Is Listening Comprehension Influenced by the Background Knowledge of the Learners? A Case Study of Iranian EFL learners
November 2006. Volume 1 Issue 3
Is Listening Comprehension Influenced by the Background Knowledge of the Learners?
A Case Study of Iranian EFL learners
F. Sadighi is a professor of Applied Linguistics and teaches graduate courses (M.A. and Ph.D.) in Applied Linguistics at Shiraz University.
S. Zare is an EFL instructor and teaches English language at different levels of instruction, especially IELTS and TOEFL, at different language schools and institutes.
Article: PDF version
Listening has long been the neglected skill in second language acquisition, research, teaching, and assessment. However, in recent years there has been an increased focus on L2 listening ability because of its perceived importance in language learning and acquisition. The present study explored the effect of background knowledge on listening comprehension. Two TOEFL preparation classes allocated to EFL students took part in the study. The experimental group received some treatment in the form of topic familiarity, and their background knowledge was activated. Then a 50-item TOEFL test of listening comprehension was administered to both experimental and control groups. A statistical analysis of the results provides some evidence in support of the effect of background knowledge on listening comprehension.
Keywords: Listening comprehension, background knowledge, L2 listeners, EFL learners.
Second language listening comprehension is a complex process and crucial in the development of second language competence; yet, the importance of listening in language learning has only been recognized relatively recently (Nunan, 1998; Celce-Murcia, 2001). Since the role of listening comprehension in language learning was either overlooked or undervalued, it merited little research and pedagogical attention in the past. But at present, some researchers have devoted some time to listening and believe it to be an important skill in teaching and learning. For instance, Nunan (1998) believes that:
… listening is the basic skill in language learning. Without listening skill, learners will never learn to communicate effectively. In fact over 50% of the time that students spend functioning in a foreign language will be devoted to listening…. (p. 1)
As listening is assuming greater importance in foreign language classrooms and in language acquisition (see, e.g., Nord, 1978; Byrnes, 1984; Long, 1989; Feyten, 1991; Dunkel, 1991), researchers have tried to do some detailed study of this skill. One idea that has been of focus is the role of the listener as an active processor and the type of knowledge that he/she brings to the context of listening. In other words, these have been attempts to investigate whether the background of the listener has any effect on the process of listening.
Background: Theoretical Perspective
One aspect of language processing widely held as supporting and enhancing comprehension is that of mental schemata. Research in reading supports the notion that activating prior knowledge or knowledge of the world and applying this knowledge to new input greatly facilitates processing and understanding (Christen & Murphy, 1991; Graves & Cook, 1980; Hayes & Tierney, 1982; Stevens, 1982). Listening, like reading, is an active process that entails construction of meaning beyond simple decoding. Activation of what is known about the world clearly assists processing the aural code.
Some researchers consider the role of schematic knowledge as one of the factors affecting comprehension. Brown and Yule (1983), for example, describe schemata as “organized background knowledge which leads us to expect or predict aspects in our interpretation of discourse” (p. 248). The listener’s stereotypical knowledge based on prior experiences predisposes him or her to construct expectations in terms of seven areas: speaker, listener, place, time, genre, topic, and co-text. Brown and Yule (1983) contend that the listener uses two basic principles to relate the new information to his or her previous experience: the principle of analogy, i.e. things will be as they were before and the principle of minimal change, i.e., things are as like as possible to how they were before.
In a discussion of ways in which listeners form inferences and use them to interpret spoken language, Rost (1990 as cited in Schmidt-Rinehart, 1994) suggests inferential processes at three levels (lexical or propositional, base or schematic, and interpersonal relevance) and proposes editing principles and procedures by which listeners construct meaning. He defines base meaning for a text as the cultural and experiential frame of reference that makes a text interpretable by a listener. Rost (2002 as cited in Vandergrift 2002) defines listening as a process of receiving what the speaker actually says, constructing and representing meaning, negotiating meaning with the speaker and responding, and creating meaning, and creating meaning through involvement, imagination and empathy. He believes that listening is a complex, active process of interpretation in which listeners match what they hear with what they already know. These theories underscore background knowledge as a critical component of the listening process.
Few empirical studies have explored the potential relationship between prior knowledge and listening comprehension. Mueller (1980) investigated the effects on listening comprehension of locus of contextual visuals for different levels of aptitude of beginning college German students. The aptitude variable consisted of two levels (high and low) that was determined by the subjects’ grades in the preceding German course. He found that the students who had the contextual visual before hearing the passage scored significantly higher on the recall measure than those in the visual-after and the no-visual groups.
In order to determine the influence of religion-specific background knowledge on the listening comprehension of ESL students of varying religion, Markham and Latham (1987) used passages describing prayer rituals of Islam and Christianity. The data indicated that religious background influences listening comprehension. The subjects in this study recalled more information and provided more elaborations and fewer distortions for the passage that related to their own religion.
