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Vol 25, No. 3 (May 2008)

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Listening Comprehension Technology: Building the Bridge from Analog to Digital

Linda C. Jones, University of Arkansas

Listening comprehension has had a long and ever-evolving history. Within the last 100 years, we have seen it progress from analog phonograph recordings, through the audiotape era, and into the digital realm. Questions arise as to how this evolution has proceeded, what pitfalls and accomplishments we have experienced, and where we might envision aural comprehension technology and its support of second language acquisition in the future. This article addresses the history of listening comprehension technology, presents numerous questions and answers (as they stand today) with regard to the benefits of modern listening comprehension technology, and offers suggestions as to how we can better ensure success with digital technologies and aural comprehension in the future.

Listening Comprehension Technology: Building the Bridge from Analog to Digital


Listening Comprehension, Language Acquisition and Technology, Language Labs, Analog Technologies, Digital Technologies, History of Language Learning


In the grand scheme of things, listening comprehension has had a relatively short but trying history that has been subject to internal and external influences such as teacher and student opinions and motivation, the design and presentation of aural material, and the technologies available, all of which can affect a student's ability to process listening comprehension texts. Thankfully, today's knowledge of instructional design and technology allows us to present information in various modes (visual, aural, or text) to help increase students' acquisition or construction of new knowledge. However, such results have not come without a great deal of trial and error, success and failure, and both technological and pedagogical evolution. With technology serving a prominent role in language learning today, intriguing questions arise: How have listening comprehension and technology evolved to this day? What successes and failures have we seen in terms of the impact of technology design on aural comprehension? What does the future hold for technology and its influence on students' aural comprehension development?


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the typical approach to language learning entailed reading and writing in a foreign language, learning grammatical rules, memorizing word lists, and completing "errorless" translations. At this same time, precursors of today's technology emerged in the form of wax cylinders and 78 records onto which one could permanently record words and song. Despite the birth of this innovative technology, its use for language learning was out of curiosity at best, limited to the preservation of actively dying indigenous languages. 0x01 graphic


After World War II, the primary way to develop aural comprehension was to maintain a structural analysis of the language and to provide students with several hours of drill per day, in small classes, with the help of a native speaker (Bloomfield, 1942). Educators began to react against such labor-intensive strategies and, with time, cylinders and 78 records evolved into LPs and reel-to-reel tapes, new technologies that immediately found a home in the audiolingual method (ALM). This new teaching style approached language acquisition as a behavioristic process and emphasized habit formation and stimulus response activities as stepping stones to language acquisition. The new reel-to-reel technology seemed like a good fit for language learning but yet was very elusive; no one knew how to use it well (Rubrecht, 1977) with some suggesting that tapes were "miracle drugs: in order to be effective, they must be made by experts, prescribed by experts, and administered by experts" (Harris, 1961, p. 465). Thus, despite the "newness" of technology and its application to language learning, listening comprehension was soon labeled a "long-neglected area" (Rivers, 1966, p. 196). In response, language labs were developed to serve as the ideal technological means to model and reinforce students' aural conditioning and verbal responses. The belief was that language lab technology could help students hear difficult sounds and sound sequences and could support individualized learning. Depending upon the setup of the lab, students could control their audio input and teachers could leave to the lab and its monitors all the drudgery of drill and pattern practice while keeping for themselves the interesting aspects of language learning. Holec and Kuhn (1971) reinforced the lab's usefulness for intermediate and advanced study suggesting that reading tapes would provide comprehension exercises and conversation preparation for in-class activities, thereby making the "lonely lab" less of a drudgery than typically perceived (Chvany, 1972). However, audiotaped material in general was viewed as nonauthentic, boring, and irrelevant, and, prior to the development of published listening comprehension materials, aural lessons had to be written and recorded by the teachers themselves (Rubrecht, 1977). As a result, teachers ignored what happened in the lab and students often turned down the volume to study for other classes; little motivation was present (Quinn, 1975).

Complaints soon emerged regarding the speed of the aural material. The technology world responded and developed speech compressors and expanders to adjust the speed of the audio without affecting the pitch of the speaker and to alleviate cognitive overload in short term memory (Harvey, 1978). Studies soon followed to examine the impact of slowed speech on aural comprehension (i.e., Harvey, 1984; Nord, 1975; Smith, 1980). Smith (1980) had students listen to an aural text at a rate of 20% less than the normal rate, 10% less than the normal rate, and then at a normal rate. He found that a slower rate was not helpful in comprehending aural material. Flaherty (1975), however, found that French students performed better on aural comprehension tests when the rate of the aural text was expanded to 135%; expansion to 170%, a much slower pace, did not increase comprehension.

