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Learners Perceptions of Listening

Comprehension Problems
Ali S. Hasan
Faculty of Education, Damascus University, Damascus, Syria
Many EFL learners find that they are unable to comprehend natural spoken English
delivered at normal speed. The paper reports a study of listening problems encountered in the EFL classroom in the ESP Centre at Damascus University, as reported by the
learners themselves. It looks in particular at learner strategies, features of the listening
text, characteristicsof the speaker, attitudes of the listener, the task to be completed as a
result of understanding the text, and the degree of visual or written support for the
aural input. The results of the study show that EFL learnersexperiencea range of listening problems. To overcome them, various techniques which help learners to utilise
effective strategies to confront problems of listening comprehension are discussed and
the pedagogic implications are stated.

It should be made clear, right from the beginning, that listening and understanding are two separate processes. We should distinguish between listening as a
process which requires mere listening to the message and which does not necessarily involve interpretation or reaction to the text, and listening comprehension
as a process which involves the meaningful interactive activity for an overall
understanding of the text. Listening comprehension in this research is taken to
refer to the way listeners select and interpret information that comes from the
auditory and/or visual clues in order to come to better understanding and
comprehension of what speakers say. This view of listening comprehension is in
accordance with second-language theory which views listening to spoken
language as an active and a complex process in which listeners focus on selected
aspects of aural input, construct meaning, and relate what they hear to existing
knowledge (OMalley & Chamot, 1989; Byrnes, 1984; Richards, 1985; Howard,
1983).
It should be also made clear that learners perceptions of their listening problems may or may not correspond to what actually happens as different factors
which the listener may not be aware of may interact and influence learners
perceptions. The listener, however, might identify one factor, among others,
which he thinks can be behind some of his listening problems. For example, some
listeners might think that a spoken passage is difficult to understand because
speakers speak too fast, while in fact it is not the speed of the speaker but some
other feature (or features) which causes the difficulty, such as pronunciation,
hesitation, pauses, and varied accents. This research is, therefore, about learners
reported perceptions of listening comprehension as listening cannot be observed
and defined precisely and directly. However, we can study listening by asking
learners to tell us about it. This is what the present research tries to demonstrate.
It reports the findings of a questionnaire study that revealed learners perceptions and beliefs about their listening comprehension problems.
0790-8318/00/02 0137-17 $10.00/0
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2000 A.S. Hasan


Vol. 13, No. 2, 2000

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From the learners point of view


It should be noted that learners perceptions of their listening problems and
strategies can affect their comprehension either positively or negatively.
Wenden (1986) cites research findings stating that unsuccessful learners are
generally less aware of effective ways of approaching the learning tasks. Awareness of effective listening strategies would benefit both learners and teachers.
Learners may use ineffective strategies falsely assuming that their strategies help
them in listening comprehension. For example, learners may wrongly think that
they have to listen to every word and detail to get the main idea of the text. They
may be unwilling to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context of
the spoken text. Learners also need to be aware of the factors which contribute to
their difficulties in listening. When listeners know something about their own
strategies, problems, and attitudes they will be able to improve their listening
practices and become better listeners. On the other hand, teachers may wrongly
encourage learners to use ineffective strategies in their classrooms; they may
insist on complete understanding of every phoneme, syllable, word, or phrase in
the text. By focusing on the strategies effective listeners use and applying them in
the EFL classroom, teachers help their learners to overcome their listening problems and become better listeners.
The significance of the study stems from the importance of listening skills in
foreign language learning. Listening plays an important role in second-language
instruction for several reasons (Rost, 1994). First, listening provides comprehensible input for the learner which is essential for any learning to occur. Second,
listeners need to interact with speakers to achieve understanding. Third, listening exercises help learners draw their attention to new forms (vocabulary, grammar, interaction patterns) in the language. Thus listening comprehension
provides the right conditions for language acquisition and development of other
language skills (Krashen, 1995). Listening exercises, therefore, should be geared
to develop learners effective listening strategies and to overcome their listening
problems. More specifically, the study derives its importance from the context it
explores; that is, it tries to give an account of the way EFL learners at Damascus
University view listening comprehension, strategies and problems. These particular learners, as the author has observed, have listening comprehension problems as they are still at their intermediate level in English proficiency.
The research reported here is intended, therefore, to identify the listening
comprehension strategies used by this particular group of learners and the problems they encounter when listening to a spoken text. It is also intended to
acquaint teachers with these problematic areas in listening comprehension so
that necessary treatment measures, which will be suggested as an implication of
the study, can be taken. It is assumed that the ideas derived from this research
will provide insights for learning and teaching listening comprehension skills.
Listening becomes in this case as Field (1998: 112) puts it, a diagonistic activity,
the function of the teacher being to identify and redress learners weakness as
listeners. Thus, the crucial question is not to say that listening comprehension is
an important skill, but rather how best to diagnose its problems and promote its
development.