Long (1990) conducted an exploratory study of background knowledge and L2 listening comprehension. Her third-quarter students of Spanish listened to two passages- one was deemed familiar, the other unfamiliar. Comprehension was assessed by a recall protocol in English and a recognition measure, a checklist comprised of statements that referred to the content of the passage and purposefully false statements that were plausible according to the context. On the checklist, students identified items that were mentioned in the passage. Although the English summaries revealed a higher proportion of correct idea units for the familiar topic, no significant differences were found between the familiar and unfamiliar passages for the recognition measure.
Bacon’s (1992) research sheds light on the effect of background knowledge during listening process. She investigated strategies used in three phases identified by Anderson (1985): perceptual, parsing, and utilization. Her sample comprised students of Spanish enrolled in the first course beyond the degree foreign language requirement. After listening to two expository passages selected from a Voice of America broadcast, subjects reported their strategy use and comprehension in an interview situation. Regarding background knowledge, she found little use of advance organizers during the perceptual phase, but effective use of previous knowledge during the utilization phase. She reported that successful listeners tended to use their personal, world, and discourse knowledge while less successful listeners either built erroneous meaning from their prior knowledge or ignored it altogether.
Chiang and Dunkel (1992) investigated the effect of speech modification, prior knowledge, and listening proficiency on EFL listening comprehension. After listening to a lecture, the Chinese EFL students’ comprehension was measured by a multiple-choice test that contained both passage-dependent and passage-independent items. Regarding topic familiarity, the subjects scored higher on the familiar-topic lecture than on the unfamiliar-topic lecture.
Schmidt-Rinehart (1994) carried out a study with the main purpose of discovering the effects of topic familiarity on L2 listening comprehension. University students of Spanish at three different course levels listened to two familiar passages, one about a familiar topic and another about a novel topic. The passages represented authentic language in that the recordings were from spontaneous speech of a native speaker. Listening comprehension was assessed through a native language recall protocol procedure. Subjects scored considerably higher on the familiar topic than on the new one. She concludes that background knowledge in the form of topic familiarity emerges as a powerful factor in facilitating listening comprehension.
With a glance into the existing literature, it is felt that there is a shortage of studies with respect to background knowledge and listening comprehension in EFL contexts. It seems that the EFL field is in need of further studies investigating the issue of background knowledge and listening comprehension. Therefore, it is hoped that the results of this study cast some light on this issue and pave the way for a better teaching of listening.
The Research Question
The main concern of the study is: Is Listening Comprehension Influenced by the Background Knowledge of the Learners?
This study was conducted with two classes each containing 12 students studying in TOEFL preparation classes. The class which received the treatment was in Pouya Language Institute and the control group was in Shiraz University Language Center (SULC). They were chosen based on their availability.
In terms of homogeneity, the two classes had roughly spent 400 hours of instruction in English before coming to the TOFEL classes. During that period, they had studied New Interchange Books 1, 2, and 3 and later on Passages 1 and 2 which are supplementary to the New Interchange Books. They are considered as upper-intermediate to advanced levels. They also had a TOEFL placement examination before entering the TOEFL classes.
Since the placement examinations taken were different, the researcher used another TOEFL test (ETS, 2001) in a pilot study to determine their homogeneity. The test consisted of 140 multiple questions, i.e. 50 listening comprehension, 40 structure and written expressions and 50 reading comprehension. A t-test was run between the two tests to see if there was any significant difference between the two groups or not. There was no significant difference between the two groups (t-value = 0.184, P> 0.05, df 22). In order to check the listening ability of the two groups before the experiment and see whether there was any difference in their level of performance, the grades of the students on the listening section of the test were subjected to another t-test. There was again no significant difference between the two groups (t-value = -0.06, P>0.05, df 22).
A TOEFL test of language proficiency constructed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS, 2001) was used. The test given to the students consisted of 50 listening questions which aimed to measure their listening comprehension. The attempt was to choose a test that was not available to the students.
Procedures for Data Collection and Data Analysis
Based on the topics covered in the listening material the students under study received instruction for two consecutive sessions by the researcher and the third session was devoted to the test. Students were asked to make themselves ready before coming to the class. They were asked to work on the topics by using different sources such as the Internet. The materials which were supposed to be taught included five topics: student housing, the Ice Age, old architecture, coffee drinkers, and photography. The first class session was divided into two forty-five minute halves and two of the topics, i.e. student housing and coffee drinkers, were discussed in each half. Since the other three topics seemed to be a little bit technical and it was felt that the students might not be able to discuss them for a longer period, the second session was divided into three thirty-minute parts and these three topics, i.e. the Ice Age, old architecture, and photography were discussed. Through the discussion, the information was elicited from the students. The students were asked to put forward their opinions and findings and then the researcher tried to challenge them. At the end of each discussion, the researcher wrapped up the topic and provided them with adequate information on the basis of materials in the listening test.
