In S. Y. Huang and C. L. Chern (Eds.), Papers from the twelfth conference on English language teaching and learning in the Republic of China (pp. 352-362). Taipei: Crane Publishing Co., Ltd., 1996.

Listening Journals: A Way to Enhance Students' Listening Strategies

Johanna E. Katchen



Students in Taiwan often seek ways to improve their English.  One source of authentic language input available in most homes is cable television.  Students lacking in confidence, however, are reluctant to use this resource; they interpret their partial comprehension as failure instead of increasing success.  In order to help counter this attitude, a one-semester elective course is advanced listening was set up at National Tsing Hua University for third and fourth year students of English.  All input came from authentic video programs available in Taiwan.  The main objective was to show students how to use English TV programs to improve their listening skills.  One of the requirements of this course was that students do weekly outside listening; they could choose an audiotape or videotape from our student-access language laboratory, listen to an English radio program, watch television or go to the movies, or even try to transcribe their favorite song.  They were required to summarize these weekly self-selected activities, comment on their listening skills with regard to their selected piece, and turn in their journals to their teacher.  After reading, the teacher responded in writing to these journals before returning them.  During the course of the semester, students made exciting discoveries about their own listening strategies and abilities and became more observant of the various linguistic and non-linguistic features that aided or inhibited comprehension.  The contents of these semester-long student-teacher written dialogues are discussed in this paper.

Background to the Study

As has been pointed out many times in the literature (for example. Byrnes, 1984; Morley, 1990), children have months of listening to their native language before they even utter their first word.  In ordinary circumstances, we hear a lot more of our native language being expressed around us (including a lot of talk that is not directed to us) than we ever produce.  ESL learners have the advantage of living in the target culture, where they receive that daily language input of everyday life.

EFL learners, on the other hand, do not get such abundant input, yet they are often required to speak even before listening.  Our students in Taiwan, in particular those at the junior and senior high school level, where English is a required subject, almost never have to listen to any English utterances without having a complete Chinese translation in front of them.  They are trained to listen to what they already know, not to listen to get new information.  They do not get Krashen's famous i + 1, input that is just slightly more advanced than that of the level at which they function comfortably; their listening is not challenged.  Furthermore, research supports the claim that language proficiency is the result of receiving sufficient comprehensible input (Krashen, Terrell, Ehrman, & Herzog, 1984).

Although our students do have some skill at reading, or rather deciphering, written passages, the strategies they use do not usually transfer easily to listening.  Students in Taiwan tend to be laborious, bottom-up readers; they are afraid to guess.  They have the idea that is they have not translated and understood every single word, they have failed.  Therefore, our students say that they do not understand the English radio station ICRT, yet when we question these students more carefully, we find that they may have understood quite a bit of the broadcast and indeed may have got the main idea.  Their pessimistic attitude has to be changed.

We teachers often hear the following question, in particular from higher level students: "Teacher, what can I do to improve my English?"  While we may have specific suggestions for specific students, the usual answer is "Get as much input and practice as possible."  The problem is, since we are in an EFL situation, there are not always enough native speakers available with whom students can practice outside of class; this is especially true outside of Taipei City.  Other than searching out native speakers or going abroad, there is another source of authentic English available for listening in our living rooms every day--the television set.

By 1993, cable TV was widespread in the widespread urban areas of Taiwan.  Now many of us can choose from over 50 stations, and although we may consider some of the offerings (pornographic films, shopping channels, etc.) to be superfluous and stick primarily to our favorite channels, we are still getting more and more of a choice.  This is the trend in cable TV in most modern countries today and it will most likely continue.  In the future we can look forward to more choices in TV program types and, for Taiwan, the availability of more English and Japanese programming.

Unfortunately, many of our students approach English TV programs with utter fear and insist they will understand nothing without Chinese subtitles.  Some are so convinced they will not understand anything that they refuse even to try.  Clearly, students need training in changing their attitude and in learning strategies to build their confidence in listening to authentic English.

