Listening Strategies and |
Nguyen Thi Nhan Hoa, M.Ed.
Research justifies the use of verbal reports as a data collection
strategy in Vietnamese listening classrooms.
Of the four language skills—reading, writing, listening
participants to report on anything they are thinking
and speaking—listening is often said to be the most dif-
while performing a task, and “retrospection” as asking
ficult for second language learners. The main difficulty
them to say what they have done while performing a
lies in the complicated mental processes underlying lis-
task (pp. 211-212). Both kinds of reports are considered
tening. To date, our knowledge of these processes is still
to be “direct verbalisations of specific cognitive process-
limited, and listening to some extent remains a “covert”
es” (Ericsson and Simon, p. 16).
activity. Because of this, there is an urgent need for more
In this study, two types of verbal reports were used
research into listening comprehension in general, and
by the researcher in the data collection process: report-
listening comprehension in second or foreign languages
ing while listening and reporting after listening.
in particular. What has been discovered or theorized so
Reporting while listening was done in the form of
far “forms a lively, ongoing dialogue about how learners
“think-aloud protocols.” This is an other-initiated intro-
interact with oral input” (Rubin, p. 199).
spection which happens when “the informant verbalis-
This article presents research on listening strategies
es only when explicitly requested to do so by the exper-
carried out with 24 fourth-year English majors at Hanoi
imenter during or after the task” (Faerch and Kasper, p.
National University. It is an attempt to make a contribu-
17). Participants could choose to use either English or
tion to this “ongoing dialogue.” In the research, I aimed
Vietnamese while thinking aloud. All eliciting sugges-
to investigate the way learners interact with oral input
tions from the researcher were in Vietnamese.
by answering this central question:
Faerch and Kasper identify another type of think-
aloud protocol which is often used by language
What, if any, are the quantitative or qualitative differ-
researchers: self-initiated introspection. This method is
ences in strategies employed by more successful and
used when the informant himself takes “the initiative to
less successful learners in listening to spoken English?
verbalise” (p. 17). I did not use this technique.
To answer this question, data was collected through
Reporting after listening was done in the form of
verbal reports—a combination of introspective and ret-
retrospection. Short interviews were carried out after
rospective methods. These methods have been widely
the participants had listened to each of two listening
used by researchers, as they can give us more insight
passages. All questions in these interviews were also
into listeners’ mental processes during listening. Some
have argued, however, that this approach cannot be
used with Vietnamese learners due to their traditional
Arguments Against Verbal Report Methods
timidity or shyness. This study is an attempt to challenge
As mentioned above, there has been an ongoing
debate about the use of verbal report methods, particu-
Definition of “Verbal Reports” and
larly in Vietnamese contexts.
Researchers such as
Nisbett and Wilson, and Cavanaugh and Perlmutter (in
Garner), have expressed doubts about the validity of
Verbal reports are a combination of introspective
verbal reporting. They point out its limitations in the
and retrospective methods. The term “introspection”
sense that it is mentally disrupting, and that it is impos-
was originally described by Haves and Flower as asking
sible to get the whole picture of a subject’s inner
Furthermore, while reviewing
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criticisms of think-aloud data, Vandergrift and Garner
slows them down, as additional time is required for ver-
worry that verbal reports might be research-biased,
balization (pp. 34-35).
since subjects involved in the research could be either
In response to the doubt about subjects’ ability to
unconsciously or consciously led to verbalize what a
verbalize what they are thinking, those in favour of ver-
researcher expects to hear. Therefore,“the resulting ver-
bal reports argue that the think-aloud format seems not
bal reports from subjects may bear only minimal relation
quite as alien to most of us as such objections assume it
to their actual strategic processing” (Garner, p. 68).
to be. Ericsson and Simon assure us that when subjects
Nisbett and Wilson likewise claim (p. 233):
come to a laboratory for research, they already have
some ideas about think-aloud in their minds (p. 78). For
People often cannot report accurately on the effects of
example, students might have to explain the process of
particular stimuli on higher order, inference-based
solving a problem either to their fellow students or their
responses. Indeed, sometimes they cannot report on
teacher. Moreover, in everyday life, people frequently
the existence of critical stimuli, sometimes they cannot
have to communicate their thinking to others in order to
report on the existence of their responses, and some-
get approval, sympathy, or feedback.
times they cannot even report that an inferential
In short, those in favor of verbal reports claim
process of any kind has occurred.
