The Listening Log: exploiting listening opportunities beyond the classroom

Author: Jenny Kemp


When Erasmus and Study Abroad students come to the UK they are exposed to a great deal of language in their new environment. This exposure presents them with a wealth of listening opportunities, many of which can be exploited for learning and skills development. This paper explains why the Listening Log was introduced and what it entails. Samples of Listening Log entries will be used to illustrate how keeping a Listening Log can encourage learners to apply skills covered on the course and reflect on their own performance, thus achieving autonomy.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.


The Listening Log was introduced as part of an elective Listening Skills module offered by the English Language Teaching Unit at Leicester University for students on Erasmus and Study Abroad exchange schemes. In semester one there were 45 students, mostly undergraduates, studying at the university for one or two semesters. All the students were asked to complete a needs analysis upon arrival. The majority were European students from France, Spain and Italy; the remaining 10% were from the Far East, mainly South Korea.  The female to male ratio was about 7:1. Most were studying Modern Foreign Languages, particularly English; other subjects included English Literature, Applied Linguistics, Business, Management, Politics and Law. All the students were doing this elective module for credit and 25% suggested this was their main motivation. The students did not want – or need – purely academic listening related to their particular field or academic study in general. They showed a keen interest in colloquial language, particularly language used by native speaker students in their everyday lives. Moreover, they wished to be able to understand the local people, both in this city and when travelling. They also wanted to be able to follow films, television programmes, radio and song lyrics.

The development of the syllabus

Practicalities invariably influence a syllabus (Yalden 1984:14; White 1988:33). The main institutional requirements were that it would be a skills-based course, as the module title suggests. Other options included a Pronunciation module, and a ‘Speaking/Writing’ module, taught in two separate strands. As it was a 5-credit module, the students received 10 one-hour weekly sessions, of which they were required to attend 8/10.

The overriding consideration in the design of this syllabus was the fact that the one hour per week constituted a minute fraction of the language experience these students encountered during their stay. The main goals of the course were therefore to provide transferable skills and guidance which should enable the learners not only to function more effectively in academic and non-academic listening situations outside the classroom, but also to encourage them to exploit the variety of opportunities for language development that a period of time in the L2 community offers (Lynch 2001), thus developing ‘study competence’ (Waters & Waters 2001) and setting them ‘on the path to full independence’ (Flowerdew & Peacock 2001: 182).

Listening is an active process, requiring conscious attention and involvement, and therefore motivation, as well as opportunities for development (Rost 2002). It is difficult for a classroom syllabus to motivate all of the students all of the time. However, when learners choose what they wish to listen to, and become involved in it, they are more highly motivated.

Learners who emulate the skills and strategies used by successful learners are more likely to be effective listeners themselves. Second language learners are initially dependent on top-down processing strategies, while fluent listening also relies on bottom-up processing (Richards 1990: 33f). In classes, the syllabus aimed to cover both of these. Important bottom-up skills at this level include word recognition and speech segmentation, involving identification of word boundaries and patterns of connected speech (see e.g. Richards 1985: 198-9). The classes also covered transferable top-down skills such as prediction and preparation, note-taking and inferencing (see e.g. Jordan 1997, Rost 2002: 61f), whilst covering both interactional and transactional discourse (Brown & Yule 1983: 11; Richards 1990: 54), different genre types, content and lexis. Facilities included a language laboratory with a Sanako 300 media system, and self-access centre as well as the VLE site (Blackboard). Students were introduced to available resources, both university and external.

There were a number of other concerns which needed to be addressed. Firstly, variation in level. All eligible students who felt the need to improve were accepted, and as a result their level of proficiency ranged from intermediate to near-native speaker. This meant that careful grouping was necessary. However, despite the differences between groups, it is important to remember it remained one single module and all students were required to follow the same syllabus; a fact which impacted both on the classes and on assessment.