The Course Advanced Listening

Students want and need more authentic English input and television can provide that input.  This was the main reason for setting up the course Advanced Listening, a one-semester elective course for third and fourth year students majoring in English at National Tsing Hua University.  Although some students, generally those with the highest ability or most initiative, might teach themselves how to improve their English with TV programs, we felt there was a need for teacher guidance to show other students that with practice and a few useful strategies, they too could learn to watch, listen to, understand, and even enjoy some TV programs in English.  While the most obvious use of authentic TV is in developing listening skills, activities for speaking and writing and the use of supplemental readings were also included in the course (see Katchen, 1995, for sample activities developed in this course).

We are fortunate that we have videocassette recorders because, like the earlier audiocassette recorders, they make possible the use of repetition.  In ordinary TV viewing, we see and hear only once and then the message is gone.  This is not very useful in teaching.  Thus, the VCR allows teachers to view several times in order to develop appropriate activities, then allows us to show our video clips more than once as we ask students to perform various tasks, check them, and review.  Copies of the video can also be placed in a student-access lab for further individual review or for homework.

Rubin (1990) observed that training in effective listening strategies enhanced students' listening skills and improved student affect and motivation.  In our classes we have also found that after receiving some training, students felt they were understanding more, they had a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses in listening, and they felt more confident in their listening abilities.  As a result, they began to seek out other kinds of listening materials outside of class and to try out different techniques in working with audiotapes and videotapes.


One way to help students improve their listening abilities is to require them to keep a listening diary (Furmanovsky, 1994, with Japanese university students) or listening log (Trites, 1993, with students in an intensive English program in the USA).  In our advanced listening class for university students in Taiwan, we call it a listening journal.  Students must listen to at least one program in English each week and write at least one page about it.  Each journal should have two parts: (1) a summary of what the student listened to, and (2) comments about his/her own listening ability with regard to the program, including what s/he learned.  The actual instructions given to students with regard to the journals are given in the Appendix.

Grades given for journals range from 0 to 5, with an occasional 6 for exceptional work.  An average submission receives a 3, while those that evidence more of an effort or express an interesting discovery that the student has made about his listening (e.g., It seems I have to make the sound louder when I listen in English than when I listen in Chinese) receive a 4 or 5.  Student effort at improvement is deemed more important than accuracy.

When the course Advanced Listening was offered initially (Spring 1992), the listening journal was not used.   The second time around (Spring 1993) the listening journal was introduced to handle some of the problems observed the previous time.  The first consideration was making sure students did sufficient work for the course; they needed regular homework.   This assignment put responsibility for obtaining materials in the hands of the students; they could not blame the teacher if the material was boring.  As a result, students often shared material they found and discovered new sources of listening materials.  The requirement that students write a shot summary of what they had listened to was used as a check that they really did the assignment.

Second, an additional means of evaluation was necessary.  Students come to our classes with different strengths and weaknesses.  Because improvement in language skills is a slow process, grading correctness only means that those students who come to class with higher abilities get the higher and those with lower abilities still get low grades, no matter how hard they try to improve.  Therefore, in addition to testing accuracy, we wanted also to include students' hard work and improvement in calculating their grades.

We also thought that students should reflect on their own learning, hence the section on talking about the listening itself.  Many of our students become English teachers; therefore, as undergraduates they should begin thinking about aspects of their own language learning.  Furthermore, because the journals had to be written in English, students got extra writing practice in which hey could express their ideas freely without worrying too much about being criticized for grammatical or lexical inadequacies.

During the Spring 1993 course, it was noted about halfway through the semester that some students were showing excitement in the discoveries they were making about their own listening abilities.  Therefore, it was decided that when the course was offered again, the listening journals would be included and used for this research.

Data Collection

The listening journals used for this study were collected as part of the required activities for the course Advanced Listening offered in Fall Semester 1994.  The course was elective and students who had not taken it previously could register for it.  The class was made up of 23 English majors (4 in their fourth year, 19 in their third year).  Ability levels of students ranged from among the top five  (of groups of approximately 40 students for each year) in university grade point average.

Journals were collected during class time on Friday mornings and returned the following Friday, when another set was collected.  During the course of each week, the teacher read each journal, wrote a reply and/or comments, and made a copy of the journal entry.  Journals were collected ten times during the semester beginning September 20 and ending December 9.  The commentary portions of the midterm assignment (due November 4) and final assignment (due December 30) were also included, bringing the total number of entries per student up to twelve.