Speed aside, there was little creativity within the lab and technological problems emerged such as broken machines, displaced knobs, twisted tapes, and cramped space. Little evidence suggested that aural activities helped students to learn a language. Interest was precarious at best with some even developing mathematical formulas to analyze students' motivation towards aural materials: "Success is a function of intensity of involvement multiplied by time (zero intensity input x 50 lessons = zero success)" (Rubrecht, 1977, p. 8). Language lab materials were only as good as the prerecorded tape, and little to no interaction was present; the goal was simply to identify sounds and to develop flawless linguistic patterns (i.e., Field, 1998; Pill, 1971; Postovsky, 1981; Richard-Amato, 1996). Yet, rumblings of a not-too-distant drum could be heard. Severin (1967) found that processing an aural text with pictures led to greater results on posttreatment activities than did processing the same aural text with sound only, or sound and unrelated images. Severin's research findings were prophetic for the multimedia we now know today.


With time, ALM evolved into other teaching methods: the direct method stressed repetition of language components and focused on grammar as the topic of discussion (Richard-Amato, 1996); the natural approach also stressed comprehension before speaking but, in addition, emphasized short responses to questions that lengthened with time (Richard-Amato, 1996; Terrell, 1977); total physical response (TPR) emphasized comprehension before speaking and required students to listen and respond physically (through actions or gestures) to the aural information (Asher, 1969; Asher, Jusudo, & de la Torre, 1974; Richard-Amato, 1996). In terms of research, Kalivoda, Morain, and Elkins (1971) examined the use of 10-minute audiotaped TPR activities structured around themes with students listening and responding physically as teachers acted out the language clues. Students stated that such a strategy increased their aural and vocabulary comprehension and that it was a stimulating change of pace.

Despite such efforts to help students develop their language skills, educators generally did not take time to examine more appropriate uses of technology. As listen-and-repeat strategies droned on, meaningful communication through interaction was deemed essential if students were to acquire and use a language (Chanier, 1994). This demanded modernization and rejuvenation of the language lab, with special attention to more interactive and interesting recorded materials and technologies. The students themselves, their learning styles, their prior knowledge of and attitudes toward the language, along with the presentation of the audio materials, would also need to be addressed to explore how listening comprehension activities could best enhance students' aural development (Cullen, 1975). Soon, researchers began to examine such factors as language proficiency and material design in their research. For example, Mueller (1980) factored student proficiency levels into his examination of how an aural passage with visual material might affect students' success with listening comprehension activities. He asked students at different proficiency levels to review an aural passage in three separate manners: listening only, listening with images simultaneously presented, and listening with images presented after the passage. He determined that high proficiency learners could successfully process aural information alone but that lower proficiency level learners needed support, in the form of simultaneously presented pictures and sound, to best process the aural information. This finding revealed that a relationship exists among students' characteristics, their language-learning strategies, and the manner in which the information is presented to them (Carlson, 1990). Students who are proficient may not need to rely on visual aids as much since they can generate analogical representations as they listen; mainly inexperienced students benefit most from pictures coordinated with words (Mayer & Sims, 1994). All that was now needed was for educators to build a bridge towards technological and pedagogical strategies that could soundly coordinate aural, visual, and text-based information along with learners' needs and differences to enhance aural comprehension. Such a scenario was just over the horizon.


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the communicative approach to language teaching emphasized a more active use of language to perform tasks based on meaning, not form. This method, in use today, is more tolerant of errors and deemphasizes exercises that focus strictly on grammar-based, drill-and-practice strategies. Students learn to communicate socially and competently in the target language; teachers make extensive use of audio-visual technologies and employ prelistening activities and subsequent listening and inferential activities when working with aural texts (Field, 1998; Stone, 1988). Educators also use more authentic recordings than previous methods and stress the importance of inferring meaning from a difficult passage. Thus, the focus is no longer on discrete units of language, unrelated words or expressions out of context, but rather lengthier chunks of discourse and active negotiation with others in situations that have substance and meaning (Chanier, 1994; Hoven, 1999; Meskill, 1996).


