Listen: New research informing EFL reading comprehension

By Anna Husson Isozaki

All EFL instructors know the difference between English decoded or “deciphered” aloud (Kanatani, 2014) by learners without a sense of the pronunciation expected and the rhythm and stress required, versus fluent communicative oral reading. This difference is one which often shows whether the students understand what they are reading, or not. John Fanselow, professor emeritus of Teacher’s College, Columbia University, comments that he can instantly see if learners understand what they are saying, or reading aloud, by watching their body language; overly-still hands or lack of congruent expressions betray that someone is “reciting” rather than speaking in English (Fanselow, 1992, p. 118, 122; Fanselow, 2014). Similarly, when we listen to reading aloud by our learners, we can usually guess if it is done with or without comprehension (see also Wolf, 2008, p.123).

More reading work is, unsurprisingly, usually the first recommendation to improve reading skills and comprehension, but EFL learners in Japan face particular challenges which sometimes hamper the effectiveness of this approach. Japanese and English are almost as far apart as two human languages can be (Pinker, 1994, p.111) and while many languages’ written forms are easily decodable, English is at the far end of the spectrum of difficulty (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006, p.430). While children from other L1 settings can often easily decode new words in their L1, English L1 readers tend to need more time (Wolf, 2008, p.152). We know also that English is a stress-timed language, and much of what is communicated comes through prosody in its delivery (Whalley & Hansen, 2006). Furthermore, much of that communicative information is not visible in the written form of English (Whalley & Hansen, 2006, p.299).

What can concerned teachers of EFL, with limited class time, do to help students over the hump from decoding toward fluent, comprehending, unimpeded reading? Fortunately, there has been significant progress in research within the last decade. Some the findings are initially surprising.

Catherine Walter’s (2008) research shows decisively that, at least in alphabetical languages, words both heard and read briefly enter working memory in audio form to search for a match, also held in audio form, in long term memory. She writes: “L1 readers of these languages do not mentally see what they have just read: They hear it” (Walter, 2008, p. 458). A match-up, when found, is the “light bulb” moment – comprehension. Misheard, mispronounced or misread words are like wrong numbers punched into a cash machine; unable to connect to the bank (longterm memory), and unable to complete a transaction (reach comprehension). Walter’s suggestions are for bolstering listening skills in EFL students to support the development of their reading, and she lists a number of strategies to consider, including simultaneous listening and reading, as with graded readers with audio (Walter, 2008, p.470).

Consensus among researchers since Goswami and Bryant (1990) has been that phonological skills underpin reading development and the case has been strengthening ever since (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006; see also Wolf, 2008, p.117), with increasing attention to prosodic sensitivity (Magne & Brock, 2012; Whalley & Hansen, 2006). In Japan, Meredith Stephens (2011a, 2011b) has been calling for instructors to put this knowledge into practice: “Exposure to prosody in the form of aural input, before learning to read may help students develop reading comprehension more efficiently” (2011b, p. 71), also suggesting in the ELT Journal:

Simultaneous listening and reading are clearly of benefit to all L2 learners, but this practice may be especially suited to learners whose L1 is distant from English…. Extensive reading materials should thus be used in tandem with audio recordings…. EFL students should be encouraged to listen… before they read and while they are reading. (Stephens, 2011a, pp. 312-313)

In Taiwan, relevant experimental research has been producing valuable evidence for the EFL classroom (Chang, 2009, 2011; Chang & Millett, 2014). In a recent study, university learners tried graded reader stories in three conditions: reading only, listening only, and reading and listening together. The results were clear, with the strongest improvements in listening comprehension and fluency from reading and listening together (Chang & Millett, 2014). This follows on an earlier study which showed dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition for high school students who combined listening and reading (Chang, 2011).

While those experiments tested primarily for growth in listening comprehension, parallel experiments could be promising. Mentally, we hear words as we read or write them in our L1, and as we become competent in reading new languages, we listen to an inner voice in those as well. Probably the most prominent proponent of extensive reading, Dr. Rob Waring, recommends an extensive reading library be a collection of loanable books-and-audio sets (Waring, 2003). With more research now to back our developing practice, it would be interesting to see future investigations following Walter’s and Stephens’ suggestions and examining how proactively integrating listening into reading projects may influence, and likely benefit, learners’ reading comprehension and fluency.

Anna Husson Isozaki teaches reading and listening, journalism, and media studies part-time at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University. Her research interests include: L2 literacy acquisition, media, and learner collaboration and critical thinking in the L2 classroom. She can be contacted at


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