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An analysis of the differences among L2 listening comprehension test formats
Language Testing in Asia volume 5, Article number: 12 (2015)
The present study aims to investigate which variables affect English as a foreign language (EFL) students’ listening comprehension test performance. It examines two types of variables: (1) test formats and (2) test materials.
First, three types of test formats are investigated: (1) questions are not written but given orally only once in English and in the students’ first language (L1) after they listen to the spoken text and (2) questions are not written but given orally in English and in the students’ L1 before and after they listen to the spoken text. The third type is a control group: Questions are written and also given orally in English after the students listen to the spoken text. The first type of test is similar to the Test of English as a Foreign Language Paper-Based Testing (TOEFL PBT) and the second type the General Tests of English Language Proficiency (G-TELP). The third type, a control group, is the format of the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). Second, this study examines whether there are any differences between dialogues and monologues in terms of students’ performance.
The results show that test formats do not make a statistically significant difference to students’ test performance.
Repeating questions after listening to the spoken text does not help them perform better, even if they listen to questions not only in English but also in their L1. As for differences in test materials, the results are not decisive. It is not possible to determine whether there are any differences between dialogues and monologues.
The present study investigates whether or not test takers’ performance is affected by factors other than their English proficiency. The purpose of the present study is twofold. It first explores the possibilities of the differences in test formats affecting test results. It also tries to determine whether the differences in test materials have some influence on students’ test performance.
Three test formats were investigated here. They were all multiple-choice formats, but they differed in the mode of presentation of the questions, e.g., whether they had a chance to listen to the questions once or twice. Previous studies have examined the effects of test format on test takers’ performance; however, their results were mixed, indicating the need for further research. As for the differences in test materials, less research has been conducted so far. Thus, the present study examined whether there are any differences by comparing conversations between two people with short talks given by a single speaker.
Previous research shows that it is easier for EFL students to take a multiple-choice listening comprehension test if questions and options are both written on paper. Yanagawa and Green (2008) investigated three formats: (1) previewing both the question and options, (2) previewing the question, and (3) previewing the options. They used Part 3 of the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) listening section. The spoken texts were short conversations of 25 to 59 words. Japanese test takers of the TOEIC test sites in and around Tokyo were asked to participate in their study, and a total of 279 people volunteered. They found that question preview helps test takers produce more correct answers, while option preview does not lead to high scores. They suggested that in the case of an option preview format test, teachers should advise their students “not to give too much attention to answer options prior to listening, given the lack of any significant benefit from option preview” (Yanagawa and Green 2008, p. 120). Iimura (2010a) compared four formats: (1) previewing both the question and options, (2) previewing the question, (3) previewing the options, and (4) previewing neither the question nor the options. A total of 40 Japanese university students participated in his study. He used materials taken from the Grade 2 EIKEN Test.Footnote 1 The experiment was conducted using a computer. In Format 1, for example, students saw both the question and options on the screen, and 10 seconds later they listened to a dialogue via headphones. Then they chose the answer by clicking on the button. The results showed that only the full preview and non-preview formats produced a statistically significant difference. He therefore mentioned that “format difference did not considerably affect listening performance” (p. 31). Further study was conducted by Chang and Read (2013), who compared two formats: (1) the written mode, which allowed the participants to preview both questions and options, and (2) the oral mode, which presented both items orally. The participants were 87 university students in Taiwan, who were divided into two groups. The materials were three types of spoken texts: dialogues with 6–9 utterances, conversations with 2–3 utterances, and short talks for about 20–30 seconds. One group took a test of which the first half was presented in oral mode and the rest in written mode. The other group took a test in which the order of the modes was reversed. The results showed that “students performed slightly better with the written mode” (Chang and Read 2013, p. 580), corresponding to grades of 66 % in the oral mode as opposed to 68 % in the written mode. They also mentioned that “the majority of participants considered test items in the written mode easier than in the oral mode” (Chang and Read 2013, p. 582) since 78 % of them answered that they preferred the written mode.