Results and Discussion

Students often make the general statement "My listening is poor" without really realizing where their weaknesses as well as where their strengths lie.  One of the purposes of the course was to have students analyze their listening more closely in order to discover what kinds of listening were easier or harder for them and why.  Often, too, the type of speaker (low voice, fast speech, different accent) or the situation (lots of noise) or the topic (specialized vocabulary) play a key role in the students' comprehension.  Here we look at students' specific journal entries and the kinds of comments and discoveries students said they made about their listening as well as the strategies they reported using and what they said they learned.

Sources of Difficulty/Ease

Students found that clear pronunciation and speech were important to their comprehension.  Student C:11/18: "I decided to make the lyric of this song on my own.  I found it pretty easy (Well, I can use 'easy' this adjective) to dictate the words.  I think it is partly because I am familiar with this song and partly because the pronunciation of this band--Air Supply is very clear, which is one of their characteristics."  Student H:11/15:  "Compared with The Discovery Channel, the pronunciation in Three's Company is more difficult, especially Chrissy's voice was so soft and unclear that I always missed her words easily."

Rate of speech was also a factor.  Student C:12/2: "But I find it's more difficult for me to understand what the RV seller says.  I think it's because he speaks faster than others, and this makes it a little hard for me to catch his words."  Student T:9/30, among many others, also commended upon rate of speech: "Every time, when they spoke too fast, I could not always listen very clearly what they were talking about, especially when they connected two words and pronounced them together."  Other students also mentioned difficulties with elision.

The problem mentioned most frequently was that of new vocabulary.  Student G:11/4 wrote "Since my vocabulary is poor, it's very difficult for me to understand what the conversation is, especially when the word that I don't know is a key word.  Though I have tried to look it up in the dictionary, it's sometimes useless.  I guess it's for my pronunciation is not good enough, too."  Students A:11/4 expressed a similar idea: "My vocabulary is too small to know each word, and it is hard to spell out the word by the pronunciation only.  Besides, the special nouns or idioms such as leprechaun, or the names of things could be a problem to us.  Because we do not have the background of American culture, there must be some expression we never heard before."

In addition to new vocabulary, slang and idioms posed a particular problem for students.  Student A:10/28 wrote: "This program has English subtitle.  By looking at the title, I know what's said exactly, but there's some special expressions that I can't understand.  Sometimes there is laughter from the program, but I can't realize where the funny part is.  So I think slangs or special idioms could be a problem when listening to a tape."

Student V:11/11 speculated that cultural differences might also account for her misunderstanding or confusion at some points in an episode of Three's Company:  "While the audience laugh at some sentences which the actors say, I don't know why they feel interested at them.  I think this is because the different culture.  We have the different humor sense from Americans.  But, generally speaking, the whole story is very interesting."  Student A:10/7 wrote "But when watching the videotape Doogie Howser, M.D. it occurs to me that sometimes the background of culture of American life is also a difficulty to comprehend what the actors talk about."

The gender and age of the speaker also played a role or some students.  Student H thought that in at least one program, women's voices were easier to understand.  Student H:11/4: "I think I would be happier when listening Ms. Sullivan's or Ms. Holt's speech.  Women's voice is better.  And their speeches are easier to transcribe."  We might speculate whether female students feel more at ease with female speakers or, more likely, whether the higher frequencies of women's voices and often clearer enunciation of women speakers render them somewhat easier for nonnative speakers to comprehend.  Student A:12/30 commented on the difficulty in comprehension presented by the special voice quality of some older people: "The young man and the daughter's voice is clear enough for us to know what they are saying, but Auguste Dupin has an accent which old men usually have.  It is not so clear and easy to listen."

Student C:11/25 noticed that an unfamiliar accent could make comprehension more difficult: "...but as for what the black person says, I feel it's a little hard for me.  Maybe it's because that black people always speak English with some accent and sometimes they have their own grammar which is different from the Standard English."

Student C:12/9 noticed that unusual voice quality used to create a special effect could affect comprehension: "When the characters in the cartoon speak in a normal intonation and with little accent, it is easier for me to catch what they say.  However, as for what the stepmother says, I think it is not as easy as what Cinderella says.  She speaks in an exaggerated intonation and I think people usually don't say so.  Maybe they just want to create some special effects.  After all, it's a cartoon."  Student D:11/11 also mentioned this feature when transcribing a song from Beauty and the Beast: "The singer of it is a 'teapot', an old madam who has a very husky voice.  It becomes another difficulty of mine too."

