Review: Teaching and Researching Listening – Michael Rost

Over the last month or so, I have started reading ELT books heavily again. You could say that I took a six-month hiatus after the 2020 summer – the pandemic has held most of my attention, creating a whole new world of problems to deal with in the academy, classroom, and, well, the world in general. The first book I picked up after my break was Michael Rost’s Teaching and Researching Listening, a book that I have had on my shelf for years. I initially bought this when I was doing my Delta, used it as a reference after reading a few chapters, and then did the I-will-read-it-later. I was very glad that I picked it up again after so much time.

Three-sentence summary

Teaching and Researching, as the title suggests, takes the reader on a journey into the world of listening from teaching and researching perspectives. The book is split into three parts that each cover a different aspect – the first covers what listening is, the second covers the teaching of listening and the pedagogical ‘things’ that teachers need to take into consideration, and the third covers the researching of listening, with a load of research project ideas that will make you want to start using your students as guinea pigs. It is a book that is written from an applied linguistics perspective, however without being impracticable – you learn a load of nice-to-know, pedagogic and linguistic things whilst also still coming away with plenty of practical ideas for the classroom.

Three takeaways

Like most books, this has way more than only three takeaways. This being said, I have tried to nail down three of the most important things that I learnt from this book.

  1. Listening is the ‘trigger for acquisition’ (Rost, 2002, p. 116). In essence, this means that listening is the main way in which learners gain access to an L2, and thus listening should take a primary focus in our classrooms. This does not necessarily mean listening ‘activities’ in the traditional sense, however. VYLs and YLs need to be exposed to the language for them to start acquiring it, however as learners progress in their proficiency in an L2, they need to have an opportunity to interact with the language – here is where interactive listening comes into the picture. Interactive listening forces learners to produce output, and through positive feedback (e.g. expected interlocutor response) and negative feedback (unexpected response/communication breakdown) they are able to continuously modify their interlanguage, build awareness of various prototypical discourses and sociocultural conversation norms (e.g. turn-taking). For those of you interested, this also falls in line with Long’s Interaction Hypothesis (1985) and Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis (2000).
  2. Learning to listen and Listening to learn are not the same, and, more often than not, have different end results. Rost speaks about the differences between L1 and L2 listening development and syntactic processing, making reference to what is understood on the surface and what is actually taken in by the learner (input) and then acquired (intake), i.e. ‘not all input becomes intake’ (Rost, 2002, p. 97). For a new form to be taken from input to uptake, learners need to have sufficient cognitive capacity and a motivation to detect new forms. If learners are attending to too much new content, especially content/lexis and grammar, then they are not going to be able to detect and notice the meaning/use of the desired form; rather, they will store this information in short-term memory and try to make sense out of whatever they can. The implication for this is that when we are teaching grammar (or lexis) through listening, we need to be sure that learners have sufficient support in both understanding the context (e.g. via activating relevant schemata with pre-listening tasks) as well as have the necessary linguistic resources to be able to notice the target language (i.e. ensuring that the text is not too far above their level of understanding).
  3. Listening strategy instruction is a vital aspect of L2 listening instruction and needs to follow certain conditions, which you can see below. Any listening strategy instruction needs to be done in a way that learners have plenty of opportunities to use it in context and see its effects. This process then needs continuous reinforcing so that learners become ‘one with the strategy’ so to speak.
    • Learner needs to recognise that there is a need to compensate for something, e.g. not being able to understand the meaning of a word in a text
    • A text needs to present a valid point for a strategy to be used
    • The strategy needs to provide a ‘payoff in knowledge’
    • The strategy needs to be able to be used in other texts with similar results