However, there are some studies indicating that the test is not easier simply because the questions are written. Filipi (2012) investigated whether questions should be offered in the target language (French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, or Indonesian) or the test takers’ first language (English) in listening comprehension tests. They used the test known as the Assessment of Language Competence (ALC), which was developed to examine the listening and reading skills of students mainly at the secondary school level in Australia, New Zealand, and the Asia-Pacific region. A total of 348 students participated in trial tests, and about 25,000 students took the final test. The results indicated that questions written in the target language were more difficult and challenging, and that “some students may be disadvantaged if questions appear in the target language because they might understand the stimulus but not the questions or options for the answers” (p. 525). Filipi (2012) also conducted a questionnaire study, finding that a large proportion of participants believed the test items were likely to be more difficult when the question was written in the target language. From Filipi’s (2012) findings, we can presume that L1 support might help students understand the questions and options correctly. With L1 support, students could understand test questions correctly even if the questions were not written.
As for oral repetition, less research has been conducted on the effects of repetition of questions, although previous research has showed the effects of repetition of a spoken text (Chang and Read 2006; Sakai 2009). Iimura (2010b) examined whether repeating the question orally affects test takers’ performance in a multiple-choice listening test. He examined a new multiple-choice format where all three components (question, text, and options) were given orally. He used conversations taken from the Grade 3, Pre-2, 2, and Pre-1 EIKEN Test. The spoken texts were approximately 50 words in length. He compared two formats: (1) items were presented in the order question, text, options, and (2) items were presented in the order question, text, question, options. A total of 58 Japanese university students participated in his study. The results showed that when the questions and options were both given orally, “there was no significant difference between the mean scores in the two formats and repeating questions did not enhance listening performance” (p. 52). A possible reason might be that students did not understand the questions in English. The questions might have contained some difficult vocabulary items. If they do not comprehend the questions accurately, repeating questions is not likely to boost their performance. Therefore, in this point, too, we can postulate that L1 support might facilitate students’ understanding when repeating questions.
Regarding spoken texts, Yanagawa and Green (2008) and Iimura (2010a, b) examined dialogues or conversations between two people. However, monologues are also worth investigating, since both forms of spoken texts are used in popular external tests such as the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), the Test of English as a Foreign Language Internet-Based Testing (TOEFL iBT), and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Chang and Read (2013) used both dialogues and monologues, but they did not focus on spoken texts. Papageorgiou, Stevens, and Goodwin (2012) examined whether differences in the type of spoken text can lead to differences in test takers’ performance on a multiple-choice listening test. They took data from 494 examinees, whose first language was Spanish, during a routine administration of the Michigan English Test. Papageorgiou et al. (2012) created three pairs of long dialogue and monologue stimuli with identical content and vocabulary in order to investigate which type of input is more difficult for test takers. Their results were rather inconclusive. In one case, a dialogic input was easier because information was presented in direct speech while it was delivered in reported speech in the monologue. In another, however, a monologic input was “more structured and detailed” (p. 388) and was therefore easier than a dialogic version. They said, “The study of the relative difficulty of dialogic and monologic input is a complex issue due to the numerous, well-documented variables that affect listening comprehension” (p. 391). Therefore, the present study investigates both dialogues and monologues in order to determine whether there are any differences between them. This study also examines whether L1 support helps students perform better when listening to the question twice.
The present study involved 60 first-year university students who were enrolled in three general English classes in Japan. They were all Japanese students from the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Their ages ranged from 18 to 20. They had been learning English as a foreign language for six years or more. There were 19 males and 1 female from each of the three classes. Actually, there were 24 to 26 students in each class, and all of them were invited to take part in the research. However, some students decided not to take part in the experiment after listening to my explanation. In addition, there was only one female student in one of the classes. Therefore, I asked those who were cooperative with me to participate in this research. Fortunately, I found 19 male students and 1 female student from each class to equalize the groups. The classes were held twice a week for 90 minutes and were compulsory for all first-year students. The experiment was conducted in class, using the first 15 minutes of a 90-minute class. The students were asked to take a multiple-choice listening comprehension test twice a week, eight times altogether. For ethical reasons, I promised the students that the results would not count as part of their grades. However, I told them that the experiment would be a good practice for them. I explained to the students in Classes 1 and 3 that the TOEFL and the TOEIC are high-stakes tests, and that they would have an advantage if they achieved a high score on the test. I told those in Class 2 that they had to take the G-TELP as a term-end test. The university required all first-year students to take the G-TELP twice a year—at the beginning of the academic year and at the end of the second semester.
