Assessing Listening Comprehension in a Reading Evaluation

By Farrall, Melissa | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Assessing Listening Comprehension in a Reading Evaluation


Farrall, Melissa, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Listening comprehension reigns as the first symbol system that children learn (Myklebust, 1954), however its status is that of a second fiddle. Listening is rarely taught. In contrast to all other modes of language, spoken or written, teachers expect their students to develop skill with listening on their own (Mendelsohn, 1984; Oxford, 1993; Tindall & Nisbet, 2008). Although rarely acknowledged, listening is a primary vehicle through which children learn. Failure to listen is often viewed as a characteristic of poor behavior: It is rarely perceived to be a weakness or a disability even when evidence or data is presented to the contrary. Although speaking, reading, and writing all manifest themselves in recognized behaviors, listening is a process that occurs internally. It is invisible.

Listening as a domain struggles from a lack of definition, and Moats is correct when she says that it is hard to assess what we have not clearly defined (1994). Sometimes listening means paying attention. Sometimes it has a sense of compliance as in listening to one's mother. It can also refer to the understanding of lengthy speeches and narratives and the degree to which we grasp complex ideologies and contrasting points of view. In order to assess listening as a domain, we have to have a clear sense of what it is that we are trying to measure.

Although we think of print and oral language as distinct entities, they have much in common. We now have over 40 years of research that speaks to the intimate relationship between receptive language and reading and its potential for informing instruction (Bishop & Adams, 1990; Cain & Oakhill, 1999; Catts & Kamhi, 1999; Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). As Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, and Seidenberg (2001, p. 42) so aptly expressed, "It can be reasonably argued that learning to read enables a person to comprehend written language to the same level that he or she comprehends spoken language."

Theoretical Background

In 1969, Durrell spoke of how contrasting measures of listening and reading could be used to help teachers learn about the instructional needs of their students. In a moment of prescience, he envisioned a reading/listening ratio. This ratio would be based on raw score comparisons using a scale of 0 to 100. Nonreaders would receive a reading/listening ratio of 0. Students who read on a par with their listening comprehension would receive a ratio of 100. In his studies, Durrell found that listening vocabulary and syntax were better developed than reading vocabulary from grade 1 until about grade 8. It is only in middle school, he found, that children's ability to glean information from the printed page becomes superior to their skill with listening.

Although Durrell's reading/listening ratio was never widely adopted, listening comprehension has earned its rightful place in a comprehensive reading evaluation. The Simple View of Reading, developed to clarify issues that were at the heart of the reading wars, defined reading comprehension as the product of decoding and linguistic comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990). According to the researchers, weaknesses in either decoding or linguistic comprehension would result in poor reading comprehension and warrant further investigation.

Many researchers have expanded upon this framework (Chen & Vellutino, 1997; Joshi & Aaron, 2000; Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006). Catts, Adlof, and Weismer (2006) reaffirmed the Simple View of Reading, as did Hollis S. Scarborough with her widely acclaimed Rope Model (2001). Scarborough elaborated on the simple view, providing insight into the different component skills that contribute to language comprehension. Scarborough's model focuses on two domains: word recognition (decoding, sight recognition, and phonological awareness) and language comprehension (background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge). …

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