Incorporating guided self-study listening into the language curriculum

Mary Ann Decker

The Media Center at Seishin Women's University provides a guided self-study listening program as a compulsory component of the Freshman English course. As well as having two regular 90-minute classes a week that focus on developing general language skills, students also spend one class period a week in the Media Center, which works like a self-access listening library. At present, about 550 freshmen participate in the program each week. The goal of the program is to allow students as much freedom and choice as possible in their study while providing enough structure to guide them in the use of the self-access materials. Students choose the time they come to the Media Center and the materials they want to work on. They work at their own speed and are not monitored by teaching staff. At the end of each semester, students receive only a pass/fail grade based on attendance, and throughout the program they are encouraged to take primary responsibility for their own progress.


In the past 30 years, one of the fundamental changes in the field of language pedagogy has been a shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered education, with an emphasis on functional language and communicative approaches. In speaking of a 'new era' in foreign language education, Morley (1991) highlighted the following trends:

  1. A recognition of the individual learner as the central figure in the complex process of acquiring language.
  2. A realization of the importance and complexity of listening comprehension and the active role demanded of the learner in developing this skill.
  3. A need for students to come into contact with 'real' language as used for everyday communication.

These trends have become the guiding principles underlying the development of the Media Center Program.

Focus on the individual

There is a wide range of English ability among freshmen at our university. To facilitate learning, all 1st-year students take the Comprehensive English Language Test (Harris, 1985) and are placed according to their level of English proficiency in their twice-a-week regular Freshman English classes. In 1990, when the Media Center component of the program was being considered, we wanted to really accommodate all the various levels and individualize study as much as possible by giving students choices and the chance to work at their own level and speed. This idea seemed to reflect current linguistic theory emphasizing that each learner is unique and comes to the learning experience with her own individual background, abilities, and interests. This is something that needs to be considered even in so-called 'homogeneous' classes with learners of the same age and cultural background (Peck, 1991). Furthermore, cognitive variations in learning styles and learning strategies, as well as affective factors, differ from student to student (Brown, 1994).

One of the goals of the Media Center Program was to give students more control over and responsibility for their own learning. The self-access 'listening library' provides interesting materials at three levels, but then the student takes over, making choices as to study time, materials, and pace. Finally, the student checks her own work by using answer keys and scripts for immediate feedback, and monitors her own progress. These are self-motivating study habits that, hopefully, carry over to outside the Media Center. The opportunity for students to work alone and take control of their learning without interruption or interference often provides a more relaxing learning environment than one in which the teacher controls auditory input and pace (Morley, 1991).

Focus on listening

In recent years, listening has been raised from a so-called 'passive' skill to one of central importance in foreign language curricula. It is recognized that in daily life we do twice as much listening as we do speaking, 4 times as much listening as reading, and 5 times as much listening as writing (Rivers, 1981; Weaver, 1972). However, students have very little chance to listen to a foreign language in a typical EFL environment and, although listening is an active skill that can be taught, it is still often neglected in language programs. We found that our students' scores on the listening component of a standardized test were often lower than their scores on the structure component, so there seemed to be a definite need and justification for incorporating more listening time into the language curriculum. However, the goal was not just to have students sit and listen, but to teach them how to listen and what to listen for—to help them develop listening strategies they could apply in other situations outside the classroom.

Focus on real language for communication

Many listening materials used today are still based on formal spoken discourse despite the fact that most language that people hear is spontaneous and colloquial (Ur, 1984). Students need to hear a variety of speakers using English in a variety of contexts. They need to hear people of different ages and different backgrounds. They need to hear both native and non-native speakers, especially as there are now more people who speak English as a second language than people who speak it as a first language. They need to be exposed to various types of one-way auditory input (messages, announcements, radio and TV programs, instructions, performances) as well as two-way auditory input in the form of dialog. Our students have little chance of receiving this variety of input outside the classroom, so we decided to bring the variety and reality to them in the form of many types of materials that they could choose from.

The Materials

When equipping the Media Center with materials, the following criteria were kept in mind: providing choice and variety; providing for a range of appropriate levels; providing guidance and directions; and encouraging focused listening.