The three classes (Classes 1, 2, and 3) had to be statistically insignificant in their English proficiency given the study’s design. In order to establish their comparability, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed using the raw scores of a proficiency test. The test administered was G-TELP Level 3. There are five levels in the General Tests of English Language Proficiency (G-TELP). Level 3 consists of grammar, listening, and reading and vocabulary sections, and is equivalent to TOEIC 400 to 600. The G-TELP is provided by the International Testing Services Center (ITSC) in San Diego, California in the USA. Similar to the TOEIC, it is especially popular in South Korea and Japan. The reason why the G-TELP was chosen to measure the students’ English proficiency was that all of the participants in the present study had taken this test at the beginning of the academic year. The university paid the examination fees and asked all of the first-year students to take the G-TELP so that they could measure their achievement. Therefore, all of the participants’ G-TELP data were available. Since the present study focused on listening, the descriptive statistics (number of participants, means and standard deviation) of the listening section as well as the total score are shown in Tables 1 and 2. The results of the ANOVA presented in Table 3 confirmed that there were no significant differences among the three classes. Thus, they were considered equivalent in their English proficiency.
The present study dealt with both conversations between two people and short talks given by a single speaker. Eight dialogue and eight monologue listening texts with multiple-choice questions were taken from The official guide to the new TOEIC test Vol. 3 without making any changes. The participants in the present study might have used Vol. 5, which was the latest version when the experiment was conducted. Therefore, I decided to use Vol. 3 in the experiment. Each conversation was 71–120 words long, and the short talks were 83–117. They included three questions, each with four options (one correct answer and three distracters). They were carefully selected so that they would be suitable for the level of the participants with respect to vocabulary, sentence length, syntax, and content. Before the experiment, three students in different classes but of the same English proficiency level were asked to answer the multiple-choice questions without listening to the spoken texts. “Any items they can get right without the text are dubious” (Weir 1993, p. 24), and therefore, such items should be excluded. As a result, it was confirmed that none of the questions could be answered correctly by guessing. No questions were answerable without recourse to the spoken texts. The experiment was conducted four times, once a week during four weeks. Each experiment took 10–15 minutes, and it was conducted using the first 10–15 minutes of a 90-minute class. Each test included two conversations and two short talks. Conversations were dialogues between a man and a woman: One of the two conversations in a test contained three turns (M-W-M or W-M-W), and the other contained four turns (M-W-M-W or W-M-W-M).
All of the participants were required to listen to the same spoken texts and answer the same questions, but each of the three groups was asked to take the tests in a different format. The students in Class 1 were given a sheet with only options written on it, and were asked to listen to the spoken texts without reading or listening to the questions. After listening to each spoken text, they listened to three questions about the text only once and chose what they thought was the correct answer to each question. They were not able to read the questions but had a chance to hear the explanation of each question in their L1 after listening to the question in English. For example, after the students listened to the question “What are the speakers discussing?” in English, I said to them “What is the topic of the conversation?” in Japanese. The test format for Class 1 is similar to the TOEFL PBT in that only options can be seen and questions can be heard only once after listening to the spoken text. However, it is different from the TOEFL in that students can receive assistance in their L1.
The students in Class 2 were given a sheet with only options written on it—the same sheet as the students in Class 1 received. However, contrary to the students in Class 1, they listened to three questions about the text twice: once before listening to the spoken text and once more afterwards. Like the students in Class 1, they also had a chance to hear the explanation of each question in their L1 after listening to the question in English. They listened to three questions, the spoken text and then the three questions again, and then they were asked to choose what they thought was the correct answer. They were not able to read the questions, but they listened to each question twice and had a chance to hear the explanation of each question in their L1. The test format for Class 2 is similar to the G-TELP in that only options can be seen and questions can be heard twice—before and after listening to the spoken text. However, it is different from the G-TELP in that students can receive assistance in their L1.