In the early stages of the communicative approach, new strategies in the design and development of audio and videotaped educational materials quickly emerged. In terms of the language lab, Stone (1988) published a manual that emphasized the creative, communicative use of lab equipment and materials for aural comprehension activities. This text provided numerous examples of activities that entailed aural communication based on themes, not grammatical repetition. At the same time, the desktop computer was just becoming readily available and educators began to build bridges between computers, analog tape, and language study (i.e., Stevens, 1983; Webb, 1985). Mydlarski and Paramskas (1985) developed "Dictate," a template to help students practice aural comprehension through dictation tasks. The software would highlight errors and students in turn would discern how they wished to proceed with error correction; the audio was delivered by tape. Soon, technology supported the connection of computers to tape players to allow random access of audio segments on the tape (Henry, 1987). In particular, MacLang (Frommer, 1990) brought more interactive top-down and bottom-up activities to the aural comprehension forefront. With this software, one could create basic lessons that included fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice and word-ordering activities and immediate feedback. Beginning and ending points would be programmed into the software allowing the computer to control access to segments of the audiotape using the interfaced audio tape player. The MacLang program was easy to use, allowed faculty to develop activities that coincided with their syllabuses, and made listening more active and less linear (Frommer, 1989). And yet, a prominent drawback to this interfaced system was that the audiotape would stretch, get out of synchronization with the computer, or break. Around this same time, Barrutia (1985) "called" on CALL to find ways to incorporate digitized speech into a computer. Fischer (1986) responded and examined the potential of the "Victor 9000 computer" for supporting listening comprehension. This computer allowed for easy recording, storage, and playback of speech with the sound quality comparable to that of a tape player. Technology was now providing "a benchmark, a notion of what we should demand...when we contemplate how the computer can, or might, or should serve our purposes as teachers of language for practical proficiency" (Fischer, 1986, p. 31).

With a new transition underway, researchers turned to comparison studies of computer-driven activities to audiocassette, paper-and-pencil activities. Shiu and Smaldino (1993) compared audiotape materials and computer-based materials in the Chinese language. Students were asked to listen to an aural dialogue and to answer follow-up questions. While there were no noticeable differences on aural comprehension tests, students preferred the quality of the computer-based audio activities over audiotape activities. Balizet, Treder, and Parshall (1999) later examined how a computer-delivered listening comprehension text and an audiocassette/paper-and-pencil test might differ in their impact on sound quality, convenience, and aural comprehension. No significant differences were found on English as a Second Language (ESL) comprehension tests for the audiotape and computer-based audio modules. However, students again indicated that the computer's sound quality was much improved over the cassette tape, and the ability to more precisely control the audio text was a plus. Coniam (1996) wanted to see how a computer program could help students work alone with listening comprehension to develop ESL proficiency. The program dictated a text to students who, in turn, entered components of the dictation into the computer. The findings suggested that the computer-based dictation was just as effective as in-class, written dictations.

Thus, one transition was complete; computers now could handle audio and text simultaneously and effectively. However, concerns were raised that if students' internal knowledge structures were low, aural comprehension would be an insurmountable task even for the best of students (Wolff, 1987). Fortunately, researchers began to address the question of how students could process sensory information including text and auditory material to enhance aural comprehension in ways other than through pure dictation. Jakobsaottir and Hooper (1995) examined a TPR approach that used computer icons, graphics, and text to help students


respond to spoken commands in Norwegian. They found that presenting an aural component with text helped students to develop their aural skills; students showed greater motivation, greater confidence, and greater understanding than when text was absent. Such an outcome suggests that when prior knowledge of aural material is low, it makes sense to provide visual and text-based information that supports and extends the listening comprehension process (Garza, 1991). Audio alone may be sufficient for those with prior knowledge of a particular topic, but presentation of an aural component coordinated with visual and verbal symbol systems could help those less knowledgeable with the material to enhance their aural comprehension (Kozma, 1991).