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Research Findings
Research on second-language listening comprehension draws on studies
done on first-language learning (Anderson & Lynch, 1988; Devine, 1978, 1967;
Duker, 1964; Dunkel, 1991; Keller, 1960). It can be said that much of the information we have about L2 listening comprehension is rooted in the work of
first-language researchers.
The research available on second-language listening comprehension is insufficient. There is little knowledge about how listening takes place. Comparing it
with other language skills, Goh (1997: 161) states that, there are fewer insights
about the process of listening and the way it is learnt. Similarly, Richards (1985:
189) says that there is little direct research on second language listening comprehension. We can say that this statement is still true despite the importance given
to listening comprehension (see Goh, 1997; Brown, 1992; Rost, 1994).
The literature available on L2 listening includes empirical research (Oxford,
1993; Rubin, 1994; Flowerdew, 1994) as well as theoretical and pedagogical studies (Ur, 1984; Rixon, 1986; Mendelsohn & Rubin, 1995). Research on
second-language listening has also attempted to point out the factors that may
influence learners comprehension (Dunkel, 1991; Lynch, 1988; Richards, 1985).
Grant (1997) chooses four strategies which would help learners to listen to
English: activating/building schema, guessing/inferencing/predicting, listening selectively, and negotiating meaning. Effective listeners use background
knowledge and relate this prior knowledge or schemata to the new information
contained in the spoken text and this will help them to comprehend the text as
they process it. As Faerch and Kasper (1986: 264) put it, comprehension takes
place when input and knowledge are matched against each other.
Pre-listening activities, in particular, facilitate second-language listening
comprehension (Herron, 1994; Berne, 1995). They help students develop background knowledge and improve their understanding of the spoken text.
Students will be able to generate ideas about the topic and such information will
help them activate relevant schema for the listening text. Students become able to
connect new information with prior knowledge schema. In this way processing
the new language becomes feasible as it becomes connected with concepts and
words students have already used. Research findings have indicated that familiarity with passage content facilitates second-language listening comprehension
(Chiang & Dunkel, 1992; Brown & Yule, 1983).
The difficulties encountered by Arab EFL learners in listening comprehension
have also been pointed out (Hasan, 1993). Yagang (1994) attributes the difficulty
of listening comprehension to four sources: the message, the speaker, the listener
and the physical setting. Higgins (1995) studied Omani students problems in
listening comprehension and found that the factors which facilitate or hinder
listening are speech rate, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Flowerdew and Miller
(1996) studied learners strategies and difficulties in listening to academic
lectures. They found that students problems were speed of delivery, new terminology and concepts, difficulties in concentrating, and problems related to physical environment. Rubin (1994) identified five factors which affect listening
comprehension: text characteristics,interlocutor characteristics,task characteristics, listener characteristics, and process characteristics. Further research investi-

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gated the role of temporal factors facilitating or inhibiting successful listening


(Boyle, 1984; Higgins, 1997).
Theoretical explanations of listening comprehension provide us with clues
about the problems which learners face when they listen to a spoken text. These
insights cannot, however, account for exhaustive explanation of these problems.
As Nunan (1991: 38) states, theories, ideas, and research are as good as teachers
and textbook writers make them. Interesting and unexpected things happen in
the classroom, and in the final analysis, principles and ideas need to be tested in
practice. Although much information has been provided about listening
comprehension, there is still a gap between research theory and classroom practice. As Vogely (1995: 41) states, We still need research that documents empirically the relationship between what theory says and what learners actually know
and more importantly do. To locate the sources of listening comprehension, we
need to consider the discourse itself in the context of the classroom.
The present research is a further contribution to the investigation of foreign
language listening comprehension problems in actual classroom practice. Based
on a field study done at Damascus University, the present research provides
empirical evidence to identify the kinds of listening problem encountered by
intermediate EFL learners. It shows how listening is practised and perceived by
the students themselves; it delineates their perceptions of listening problems
pertinent to the message they listen to, the speaker, and the listener. It also
provides clues about the strategies which learners use to overcome their problems in listening comprehension. The research also aims to arrive at implications
for pedagogy.

