Thesis

Following is a synopsis of my Thesis:

Effect of Background Knowledge

on Test Performance in Listening Comprehension

by

Azlifa Ahmed

MA Applied Linguistics

The University of Melbourne

Supervised by Professor Tim McNamara

2004

Abstract

The extent to which cultural background knowledge affects listening comprehension tests in a second language is examined in this research. When tested in English, it was found that Maldivian students did best on an excerpt involving a familiar custom and significantly worse when tested on similar excerpts using unfamiliar customs. Implications for the assessment of second language listening comprehension skills are discussed.

Introduction

The focus of this research is the extent to which cultural background knowledge affects listening comprehension in a second language and possible implications for the assessment of second language (L2) listening comprehension skills. Such assessments are especially important in countries such as in the Maldives where examinations developed by external authorities are used for local purposes. This study aims to study the role of cultural background knowledge in L2 listening comprehension.

The effect of background knowledge on general comprehension has been a topic of research since the significant works by Bransford and Johnson, Anderson, et al and Steffenson, et al in the 1970s. Their findings that background knowledge aided comprehension led second language researchers to investigate the phenomenon as well (Schmidt-Reinehart, 1994).

Convincing evidence that a person’s level of familiarity with the contents of a test affects his/her performance has been illustrated by research on both listening and reading skills (Dunkel, 1991; Lynch, 1998; Mendelsohn, 1998; Rubin, 1994). Results from such studies indicated that the participants’ performances were affected as much by their background knowledge as by their language proficiency and that listening comprehension is enhanced by background knowledge about the content.

With the increasing spread of English as an international language, this issue is becoming even more salient. Since English started gaining increasing power as a lingua franca in the world, a higher demand for proof of English proficiency has been created (Isharyanti, 2004). This has led, in turn, to the development of a large body of commercially available English language examinations for various purposes – improving employment prospects, seeking further education, preparing to travel or live abroad or attaining an internationally recognized certificate showing one’s level of competency in English language.

It is not uncommon for countries to contract with such exam-development organizations so the examinations can be used as a measure of language competency within the country’s own education systems. The Maldives, a very small country whose native language, Dhivehi, is spoken only by its small population of about 280,000, is an example of such a country. It is crucial that measures be taken to ensure that particular groups are not disadvantaged in these language proficiency examinations due to factors such as cultural background. This is especially important in the assessment of listening comprehension, because differences in listening comprehension may be a function of listeners’ lack of essential cultural background knowledge rather than differences in language comprehension.

If test-takers are disadvantaged on the basis of their cultural knowledge, then the validity of the test is, by definition, compromised. The argument for analyzing the validity of such tests is that the meaning of English language proficiency is hence defined in terms of the purpose of the test. This means that the values, implications and the social consequences of the tests warrant careful thought.

This study aims to investigate if and to what extent cultural background knowledge influences Maldivian test-takers’ performance on tests of listening comprehension in a English, their second language. The research question is: Does a test-takerâ’s background knowledge about the contents of a listening comprehension test in a second language affect his/her performance in second language listening comprehension tests?

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