Making the Transition to Effective Self-access Listening

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Miki Cutting

Issues in Listening Practice in the Classroom

Because listening is so prevalent in language use and because listening is the primary means of L2 acquisition for most people, the development of listening as a skill and as a channel for language input should assume critical importance in instruction (Rost, 2001, p.103).

To what extent can students actually practice listening in a classroom setting? Time limitations for listening practice are inevitable, even if learners spend the majority of their classroom hours on listening tasks. Moreover, there are also limitations on listening variation in classroom learning. Rost (2001) acknowledges that "there are simply too many variations in learner needs, goals, constraints and learning styles to prevent a single methodology from applying to multiple contexts" (p.104). Teachers face enormous challenges when planning or designing listening materials for their classes due to variation in learners with differing proficiency levels, motivations, needs, preferences, and all other factors that characterize learners.

Listening Practice in Self-access

What is the main difference between classroom work and self-access work? In regular class work, activities and time on task are set by the teacher or the curriculum. In self-access, on the other hand, learning is decided by the learners themselves, and is therefore genuinely learner-centered. Teachers, then, take on a more peripheral role, acting as learning facilitators. Wenden (2002) declares that "the notion of learner-centred instruction in foreign and second languages grew out of the recognition that language learners are diverse, in their reasons for learning another language, their approach to learning, and their abilities" (p.32). In learner-centered learning, there is no particular time restriction. Learners can work anytime they want and any number of hours they need. Additionally, learners may choose any material, listening genre, task style, or level, according to their individual needs. Moreover, when students have the option to select listening materials that are of interest to them, they are more inspired and find the task more enjoyable. The choices inherent in learner-centeredness allow learners to explore more of themselves, as well as their own learning. This can be highly motivating and has an enormous potential to expand students' listening skills outside the classroom.

Stages of Self-access Listening Practice

As self-access facilitators, teachers can offer the following kinds of support to guide learners: self-analysis; goal-setting; planning, including materials and strategy choice; and reflection on, and self-evaluation of, the learning (Benson & Voller, 1997; Gardner & Miller, 1999).


In self-analysis, learners think about their needs, problems, and preferred learning styles for developing listening skills. This step subsequently leads them to set personal learning objectives. However, identifying problems may not be easy for some learners. This is where consultation with a trained learning facilitator becomes an essential part of the process. For example, facilitator and learner might discuss a reference list of typical difficulties that learners have expressed about listening, such as "I find fast pronunciation with connected speech is hard to catch" (see Figure 1 for other examples). Then, once needs or problems have been identified, this can help motivate learners to try to focus on specific areas of weakness.


Following guided self-discovery, learners are more able to link their needs and problems with their learning objectives. Goal-setting is essential to self-access language learning. It not only enables learners to focus and direct their learning, but also becomes a measure of their achievement. It is vital for learners to be able to set concrete and attainable goals, rather than vague or unachievable ones. One way to achieve this is for them to learn about sub-skills in listening. Once they are able to relate to certain weaknesses in their listening through self-analysis, these weaknesses can be clarified in terms of the sub-skills that they might concentrate on developing. In our self-access learning center, we provide a checklist with a breakdown of each skill into sub-skills to help learners understand how to set more realistic goals. This checklist has another advantage. Gardner and Miller (1996) point out that "some learners have difficulty verbalizing what they want to learn" (p.12), and that when they have a checklist of various language functions, they tend to feel more comfortable. Table 1 contains some examples of sub-skills in listening which learners might wish to concentrate on and which can be used as a useful checklist.

Table 1: Sample breakdown of listening sub-skills for use as a checklist in setting a learning goal

Sub-skill Typical Learner Comment
Fast spoken English “I find fast pronunciation with connected speech is hard to catch”
Conversational phrases in listening “I want to be exposed to conversational phrases in natural speech”
General vocabulary in listening “My poor vocabulary prevents me from understanding the content”
Listening strategies (e.g. guessing the meanings) “I want to improve my listening techniques”

When they have determined a focus for their listening practice, learners then need to consider the genres of listening that they want to work with. While some learners focus on the genres they are weak at, others work on something which they choose because it is enjoyable. In our centre, learners often have their own strong preferences for particular genres, and being able to make choices about their learning and selecting of materials in genres they are interested in seems to trigger their motivation to practice listening. Examples of listening genres are:

  • Daily conversation
  • Movies and dramas
  • Interviews
  • Academic lectures and speeches
  • Songs
  • Media English (news, radio, etc.)
  • English for specific purposes (e.g. medical English, business meetings)


After deciding their goals, the next stage is for learners to make a concrete study plan. This involves considering such factors as materials to be used, learning strategies required, and the differences between intensive and extensive listening.