Results of the Study


The subjects of the study (n = 81) were all native speakers of Arabic learning
English as a foreign language for academic purposes in the ESP Centre at Damascus University. They belong to different fields of study, such as medicine,
sciences, engineering, agriculture, and economics. They were enrolled in a
three-month intensive English language course designed to take them from an
intermediate level of general English to a level adequate for postgraduate study
in their fields of specialisation. All students were exposed to spoken texts of
general English. At the time of the experiment the students were about half way
through their course.
The present research is based on two main hypotheses:
(1) Learners use of ineffective listening strategies may affect their listening
comprehension.
(2) Learners experience different sorts of listening comprehension problems
which may be due to the inadequacy of the message and the inadequacy of
listening tasks and activities. They may also emanate from factors related to
the speakers speech, and those related to the learners proficiency in listening comprehension.
A questionnaire was designed after a review of the literature (Nunan, 1991;
Boyle, 1984; Yagang, 1994; see also references of this research) to examine these
hypotheses. The initial draft of the questionnaire consisted of 41 questions. To

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ensure the validity of the questionnaire, it was given to a pilot sample of 40


students and nine specialists in English language and Education for judgement
and amendment. The insights gained from the pilot study and the comments of
the specialists were taken into consideration when modifying the initial draft;
items of the questionnaire were reduced to 34 questions and certain questions
were reformulated so as to be clearly understood by the respondents.
The questionnaire was then administered to a sample of 88 EFL learners
during class time. They were asked to identify precisely their listening problems
by responding to statements arranged according to a five-point scale (never,
seldom, sometimes, often, always) and by providing open-ended responses at
the end of the questionnaire to point out the factors which help and hinder their
listening comprehension in English. Oral instructions and explanations were
given to the respondents by the researcher himself to avoid any misunderstanding. Responses were then computed and frequencies and percentages were
calculated. Only 81 questionnaires were accepted for the study; the other seven
questionnaires were not taken seriously by the respondents, and were excluded
from the study.
Learner strategies
Effective listening strategies improve the quality of listening comprehension.
If this is the case, it becomes important to know what strategies proficient listeners use, and which strategies affect the quality of listening comprehension
adversely and lead to students problems.
Table 1 shows that the strategies which students use in listening comprehension tasks are partly effective and partly ineffective. On the one hand, students
use effective listening comprehension strategies such as the use of pre-listening
information and background knowledge of the topic to help them understand
the text. Clearly, these are considered to be effective strategies of listening
comprehension which would help learners to overcome their listening problems
(OMalley & Chamot, 1989; Vogely, 1995; Thompson & Rubin, 1996).
Table 1 Learners perceptions of strategies of listening comprehension
Item
Statements
no.
1
Pre-listening information
about the text improves my
listening comprehension.
1.25
2
I use my experience and
background knowledge of
the topic to understand the
spoken text.
3
I listen to every detail to get
the main idea of the spoken
text.

