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A systematic review of the role of prior knowledge in unidirectional listening comprehension

What do we want to know?

Listening comprehension is a key component of Modern Foreign Language GCSE and post-16 exams. It is also an essential skill in most subjects on the curriculum. Unidirectional listening comprehension (where the hearer is unable to interact with the speaker, as in the case of a tape-recorded text) appears to be under-researched. There appears to have been considerable interest in the efficacy of pre-listening activities in order to stimulate the student’s schemata (the complex mental representations and knowledge of the world that any individual has construed at any one moment) so that they can bring this to the act of listening to a foreign language text. Previous research indicates that the best comprehension of spoken text occurs through the combination of top-down processes (e.g. using prior knowledge of the subject matter) and bottom-up processes (e.g. listening carefully to each word in the text). It is unclear from the theoretical literature what the balance between the stimulation of top-down and bottom-up processes should be.

Who wants to know?

Teachers; those involved in teacher education.

What did we find?  

  • There is a positive association between prior knowledge and listening comprehension.

  • Studies where ‘prior knowledge’ was deliberately stimulated by the teacher prior to listening found that students’ short-term listening comprehension performance was greater.

  • Prior knowledge can be misused if it is not supported by later in-text information or if the listener is not listening out for possible contradicting information.

  • The way in which prior knowledge is used as a comprehension strategy may vary depending on the learner’s second language proficiency. Lower proficiency learners are likely to misuse prior knowledge more.

  • There appear to be very few studies of unidirectional listening comprehension in the UK, especially in the compulsory education sector.

  • The research measured short-term listening comprehension only, not long-term development of the skill of listening.

What are the implications?

Texts should be selected carefully by teachers to take into account both the facilitating and potential pitfalls of prior knowledge. Facilitating comprehension may engender motivation. Limiting text exposure to where the topic is familiar to the listener may lead to the under-development of the bottom-up processes which are crucial for confirming the hypotheses generated. Tests should include questions which require the comprehension of information which may contradict a listener’s general knowledge of a topic.

How did we get these results?

We examined 24 studies in depth. They either focused on whether prior knowledge of the topic aided comprehension, or encouraged listeners to activate their prior knowledge before listening. The studies were based in a range of countries.  In half of the studies, the students' first language was English; in the others, there was a range of first languages, including Japanese, German and Spanish. The settings were mainly in post-compulsory education.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre

This report should be cited as: Macaro E, Vanderplank R, Graham S (2005) A systematic review of the role of prior knowledge in unidirectional listening comprehension. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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