Listening Strategies

Although they had been told in class that listening a second and third time aids understanding, a number of students discovered for themselves that repeated listening improved their comprehension.  From student C:10/7: "...when I first listened to this interview, I just turned the radio on, recorded it and did other things.  I found that I could only understand 30% of the conversation; that is, I knew the general idea they were telling about but I didn't know the details.  Then I listened to it for the second time, and this time I just made myself sit before the desk and concentrated on it, I found that I can understand 80% of the interview."  Student D:10?28 said of her first attempt to transcribe a weather report: "When listening to it at the first time, it's really hard for me to understand what they are talking about.  But after recording it down and listening to it word by word, it becomes easier.  But there are still some words I can't get it."

In some cases, students found they could decipher meaning more easily by watching speakers' mouths.  Student M2:10/21 wrote "I found that movies made in early years are more like opera or drama.  Actors and actresses read their scripts like reciting poems with an exaggerated tone.  But the good point is that they pronounced the words clearer than contemporary stars/actresses, and especially by singing the words, I can trace their mouth shapes and know the correct vocabularies."  Student A2:10/21 expressed a similar notion" "Pay attention to their mouths if you don't understand the meaning."

Students picked up clues to meaning from the visual images.  Student M:10/18: "Actually, most of the characters speak very fast that I just cannot hear clearly each word they say.  But I understand mostly, because my eyes are more sharp than my ears.  Pictures help a lot."  Student V:12/30: "When I could not get what they said I could guess the meaning from the context about the dialogue and the expression or action of the character."  From the description in the written version of The Murders in the Rue Morgue J2:12/30 expressed confusion about how the window fasteners with nails and springs worked (important for knowing how the murderer escaped) but then understood when she saw this old-fashioned type of window portrayed in the video."

Student H:12/30 combined the visual with her own imagination: "...However, the follow the story does not always depend on knowing every word of their conversation.  By the music, the tone, the gesture, and the scenes, I managed to imagine what the characters were talking about.  For example, in the scene which George warms Dupin on the stair of the house in Rue Morgue that he cannot receive any help except he finds out powerful evidences.  George talks so fast that I almost couldn't understand all words of his speech.  But by his gestures and Dupin's appearance, I thought he tries to warn something."  A2:12/30 put it another way: "And another technique to understand what's going on in the film is to use your analytic ability of your brain and pay much attention to every scene and every clue in the film."

Some students commented that if they did not know what a word or groups of words was, if they could not segment a stream of speech, they had no way to decipher the meaning without the help of English or Chinese subtitles.  Others were able to understand more details with the aid of English subtitles.  Others were able to understand more details with the aid of English subtitles.  Student H:11/25: "It's lucky because after combining the subtitle with the voices, I understood more and got some interesting jokes."

Student V:10/21 was able to learn new words and phrases from the English subtitles of Three's Company:  "I learn many new word usages on this tape.  Such as out of something means that you forgot something with you; tossing and turning means that someone can't sleep well, write up a big fat order means to order a big amount of products.  And I also have a deep impression of some vocabularies.  Such as chrysanthemums.  Barry will order flowers from Janet's flower shop, but he tries to fawn on Chrissy.  He said chrissyanthemums instead of chrysanthemums."

Another student with a rather high ability, C:11/4, was able to discover new words in the following way.  "In the process of the listening, I encountered some new words.  At first, I could guess their meanings by paying attention to the context of the conversation, but I didn't know how to spell it.  Then I tried to spell those new words according to the pronunciation and looked them up in he dictionary to see whether they were the exact words in the story.  I learned some new words in this way, such as stuntman, bail, bluffing, parachute, and so on.  I think it is a good way to learn  new words and it can also reduce the fear when we encounter new words in listening a foreign language."

Students also discovered the importance of having some background knowledge concerning what they were listening to.  Student C:10/21: "I haven't read the newspaper for several days, so I found that I was unfamiliar with the events happening in this country, especially those international news.  So I think next time I do this intensive listening, I should make myself familiar with what is going on, well, maybe take a glance at the headline in China Post.  That should do some help."  Student H:12/30: "Because I watched the tape after reading the story, generally it was not a big task to catch on the plots."