Class 3 was a control group. The test format for Class 3 was the same as the TOEIC in that both questions and options were written on the sheet and the questions were given orally only once after each spoken text. It was also the same as the TOEIC in that only English was used during the test. Contrary to the students in Classes 1 and 2, they did not have a chance to hear the explanation of each question in their L1. Immediately after they received the sheet, they were asked to listen to each spoken text, and then they listened to three questions about the text and chose what they thought was the correct answer. Although the questions were heard only once, they were written on the sheet and were therefore available to be read anytime during the test.
This study seeks to answer the following research questions:
Previous research indicates that repeating questions in only English is not helpful for students. Then, does listening to the question twice—before and after the spoken text—in both English and students’ L1 produce the same results as previous research?
Previous research shows no decisive results regarding the difference in test materials—conversations and short talks. Then, in general, is students’ performance in the conversations section not different from that in the talks section?
Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted in order to determine if there were any differences among the three test formats. First, the total scores of the three classes were examined. Then, the scores of the conversations section and those of the talks section were examined to evaluate the effects of material difference.
The ANOVA showed that there were no significant effects of test format (Factor A in Table 4). The mean scores shown in Table 5 were not statistically different among the three classes. However, as shown in Table 6, the ANOVA revealed a significant difference between Tests 1 and 3 as well as between Tests 3 and 4 (Factor B in Table 4). A possible reason for this is that regardless of test format, Test 1 was the most difficult, Test 4 the second most difficult, and Test 3 was the easiest for the participants in this study. As seen in Table 6, although no statistical difference was found between the other pairs, the results suggested that test contents might have had an effect on students’ test performance.
|<<means on Factor B, full score?=?12>>|
As for the conversations section, no significant effects of test format (Factor A in Table 7) were found. The mean scores shown in Table 8 were not statistically different among the three classes. However, Table 9 shows that there was a significant difference between Tests 1 and 2, between Tests 1 and 3, and between Tests 3 and 4 (Factor B in Table 7). A plausible reason for this is that regardless of test format, Test 1 was by far the most difficult while Test 3 was by far the easiest for the participants in this study.
|<<means on Factor B, full score = 6>>|
As for the talks section, the difference in test format (Factor A in Table 10) produced no effect on the students’ performance. There were no significant differences among the three classes, and contrary to the conversations section, no difference was found among tests (Factor B in Table 10). Table 6 reveals that in total scores, there was a significant difference between Tests 1 and 3 as well as between Tests 3 and 4, but Table 11 shows that as for the talks section, the mean scores of these tests were roughly the same in all three classes.
In this section, the percentages of correct answers of each question are examined. We first investigate the conversations section, and then we return to the talks sectionFootnote 2.
The present study has examined three types of test formats: (1) questions are not written but given orally only once in English and in the students’ L1 after they listen to the spoken text, (2) questions are not written but given orally in English and in the students’ L1 before and after they listen to the spoken text, and (3) questions are written and also given orally, only in English, after the students listen to the spoken text. This study has also investigated two types of test materials: (1) conversations between two people and (2) talks given by a single speaker.
With regard to the different test formats, no significant difference was found among the three types examined here. There is only one example that shows that differences in test format might affect students’ performance. In Conversation 2 of Test 4, the percentage of correct answers to Question 2 was low in Classes 1 and 3 (25.0 % in Class 1 and 35.0 % in Class 3) but relatively high in Class 2 (65.0 %), while in Question 1, the results were completely opposite: The percentage of correct answers was higher in Classes 1 and 3 (75.0 % in Class 1 and 70.0 % in Class 3) than in Class 2 (65.0 %). A possible reason for this is that the key words to Question 2 appear before the key words to Question 1. The students in Classes 1 and 3 managed to catch the key words to Question 1, but missed those to Question 2. In the case of Class 2, the students listened to the three questions in both English and their L1 before listening to the spoken text. However, the students in Class 1 did not read or listen to the questions prior to listening to the text, and those in Class 3 were allowed to read the questions but were not told to read all three questions beforehand. As a result, they might have concentrated on Question 1, and thus missed the key words to Question 2. Except for this case, differences in students’ test performance among three classes were statistically insignificant.