With the successful combination of computers and digitized audio established, some suggested that each learner would eventually own not a tape player but a computer interfaced with a videodisc player and television (Leveridge, 1979), that such equipment would bring more individuality to the education system (Bork, 1981), and that audio materials would make regular use of authentic speech (Harvey, 1984). This new emphasis on language teaching and audio technology soon included interaction between students and fast nonlinear retrieval of audio-visual information (Joy, Lian, & Russell, 1983). Stevens (1983) examined the use of an "apple II+ computer interfaced with a SONY SL-323 Betamax video cassette recorder (VCR) using a Gentech ETS-2000 controller" (p. 27) to see how well the interfaced equipment would work and how user friendly it would be. Stevens found that this new technology demanded a large commitment of time and resources that many were not yet prepared to give. Nevertheless, he correctly hypothesized that interactive videodisc, not videotape, would soon play a prominent role in language learning, primarily because of the ability of videodisc to accurately display a video segment. For example, Kim (1987) combined interactive videodisc and computer technologies to enhance listening comprehension in Korean using options such as feedback, translation, cultural notes, vocabulary, and grammar cues to support students' different backgrounds, language levels, and learning strategies. As interest in videodisc technology continued to rise, numerous individuals and organizations such as the Project for International Communication Studies (PICS) developed videodiscs with authentic materials to provide high quality audio and video components to students (Hughes, 1993; Knisbacher, 1991; Whiskeyman, 1990). Thus, the use of authentic texts took off with the belief that such material could help learners overcome cultural barriers to language learning (Bacon & Finnemann, 1990) and that early exposure to such texts would help students better comprehend more difficult texts later on (Bacon, 1989, 1992). Bacon (1989) argued that barring beginning language learners from the natural language would prevent them from interacting with others effectively. Faerch and Kaspar (1986) further stressed that interaction was needed to help students develop meaning from a text. Hendricks (1994) examined the use of interactive instructional design models to support a movement away from linear processing. He found that with the increase in interactivity, technology could now easily provide helpful components such as transcriptions, dictionaries, glossaries, pictures, testing resources, grammar checks, and so on, as well as video control capabilities. Students could also interact with activities that would vary their experiences based on their responses to questions. With the adventure program Montevidisco (Larson & Bush, 1992), students could "visit" a Mexican town and encounter thematic situations and vary their experiences all with the help of interactive tools.

To help teachers develop their own interactive lessons, numerous educators created educational authoring software. Otto and Pusack (1992) developed The Listening Tool, an application that allows students to explore authentic L2 video material with helpful comprehension aids. Farris and Fischer (1994) followed with Libra, a multimedia tool with which teachers could develop interactive computer-based L2 activities for their students complete with pictures, sound, and connections to videodisc technologies. Using Libra and the videodisc "La Marée et Ses Secrets" (Russell & Cottave, 1989), Fischer (1996) examined the effects of the presence or absence of multimedia components such as vocabulary or character


introduction, narrative structure analysis, and multiple forms of follow-up activities such as checklist questions, icon-sorting questions, and multiple-choice questions on students' aural comprehension. He found that the instructional design had a significant impact on students' listening comprehension; those students who could work with multimedia components that took advantage of sound pedagogical approaches to learning (e.g., advance organizers and supportive questions) outperformed those students who had few multimedia options available to them. His study suggests that students are most likely to learn when sound pedagogical strategies are incorporated into multimedia-based lessons.

Publishing companies also jumped onto the videodisc bandwagon. A videodisc entitled Blickkontakte (Pusack & Tschirner, 1996) was produced for Kontakte (Terrell, 1996), a communicative-based German text which emphasizes listening comprehension. Pusack (1999) explored how software could contribute to a learner's self-directed learning from the videodisc by offering, among other things, aural comprehension practice. Interactive multimedia lessons using the Dasher Authoring System (Pusack & Otto, 1992) were created to offer pre-, during and postviewing support and to provide both small and large chunks of language; such a strategy allowed students to control the material more easily. Pusack's (1999) work raised the question of whether or not one could ever create a fully comprehensive multimedia textbook. He suggested that such a product was possible but would have to be a continuous work-in-progress, updated constantly indicating that "the effort to provide maximum multimedia support for a major textbook ... has no true beginning or end" (p. 40). It would not be long before Pusack's dream would become a reality (University of Texas, 2004).

With computers and videodisc capabilities in full force, research soon examined the impact of these technologies on students' aural comprehension. Chang and Smith (1991) examined how collaboration at an interactive videodisc activity might affect students' aural comprehension. They found that students who worked together enhanced their ability to respond to implicit or thought-provoking questions but that collaborative learning did not have an impact, positive or negative, on responding to factual questions. Brett (1997) compared students' performance on aural comprehension exercises when working with audiotape, videotape, or multimedia-based technologies. He found that students were most successful when working with multimedia, primarily because of the instant feedback they received from the available technology.

Though multimodal materials in aural comprehension activities were found to enhance students' learning, not all researchers supported their use in listening comprehension. MacWilliam (1986) believed that dually coded information hindered listening comprehension because it placed too many demands on students and could lead to a potential loss of information. Though Pouwels (1992) supported identifying and addressing learners' needs, he found that students who were more strongly attuned to processing information aurally were quite distracted by simultaneously presented visual and verbal information; this combination led to a significant decrease in comprehension. These two studies suggested that providing an inappropriate amount or combination of information could split students' attention and prevent them from learning (Sweller, 1994). Students therefore needed a technology that would allow them to choose their own learning strategy and that would give them

the freedom to move around to other parts of a lesson in order to find the information that will enable understanding . . . to go over the material in different orders--and thus in different contexts--to see the relationships among the parts (McGrath, 1992, p. 516) with a range of options geared to individual learning styles. (Garrett, 1988, p. 9)


Thus, a technological tool solidly grounded in good instructional design would most help students obtain additional relevant verbal and nonverbal (visual) information. Once again, change was on the horizon and videodisc technology would soon bow to the stand-alone desktop computer and the internet, the newest member of the aural comprehension world.