Background knowledge also extended to knowledge of specialized vocabulary.  Student S:11/18 watched an episode of the Donahue talk show in which the topic was transsexuals and wrote: "This topic aroused immediately my interest as I happened to have 'Homosexuality, Transvestism and Transsexualism' as my topic for Research Methods last term.  I had no difficulties following their talk as all these technical terms, which are marginal to others, used to be the center of my study."

An older student with a good command of English vocabulary was surprised to learn new applications of familiar words as he transcribed radio news stories.  Student J:9/30 wrote "I know the vocabulary seldom poses a problem for me, since I had picked up quite a few new terms years ago.  But, maybe I should say it is the juxtaposition of some words that really takes me by surprise and makes me confused.  I never realized such words could appear in such contexts.  And therefore, I am not really ready psychologically for such a word to appear suddenly.  For instance, I know the word retired perfectly well, yet I have never before associated it with a dump site, and so it takes me a while to realize of its right to appear in the context."

Student C decided that reading was a good way to improve vocabulary.  12/30: "I think that in addition to the pronunciation, accent, or pace of speech, the main reason why I can't understand 100 percent of the dialogue in the film is that I don't know the word.  And this lack of vocabulary seems to be an obstacle to the progress of my listening ability.  However, since reading can enlarge one's vocabulary, I think besides practicing my listening, I should also do more reading.  After all reading and listening go hand in hand."

Student H thought it was easier for her to understand English when she listened through headphones.  12/30: "Unlike watching some other programs on TV at home, in C512 [Foreign Language Department self-access language laboratory] I have to wear earphones so that I can watch and listen to the tape.  The effect of the earphones makes me listen to all the sounds clearly.  This helps me to understand the characters' conversation."  Student D:11/4 said "...the background music once in a while increases the difficulty of my intensive listening."  These observations are probably related to the idea that we can tolerate a lot of interference in our native language but somewhat less in a language we command less perfectly.


Students discovered aspects of how language is really used. Student C:10/28: "I found that when in conversation, people tend to use you know this phrase as a filler word when they don't know how to say the thing in English or don't know how to describe it.  They say you know and hope that the listener will understand what they want to say.  I think this is an interesting linguistic phenomenon."

Student V::12/2 thought that while the dialogue of the film Kramer vs. Kramer was generally rather easy to understand, the special jargon of the courtroom scene was especially difficult: "The dialogues at the court are too fast and difficult to me.  There are  a lot of information and cause-effect deduction with it.  This scene is the most difficult part of listening the film."

Student H:12/30 began to pay more attention to speakers' accents: "Though it was said that the players speak American English in this film, I found certain actors speak English with French accent. The minor characters in this film, Lebon's coworker, his boss, and the two policemen who go to Dupin's and ask for his help to solve the mystery, have the same French accent.  Especially the two policemen sound to have difficulty on pronouncing er in English.  Their tongues seem to be unable to wind up much.  But generally, their English is understandable.  As for the major characters, Dupin, Claire, Philip (the narrator), and so on, they have Standard American English."

Student H:12/2's attention to pronunciation also extended to listening more carefully to little grammar link words.  "Though the song is much slower and clearer than Express Yourself, I still make several mistakes in my transcription.  On the weak sounds, the linking sounds or the first words in certain sentences, I'm easy to miss some words, such as you'D, DON'T you forget..., and so on.  Or I'd misunderstand some words.  For example, I misunderstood FELT ALL the pain as FELL DOWN the pain.  What a big problem!  But this activity helps me to pay attention to linking sounds.  I think I'll care about this later on."

Student S:10/28 also discovered how, in fast speech, final consonants in English tend to disappear.  "I used to think English is even more difficult because the words stick together.  Now I think English is even more difficult for the reason that while the final consonants of French appear at least at the start of the next word, those of English simply disappear."