Providing choice and variety

From catalogs provided by the major ESL/EFL publishers, possible materials are carefully selected every year and sample copies are examined. Materials are chosen and purchased based on their possible interest to the students, their potential to increase listening comprehension skills, their suitability for use in a self-study situation, and how they will add to the variety of the already existing materials in the library.

Besides being divided and labeled according to level of difficulty, the materials in the program are also divided and color-coded into five broad topic categories:

  1. General Listening (Green).
  2. News-based materials, Documentaries, Specific Topics (Social Issues, Famous People, Health, the Environment, etc.) (Pink).
  3. Movies (White). (Movies are usually purchased in the United States so they have closed captions in English only).
  4. Travel and Cultural Information about Countries (Orange).
  5. Special Topics: Test Preparation (TOEIC, TOEFL), Pronunciation, Study Abroad, Homestay, Business English, Telephone English, Literature, Stories, Poetry, Music, Lives of Authors (Gold).

Students are strongly recommended to do at least one listening from each of the five categories over the course of each semester. The rest of the time, they can choose materials from any category they like. By constantly updating the library, we help guide students to the newest and best materials for language study.

Providing for a range of appropriate levels

We have found that it is sometimes very difficult for students to judge which materials are appropriate to their English level. Students, when left with no support, often choose materials that are too difficult or too easy for them to make progress in improving their listening ability. Therefore, according to their scores on the CELT test—both structure and listening are tested—students in the program are guided to one of three broad levels: Upper Intermediate/Advanced, Intermediate, and Pre-intermediate. All materials are labeled accordingly. Students are allowed to choose from the whole library, but they are strongly encouraged to listen at their level.

Providing guidance and directions

For each material added to the program we write a specific set of guidelines to assist the student in her use of the material in a self-study situation. Each set of guidelines is printed, put in a plastic holder, and accompanies the relevant material. During the orientation session students are strongly advised to read the guidelines carefully before starting to work on their listening. The rationale for providing such guidelines is based on the view that in real life we usually have some idea of the content, context, and speaker before we listen (e.g. Ur, 1984). The sort of things that are included in the guidelines are: a general introduction to the different types of listening, speakers, and situations in the material; step-by-step instructions on how to use the particular material for self-study (sometimes advising students to skip certain exercises or adapt exercises to a self-study situation); how to use the material to improve listening skills; clarification of any confusing points in the material; location of contents pages and 'notes to students'; location of answer keys and scripts; advice on which units to do first; general encouragement.

Encouraging focused listening

Students are helped to focus their listening by using worksheets to write responses to questions or complete tasks related to the material. The guidelines help them work through the comprehension exercises and all answers are written on the worksheet. Besides providing a focus to their listening, this system helps students to divide the listening into manageable chunks and it encourages them to make an active response to the listening material. Listening becomes a language activity, not just passive entertainment.

How the Program Works

1. Orientation

Before their first Media Center session, students and Freshman English professors attend a 90-minute orientation at which the philosophy of the program is explained. They watch a short film that gives detailed instructions about how the program works and the use of materials is demonstrated.

2. Choosing a time to attend

During orientation week, freshmen are asked to give a first and second choice time slot when they are available to come to the Media Center. All these requests are run through a computer program and a set time is selected for each student based on her preferred time and space available in the Media Center. After that, students come to the Media Center for the same 90-minute class period every week. They use the first part of the period to check in and choose materials, and then they do at least 60 minutes of listening.

3. Choosing material and checking in

Before entering the Media Center and working at a 'listening station', students use reference binders shelved outside that describe every material at their appropriate level. In this way, they can get an idea of each material before they use it and of the range of materials available. They also are aware from the orientation that they should try different topic categories of materials, which they choose according to topic color. Each material is arranged on the shelf according to catalog number and level in a small box that includes texts, guidelines, scripts and answers to exercises for students to check later, and video/CD/cassette/software. In case of any confusion, when students start using the program, Media Center staff members are available to help and answer questions.

After having decided what they want to work on, they choose a colored worksheet that corresponds to the color topic of the material they have chosen. All work (students' answers to listening exercises, etc.) is done on the worksheet in the Media Center. Students are not allowed to take materials out of the Center or to make any copies of books, cassettes, or software. At the top of the worksheet there is a printed form on which students write their name, student number, Freshman English class, the time of their Media Center class, and the title of the material they have chosen. They put the worksheet through a time clock, which punches in the time they check in, and when they finish their hour of study, they will use the time clock to record their checkout time on the worksheet.

