amount of research has been developed in the past
few years in an attempt to provide an account
of how incoming aural information is processed and
comprehended by FL learners. As has been assumed, by
means of complex processes listeners construct meaningful
representations which are identified by short-term
memory and then stored in long-term memory. Listening
comprehension is thus considered a complex, active
and conscious process in which listeners also make
use of their prior-knowledge and contextual cues to
process and understand meaning from texts (Call, 1985;
O’Malley et. al, 1989; Richards, 1983).
This paper is an attempt to provide an overview of
what is posited in the literature about listening comprehension;
to call attention to the difficulty encountered by
listeners when engaged in processing aural information
and to present and discuss pedagogical recommendations
to enhance listening comprehension in language learning/teaching.
have a limited-capacity working memory that is used
in tasks such as reasoning and comprehending
To avoid exceeding the limit of cognitive resources
in working memory, individuals transform sentences
into chunks – the unit or segments of processed
information. After this transformation, individuals
extract basic units of meaning named propositions.
This transformation of texts into segments in listening
comprehension is possible because there is an interaction
of syntactic, semantic and phonological knowledge.
When transformations into chunks are not possible,
problems occur in comprehension reflecting the fact
that there has not been an interplay between the information
presented and the listeners’ knowledge of the
language or their knowledge of the topic (O’Malley
et al., 1985; Richards, 1989).
After recognising linguistic elements, individuals
need to retain them in their working memory in order
to interpret meaning. Although meaningful mental representations
are constructed based on the words and the message
heard, rather than retaining details of syntax or wording,
it is the general meaning that will be maintained in
memory. In other words, once propositional meaning
is interpreted and reconstructed, the original form
of message is deleted (Call, 1985; Berquist, 1997).
During listening comprehension in second language,
complex texts may be particularly difficult to be processed
because memory is already overloaded with unencoded
elements while having to deal with the combination
of segments during comprehension. One way of facilitating
this is to save cognitive resources by activating knowledge
in long-term memory and then relating it to new information..
An incoming message is thus interpreted through creative
and active processes in which listeners elaborate on
new information by using old information, Different
parts of the text may be connected by listeners based
on what they already know about the topic. When incoming
information and previous knowledge are matched against
each other, comprehension occurs (Faerch & Kasper,
1986). Thus, during the listening comprehension process,
the body of knowledge listeners have about a specific
situation will enable them to interpret a great amount
of information processed.
When meaning is interpreted based on linguistic knowledge,
listeners can be said to use ‘bottom-up’ processing. In this case, meaning is being
constructed word by word or by linking segments in order to generate larger
units of meaning. Since ‘memory works with propositions, not with sentences’ (
Richards, 1983: 221), more of an individual’s cognitive resources and
time will be required for processing the meaning of text. Less proficient listeners
show that they directed their attention to the surface of the language to comprehend
the aural information. Recognising linguistic elements, while essential to
the process, is not sufficient for comprehending what is heard. Listeners must
be able to retain these elements in short-term memory long enough to interpret
the utterance to which they are attending. During the process of comprehending
incoming information, listeners should be able to combine and integrate the
most important parts in order to free cognitive resources which should be available
for the construction of the general meaning which is constructed in terms of
deletion, generalisation and construction (Kintsch & Van Dijk, 1978; Eysenck &Keane,
Incoming information is also inferred based on listener’s pre-existing
schemata. As has been suggested, understanding spoken language is essentially
an inferential process based on a perception of cues rather than straightforward
matching of sound to meaning. When incoming information cannot be completely
processed, inferences make texts comprehensible. As noted by Faerch & Kasper
(1986), in order to ‘bridge’ gaps in input or knowledge, learners
- especially L2 learners - make guesses based on any information available.
The use of elaborative inferences helps in the creation of an overall mental
model of a passage. This model is constructed by filling in the missing links
of a sequence in a text, thus the coherence of constituents of a passage is
maintained (Whitney et al, 1991). That is, contextual information and linguistic
knowledge helps to infer meaning of unknown items. As stated in Smith et al.
(1994), the ability to make inferences is central to efficient communication.
They change general concepts into more concrete ideas. As a result, these ideas
are more easily maintained in memory.
This conceptual view presented above offers a general view of listening comprehension
and is the reference for a qualitative analysis of representative examples
of how meaning is constructed by students at three different levels of competence.
Data and participants
The participants in this study were Brazilian secondary
school students divided into three different levels
of competence. The division into three different levels
of competence followed the criteria established in the
EFL program developed at the school, which distinguishes
level one as advanced; level two as intermediate and
level three as beginner.
Students listened to two texts. One as warm-up and
the other as the target text. Subjects were informed
that their task was to try to comprehend the recorded
passage. When the text ended, they were asked to write,
in Portuguese, whatever and as much information understood