The effect of prior knowledge on listening comprehension in ESL class discussions

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Madden, John Patrick

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Previous research in second language listening comprehension has considered the role of prior knowledge in listening to texts that are presented by a single speaker. Despite this, second language learners commonly encounter situations in which they must understand what more than one speaker is saying, whether in the language classroom, the academy, or the workplace. In addition, prior knowledge for text type has been argued to support second language listening, though the genre of discussion has been overlooked as a text type. This study investigated the hypotheses that prior knowledge of the topic of a discussion would aid comprehension of that discussion, that greater listening skill would result in greater comprehension of a discussion, that topic prior knowledge and listening skill would interact to support comprehension, and that familiarity with the discussion form would support understanding a discussion. Participants recruited from an intensive English program were assigned to experimental and control conditions. Topic prior knowledge was operationalized by allowing the experimental group to hear a portion of an audiotaped text that was used as the basis for a videotaped discussion among three native English speakers. To measure comprehension of the videotaped discussion, research participants distinguished statements made in the video from distracters, wrote recalls of the video, and made predictions about what they would hear next. Participants took a listening assessment and completed a survey about their experience learning English and their familiarity with and attitudes about discussion. Results showed that participants familiar with the discussion form understood more of the videotaped discussion than did participants unfamiliar with discussion. Better listeners understood more of the videotaped discussion than did less skilled listeners. Prior knowledge of topic was not found to be a significant predictor of success in understanding discussions. No interaction was found between topic prior knowledge and listening skill. Teaching and research implications are presented.