is what I have been harping on with my TESL students. This definitely leans that direction. The ‘general information’ that they received was actually written in the students’ L1, which was interesting to me. I haven’t done that before. It makes me think about having the students look for articles on a subject in their L1 before listening (I’m thinking about lower levels here). I haven’t fleshed the idea out yet, but it is something to think about for the time being.

      1. Interesting idea – background info in L1. That’s really just replicating what happens naturally i.e. learning about a topic long before you try doing so in L2. For more general topics, even without providing or student-generating L1 articles, it’s really what schema activation is all about.

        Now wasted time on vocabulary? I’ll have to disagree in a broad sense without knowing the context you’re basing it on. It’s one part, but not simply definition alone, that contributes to a change from intermediate to advanced in skill level. I think Leo Selivan would be more equipped to argue this though. I’m too tired right now to go beyond anecdotal evidence. 🙂

      2. I think I misrepresented what I meant by wasting time on vocabulary. Of course vocabulary is important, but the time and effort we put into vocabulary specifically, at least how it is represented in textbooks, seems out of balance to the amount of time we give to practicing and deepening the language learning. Without the vocabulary, we can’t move on, but building long lists of new words and then testing them through matching definitions and fill-in-the-blanks seems out of place with the rest of the coursework. I guess what I am trying to say is that the focus we give vocabulary, at least in the way it is primarily being taught, appears to give it prominence or higher importance than usage.

        It is the same problem I have with the way grammar is very often taught. Grammar worksheets or repetitive tasks taken out of context fail to give students the opportunities to really dig down deep into how the grammar is used. But that is for another blog post. 🙂

  2. Ahh. Yes, then I agree, particularly with the way those two systems are represented in many coursebooks – probably just one of the easier things to publish.

    Where I’m uncertain is in reality how much time teachers spend on teaching and practising vocabulary in the ways you mention. I’m sure it occurs, but hopefully the teaching and practising of multi-meaning words, collocation, word grammar and etc also do.

  3. This is an interesting piece. I think as much as you being asked to sell the product in the shop, you were asked to use language appropriate for the situation. I agree students can initially talk about the subject that is in the listening exercise. There is a lot of milage in this pre listening task such as phrases and vocabulary they might hear. Even looking at a picture can introduce the students to develop a conversation that could be said by the people in the picture. Thus after the listening, all that was said beforehand can be discussed again.

  4. I agree that preparation is great in many cases, but sometimes I fear that constantly scaffolding students may make them unprepared for the situation. For example, have you ever gone up to a student and commented on a random weather event, “Hey, weird weather, right?” only to have their response be, “I’m fine thank you. How are you?”

    So while I agree that some listening activities students should be able to mentally prepare for, there still should be some which are down without this level of preparation. That’s not to say no pre-listening would be done, but not as much as with others.

    1. I agree, we don’t want to be doing this all of the time, otherwise they become dependent on it. The thing is that there seems to be two camps on this: people who believe we shouldn’t be preparing students for anything since we don’t get that in ‘real’ life; and those who think we need to do it all of the time. I feel the best situation is somewhat in the middle. We need to be teaching them how to do it on their own. We do it all of the time when we are listening or reading. Technical material that has a complex lexis gives us a glossary of important terms. We start off discussions by providing background information (ex. “The other day I was talking with you about…”). Pre-listening and pre-reading tasks should be about building the language skills to let them do it on their own. It should change as they grow. More support to start, less afterward.

      The point of this post was to show the ways our brains work, not suggest that we need to be doing things this way all of the time. I think there is a place for this is the learning process, it just isn’t a formula for success. It is one piece of the puzzle.

      I figure we are on the same wavelength here.

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