Archive for the ‘listening’ Category

One of the most common criticisms of schooling is that it typically requires learners to study in lockstep, with everyone expected to use the same learning material at the same pace to achieve the same learning objectives. From everything we know about individual learner differences, this is an unreasonable and unrealisable expectation. It is only natural, therefore, that we should assume that self-paced learning is a better option. Self-paced learning is at the heart of technology-driven personalized learning. Often, it is the only meaningfully personalized aspect of technology-delivered courses.

Unfortunately, almost one hundred years of attempts to introduce elements of self-pacing into formal language instruction have failed to produce conclusive evidence of its benefits. For a more detailed look at the history of these failures, see my blog post on the topic, and for a more detailed look at Programmed Learning, a 1960s attempt to introduce self-pacing, see this post. This is not to say that self-pacing does not have a potentially important role to play. However, history should act as a warning that the simple provision of self-pacing opportunities through technology may be a necessary condition for successful self-pacing, but it is not a sufficient condition.

Of all the different areas of language learning that can be self-paced, I’ve long thought that technology might help the development of listening skills the most. Much contemporary real-world listening is, in any case, self-paced: why should the classroom not be? With online listening, we can use a variety of help options (Cross, 2017) – pause, rewind, speed control, speech-to-text, dictionary look-up, video / visual support – and we control the frequency and timing of this use. Online listening has become a ‘semi-recursive activity, less dependent on transient memory, inching its way closer to reading’ (Robin, 2007: 110). We don’t know which of these help options and which permutations of these options are most likely to lead to gains in listening skills, but it seems reasonable to believe that some of these options have strong potential. It is perhaps unlikely that research could ever provide a definitive answer to the question of optimal help options: different learners have different needs and different preferences (Cárdenas-Claros & Gruba, 2014). But what is clear is that self-pacing is necessary for these options to be used.

Moving away from whole-class lockstep listening practice towards self-paced independent listening has long been advocated by experts. John Field (2008: 47) identified a key advantage of independent listening: a learner ‘can replay the recording as often as she needs (achieving the kind of recursion that reading offers) and can focus upon specific stretches of the input which are difficult for her personally rather than for the class as a whole’. More recently, interest has also turned to the possibility of self-paced listening in assessment practices (Goodwin, 2017).

So, self-paced listening: what’s not to like? I’ve been pushing it with the teachers I work with for some time. But a recent piece of research from Kathrin Eberharter and colleagues (Eberharter et al., 2023) has given me pause for thought. The researchers wanted to know what effect self-pacing would have on the assessment of listening comprehension in a group of young teenage Austrian learners. They were particularly interested in how learners with SpLDs would be affected, and assumed that self-pacing would boost the performance of these learners. Disappointingly, they were wrong. Not only did self-pacing have, on average, no measurable impact on performance, it also seems that self-pacing may have put learners with shorter working-memory capacity and L1 literacy-related challenges at a disadvantage.

This research concerned self-paced listening in assessment (in this case the TOEFL Junior Standard test), not in learning. But might self-paced listening as part of a learning programme not be quite as beneficial as we might hope? The short answer, as ever, is probably that it depends. Eberhart et al speculate that young learners ‘might need explicit training and more practice in regulating their strategic listening behaviour in order to be able to improve their performance with the help of self-pacing’. This probably holds true for many older learners, too. In other words, it’s not the possibility of self-pacing in itself that will make a huge difference: it’s what a learner does or does not do while they are self-pacing that matters. To benefit from the technological affordances of online listening, learners need to know which strategies (and which tools) may help them. They may need ‘explicit training in exploiting the benefits of navigational freedom to enhance their metacognitive strategy use’ (Eberhart et al. 2023: 17). This shouldn’t surprise us: the role of metacognition is well established (Goh & Vandergrift, 2021).

As noted earlier, we do not really know which permutations of help options are likely to be of most help, but it is a relatively straightforward matter to encourage learners to experiment with them. We do, however, have a much clearer idea of the kinds of listening strategies that are likely to have a positive impact, and the most obvious way of providing this training is in the classroom. John Field (2008) suggested many approaches; Richard Cauldwell (2013) offers more; and Sheila Thorn’s recent ‘Integrating Authentic Listening into the Language Classroom’ (2021) adds yet more. If learners’ metacognitive knowledge, effective listening and help-option skills are going to develop, the training will need to involve ‘a cyclic approach […] throughout an entire course’ (Cross, 2017: 557).

If, on the other hand, our approach to listening in the classroom continues to be (as it is in so many coursebooks) one of testing listening through comprehension questions, we should not be too surprised when learners have little idea what strategy to approach when technology allows self-pacing. Self-paced self-testing of listening comprehension is likely to be of limited value.


Cárdenas-Claros, M. S. & Gruba, P. A. (2014) Listeners’ interactions with help options in CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (3): 228 – 245

Cauldwell, R. (2013) Phonology for Listening: Teaching the Stream of Speech. Speech in Action

Cross, J. (2017) Help options for L2 listening in CALL: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 50 (4), 544–560.

Eberharter,K., Kormos, J.,  Guggenbichler, E.,  Ebner, V. S., Suzuki, S.,  Moser-Frötscher, D., Konrad, E. & Kremmel, B. (2023) Investigating the impact of self-pacing on the L2 listening performance of young learner candidates with differing L1 literacy skills. Language Testing 0 10.1177/02655322221149642

Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Goh, C. C. M. & Vandergrift, L. (2021) Teaching and learning second language listening: Metacognition in action (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Goodwin, S. J. (2017) Locus of control in L2 English listening assessment [Doctoral dissertation]. Georgia State University.

Robin, R. (2007) Commentary: Learner-based listening and technological authenticity. Language Learning & Technology, 11 (1): 109-115.

Thorn, S. (2021) Integrating Authentic Listening into the Language Classroom. Shoreham-by-Sea: Pavilion