Listening comprehension activities are more multisensory and interactive than ever. With advances in technology and instructional design, the computer can now provide sight, sound, and text to enhance students' aural comprehension, all within the confines of a single piece of equipment. How this has evolved over the last two decades has been closely tied to the digital and pedagogical evolution and greater focus on second language acquisition. Numerous research studies have examined the varying ways that these new digital technologies can enhance aural comprehension and have often highlighted the benefits of interactive computer-based activities. Yet, as we cross the bridge from analog to digital, core questions come to mind regarding digital technologies and aural comprehension. Can we reassure ourselves that when we step onto the banks of the digital world that the ground will be solid? Let us briefly examine several questions that have been addressed in the last decade or so to better understand the significance of and instill confidence in this ever-evolving digital world.

Are We Effectively Developing Instructional Design Models to Support Aural Multimedia Environments?

Hoven (1999) proposed an instructional design model, grounded in sociocultural theory, that combines listening comprehension, individual differences, styles of learning, and software design to promote aural comprehension within a multimedia environment (see Figure 1).

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Hoven suggested that such learner-centered software must reside within an environment that consistently employs the same strategies in all learning activities, that the software itself must include our knowledge of effective aural and visual comprehension strategies from a theoretical perspective, and that these considerations must relate to sociocultural ideals. This design must also accommodate learner differences and preferences along with solid navigation strategies. By employing this model, Hoven asserted, we may better ensure that learners can work through material, following their own path and at their own pace, and thereby better comprehend aural L2 material.

Plass and Jones (2005) developed an integrated model of second language acquisition with multimedia that intertwines cognition, L2 learning, and multimedia (see Figure 2).

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Within this model, students process aural L2 input along with written and/or pictorial information. As students process the aural information, they select from annotations to more effectively understand the input, to organize the annotated information into comprehensible pictorial or written mental representations, and then to further mold subsequent mental representations into mental models so that the learners' linguistic system is enhanced. Thus, students' processing (cognitive and metacognitive), in interaction with multi modal information within the aural multimedia module, determines the effectiveness of multimedia on aural comprehension.

Can Processing Pictorial and Written Information within an Aural Multimedia Passage Enhance Students' Aural Comprehension?

We have long known that processing supportive pictorial or written information while listening to a L2 aural text enhances students' aural comprehension (e.g., Baltova, 1999; Carlson, 1990; Chung, 1994; Garza, 1991; Gruba, 2004; Guillory, 1998; Herron, Hanley, & Cole, 1995; Joiner, 1997; Mendelsohn, 1998; Mueller, 1980; Pouwels, 1992; Pusack & Otto, 1997; Raphan, 1996; Severin, 1967; Thompson & Rubin, 1996). Using analog video, Guillory (1998) focused on the influence of full-text captions and keyword captions on students' aural comprehension. She found that keyword captions lead to an equal level of comprehension as compared to full text captions. Using three different Japanese news broadcasts, Gruba (2004) examined the effects of visuals on students' listening comprehension. He found that the


importance of visual information on students' aural comprehension changes dependent upon students' comprehension of the material presented. That is, the more students understand an aural passage, the less they rely on pictorial information. Examining the effectiveness of captions for beginning language students, Taylor (2005) found that beginners are more often distracted by simultaneous sight, sound, and text than are more advanced students. Upon completion of recall protocols and questions based on the video, it was determined that captions did not help beginning students understand the video, and, in fact, students performed better when captions were absent.

These studies have their foundation in Paivio's (1971, 1986) dual coding theory which has long argued that learning is more likely to take place when pictorial and written information are presented simultaneously rather than separately. Students can build referential connections between both information modes resulting in greater aural comprehension. With the development of the DVD, this digital dimension can also support various combinations of aural and written input while processing video. For example, Markham and Peter (2003) investigated the effects of Spanish captions, English captions, and the absence of any captions on intermediate level Spanish language students' aural comprehension of a Spanish DVD. Using a 20-item multiple-choice test, they found that English captions better supported listening comprehension than did Spanish captions. Further, the presence of any type of caption resulted in a significantly greater outcome than when captions were absent.