Fernández-Toro (1999) notes that "learners should…be supported in choosing the best learning route for their chosen foreign language, taking into account any existing constraints such as study time available, proficiency level, learning style and so on" (p.20). Students should be reminded that their study plan needs to match their established goals, and materials and learning strategies need to be carefully selected at this stage in order to achieve those goals. Also, since this is a learner-centered activity, learners can decide on their preferred or suitable learning styles, and practice as many times as they wish until they feel satisfied with their achievement. In our experience, learners seem to be particularly motivated when using the materials they liked in our self-access learning center. Many have commented that learning became fun when they were using their favorite materials and learning in the way they wanted to. At the same time, in self-access listening practice, it is crucial to select materials with which learners can conduct some form of self-assessment. Materials with scripts, answer keys, and reading texts, for example, are useful self-assessment tools.

It is also important for learners to consider the differences between intensive and extensive listening practice. In many cases, beginners tend to feel more comfortable and gain confidence if they focus on intensive listening practice using prescribed materials, rather than on extensive listening practice. This is because intensive listening is more manageable in terms of quantity and content, and also has a clear focus for practice with answers. Advanced learners, however, show more interest in extensive listening practice with a variety of authentic materials, such as news, movies, interviews, speeches, and radio shows. Since these learners have already gone beyond the needs of basic listening training, exposing themselves to diverse types of real-life listening is effective in expanding their listening abilities. Intermediate learners seem to like to work on both intensive and extensive listening. Yet, whatever the level, it is important to balance both types of practice. Lowes and Target (1998) emphasize that "no one kind of listening is better than another and students need to be able to do both and to choose the right kind of listening skill for the circumstances" (p.50).

One accessible form of intensive listening practice that learners can create by themselves is dictation. They may choose any genre, level, and length, and test their comprehension skills. By correcting their mistakes with scripts, learners can discover the types of mistakes they make in listening, such as finding unknown words, grammatical errors, and their comprehension problems with particular aspects of pronunciation. The benefit of dictation is that learners can recognize their weak points more easily than in other forms of listening practice.

Oral repetition of listening materials can also provide useful practice. There are three main kinds of oral repetition: repeating—repeating after each line; shadowing—immediately reproducing the speech as you listen to it; and overlapping—using a transcript, the listener speaks at the same time. The advantage of oral repetition is that learners can easily practice both listening and speaking, and no partner or preparation is needed for this kind of speaking practice. Also, learners pay more attention to pronunciation because they actually attempt to reproduce the listening text in exactly the same way.

Reflection and self-evaluation

The final crucial step before moving onto the next cycle of self-study is reflection and self-evaluation. These are both often difficult for learners. However, in self-access, a sense of achievement is a fundamental source of motivation for learners to continue learning, and developing reflection skills and effective self-evaluation are essential to this. For example, by keeping a learning diary, learners have the opportunity to reflect on their learning: their progress; achievement of goals; and problems they encountered. It also provides the opportunity for learners to consider the direction of their next study cycle.

One way of conducting self-evaluation is for a learner to repeat a previous listening activity at a later date and to check if their particular focus is improving. Learners could do the same dictation, listen to the same, or similar, text, or watch the same movie. Another way is for learners to use listening test material, such as TOEIC practice tests. They may also check their comprehension of their teacher's English in class in order to evaluate their progress using an authentic tool.


Self-access listening practice is beneficial for learners in many ways. Learners may, for example, pursue their listening practice without externally imposed time constraints. Moreover, learning can be tailor-made for individual learners, with the learner deciding goals, choosing materials and strategies, and evaluating their own learning, according to their needs. Teachers acting as learning facilitators can guide learners in self-access listening practice by establishing a systematic approach to self-analysis, goal-setting, planning, conducting self-study, and reflection and self-evaluation. Learners are then able to conduct their own learning, based on their own needs. Furthermore, this system develops learners' metacognitive skills for language learning. Thus, self-access listening practice not only fosters learners' listening skills, but also their skills of independently learning a second language.


Benson, P. & Voller, P. (1997). Autonomy and independence in language learning. Harlow: Longman.
Fern‡ndez-Toro, M. (1999). Training learners for self-instruction. London: The Center for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT).
Gardner, D. & Miller, L. (1996). Tasks for independent language learning. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.
Gardner, D. & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing self-access: From theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lowes, R. & Target, F. (1998). Helping students to learn: A guide to learner autonomy. London: Richmond Publishing.
Rost, M. (2001). Teaching and researching listening. London: Longman.
Wenden, A. L. (2002). Learner development in language learning. Applied Linguistics, 23 (1), 32-55.

Miki Cutting worked for the Self-access Learning Centre at Kanda University of International Studies as a Learning Advisor, supporting learners to develop self-study skills and foster learner autonomy by offering learning advisory courses and programs. She received a master's degree in TESOL from the University of Arizona and completed a training course for establishing a self-access centre at the Bell School, England.