I have maintained that the aims of the course were influenced by the exposure to the L2 which the learners would receive during their stay. This exposure also impacts significantly on assessment, partly because the numerous variables make it impossible to argue an overall increase in a student’s listening proficiency was the result of the course. The students did have an ‘end-of-course’ listening test, in which they would need to use a range of skills, as this was an institutional requirement. However, it was important that the means of assessment should reflect the course aims and syllabus design which were adopted, including the fact that essentially the course provided skills and guidance for what the learners could do outside class.

The Listening Log

For all the above reasons, the decision was therefore made to introduce the Listening Log. This is a variation on a journal (Hedge 2000: 93; McDonough & Shaw 2003: 219; Nunan 2004: 157) in which learners record listening experiences outside class (in this case, 5-10 per week), and reflect on them. Fujiwara (1990 in Rost 2002: 241), Matsumoto (1996) and Goh (1997) have shown that keeping a journal can greatly enhance listening development. Here, the learners record activities such as: going out with friends, watching a television programme, listening to a podcast, a phone call to their landlord, or doing a textbook listening task. Reflection includes the degree of difficulty and reasons for this; how well they did; and what they might do to help them listen more effectively next time. Such reflection is seen as central to learner autonomy (Cotterall 2000: 116).

Though students could, of course, ask for advice or guidance at any stage, the Logs were also reviewed after 2-3 weeks in order for individual and class feedback to be given. Learners kept theLog from weeks 1-8. When the Log was submitted, students had to include 5 more detailed pieces of work, such as a film review, or set of notes made from a news programme, together with a reflective commentary.

Learner data: some evidence from the Logs themselves

Although students were also asked for feedback at the end of the course, the best means of evaluating the programme was by examining the Logs themselves.

The learners can often identify the particular cause or causes of difficulty:


Speaking to her is quite a hard task because she uses quite a lot of slang and, as she also speaks very fast, she cuts the end of the words and we have to tell her many times to repeat it.

*Phone call to have an appointment with a doctor:

I think that phone call is the most difficult type of listening because people on phone are working and they have not so much time to answer you so they speak very fast and they always seem to have something else to do. The other point is that I did not know how appointments are working, so the secretary was trying to explain me that I had to register before to ask for an appointment etc... . I ended up by going to the medical center ( ... )

Once these problems have been articulated, a channel of communication is opened up which allows the tutor to advise and guide, particularly in the early stages.

However, the aim is for the learners to become autonomous, and, for example, to be able to put into practice strategies and skills that have been covered during the weekly classes. Here, a student employs the strategies of prediction and preparation:

In the chemist’s.

I had looked up some words in the dictionary related with cough and medicines. When I arrived there, the woman explain me some of the syrups and I understood because I had learned these words. It is a good idea to look up some words related with the action you are going to do, so that it will be easier to understand. 

One student chose to adapt a class activity in an attempt to improve her listening whilst also acquiring more language:

Write short sentences spoken by my English friend.

I enjoyed writing these short sentences. it is not so hard and also I can learn some useful expressions.

The evidence from the learner data in this study does suggest that the learners do indeed become engaged with their Log. Not only do the Logs give an insight into the individual learner’s motivation(s), but they also seem to encourage the learners. For example, many of them set themselves challenges:

“London” DVD + English subtitles.

I have seen it before but feel more comfortable with subtitles to make sure I get all the information. Next time I’ll make my mind work harder, no subtitles.

I spoke to the cleaning lady.

She has a very strong accent... I wonder where she comes from! Certainly she’s not from England! Next time I will try to find out.

One important advantage of these Logs being kept over a period of time is that they allow for continuity, and for any progress or development – or attempts at development - to be observed, both by the learner themselves and the tutor. It is this evidence of awareness, and of the awareness of development, which make the Logs assessable. Below are some short examples:


(...) and it is a good thing to meet up with the same people more than once so you can see the progress in your understanding. 

Began watching the TV show Rome.           

[multiple entries]

There were subtitles but I tried to read rather than hear as much as I can. ... Gradually I can understand the story more and more by listening rather reading subtitle. ... Finished Rome and started watching it second time. This time I deleted the subtitle and tried to understand only by listening.