(Ericsson and Simon, p. 373):
Cavanaugh and Perlmutter (in Garner, p. 70) concluded,
[I]t is now time for verbal reports to reassume their
therefore, that verbal reports are “both quantitatively and
position as a rich source of data, combinable with
qualitatively poor reflections of processing.”
other data, that can be of the greatest value in provid-
ing an integrated and full account of cognitive
Arguments For Verbal Report Methods
processes and structure.
Nonetheless, there are voices in support of verbal
To summarize, arguments against verbal reports as a
reports as well. Other researchers believe that this
research method criticize their reliability and validity, as
method does enable us to get insight into subjects’ inner
well as their subjectivity and possible foreignness.
Ericsson and Simon, Faerch and Kasper,
Supporters of verbal reports argue that this method can
Grotjahn, Cohen, and Vandergrift all argue for the merits
be reliable if researchers know how to use it. They also
and advantages of verbal reports. They suggest that
point out that verbal reporting is not as alien to people
researchers consider verbal reports as “one of many
as it is thought to be. Generally speaking, the voices in
sources of data about cognitive processes and struc-
support of this method seem stronger than their oppo-
tures,” and that “models and methods accounting for ver-
nents. This can be seen in the large number of success-
bal data should not be different, in principle, from
ful studies on second or foreign language comprehen-
accounts of other types of data” (Erricsson and Simon, p.
sion which have used verbal reports as a research tool
372). They also argue (Vandergrift, p. 30):
(see DeFilippis; Fujita; Murphy; O'Malley, et al.; Laviosa;
Long; Bacon; and Vandergrift).
[I]ntrospection through verbal reports or “think-
alouds” appears to be the most fruitful methodology
Challenges in Using Verbal Report Methods
for tapping LLSs [language learning strategies],
in Vietnamese Contexts
enabling learners to report LLSs which have become
automatic and are no longer conscious.
Verbal reports—especially think-aloud protocols—
However, they caution researchers “to elicit them with
in second language research have been carried out most-
care and interpret them with full understanding of the
ly in Western countries. Thus, the validity of this method
circumstances under which they were obtained.” Only
in Vietnam could be doubted. It might be argued that
then do verbal reports become “a valuable and thor-
students in Western culture are less reserved and thus
oughly reliable source of information about cognitive
might not be intimidated by being asked to think aloud.
processes” (Ericsson and Simon, p. 247).
In addition, the influence of learner-centered methods
As for the concern about disrupting the mental
in teaching second or foreign languages in Western
process, Ericsson and Simon contend that think-aloud
countries makes it easier for students to verbalize what
does not interfere with thought processes, but only
they are thinking.
— 17 —
students are not familiar with making explicit to others
cooperative. I, therefore, offered a free 90-minute listen-
what they are thinking, especially to an unknown
ing lesson to students every week in order to let them
researcher. The foreign language teaching and learning
become familiar with me. The listening lessons I gave
style in Asia in general, and in Vietnam in particular, is
were carried out according to the curriculum of the
still under the influence of a teacher-centered style.
English Department at our university. I had been teach-
Therefore, think-aloud protocols might not be an appro-
ing English communicative skills to tertiary students for
priate method for Vietnamese subjects.
five years before starting this research, and was thus
It may be true that Asians, especially Vietnamese stu-
familiar with the requirements of such teaching. The
dents, are more reserved than Western students.
method used in these weekly listening lessons was the
Makagawa remarks that one of the cultural characteris-
tried-and-true approach of “teaching listening as it would
tics of Asian people is that they are “passive” (p. 16). In
be tested.” No listening strategies were explicitly taught
addition, Nguyen comments:
during these lessons. A month after the first meeting
between myself and the students, a pilot study com-
Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese possess an
menced. Two weeks after the pilot study finished, the
inwardness, a well-developed ability to keep their true
main study began.
feelings hidden. Desires are expressed by indirection,
To help elicit what participants were really thinking
by hinting and “talking around” the subject.
while comprehending a listening passage, I made it clear
He also remarks that “in Indo-China, one thinks very
to all that the research was not a part of the course, and
carefully before speaking” (p. 47). Therefore, doubts
that no formal assessment would be made of their per-
about the viability of using think-aloud methods are
I also encouraged participants’ self-confi-
dence and motivation by telling them that how much
This does not mean, however, that students cannot
they comprehended was less important than how they
reveal what they are thinking, or that there are no ways
comprehended. Vietnamese students are often scared of
to access their inner thoughts. There are cases in such
assessment. When they have become familiar with a
cultures when people can “speak their minds,” that is,
researcher and feel assured that no assessment will be
when the gap between them is shortened and they have
made, their reserve can be reduced and they are more
become close to one another. For example, people tell
likely to be active research participants.