Never
%
1.25

Seldom
%
1.25

Sometimes %
22.3

Often
%
29.6

Always
%
45.6

1.23

2.4

22.27

40.7

33.4

12.3

28.3

32.0

18.5

8.9

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On the other hand, Table 1 also shows that students partly use ineffective
strategies in listening comprehension. In real-life situations, effective listeners do
not normally process all words of the discourse; they skim parts of the message
which are not related to their purposes and pay attention to relevant details.
Contrary to what effective listeners do, students do not focus their attention on
the message selectively. They listen to every detail to get the main idea of the
spoken text (59.4% do that sometimes, often, and always). They probably do
because they think that every word or detail is important and must be understood. They are thus under the false impression that they must understand every
word they hear and this exacerbates their anxiety as they panic when they are not
able to hear or understand every single word. This would, in turn, undermine
their ability to become good listeners. Furthermore, when learners try to follow
every word they do not know which is the key word or most important word
which gives them a clue for understanding the text. This way of processing information might be due to learners preference for rote-memorisation of learning in
general. If this is so, it might be the case that students suffer from information
overload in the passage which hinders their ability to monitor the message and
get an overall comprehension of the text.
It should be noted that lexis is an important factor in listening comprehension,
but words are not the whole story. Brown (1992) indicates that we do not process
discourse as though all of it were equally interesting or equally worthy of being
remembered. In our first language, we skim over parts of the message and pay
attention to relevant parts only. Thus sentences are not processed word by word
and the focus is placed on the ideas behind these words and how these ideas are
linked together to draw conclusions. This focus on the underlying meaning of
utterances can help learners to overcome their problem of focusing on individual
words (McNeill, 1997: 86). It helps them to relax the intensity of their listening
efforts through using clues from the context and background knowledge to
understand the text as a whole.
The listening text
The message itself may be the main source of listening comprehension problems. In particular, unfamiliar words, difficult grammatical structures, and the
length of the spoken text may present students with listening problems (Table 2).
Table 2 Learners perceptions of listening problems related to the message
Item
Statements
no.
9.
Unfamiliar words
interfere with my
listening comprehension.
10
Difficult grammatical
structures interfere with
my listening
comprehension.
11
I find it difficult to
interpret the meaning of a
long spoken text.

Never
%
1.2

Seldom
%
11.1

Sometimes %
48.3

Often
%
32.0

Always
%
7.4

4.9

25.9

40.7

19.7

8.8

2.4

19.7

49.3

22.2

6.4

Listening Comprehension Problems

143

Students (sometimes or often) showed awareness of listening comprehension


problems related to the kind of spoken texts they listen to. Unfamiliar words
interfere with their listening comprehension (87.7% sometimes, often or always).
Difficult grammatical structures have almost the same effect (69.2 % sometimes,
often or always). This conforms to Vogelys study (1998) which shows that the
difficulty in listening comprehension is partly due to the structural component of
the text. This might be due to the inadequacy of the bottom-up processing strategy in which learners make use of the analysis of words and sentence structure to
enhance their understanding of the spoken text. Some listeners might believe
that meaning resides exclusively within those unfamiliar words and structures
so they need massive amounts of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge.
When these listeners find themselves unable to understand them, they find it
difficult to comprehend the meaning of the text. They become engaged in a
painstaking attempt to unlock the meaning of these structures, rather than infer
their meaning from the context, and consequently miss key words and other
information integral to the understanding of the text. This would perhaps lead
them to give up and respond negatively to the text.
The solution to this problem would perhaps be to ask learners to relate the text
they hear to their background knowledge of the text and to store the meaning
and not the linguistic forms of language in memory. This means that meaning
exists in the head of the listener besides that which is represented by words and
structures. A top-down processing strategy in which learners make use of their
previous knowledge which is not directly encoded in words is, therefore, essential as a complementary procedure to the bottom-up strategy of examining
words and structures. When topic schemata and tasks are activated, listeners
construct a meaningful interpretation of the text during the listening comprehension process. In other words, effective listeners use background knowledge and
relate their prior knowledge or schemata to the new information contained in the
spoken text, and this will help them to comprehend the text as they process it.
Learners also find it difficult to interpret the meaning of a long spoken text
(77.9 % sometimes, often or always). As a long spoken text contains longer utterances with subordinate clauses, students usually find it hard to understand such
utterances owing to limitations on short-term memory load. Those intermediate
learners will not be able to retain a long text as their knowledge of the language is
limited and their knowledge of the topic is limited, too. Besides a long text
requires much time for listening. The length of time students listen may cause
memory problems or even fatigue and this would distract listeners attention
from grasping the meaning of the text, and learners may miss the rest of the text
when there is a lapse in concentration. This may be attributed to the short
memory span for the target language. This is in line with the findings of previous
research which indicate that the memory span for target language input is
shorter than for native language input (Call, 1985).
Listening task
Several interesting tasks and activities encourage listeners to develop their
listening comprehension though they encounter certain problems in doing such
tasks. Table 3 illustrates these difficulties.
Students (sometimes or often) find difficulty in doing certain prediction tasks

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Table 3 Learners perceptions of listening problems: Tasks and activities


Item
Statements
no.
12 I find it difficult to predict
what speakers are going to
say from the title of the
spoken text.
13 After my teacher stops the
tape I find it difficult to
predict what will come next.
17 I find it difficult to do
listening activities in pair
work.
18 I find it difficult to do
listening activities in group
work.
19 I find it difficult to hold a
discussion after listening to
the spoken text.
20 I find it difficult to write a
summary of the spoken text.