After doing the midterm assignment, Student H:11/4 made an exciting discovery that improved her self-confidence in listening in English.  "After taking listening midterm assignment, I went to see the movie In the Name of the Father.  To my surprise, I can get most speech in English in that film without the help of Chinese subtitle (I swear)...).  Perhaps it's because I had listened too much American accent, and because I was used to the environment after taking the assignment.  therefore, I tried to ignore the Chinese subtitle most the time later."  Also Student H:11/11: "In The Discovery Channel they introduce natural and scientific knowledge in the world.  Many times I thought I must not have been able to understand such a program because it sounded a lot of vocabulary related to professional senses.  However, through my senior's encouragement, I try to watch it this time.  As I did other activities before, I covered the subtitle in Chinese with a sheet on the screen, watched and listened to the speech.  Wow... Unbelievable!  I could understand what the narrator was talking about, though there did exist some new words.  By the help of visual imagination, the process was easy to go if I didn't care the names of the creature."

Questions Addressed to the Teacher

The weekly journal assignment made it possible for students to ask the teacher specific questions in the journal, knowing they would get a reply.  Some students asked the meaning of words or proverbs (Stone walls do not a prison make) or about grammar and choice of words.  Others asked questions about content (Was the man's name Z-man?); these were more difficult for the teacher to answer if she had not seen the program.

Most interestingly, some students took the option of giving the teacher the audiotape of a stream of English speech they had transcribed for the teacher to check and fill in the missing words.  Most of these were radio news broadcasts or other radio programs; some students even attempted to transcribe a favorite song from a tape or CD.  While this would have been a lot of work for the teacher had all students chosen this option each week, those few who occasionally turned in tapes were quite serious students and generally rather good transcribers; their transcriptions tended to be essentially correct with a few trouble spots here and there, at places where an unknown vocabulary item appeared or places so garbled even the teacher could not make out the words.

Another student, a senior interested in news and journalism, always listened to radio news, but instead of transcribing, he attempted to write grammatical summary paraphrases of a few local news stories each week; he requested grammar as well as content correction as journalist practice.

Concluding Remarks

Although during the first few weeks of the course some students were unsure how to proceed, the teacher's written comments in individual journals and to the class in general helped students understand the purpose of the journals.  Soon they began asking the teacher questions in their journals.  they tried new genres and new ways to deal with the material, sometimes at the teacher's suggestion, often on their own initiative.  Some preferred to summarize news stories, while others transcribed them word by word or paraphrased them.  Others discovered The Discovery Channel or attempted to transcribe an English song, while the less adventurous stuck to episodes of Three's Company subtitled in English.  Students who stayed with the same genre week after week were encouraged to try something different.

Overall, students liked doing the journal assignment.  Because they chose their own material, they often put forth more of an effort, writing two or three pages instead of one.  The journals also made it possible to address the needs of each individual student, and, because they were written, the questions and answers illustrated more reflection on the part of both students and teacher.  As an added bonus, the journals also provided students with more practice writing in English for real communication.

Students occasionally expressed excitement at discovering something about their listening.  These discoveries and observations about their own listening and the characteristics of the material with regard to comprehensibility are not insignificant.  The future teachers among our students should be thinking about the various factors involved in language learning, and reflecting on their own experiences is a good way to begin.

Our students will not always have their teachers to tell them what to do.  It is sometimes said that the purpose of education is not so much to teach specific information but to teach students how to learn.  If we can show students some strategies they can use to get the most out of their listening to the media in a foreign language, then they are more likely to apply our lessons on their own time, long after they leave our classrooms.



Byrnes, H.  (1984).  The role of listening comprehension: A theoretical base.  Foreign Language Annals, 17(4), 317-329.


Furmanovsky, M.  (1994).  The listening-viewing video diary: Doubling your students' exposure to English.  The Language Teacher, 18(4), 26-28, 49.


Katchen, J. E. (1995).  Using authentic video in English language teaching: Tips for Taiwan's teachers.  Taipei: Crane Publishing Company, Ltd.


Krashen, S. D., Terrell, T. D., Ehrman, M. E., & Herzog, M.  (1984).  A theoretical basis for teaching the receptive skills.  Foreign Language Annals, 17(4), 261-275.


Morley, J. (1990).  Trends and developments in listening comprehension:  Theory and practice.  In Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1990 (pp. 317-337).  Washington: Georgetown University Press.


Rubin, J. (1990). Improving foreign language listening comprehension.  In Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1990 (pp. 309-316).  Washington: Georgetown University Press.


Trites, J. (1993). Listening log.  Video Rising, 5(2), 8-9.

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