What I liked

  • It’s written in a way that allows the reader to go into the world of linguistics without getting sidetracked and/or confused. Rost does very well at communicating complex ideas (e.g. the process of listening!) clearly.
  • Plenty of oh, that’s why that is! moments.
  • Takes you through many research ideas as well as how to write up your own action research reports (very interesting!).
  • And, of course, some practical ideas to try out in the classroom. Here are some that I really liked:
    • Pause listening: Rost talks about a load of research focused on short-term memory limitations, namely that one-minute may be the ‘optimal training window’ (2002, p. 145) as any longer than that and our ability to recall information is severally dampened. One way to aid learners in developing their listening skills is to have longer text, however pause at regular intervals and have them summarise what they heard, give their opinions, etc. This way they will have a clearer mental representation of the text and on the second time through will have more chances of being successful when completing questions that focus on specific parts of the text.
    • Listening to notice: When teaching grammar, there are loads of fun things you can do. However we seldom think of listening texts as the best way to get learners to notice how the features of a language work. Listening to notice is basically providing learners with some kind of text with one main piece of grammar in focus (e.g. articles or relative pronouns). From here learners are given a gap fill to complete (with missing words that are part of the grammatical feature) and then they are asked to analyse these words (and the grammatical feature) to come up with their own conclusions regarding how they work. Now, this sounds like guided discovery, right? Well, yeah, it is. However, before this there are loads of other tasks that can be done with the text (listening for comprehension) and it breaks from the more common methods of grammar presentation. The thing that I love about this is that it allows for grammar to be taught completely in context and it uses the learners themselves as the tools for ‘discovery’.
    • Selective listening note-taking: We have all had our learners take notes before – in fact a lot of learners do this themselves. However, Rost advocates a more disciplined approach, with teachers guiding learners. We can try getting learners to focus on macro-sections of the text, for specific numbers or figures, or even having different learners focus on different parts of the texts. What is important is not the note-taking per se however; rather, it is what is done with these, and this is where most note-taking activities fall short. Learners need to see that their note-taking achieves something (which means their listening skills are achieving something). So, ensure that learners (especially EAP classes) are tasked with something that requires them to achieve something with their notes.

What I didn’t like

  • Some of the sections were a little shallow – I would have liked to have gone a little deeper into some of the topics. However, this is to be expected with a book that is trying to cover everything related to listening. And, I have to say, that I read the first edition – it is in its third edition now, so perhaps the later editions have more information in the sections that I would have liked to learn more.
  • Reflection tasks: A lot of ELT and linguistic books that I have read often include reflection tasks for readers. While they are not necessary (and I often skip them), I think they would have been a nice edition to the book. If for nothing else, for the backwash effect of encouraging teachers to include reflection in their classes.

Who should read this book?

  • Delta candidates for sure. As anyone taking Delta knows, you cannot read every book that everyone recommends. However, if one of your LSAs focuses on listening, this will be a great resource book to have on hand. Parts 1 and 2 are your go-to parts.
  • Teachers who are looking for ideas for exploiting listening tasks and taking their learners’ listening abilities to the next level. If this is you, Part 2 is definitely the one you want to read.
  • Trainers who wish to pass on relevant listening skills knowledge to their teachers. Part 1 is a must and Part 2 will provide plenty of ideas.
  • Action researchers who love using their learners as guinea pigs. Part 3 will be a goldmine for you.

Final note

As mentioned above, I read the first edition, and so you may wish to check out the later editions for more up-to-date research and ideas. That being said, I found this book to be a delight to read as well as super educational. This is actually part of an Applied Linguistics in Action series from Pearson Education, and I loved it so much I bought and am currently reading Dornyëi’s Teaching and Researching Motivation. They have a load of other titles as well – do check them out and let me know what you think.

Book details

Title: Teaching and Researching Listening

Author: Michael Rost

ISBN: 9780582369306

Pages: 309

Amazon affiliate link

References

Long, M. (1985) A role for instruction in Second Language learning. In N. Hyltemstam and M. Pienemann (eds), Modeling and assessing second language acquisition. London: Multilingual Matters.

Rost, M. (2002) Teaching and Researching Listening. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Swain, M. (2000) The output hypothesis and beyond: mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J, Lantolf (ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford university Press.

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