Never
%
11.1

Seldom
%
23.4

Sometimes %
40.7

Often
%
23.4

Always
%
1.4

3.7

22.2

48.3

20.9

4.9

18.5

34.7

33.3

11.1

2.4

7.4

16.1

46.9

22.2

7.4

11.1

33.3

37.0

16.2

2.4

7.4

16.0

46.9

22.3

7.4

(either from the title of the spoken text, 64.1%, or in what will come next after a
certain point, 69.2%). This may be due to the techniques which learners use in
processing every single word of the text rather than focusing their attention on
certain cues which would help them to set up predictions. This may be attributed
to students limited knowledge of the language; students who are not familiar
with language cues, clichs and collocations will find it difficult to predict a missing word or phrase. Thus lack of contextual knowledge and vocabulary will be
an obstacle to prediction and comprehension. It should be noted that in real life
when we go for a job interview we usually know what the interviewer is going to
talk about; this is something we can predict as we often know some background
information about the job and the subject which is going to be discussed. Similarly, in order to help our learners predict what speakers are going to say we
should provide them with enough information before we give them a listening
comprehension exercise. Preliminary elicitations such as What do you know
about this topic?, What could the passage be about? are helpful for learners to
set up predictions.
With certain types of activity which are more interactive in nature, such as
listening activities which are done either in pairs or in groups, students show
only minor problems. This may be attributed to the fact that interactive listening
of this sort provides learners with a supportive environment for both listening
and speaking. Here we find learners exchanging roles and the interaction is
sustained by listening and speaking through participation (Hasan, 1988). Such
activities would improve learners listening comprehension as they encourage
students to work with one another and require them to negotiate meaning by
listening and asking questions.

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Finally, listening tasks may be facilitated by linking them with other language
skills. The present research shows that students are not trained to practise listening activities in relation to speaking and writing in some cases. Thus 53.2% of
students (sometimes 37%, often 16.2%) find it difficult to hold a discussion after
listening to the spoken text, and 69.2% of students (sometimes or often) find it
difficult to write a summary of the text. This finding accords with a previous
study (Hasan, 1997) which pointed out that listening comprehension was poorly
linked with its related skills of speaking, reading, and writing. The solution in
this case would be to incorporate listening with other skills such as speaking and
writing to reinforce learners understanding of the spoken text.
The speaker
Problems of listening comprehension related to speaking can be seen in relation to natural speech, pronunciation, varied accents, and a voice heard only on
an audio-tape cassette recorder without seeing the speaker.
Table 4 shows that students (sometimes or often, 69.3%) find it difficult to
understand natural speech which is full of hesitations and pauses. This is in line
with the findings of previous research which indicate that hesitations and
pauses in spontaneous speech cause perceptual problems and comprehension
errors for non-native speakers (Voss, 1979). Listening activities need language
input taken from audio or video recordings, live output from the teacher, or the
learners themselves. The critical question is whether to choose authentic or
prepared input for such activities. Rost (1994) indicates that many teachers
prefer prepared materials with controlled vocabulary, usage and speed in
order to allow learners to comprehend more easily. Others prefer authentic
material in order to acquaint learners with real input which has the characteristics of spoken language and which is not found in written texts to which
students are usually accustomed. Berne (1998) reports on the findings of a
study by Herron and Seay (1991) which indicates that the use of authentic as
opposed to pedagogical listening passages leads to greater improvement in
listening comprehension and performance. A middle position is the use of
simulated materials which keep many authentic features with shorter presentations. It could be the case that the presentation of simulated input to EFL
learners may reduce their difficulty in listening to natural spoken texts. This
input must be typical of everyday language which contains a few colloquial
words and expressions as learners who listen only to formal English may find it
difficult to understand such natural spoken texts.
Table 4 also shows that learners encounter listening problems when speakers
speak too fast or with varied accents and produce words which are not clearly
pronounced. Slow speech is characterised by pauses, whereas fast speech is
distinguished by the elimination of clausal pausing. Rivers (1981) considers fast
speech is the one which is spoken on the average of 220 w.p.m., whereas slow
speech is below 130 w.p.m. Some learners cannot remember words they have just
heard; they are slow to recall the meaning of words and phrases spoken too
quickly. It seems possible that such speech should be understood by FL learners
without adequate training. However, if instructors were to reduce the speed of
their speech, listeners might end up with the belief that listening comprehension
is equivalent to word-for-word processing of information. A more effective tech-