their close friends what they are thinking to solve a
problem they have; young children tell their parents
what they are worrying about; or students tell their
teachers how they are planning to deal with a study
Selection and Training of Participants
task. The major problem for researchers is how to
elicit these thoughts and how to become familiar with
Twenty-four students enrolled as fourth-year English
majors at Hanoi National University were chosen as par-
ticipants for this study of investigating listening strate-
Setting Up the Research
gies by using verbal report methods. These students
were given a training session before the data collection
For these reasons, in my study I did not start data
collection immediately after meeting the learners. I was
In this session, participants were trained to self-
aware that Vietnamese students often have a high
report what they were thinking while performing lis-
respect for their teacher, so once the researcher
tening tasks. This training session lasted about two
becomes their teacher and the teacher-student relation
hours, and was carried out in Vietnamese. The time gap
is established, they are less reserved and very between the training session and data collection was
It is indeed possible and quite beneficial to employ verbal reports
as a data collection method, even with participants
from a reserved culture such as Vietnam.
— 18 —
less than a week, so ideas from the training session were
a task had been finished. By contrast, responding after
still fresh in participants’ minds.
shorter chunks of information broke into the process of
The training session had three parts:
forming a complete interpretation. Because this process
drew on interpretations which were developing, it was
(1) Participants were asked to listen to a listening pas-
“introspection” during the task. Although listening to a
sage twice. The first time, they listened from the begin-
passage several times did not present a “natural” lan-
ning to the end without any pauses. The second time, I
guage situation, this approach has been used by various
paused the tape several times. After each pause, partici-
researchers to gain insight into the use of listening
pants were asked: first, to summarize what they had
strategies (see DeFilippis; Fujita; Long; and Laviosa).
heard, and second, to note down in what ways they
Laviosa, for example, argues that listening to a stimulus
digested and retained the information delivered to them.
several times can be used to obtain information about a
(2) I played the tape again
and gave the same pauses
and use of strategies
as previously. In pairs, par-
ticipants reported to each
The two types of paus-
other what information
es were made in order to
they had understood as
gain deeper insight into
well as the ways they had
the processes by which
retained that information,
hended the delivered
based on their notes.
I approached each pair
after longer chunks of
and encouraged partici-
information gave insight
pants to exchange their
into a completed thought
process, while respond-
ing after shorter chunks
(3) I played the tape and
of information gave
paused after each shorter
insight into a still-devel-
chunk of information.
Students listened to
chunks of information
the tape and reported
were always presented before shorter chunks of infor-
what they were thinking individually.
mation because participants were not allowed to do pre-
The topic of the listening passage chosen for the
liminary listening; therefore, it was too challenging for
training session—“Accommodation”—was quite differ-
them to comprehend an incomplete piece of informa-
ent from those used in the actual research—“Lifestyle”
tion the first time through.
and “Population”—to avoid any effects of known con-
tent on participants’ ways of listening.
Process of Data Collection
After six weeks, the data collected from the 24
research project participants—think-aloud protocols
After the training session, I met each individual
while listening, and short interviews after listening—
twice. Each time, participants were asked to listen to a
amounted to 25 sixty-minute cassettes. These tapes
listening passage and, when I paused the tape, to think
aloud about what and how they had comprehended the
were fully transcribed, resulting in 168 pages of data for
more successful listeners and 151 pages for less suc-
Participants listened to each passage twice: the first
Transcriptions were then double-
time pauses were made after longer chunks of informa-
checked by another English lecturer at Hanoi National
tion, and the second time after shorter chunks of infor-
University, and by another Vietnamese speaker whose
mation. Responding after longer chunks of information
English was at an advanced level. Twenty-three strate-
required a verbal report which dealt with a complete
gies were reported to be used in the process of listening
piece of information. This was “retrospection,”right after
(see pages 20-21).
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Example From Research Interviews
Predicting what is going to be heard. “So they are going to talk about population.”
Skipping the missing information.
“I missed the first sentence, but I can catch the
following information, that is...”
Assessing one’s knowledge of the
“Oh, yes...I already know that the population in the
world is six billion people.”
Making lexical interpretation.
“I live on the student campus. Oh, no, on the campus
of the teachers.”