Researchers have found similar outcomes within computer-based multimedia environments. Jones and Plass (2002) focused on the effectiveness of multimedia annotations (written and pictorial) for enhancing aural comprehension. In their study, students had varying levels of access to pictorial and/or written information. They found that students who accessed both written and pictorial annotations as they listened recalled the aural passage better than those who accessed pictorial or written annotations alone or not at all. Students who interacted with pictorial and written annotations had more than one route to the information; they could select those annotations they believed were most beneficial to them, organize their knowledge into meaningful written and pictorial mental representations, build referential connections within the aural passage, and then integrate them into a mental model of the aural text to best recall the material presented. The ability to select annotations also implies that students have a certain amount of choice and control over their learning. Research has often shown that because students vary in how they process information, they can better benefit from material when they have a stake in how they experience the information presented (e.g. Garrett, 1988; Gruba, 2004; Lavine, 1992; McGrath, 1992; Plass, Chun, Mayer, & Leutner, 1998, 2003; Reinert, 1976; Weinberg, 2002; Zhao, 1997).

Can an Aural Multimedia Environment Support Aural Comprehension Testing?

Brindley (1998) examined how we can assess listening ability through the use of technology and suggested that any assessment of listening must include the nature of the input, the nature of the assessment task, and individual differences. At the time of his study, he believed that technology would be the perfect vehicle to use since it would promote interaction with audio, visual, and text components. He further predicted that computer adaptive tests would become readily available in the near future, tests that incorporate digitized speech with visual materials and text. Coniam (1998), in fact, did examine the use of a computer to support the design and implementation of an audio exam. His application, "Text Dictation," allows students to listen to an authentic text three times, type their answers to the questions into the computer after the second attempt, and then amend previous answers after listening a third time. The software analyzes input and assists students with their aural comprehension.


Should Students Be Encouraged to Take Notes as They Process Aural Multimedia Activities?

Carrell, Dunkel, and Mollaun (2004) examined the interaction of an ESL listening comprehension task, note taking (allowed or disallowed), lecture length (2.4 or 5 minutes), and topic (arts/humanities or physical sciences) on students' aural comprehension. Results indicated that students performed least well on comprehension checks when no note taking was allowed on an art topic, better when they could take notes from an art topic lecture, and equally well on physical science topics no matter if note taking was allowed or disallowed. They also found that with short lectures, students performed best when note taking was allowed and less well when it was not allowed; students performed the same, regardless of the presence or absence of note taking, on longer lectures. Their results suggest that allowing students to take notes can enhance their aural comprehension of computer-based material.

Can Learners Have Fun While Developing Their Aural Skills in an Aural Multimedia Environment?

All educators hope that their assignments are intriguing enough that students remain motivated throughout the learning process. But, some have gone so far as to explore the effectiveness of video games for aural comprehension. de Haan (2005) examined how a Japanese as a foreign language student could improve his listening comprehension by playing a baseball video game in Japanese. Prior to beginning the study, the student completed a pretest to measure his comprehension of 47 Japanese words and expressions from the game. He next played the game twice a week for one month and had simultaneous aural, text, and visual cues available to him at all times. After one month of playing the game and submitting game logs that reflected upon the new language he had learned, he completed a follow-up test that indicated improvement in his aural comprehension. The videogame benefited him because he could learn through context; he could control the action and therefore had control over the pace of his learning.

What Impact Does an Aural Multimedia Environment Have on Learner Differences?

Learner differences interact with the information modes of a multimedia environment and affect students' aural comprehension. Jones (in press) examined how high and low spatial ability learners and high and low verbal ability learners interact with written and/or pictorial annotations that can potentially affect their aural comprehension. As students listened to the aural passage, they accessed annotations singly (pictorial or written), chose to access either type of annotation, or did not access annotations. Though little difference was found between high and low spatial ability learners on the recall protocol, high verbal ability learners outperformed low verbal ability learners on the test when they listened to the aural passage and accessed pictorial annotations alone. High verbal ability students had the cognitive resources needed to connect the aural text with the pictorial annotations and thus comprehend the aural passage. Low verbal ability students, on the other hand, expended great effort processing the aural text and had less cognitive ability to process the images. Cognitive overload (Sweller, 1994) prevented low verbal ability learners from making connections between the aural passage and the pictorial annotations.

Can Learners Work Effectively Together in an Aural Multimedia Environment?