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Table 4 Learners perceptions of listening problems related to the speaker


Item
Statements
no.
21
I find it difficult to
understand natural speech
which is full of hesitation
and pauses.
22
I find it difficult to
understand the meaning of
words which are not
pronounced clearly.
23
I find it difficult to
understand the meaning of
the spoken text without
seeing the speakers body
language.
24
I find it difficult to
understand well when
speakers speak too fast.
25
I find it difficult to
understand well when
speakers speak with varied
accents.
26
Visual clues help me
understand the spoken text
(pictures, diagrams, charts,
video, etc.).
27
Tape scripts provided before
listening exercises help me
understand the text.

Never
%
2.4

Seldom
%
23.4

Sometimes %
44.7

Often
%
24.6

Always
%
4.9

10.0

25.9

30.8

33.3

9.8

25.9

44.6

16.0

3.7

16.1

43.2

40.7

4.9

24.8

37

33.3

18.6

39.5

41.9

4.9

22.4

27.1

45.6

nique to counteract this problem would be to break the listening text into natural
segments or phrases and deliver them as chunks or meaningful units of speech
and maintain intonation, emphases, and pauses (Lee & Van Patten, 1995).
Learners also reported that they find it difficult to understand the meaning of
the spoken text without seeing the speakers body language. This deprives them
of some contextual clues which make the message easily understood as they
cannot see the speakers faces and gestures. Moreover, they have the added difficulty of remembering the setting and the individual speakers when the speakers
are not seen. Visual support, whether it is in the form of pictures, a video, or writing helps students understand the text. Students reported that visual clues in the
form of pictures, diagrams, and charts help them understand the spoken text
(41.9% always and 58.1% sometimes or often). This is in line with previous studies which show that the use of video in listening comprehension facilitates information processing (Thompson & Rubin, 1996: 333). It can be said that those
activities which involve the use of video in presenting listening passages provide
interesting and motivating input and facilitate second-language listening
comprehension (Thompson & Rubin, 1996; Secules et al., 1992; Baltova, 1994).
Visual support not only makes the topic more comprehensible to listeners but

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147

also helps them to reduce the anxiety that can occur when they do not know what
speakers are talking about.
Learners also reported that written support in the form of tapescripts
provided before listening exercises help them understand the text (27.1% often
and 45.6 % always). These written forms of language act as visual reinforcement
for listening. This may be due to the fact that tapescripts allow listeners to check
and make sure that they have listened to everything on the tape. However, it
seems logical not to introduce tapescripts unless students have made their initial
attempts to understand the spoken text without written support. When listeners
understand the spoken text without reference to the written form they become
more motivated and more confident.
Listener attitudes
Listeners problems may arise from their lack of interest in the spoken text, the
demand for full and complete answers to listening comprehension questions,
and the recorded message on the audio-tape (Table 5).
Table 5 Learners perceptions of listening problems related to the listener
Item
Statements
no.
28
I find it more difficult to
listen to a recorded spoken
text than to my teacher
reading aloud.
29
Unclear sounds resulting
from poor-quality
tape-recorder interfere with
my listening comprehension.
30
Unclear sounds resulting
from poor classroom
conditions or outside noise
interfere with my listening
comprehension.
31
I find it difficult to get a
general understanding of the
spoken text from the first
listening.
32
I feel nervous and worried
when I dont understand the
spoken text.
33
I find it difficult to answer
questions which require
other than a short answer
(e.g. why or how questions).
34
I find it difficult to
understand the spoken text
which is not of interest to me.

