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


The importance of listening in foreign language teaching and learning has been reflected in a 30-year shift towards interaction-based acquisition – in other words learning by listening and speaking. A great deal of research has therefore been carried out on interactional studies to see if interaction leads to learning. By contrast, 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 moment in time) 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 interaction/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), both of which involve a number of cognitive and metacognitive strategies. From the perspective of the provision of learning experiences for students, it is unclear from the theoretical literature what the balance between the stimulation of top-down and bottom-up processes should be.

There is no comprehensive systematic review of studies dealing with either the learner’s schemata or with difficulties in perceiving and segmenting the incoming speech stream. Yet listening currently forms 25% of the National Curriculum for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) (England) assessment system and, generally, about 20% of A/S and A-level courses in MFL.


  • To map the field of research on second language unidirectional listening comprehension with particular reference to identifying the optimal conditions for understanding the spoken language and for developing the skills for listening.
  • To undertake an in-depth review of one aspect of the field and to assess the need for further research.

Review questions

Research question for the systematic map

What are the themes that have been explored through empirical research, in listening, in relation to second/foreign language formal instructional settings, since 1970?

Research questions for in-depth review

What is the impact of prior knowledge of the topic (or schemata, more broadly) on listening comprehension?

Or, more specifically:

What is the effect of stimulating prior knowledge using learning and/or assessment materials on listening comprehension?
What do learners perceive their listening comprehension strategies to be with specific reference to prior knowledge?


Owing to the short timeframe available for the project, the majority of studies were identified through searching bibliographic databases. There was no systematic use of personal contacts, websites, journal handsearching, or citation checking. Studies were included in the systematic map if: they reported on research in foreign or second language learning; they described or included an empirical study carried out by the author(s) on learners and the way learners listen to foreign language texts; the spoken text was unidirectional; they aimed to explore the comprehension of text through listening, not acquisition of features of the language; the spoken text was formal instruction-related; they were reported in or after 1950; they were published, including work published by research centres, language centres and departments, or unpublished but of doctoral standard. Included studies were keyworded, using both generic and review-specific keywords to create a ‘map’ of the research literature. For the in-depth review, a further set of criteria was applied to the studies in the map.

Studies were included in the in-depth review if they investigated in some way the impact of prior knowledge of the topic (or schemata, more broadly) on listening comprehension and/or provided a description or explanation of learners’ prior knowledge and its impact on listening comprehension. The studies in the in-depth review were subjected to generic data extraction, including assessments of the weight of evidence (WoE) each study lent to the review. Quality-assurance procedures were carried out at the screening, keywording and data-extraction stages.

For the synthesis, studies in the in-depth review were grouped into two subcategories: that is, (i) studies that had attempted to measure the association between prior knowledge and listening comprehension, and (ii) studies that had investigated students’ perceptions of their listening comprehension strategies. Patterns of effect sizes were compared for the synthesis of ‘measurement studies’. Perceptions studies were analysed to identify common themes.


2,120 potential papers were identified, of which 84 met the criteria for inclusion in the map and 24 for inclusion in the in-depth review. The main method of identifying studies was through bibliographic databases. Only limited handsearching was completed. The majority of studies in the review were published in English. With this caveat in mind, the mapping of studies suggests that the majority of research on unidirectional listening comprehension has been conducted in North America, in the post-compulsory education setting and, in the majority of cases, with students whose first language was English. The findings of the synthesis carried out for the in-depth review can be summarised as follows:

  • There appear to be very few studies of unidirectional listening comprehension in the compulsory education sector (none in the UK).
  • There appear to be very few studies of unidirectional listening comprehension in the UK.
  • Unidirectional listening comprehension has largely been investigated in a fairly narrow range of L1 and L2 languages.
  • With one exception, all the investigations of the associations between prior knowledge of the subject and listening comprehension measured short-term listening comprehension performance only.
  • With the above caveats in mind, there appears to be a positive association between prior knowledge and listening comprehension: two outcomes from two high WoE (weight of evidence) studies, 26 outcomes from 10 medium WoE studies, and two outcomes from two low WoE studies.
  • Studies where prior knowledge was deliberately incorporated into the strategy for teaching and/or assessment (i.e. advanced organiser type studies) found that students’ short-term listening comprehension performance was greater when such strategies were used: 17 outcomes from three medium WoE studies and one outcome from one low WoE study.
  • However, the finding that prior knowledge facilitates comprehension in general should not be interpreted as meaning that any prior knowledge used in any way will facilitate comprehension. A number of studies suggested that prior knowledge can lead to inaccurate comprehension if it is not supported by later in-text information or if the listener does not listen for possible contradicting information.
  • The terminology used to describe and classify listening comprehension strategies was inconsistent across the field.
  • With the above caveat in mind, it would appear that students perceive that they use top-down processing strategies, including prior knowledge, as aids to listening comprehension.
  • It is suggested in some studies that the way in which prior knowledge is used as a comprehension strategy may vary depending on the learners’ L2 language proficiency: one high, one medium, and two low WoE studies.



  • Current British policy in the form of the National Curriculum and Framework for Key Stage 3 Modern Languages does not give listening a central role in the development of learners’ proficiency. Listening is usually referred to in the context of interaction rather than unidirectionally and furthermore the importance of both top-down and bottom–up processing strategies is not mentioned. The results of this review suggest that policy-makers need to place a greater emphasis on the skill of listening as a focus of study.


  • The results suggest that teachers need to advise learners about how to apply strategic knowledge – in our case, prior knowledge – flexibly and in combination with other listening strategies.
  • The results suggest that teachers are more likely to be successful if they use a variety of approaches to developing listening comprehension.
  • Throughout the different phases of language learning teachers should bear in mind that a mixture of approaches will be the most beneficial for long-term listening skill development.
  • The complexity of the interrelationship between top-down and bottom-up processing strategies suggests a wide variety of listening texts and tasks for learners. Implications for choosing which texts to use when are probably the following:
    • topic-specific texts with high prior knowledge (PK) – develop the ability to infer without knowing all words
    • topic-specific texts with low PK – develop the ability to decode and gradually develop schema
    • non-topic specific or multi-topic texts – ability to switch from PK reliance to non-PK reliance.


  • Future research needs to explore whether time needs to be put aside in the teaching curriculum for teaching listening as a specific skill.
  • Researchers in the field need to develop and use a common set of terminology to describe cognitive, metacognitive and affective learning strategies.
  • There is very little research on the topic from the UK and from the compulsory education phase. Similarly, there are very few studies of L1 English speakers learning a foreign language. It is clear that researchers in the UK need to address these issues.

Strengths and limitations

It is therefore possible that more studies which looked at other strategies and processes should have been included in the in-depth review because they may indirectly have provided some illumination on the effect of prior knowledge. The Review Group rated only a few of the studies as ‘high’ in terms of their capacity to answer the review question. However, this is reflected in the tentativeness of the conclusions and implications drawn by the Review Group. None of the studies in the in-depth review was conducted in the UK and only a small number were conducted with students of compulsory school age, which raises questions about the generalisability of findings to this sector in the UK.

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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