Researchers have found that peer-to-peer activities can lead to aural comprehension


(e.g., Bueno & Nelson, 1993; Chang & Smith, 1991; Oxford, 1997; Reagan, Fox, & Bleich, 1994; Szostek, 1994; Vandergrift, 1997; Yano, Long, & Ross, 1994). For example, Bueno and Nelson (1993) examined how collaboration between students at a computer that provided aural material would affect their learning. When students utilized negotiation and clarification strategies with each other, their comprehension of the aural material increased. Jones (2006a) also explored collaboration in a multimedia environment in which students listened to an aural text either alone or in pairs with annotations (pictorial and written) either present or absent. After working collaboratively or as individuals, students completed a recall protocol test without assistance from their partner. Students who worked collaboratively and with annotations had the greatest recall of the aural text as compared to those who worked alone but with annotations. All students who worked collaboratively at the computer fared better than those who worked alone. In both studies, collaboration helped students to compare their understanding of the aural passage (Blaye, Light, & Rubtsov, 1992), allowed them to develop deeper understanding of the material (Mydlarski, 1998), reinforced their learning (Crook, 1994), and enhanced their comprehension (Szostek, 1994).

What Do Students Think about All of These Aural Multimedia Activities?

Students' opinions of the effectiveness of aural multimedia activities can help us see how well we are doing with this new technology. Weinberg (2002) examined the effectiveness of a French listening comprehension course and students' opinions about the material presented; she found that students enjoyed doing aural multimedia activities because of their ability to control the aural material presented. Jones (2003) also examined students' opinions of multimedia annotations while processing an aural text. As with Weinberg's study, students stated that having the ability to choose which type of annotated information to access helped them to understand the aural material.

Are Students Receiving the Feedback They Need from the Aural Multimedia Environment?

When students are made aware of their comprehension errors through some form of feedback, this guidance can help them to modify and clarify their comprehension (Swain & Lapkin, 1995). Brett (1997) examined how well students would perform on comprehension and recall tasks, as influenced by feedback, when processing aural texts with audio alone, video alone, or with multimedia components. The same aural text and tests were used throughout the study, but feedback designed to help students confirm or disconfirm their answers and thus clarify understanding was provided within the multimedia component. The students who processed the aural text with the provided feedback improved their comprehension, confirmed and/or clarified their understanding, and reduced the number of misinterpretations of the aural text. The computer served as a partner in the learning process and assisted students with their aural comprehension (Chapelle, 1998). Hoven (2003) examined learners at different proficiency levels and their use of help and feedback features within a multimedia environment. Prior to accessing the material, students' opinions varied in terms of using multimedia for language learning. However, as students used the software, it became clear that high proficiency learners used the multimedia-based help tools more often than did low or medium proficiency learners. Because of their proficiency level, higher level learners could more easily benefit from the help tools. Grgurovic and Hegelheimer (2007) also examined feedback in the form of transcripts and subtitles in a multimedia environment and their effects on students' behavior and performance. They too found that lower proficiency learners did not spend as much time


working with feedback options as did higher proficiency learners. As a result, higher proficiency learners understood the aural text better than did the lower proficiency learners.

Have We Abandoned Analog Technology?

The whole world is not yet digital, and much valuable analog material continues to be developed that serves teachers and students very well. Elkhafaifi (2005) examined the use of prelistening activities for supporting students' aural comprehension in Arabic. This study was not computer based but made use of a videotaped lecture in Arabic. Students were provided with preview material in the form of multiple-choice questions with possible answers, Arabic vocabulary words with their English translations, or a verb conjugation distractor. Those who received questions as advance organizers outperformed all others since they were able to focus more closely on the passage and understand it. Wilberschied and Berman (2004) also looked at the supportive nature of advance organizers. Their study made use of written summaries in Chinese or written summaries in Chinese with pictorial information of an upcoming video. Significance was not established in their study. However, students did remark that the pictures included as a part of their previewing activity helped them to understand the video. Results from both of these studies suggest that these same strategies could and should be applied to digital technology assignments as well. The use of technology in general is no different than the use of any other teaching tool, and proper planning from beginning to end is crucial to better ensure that all types of technology-based activities can enhance learning.

Can Aural Multimedia Environments Better Tell Us How to Train Our Students to Do Listening Comprehension Activities?

Very little emphasis has been placed on training students to process aural materials in a multimedia environment. However, in a recent conversation, two researchers stated that students do process information quite differently when reading, listening, or watching video within a computer environment. They are now actively exploring options that include inviting students to process their thoughts out loud as they experience input in different media environments. By videotaping their think aloud activity, teachers and students may be able to observe how students process information in a multimedia environment and explore new ways to help students select listening comprehension strategies that best suit their needs. In a separate example, Jones (2003) found that students' selection of annotated material to process in a multimedia environment may not have been the ideal choice to benefit their aural comprehension. She suggested that teachers must find ways to help students understand that examining information in an unfamiliar form may actually challenge them and lead to greater learning than when they choose what is most "comfortable" each time. That is, students should be encouraged to take risks so as to experience the material in other ways; the results could indeed be surprising.

