Testing and assessing reading and listening comprehension pose many challenges in that they are internal processes and their assessment requires samples of external behaviour. This can happen by overt verbal behaviour (speaking and writing) and/or non-verbal behaviour. Listening and reading are also very complex processes. Consequently, constructing tasks that elicit relevant evidence of comprehension is demanding.
In evolutionary terms, speech predates writing. All communities have speech but not all languages even now have writing, which emerged only a few thousand years ago. Speaking and writing have similar functions but writing as a new cultural technology (production of texts) had a powerful impact on cognition, communication, schooling, societal and cultural development. The archetype of human communication is face-to-face oral interaction. Advances in information technology have narrowed the original fundamental distance between written and oral communication by allowing writing to simulate in many ways on-line face-to-face oral communication.
In face-to-face oral communication, listening comprehension is closely integrated with speaking. While listening and reading comprehension share a number of features, listening poses some specific challenges, which arguably makes it harder to assess listening than reading comprehension.
Several taxonomies of listening have been presented over the past fifty year listing a varying number of abilities (10-35) involved in listening comprehension. They indicate that it is necessary to pay attention to the role of the spoken input text (text types), the listener (skills and knowledge resources), the context (domains of language use) and the purposes of listening.
One issue in assessing listening comprehension is whether to assess it as part of an interactive interview/ discussion or by listening to or watching a recording. Other points regarding the input to consider are eg., length, speed, times listened, kind of language used (eg. text type, accent…).
As listening comprehension is often appraised by using tasks using questions and other types of items, it is important to be aware that the difficulty of the items varies and it can be purposefully manipulated by varying the text characteristics and the task characteristics.
For a more detailed discussion of issues related to the testing/assessment of listening comprehension that need to be taken into account in each specific context, see the Background paper.