Never
%
4.9

Seldom
%
6.3

Sometimes %
14.8

Often
%
35.8

Always
%
38.2

1.2

18.7

41.9

38.2

1.2

24.8

44.4

29.6

1.2

14.8

32.0

40.7

11.3

9.8

11.4

24.6

28.3

25.9

6.1

12.3

44.7

28.3

8.6

8.6

12.3

29.6

41.9

7.6

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Problems in this category may well be directly related to ways of presentation


of the spoken text. Students find it easier to listen to their teachers than to a
recorded spoken text. This is quite obvious as learners who are used to listening
to their non-native teachers accent may find it hard to understand other speakers with different accents. However, the problem of accent is only temporary and
it can be overcome by repeated listening and practice. Presenting listening exercises through a tape recorder seems to be the most common method of teaching
listening comprehension. However, there are disadvantages: tapes are not
always clear, and unclear sounds resulting from poor-quality tape-recorders
interfere with students listening comprehension as students of this research
revealed (41.9% often and 38.2% always). Learners also reported (44.4% often
and 29.6% always) that unclear sounds resulting from poor classroom conditions
or outside noise interfere with their understanding. In addition, contrary to what
takes place in real life, speakers cannot be seen nor can they be interrupted to ask
for clarification as spoken texts are not understood instantly in some cases. To
make things easier, contextual clues should be provided. The study shows that
students find it difficult to get a general understanding of the spoken text from
the first listening (32% sometimes; 40.7% often). Moreover, this last factor may
create psychological problems for listeners as 54% (28.3% often, 25.9% always)
feel nervous and worried when they fail to understand the spoken text.
Listeners find it difficult to answer questions which require other than a short
answer, e.g. why or how questions (44.7% sometimes, 28.3% often). These questions which require detailed and long answers may sound misguided. Listening,
in this case, is often treated as a test in which learners are asked to listen to a long
stretch of English and to recall the facts. They are in reality being tested rather
than taught (Sheerin, 1987).
It should be noted that students are not expected to produce 100% correct
answers because as Brown and Yule (1983: 59) say, a student trained in such
expectations constantly experiences panic as he practises listening. Brown and
Yule (1983: 57) maintain that only a reasonable interpretation is required, what
native listeners operate with are partial, reasonable, interpretations of what they
are listening to, and it seems unjustifiable to require of non-native listeners that
they do more.
Finally, matters of motivation and interest are also important factors in understanding the topic of the spoken text. It was found that students find it difficult to
understand the spoken text which is not of interest to them (29.6% sometimes
and 41.9% often).
Other factors
At the end of the questionnaire learners were asked to list important factors
aiding listening comprehension. Learners answers centred on pre-listening
information related to the text, good quality tape-recorders, familiar vocabulary,
reading the text before listening to it, and interesting topics.
These factors were in learners opinions determinant factors in developing
their listening comprehension skills. Learners have rightly pointed out the
importance of pre-listening information and interesting topics in helping them to
understand the spoken text. However, they were misguided by focusing on
vocabulary and reading the text before listening to it. It was pointed out earlier

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that vocabulary should be guessed from the context of the spoken text and learners should first listen to the text before they read it.
Learners were asked to list important factors which hinder their listening
comprehension. In reply, their answers centred on poor conditions in the classroom which interfere with clear sounds, absence of visual aids, unfamiliar vocabulary, unclear pronunciation and fast speech, a boring subject, and a long text.
It can be seen that learners realised the importance of interesting topics which
help them to understand the spoken text and considered a boring subject a
hindrance to their listening comprehension. Moreover, they have rightly sensed
the lack of visual aids, unclear pronunciation, and a long spoken text as important factors hindering listening comprehension. It was pointed out earlier that
listeners would not be able to keep in memory the information heard from a long
text. On the other hand, learners still emphasise the fact that unfamiliar vocabulary interferes with their listening comprehension. This is perhaps due to ineffective ways of teaching by which teachers ask their students to focus on vocabulary
before they listen to the spoken text and discourage them from guessing them
from the context.