Expressing interest, motivation.
“I do not find this listening passage interesting
because it doesn’t meet my expectations.”
Being aware of loss of attention.
“There is some information in the last phrase, but
I missed it because I was busy saying something
“First I could catch the word ‘energy,’ then other
words such as ‘1970’ or ‘1985.’ I had to note them
down immediately so that I could remember them.”
Repeating the words or phrases.
“Nature...nature will solve the problem, solve the
Using grammar strategies explicitly.
“‘I used to teach at a secondary school. But I’ve
been...’ It means that she is still teaching there.”
Listening for all words or all details.
“‘Finally we can wait ten to twenty years before taking
action.’ I could catch every word very clearly.”
“‘If we waited ten years, the population in the
Southern part is still 3000 million’ means three
Guessing meaning from sounds.
Tape said, “I might have a chat, usually about work.”
A student responded, “I might...heart attack. I can
catch the word heart attack.”
Analyzing the conventions of
language: words, spelling, pronuncia- “I could not catch the next information because the
tion, and cohesive ties.
words are too untidy.”
Picking out what is missed or not
“I did not understand what ‘compound’ means, and
thus could not follow the subsequent information.”
Listening for topics first and details
“She said about what she did in the evening. First,
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Example From Research Interviews
Recognizing and picking out key
“I guess the meaning based on the main words I
catch, such as ‘go home,’ ‘nurse,’ ‘canteen,’ and
Translating into Vietnamese.
Visualizing what the speaker is
“Then the reporter turns to the second person and
Making inferences, guessing informa-
tion from the context.
“I guess they speak about the birth rate and the death
rate when the population is exploding.”
Making inferences, guessing mean-
ing from background knowledge.
“They said that Asia would have an enormous con-
sumption of energy. Asia is developing, its economy
is dynamic; so it is reasonable to say so.”
Asking oneself to resolve listening
“In the South, South East Asia, energy consumption
is five...five times? Is it five times bigger than
Evaluating one’s comprehension.
“I think that I can understand the first listening
passage up to 80 percent.”
Analyzing the topic to find out more
information than has been presented. “‘Even when we don’t do anything, nature will solve
the problem.’ How can it be?”
Feeling relaxed after listening.
“I feel satisfied with my comprehension of this listen-
ing passage because I could understand it easily.”
The Modern Language Journal 76 (2), pp. 160-178,
By using verbal reports, data was successfully col-
Cavanaugh and Perlmutter. In Verbal-Report Data on
lected to investigate the listening strategies of
Cognitive and Metacognitive Strategies: Issues in
Vietnamese students of English. While I do not here give
Assessment, Instruction, and Evaluation. Ed. R. Garner.
the complete details of the results, my main point is that
Academic Press / Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 63-76,
it is indeed possible and quite beneficial to employ ver-
bal reports as a data collection method, even with par-
ticipants from a reserved culture such as Vietnam.
Cohen, A.D. “Using Verbal Reports in Research on
Asking learners to verbalize what they are thinking
In Introspection in Second
while listening and processing information can help us
Ed. C Faerch and G. Kasper.
understand and improve this vital language skill.
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by Skillful and Unskillful College French Students in
“The Relationship Among Gender,
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Comprehension, Processing Strategies, and Cognitive
the Graduate Faculty in the School of Education in par-
and Affective Response in Foreign Language Listening.”
tial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.
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Ericsson, K.A., and H.A. Simon. Protocol Analysis. The
D. Cahill. Phillips Institute of Technology, pp. 45-65,
MIT Press, 1993.
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Nguyen Thi Nhan Hoa (M.Ed., TESOL, La Trobe
University) is a long-time lecturer in English at Hanoi
Haves, J.R., and L. Flower.
She published an article,
Processes in Writing: An Introduction to Protocol
“Preparation in Vietnam of Sponsored Students for Study
In Research in Writing: Principles and
in Australian Universities,” in the Summer 2000 issue of
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EA Journal: A TESOL Publication of English Australia.
Longman, pp. 207-220, 1983.
In January 2001, she presented a report on “English
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Language Training for Vocational and Technical Training
Advanced Learners of Italian as a Second Language.”
Teachers” at a conference in Bac Giang.
ERIC ED 345 563. Paper presented at the Loyola College
Conference, Baltimore, October 18-20, 1991.
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Office of the State
A teacher affects eternity;
Superintendent of Public Instructors, Olympia,
he can never tell where his
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– Henry Adams
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