Can Second Language Acquisition from an Aural Multimedia Environment Transfer to Other Activities?

Brett (1998) examined relationships between the language items used in two multimedia environments and their reuse by students in comprehension tasks. He found that, when students access salient items in a multimedia module through such helpful tools as glossed definitions, students are more likely to transfer such items and learning into other language


activities than when such information is less accessible, less interactive. Thus, a positive interaction is present between the salient language in multimedia applications and their subsequent use in follow-up tasks.

Can an Aural Comprehension Environment Work on the Internet?

Weinberg (2002) explored the advantages and disadvantages of using internet-based audio and video components from the perspective of students and teachers to support aural comprehension. Her overall conclusion was that the availability and use of online technology would increase, and indeed it has. To begin, Smidt and Hegelheimer (2004) examined online academic lectures and how they might enhance listening comprehension. ESL adult learners processed a 15-minute online video on the topic of horticulture, complete with a dictionary, multiple-choice questions, and comprehension questions. The researchers found that students tended to answer questions more correctly when the answers were present in the transparencies presented online. As with other studies (Jones & Plass, 2002), redundancy of information in both aural and text modes benefited the learners.

Earlier, Pusack (1999) wondered whether or not one could ever adequately develop a self-contained multimedia package for language learning. Today, we can answer this with a resounding yes! The University of Texas (2004) is leading the way with the creation of Français Interactif (2004), an online basic French course that provides learning through aural, written, and pictorial information to support the acquisition of the French language. The audio-visual material is smart, educational, interesting, easily accessible, and contains online activities to assess students' progress with the material. Because of its online delivery, such a web-based language learning package can be updated and expanded much more easily than any other technology. To accommodate self-directed and/or advanced learners, Leaver, Ehrman, and Lekic (2004) have explored the use of two other internet sources that can enhance students' aural comprehension and can serve as an excellent resource for online learning. The first, LangNet (, examines students' language proficiency and offers them a "learning plan" to help develop, among other things, listening comprehension proficiency. It also examines students' learning styles and can help them identify the most appropriate activities for their goals. The second, RussNet (, serves as an adjunct to LangNet and focuses on the Russian language. The strength of RussNet stems from its ability to provide learning modules that contain audio/visual and pictures with activities to help students develop their Russian language proficiency. In these and other examples, internet-based materials can help individuals process information at their own pace and in a style that addresses their learner differences. Even beyond these fully integrated programs, researchers and educators are examining the use of other newer digital technologies. In particular, Thorne and Payne (2005) have found that podcasting is playing a pivotal role in language learning. Because of its online delivery and downloading capabilities, students have access to all types of authentic material to tantalize their modern, culturally authentic language interests. One of the forerunners of this technology for language learning has been Duke University where beginning Spanish students access listening materials and audio flashcards from iTunes to support their aural comprehension development. The beauty of such podcasts is that they are portable, they accommodate culturally specific language, information and music, and the sound quality is of the highest available.


Over the last 50 years, language pedagogy and technology have steadily evolved into the


learning tools we have today. The CALICO Journal and other journals have supported research that examines how computers can enhance the language-learning process. Time and time again researchers have found that when we connect students' needs with sound pedagogical strategies, multiple sensory modes of information, and solid technological tools, learning is most likely to occur. In the 1950s and 1960s, when teachers had to make their own aural recordings, they had little, if any, guidance on best educational strategies for such material. Today, teachers who take on the challenge of designing technology-based materials have much guidance in terms of language acquisition strategies and instructional design strategies, along with easy-to-use developmental tools, to help develop flexible, interesting, authentic, and educational materials. Teachers also are much more aware of effective pedagogical strategies to apply to the use of technology. As pointed out by Clark (1983), "media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes change in our nutrition." (p. 445). That is, well designed technological tools can influence students' aural comprehension, especially when such materials are designed to tap into students' prior knowledge, to help them as they listen, to check their comprehension, and to provide helpful feedback. Such tools will have their greatest impact when solid pedagogical design strategies that emphasize sound goals and objectives are utilized.


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Linda Jones is currently an Associate Professor of Instructional Technology in the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Arkansas. She teaches courses on language teaching and technology design and development (video based and web based) and language teaching methodology courses to current and future teachers. Her research interests include multimedia design theories and second language listening comprehension.


Linda C. Jones

Department of Foreign Languages

Kimpel Hall 425

University of Arkansas

Fayetteville, AR 72701

Phone: 479 575 7608

Fax: 479 575 6795