4. Finding a 'listening station'

After checking in and entering the Media Center, students find a listening station. There are sixty stations for freshman use and the facility includes audio and video cassette players, CD players, caption decoders, and computers. Students read the guidelines that have been written to guide them through each material before they start working. Then they work at their own speed for at least one hour, listening, writing comments or answers on their worksheet, and checking their answers with the answer key. If they don't finish the material, they can come back and work on it again in the following week.

5. Checking out and accountability

At the end of the period, students return materials to the shelves, use the time clock to punch out, and leave their worksheet with the Media Center office. The Media Center staff use the worksheets to monitor attendance and keep records of which materials have been borrowed. This allows staff to see which materials are popular and to order future materials accordingly. Towards the end of the semester, the worksheets for each class are given to the corresponding Freshman English professor along with a record of each student's attendance and time spent in the Media Center. The professor can also easily see the colors of the worksheets to make sure the students have tried different materials. The worksheets themselves are not graded in any way, but the professor does go through them before returning them to the student with a pass/fail mark for the Media Center component of Freshman English, based on attendance. Students who have missed days are encouraged to come in for make-up classes in the last part of the semester.


With the establishment of the Media Center Program and a self-access component we have followed current linguistic trends emphasizing an individualistic, learner-centered approach in the field of pedagogy. The key to a good self-access program is surely to find a way to make the vast array of foreign language listening materials available and accessible to students working alone, and then to provide the correct balance of freedom and guidance so that they can derive the best educational and linguistic benefit from them.

The program is an ongoing project, and it has come a long way since it was started in 1991 with only 8 materials. Now students can choose from hundreds of audiocassettes, videocassettes, CDs, and CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) materials. Over the years, as well as adding and updating materials, we have fine-tuned procedures, created a new catalog system, and taken advantage of students' growing computer skills to move into new areas. In the future, we hope to continue to enrich the listening library by increasing the variety and types of materials available and to encourage students to try out different things. Feedback from the students has been very positive in this regard. They say that they have listened to things they have never listened to before and their confidence has grown with their repertoire. While keeping the main focus of the program on practical communicative language, we would like to provide more documentaries, drama productions, programs about the history of language and customs, debates, panel discussions, news programs, interviews, lectures, programs on music and art, and educational TV programs. We would also like to investigate 'distance learning' possibilities and expand the use of the Internet for self-access language learning. We are actively working on ways to encourage further use of the listening library by all students, not just freshmen, and it is particularly pleasing that some students in their second, third and fourth years at the university continue to come back to the program and listen in their free time. We are also looking to add more materials in languages other than English.

As the program has developed, it has been very important to keep both professors and students informed of changes to the program and additions of new materials. This is done through the yearly orientation given to everyone in April and handouts distributed during each semester. With no direct supervision of students in the Media Center, it is essential for the students to understand the philosophy of the program so that they get the most out of it and take responsibility for their progress. Professors and Media Center staff also need to have a good understanding of the program so that they can support it and field any questions the students may have. Periodically, we also ask students, professors, and Media Center staff for feedback and suggestions. As a result of the positive participation of all those involved, the Media Center Program has been thoroughly incorporated into the curriculum of the Freshman English Program.


Brown, H.D. (1994). Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents.
Harris, D.P. (1985). The Comprehensive English Language Test (CELT). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Morley, J. (1991). Listening comprehension in second/foreign language instruction. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 81-106). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Peck, S. (1991). Recognizing and meeting the needs of ESL students. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 363-372). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Rivers, W.M. (1981). Teaching foreign language skills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ur, P. (1984). Teaching listening comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Weaver, C. (1972). Human listening: Processes and behavior. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Mary Ann Decker has a Master of Arts in English as a Second Language (University of Hawaii.). She worked as a teacher and trained English teachers in Morocco and Algeria for 6 years. Her areas of interest include curriculum development and CALL. She has been a Visiting Professor at Seishin Women's University (University of the Sacred Heart) since 1990, teaching courses in both the International Studies Department and the English Department.