The control group test was held simultaneously. The two tests were performed by using a tape recorder and a tape inside the classroom and the time limit was the standard time considered by the testing organization, i.e. 35 minutes. The tape was played only once.
After collecting the data and scoring the tests, statistical analyses were performed using SPSS for Windows, version 10.0. First, by using the descriptive statistics, the mean, standard deviation, range, skewness, and kurtosis for both groups were calculated in order to examine the central tendencies and variability of the scores. Then, a t-test was run to see if there was any significant difference between the experimental and control groups.
Results and Discussions
Descriptive statistics for the results of the application of the test to the experimental group (EG) and control group (CG) are presented in table 1.
Table 1: Descriptive statistics for the results of the test
Figures 1 and 2 show the frequency of the scores of EG and CG and their distributions.
Figure 1.The frequency of the scores of the EG.
Figure 2.The frequency of the scores of the CG.
The mean of the EG is 43.16, and that of CG is 34.5. The standard deviation for the EG is 3.78, and that of the CG is 4.56. The range of the scores of the EG is 11, whereas that of the CG is 15. Both the range and the standard deviation indicate that there is more variation among the subjects’ scores of the CG as compared with the EG. Considering the obtained data, one can claim that the subjects in the EG group performed more homogeneously than those of the CG. Therefore, it can be concluded that this homogeneity is due to the treatment given to the EG.
The distribution of the scores of both EG and CG is positively skewed, though the former is more positively skewed (0.666 and 0.403, respectively). This shows that the scores of the EG group have been closer to each other than those of the CG. In addition, the distribution of the scores obtained from the application of the test to both groups is flat (EG= -0.88 and CG= -0.67). This, too, indicates the fact that there is a rather higher variation among the subjects’ scores of the CG.
In all, putting all descriptive statistics together, it can be assumed that the performance of the EG has improved due to the treatment, and subjects in this group performed more homogeneously than those in CG.
Table 2 represents the t-test and the difference between the means of the two groups (EG and CG).
Table 2: Independent samples t-test.
The t-test and the difference between the means of the two groups
Std. Error of Difference
As the table indicates, the difference between the means of the scores of the two groups is statistically significant (P< 0.05, t-value = 5.06). This shows that the subjects in EG performed better in the test and this better performance seems to be the result of the treatment (familiarizing them with the materials and activating their background knowledge) given to them.
The result of the study supports those of Markham and Latham (1987), Chiang and Dunkel (1992), and Schmidt-Rinehart (1994), since they all claimed that background knowledge and topic familiarity would improve students’ performance in listening comprehension.
The results of the study, on the other hand, contradict that of Long (1990) in that she observed no significant difference between the familiar and unfamiliar passages for the recognition measure, though the English summaries revealed a higher proportion of correct units for the familiar topic. At the same time, the results of the study contradict the perceptual phase of Bacon’s (1992) study in which she found little use of advance organizers during this phase.
In sum, the findings of the study show that the experimental group had a better performance as compared with the control group in their listening comprehension, and this better performance in the listening test seems to be the result of the background of the subjects in the EG.
Although one study cannot dictate instructional practice, it can provide directions. Findings regarding the supportive role of background knowledge are consistent with the findings of the majority of L2 listening studies. It seems, therefore, that educators who advocate the use of advance organizers and other types of pre-listening exercises that activate appropriate background knowledge are making suggestions that are congruent with the research results. It is important for teachers to recognize that students’ existing knowledge contributes significantly to their comprehension and that listening is not a passive activity. Taking time to assess the conceptual base the listeners bring to the text will enable teachers to go beyond dealing with the linguistic information in order to help students understand and make their learning more meaningful. The result of this study and others indicate that helping students make connections to their previous knowledge in order to build a mental framework with which to link the new information might facilitate comprehension.
Students’ comments after the listening exercise may also provide insight for educators. Many students have indicated that they experience difficulty making the transition from understanding classroom talk to understanding natural language. Their comments suggest that more exposure to authentic speech as well as activating their prior knowledge might be helpful. In order to prepare students for communication as it exists in the real world, it is necessary for teachers to expose them to natural, native-like speech. In planning lessons, teachers should incorporate authentic listening materials from a variety of registers as well as realistic listening tasks.
The results of this study, nonetheless, suffer from a few shortcomings. First, in this study the effect of background knowledge in the form of topic familiarity was investigated with the students of upper-intermediate to advanced levels. Some questions are left unanswered. Do more or less proficient listeners than this group use schema-based processing to the same degree? At some level of listening proficiency, does linguistic knowledge override the effects of background knowledge? Second, this study was conducted with just one type of instrument, i.e. a piece of listening taken from TOEFL examination, and the aim was authentic speech. Future studies can use other instruments like video tapes and see the effects of different types of speech – the one which stimulates a radio announcement, a television interview, etc. Finally, this study was conducted with a small number of students and the sample was limited. Studies can be done with a larger population and see the results.
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