Discussion
This research has investigated learners perceptions of listening comprehension strategies and problems. The evidence presented points out that EFL learners encounter various kinds of listening problems. Moreover, it was found that
EFL learners were in some respects poorly equipped with effective strategies,
skills, and activities to help them to improve their listening comprehension.
The identification of listening comprehension problems pertinent to tasks and
activities, the message, the speaker and the listener as reported in this research
has significant implications. These problems can direct teachers to determine the
causes which make comprehension break down and design remedial tasks for
each problematic area. When such remedial tasks are formed listening comprehension skills can be improved. Based on the findings of this research the following outline of guidelines of listening activities are proposed for tackling learners
problems of listening comprehension.
(1) Pre-listening
Discussion: Discussions to elicit information about the topic. Select certain
words, difficult grammatical structures and expressions to be explained
through the discussion.
Prediction: Ask students to predict the content or what speakers are going to
say, based on the information they have already got through the preliminary discussion.
Questions: Pre-setting questions to be answered upon listening to the text.
(2) Listening in progress:
Identifying the gist: Students note down main points and key words to work
out the gist of the talk.
Identifying features of natural input: Students listen to natural spoken
discourse. They are asked to identify stress patterns, stress contrasts, weak
forms, etc.

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Dictation: Teacher dictates sentences which include features of natural


discourse, contractions, weak forms, elision, assimilation, etc.
Prediction: Teacher plays half a sentence, learners try to predict the rest of it.
Classification: Students listen to the text, select specific information and classify it using the table provided with the text.
Written Support: After their initial listening, students are provided with the
transcript of the spoken text to make sure that they have listened to everything on the tape. They look at the transcript as they listen to the spoken
text.
Questions: Students answer comprehension questions while listening to the
text.
(3) Post-listening
Evaluation: Students answer truefalse questions or multiple-choice questions as an evaluation of their understanding.
Speaking: Students act out a dialogue, interview or discussion on topics
related to the text.
Writing: Students write messages, postcards, letters, etc. on topics related to
the text.
It is assumed that these class activities will help learners to deepen their understanding of the spoken text. They represent the suggested mechanism and
field-based views of the present research for addressing problems of listening
comprehension and presumably similar problems in similar teachinglearning
contexts.
In particular, the findings of the research imply that teachers should design
classroom activities which train their students to pay attention to the overall
message rather than listen to every single word in order to come to better understanding of the text. Learners need also to be aware of the factors which contribute to their difficulties in listening, such as the unfamiliar or difficult items in a
long spoken text. It is suggested, therefore, that teachers introduce intelligent
guesswork as an important strategy to help their students infer unfamiliar
vocabulary from the context, encouraging them to use their background knowledge to arrive at better interpretation of the unfamiliar items. Similarly, difficult
grammatical structures must be unlocked through a process of inference, explanation, and practice. In addition, teachers should design classroom tasks to teach
listening comprehension rather than test it. Besides asking students comprehension questions after listening to the spoken text, teachers should also ask them to
draw upon a range of tasks to do while listening. In this way students can
provide and revise their interpretations as the text builds up and students listen
carefully both to the text itself and to the suggested interpretation of it.
It should be remembered that when designing these activities we need to give
clear instructions and offer a specific purpose for the task. In addition, we need to
consider the degree of interest and involvement they generate as uninteresting
activities may not develop learners listening comprehension.
In short, the study helps us to define students perceptions of listening
comprehension problems and establish realistic measures for treatment which
would be incorporated in the design of listening courses and textbooks.
However, this study has not examined teachers views of teaching listening

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151

comprehension; it only gives language learners the opportunity to voice their


perceptions of listening comprehension. More in-depth examination of the
teachers views is required. What language instructors and learners think of
listening will shed further light on this important but frequently ignored skill. In
addition, future research on listening comprehension should investigate different types of listening activities and define their goals. Questions should be
designed to investigate the relationship between listening and different styles of
learning in order to find out why learners prefer to use a particular listening strategy and a certain listening activity. Syllabus designers, then, would make use of
this knowledge and integrate it within the curriculum. More in-depth research
should also study the impact of listening on the development of other skills, such
as speaking, reading, and writing as well as how to incorporate listening with
these skills.
Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Professor Ali Saud Hasan, Faculty
of Education, Damascus University, Damascus, Syria.
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