Whole-class, lockstep listening appears to be a common and widely accepted teaching practice. It allows the instructor to control the input, it is a convenient way of dealing with large classes, and it is regularly incorporated into mainstream textbook methodology. However, it makes no allowance for learner differences, nor is it based on any sound pedagogical principle. So shouldn't we be seriously questioning the validity and value for learners and learning of this traditional imposition of content, level and pace of listening?
In fact, rather than language learning, this practice seems more akin to language testing. That is, it tends to involve quizzing students on what they can or cannot understand in the L2 at any particular moment. The instructor, in attempting to validate the whole misguided process, tries to get learners to participate in a question/answer exchange, and inevitably there are awkward silences and feelings of inadequacy when a student cannot supply the desired response. Then the instructor—as fount of knowledge and, of course, with transcript and teacher's book conveniently close at hand—has to provide the 'correct' answer for her/his deflated audience. It is then not surprising if such a scenario leads to anxiety, frustration and resistance on the part of many learners.
If we accept the importance of meaningful and comprehensible input to language acquisition (Krashen, 1985), then learners need to be challenged slightly beyond their interlanguage capabilities in order to make steady progress. Only individualised self-study listening practice, with all the choices that it involves, is able to allow for this. And of course, who better than learners, with the assistance of trained learning advisors, to determine their own particular needs? With the provision of self-access opportunities, and a supportive and well-trained staff, learners can take the first steps to establishing some genuine learner autonomy, working independently on content of their own choice, at an appropriate level and at their own pace. In this way, the fundamental rights of the listener as language learner can be established.
Unless such independence is granted, Holec's (1981) much referenced definition of learner autonomy, where the learner develops "the ability to take charge of his or her own learning" (p. 3), remains an idealised goal with little practical application. For whatever way you look at it, and in whichever context it is applied, autonomy—genuine autonomy—involves learners initiating and self-regulating their learning, and in any teacher-controlled environment that is simply not possible.
Keeping in mind the key principles supporting individualised listening in language learning—freedom of choice, both in terms of content and level, and of working at one's own pace—teachers, course managers and administrators at Japanese universities should make every collaborative effort to take lockstep listening practice out of the classroom. This may range from a teacher independently developing listening materials and supplying tapes for their students to use in their own time to universities providing fully developed self-access facilities organised and sanctioned at an institutional level.
Giving learners the right to make choices about how and what to learn is undoubtedly an important motivator in language development. It is also a fundamental principle underlying any genuinely learner-centred curriculum. Yet, despite years of pedagogical debate about the need to promote autonomy, individualization, and negotiation of content in the context of classroom-based language learning, choice and independence are rarely offered when practicing the primary language-learning skill: listening. Indeed, dominant teacher/subordinate learner roles are perhaps nowhere more evident than in those classrooms where psychological control and lockstep progress are still maintained at the push of a button on a tape player.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. London: Longman.