Conversation with our subwarden

He has still his strong [Irish] accent (see 25th October) but as time goes by I understand him better. The more I speak with him, the more I understand. As I stay a whole year, I will try to talk to him more often.

To try to top up my mobile phone by phone

The first time I couldn’t understand anything because the machine spoke so quickly and I pressed the wrong buttons all the times.

[later entry] This time it was better because I already knew what the machine was going to ask me, although I think that I can understand it much better than before.

Went to the [bar] for a conversation with my British friends.

We were talking for two hours or so about university stuff and it was good. I think I am getting used to their slang but they also speak in a more easy way when they talk to me.

One disadvantage with these shorter entries, particularly early on, is that the learners may leave unstated certain points of which they are aware, but think unnecessary to mention. The extended pieces of work which are submitted encourage the learners to explore a selection of experiences in more detail; these give the tutor more insight into the degree of awareness the learner is capable of.  In this extract, the learner reflects on his only progress in comprehension, but also seems to acknowledge the value of comparing similar experiences over time, and also of setting himself a challenge:

At the airport, before taking off.

Reflection: On the 8th it was a little difficult to understand because the quality of sound was not very good and besides, I had some people talking beside me. Anyway, when you take a plane, it is always said the same and just catching key words, you can understand.

On the 13th, it was very similar although I could understand better. I caught almost everything what was said. However, at the end of the flight, it was said something else that was really difficult for me to understand. The quality of sound was even worse and the noise of the plane was too loud.

As this year I will take a large number of planes, I will try to understand what is said before taking off. I think it is a good practice to listen to something when there is a background noise as in a plane. 

The following example of an extended task is particularly rich. However, I will draw attention to only two of its features: firstly, the writer indicates that she used whether or not she laughed at the same time as others as a means of feedback; secondly, the importance to her of being able to see the speaker – a common concern throughout the Logs:

Lecture – “Articulated Laurie”:

I found the lecture very entertaining, and even if he talked very fast, I understood very much of what he talked about. He made me laugh, and I laughed at the same time as the rest of the audience. But at one particular point I missed what he meant, when he talked about low and high biscuits, I think it was a picture of something, but I didn’t understand what he meant. I sat quite far back in the lecture room, so I also looked at the big screen a lot, because I think it’s a lot easier to listen when I can look at people mouth/face when they talk, so usually when it’s lectures i always sit in the front. I thought he ended the lecture a bit suddenly though, so maybe I missed something at the end..


With this initial group of students, the Log seemed to have been a success. It has subsequently been established as an integral part of the learning process in this syllabus. The Listening Log seems to encourage learners to become more aware of and exploit a variety of listening situations outside class. It enables them to see a practical purpose to learner training because they can try out skills covered in sessions. Moreover, this is an aspect of the course over which the learners themselves have control, enabling them to follow up their own academic and personal interests, and to choose topics and tasks of interest to them and according to their individual learning styles. Furthermore, this allowance for individualisation seems to have increased both their level of engagement and their motivation: they can be very imaginative in the tasks they choose to include and in the challenges they set themselves. The fact that they can monitor their own performance and achievement also seems to increase confidence.

According to Benson (2001: 95), “... the autonomous learner is essentially one who is capable of reflection at appropriate moments in the learning process and of acting upon the results”. These learners can therefore be said to achieve autonomy; they engage with the Logs and in the “critical reflection” (Little 1991) involved.

Thus to the tutor the Logs are not only a means of formative assessment, in the form of individual guidance and feedback, but can also be assessed summatively at the end of the course. Not only by looking at, for example, the range of activities included, but also at whether or not the learner shows evidence of having achieved autonomy in their learning.

Other applications

Listening Logs would seem to be suitable for other learning situations. For example, students about to go abroad on an exchange programme or short visit could be given a short orientation course; keeping a listening Log during their stay could provide a focus for autonomous learning. Moreover, a Listening Log could become part of a learner’s Language Portfolio.


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Related links

Good Practice Guides

Ciel Language Support Network on assessment and independent language learning

Little on learner autonomy

Vandergrift on listening