An investigation of vocabulary size, metacognition, and individual differences in L2 listening comprehension

Smith, George Fredrik
Ziegler, Nicole
Second Language Studies
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Research suggests that proficient second language (L2) learners are able to leverage their metacognitive knowledge and apply strategies that improve their listening comprehension. However, it remains unclear whether strategy use is directly related to listening success, or whether it is moderated by vocabulary knowledge and/or other individual learner differences (Macaro, Graham, & Vanderplank, 2007). The current study set out to examine whether vocabulary size and individual differences affect learners’ ability to effectively use strategies and regulate their comprehension processes while listening. A total of 88 international students with varying proficiency levels and first language backgrounds completed a battery of listening tests, vocabulary measures (vocabulary size, depth), questionnaires (metacognitive awareness, listening anxiety), and working memory tests (operation span, digit span). Stimulated recall protocols and interviews were conducted to gather data on the participants’ strategy use and self-regulatory ability. Three main analyses of the data were carried out. The first analysis focused on how vocabulary size influences frequency of strategy use. Participants were split into high- and low-vocabulary knowledge groups and statistically compared in terms of the number of specific strategies they used while listening. The results of Mann-Whitney U tests indicated that low-vocabulary listeners reported using more strategies for translation, planning and evaluation; were observed to monitor comprehension problems more frequently; and were observed to use shorthand notetaking strategies less frequently, with small effects. No meaningful effects were found for the remaining strategies. The second analysis examined the causal link between strategy use and successful listening comprehension by subdividing participants into four groups based on their vocabulary size and listening scores (i.e., high/low vocabulary/listening ability). The groups were qualitatively compared in terms of how they deployed strategies, used metacognitive knowledge to support their comprehension, and regulated their cognitive processes. The results showed that (a) vocabulary size was a key determinant of listening comprehension among low-vocabulary listeners; (b) inability to productively address comprehension problems was linked to poor listening performance; (c) metacognitive knowledge and monitoring were important elements of successful comprehension and problem-solving; and (d) certain strategies were detrimental or unrelated to listening success. The third analysis used a mixed-methods approach to explore the cognitive and affective individual differences related to L2 listener metacognition. The quantitative analysis examined the relationships among vocabulary size, vocabulary depth, listening anxiety, working memory, and metacognitive awareness. The qualitative analysis focused on the sources, effects, and responses to listening anxiety (a variable which correlated with several subscales of the metacognitive awareness questionnaire). The results indicated that (a) listening anxiety influences strategy use by increasing cognitive processing load and affecting motivation; and (b) systematically combining inferences from both quantitative and qualitative data helped to legitimate the study’s conclusions. Overall, the findings suggest that vocabulary teaching and metacognitive intervention should be integrated in L2 listening pedagogy, and that a mixed-methods approach is useful for studying L2 listener metacognition.
Foreign language education, Linguistics, individual differences, L2 listening comprehension, metacognition, vocabulary size
401 pages
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