We have an affirmative answer to the first research question, as to whether or not listening to the question twice has the same effect as listening to the question only once, even if students receive assistance in their L1.
As for the second research question, the results showed that students’ performance was more likely to be different from test to test in the conversations section than in the talks section. In all four tests, students performed similarly in the talks section. However, their performance was statistically different in the conversations section among the tests.
It is worthwhile to note that the results of the present study showed a contradictory view to those found in previous research (Ur 1984; Weir 1993). As mentioned in the Literature review section, previous studies show that it is easier for EFL students to take a multiple-choice listening comprehension test if the questions and options are both written on paper (Chang and Read 2013; Iimura 2010a; Yanagawa and Green 2008). On the other hand, several studies have a completely different view. Weir (1993) mentioned that multiple-choice questions “take much longer and are more expensive and difficult to prepare than more open-ended items” (p. 13). Similarly, Ur (1984) stated, “the questions are written and there is the extra load of reading” (p. 136). She also considered “the aspect of inference and deduction” (p. 136), explaining it as follows:
Questions in this type of exercise are rarely formulated using the words of the original text, and they often require students to have understood the implications of what they have heard as well as its surface meaning. (Ur 1984, p. 136)
However, the above-mentioned statement is refuted when we look at the percentages of correct answers of Questions 2 and 3 in Conversation 1 of Test 3. Test takers have to deduce “the room was not ready” from the expression “hasn’t been cleaned” in Question 2 and “it was too small” from “we needed a bigger room” in Question 3. However, such deductions are relatively easy because these are not technical terms but are words often used in our daily lives. As a result, the percentages of correct answers were quite high in all three groups (80.0 % in Class 1, 80.0 % in Class 2, and 75.0 % in Class 3 on Question 2, and 70.0 % in Class 1, 75.0 % in Class 2, and 80.0 % in Class 3 on Question 3).
Interestingly, the present study showed that students might not be able to choose the correct answer even if it contains the words used in the spoken text. Two such examples are found in this study.
First, in Question 2 of Talk 1, Test 1, test takers are required to choose the option that involves the expression “previous records.” The spoken text says, “medical records from your previous doctor,” and thus it should be relatively easy for test takers. However, it turned out to be quite difficult for the participants in the present study. A possible reason for this might be that in their L1, the document showing someone’s medical records is called “Karte,” which is a loan word from German, and some Japanese people wrongly think “Karte” is English. I conducted a questionnaire after the experiment to obtain additional information, asking the students what the word “records” meant. The results showed that 34 out of 60 students (56.7 %) seemed to connect it with something related to athletes. That is probably one of the reasons why the participants were not able to infer “previous records” from “medical records from your previous doctor.” In this case, the low percentage of correct answers (35.0 % in all classes) might have resulted from the fact that the participants did not understand the key word correctly.
Second, in Question 1 of Talk 1, Test 4, the key word “workshop” can be found in both the spoken text and the correct answer (D). However, one of the distracters (C) contains the word “lunch,” which can also be found in the spoken text. As a result, the percentage of correct answers was very low in all three groups (25.0 % in Class 1, 20.0 % in Class 2, and 30.0 % in Class 3). More students chose the distracter (C) in all three of the classes. In this case, multiple-choice questions cannot be considered easier than other test formats since test takers are likely to be confused by distracters that contain the words or expressions used in the spoken text.
In this respect, too, I conducted a questionnaire after the experiment to obtain additional information. The students were asked to identify when they chose the answer while taking a multiple-choice test. The results showed that 49 out of 60 students (81.7 %) seemed to choose the answer as soon as they found what they thought was the answer. On the other hand, 11 out of 60 students (18.3 %) said that they did not know. Thus, in the case of Question 1 of Talk 1, Test 4, the percentage of correct answers was very low partly because the correct answer was the last of the four options. This is not related to whether the question is written or presented orally. This is closely connected to how the options are presented: which option comes first, which option contains the word used in the spoken text, and so on.
Several limitations of this study need to be pointed out. First, the test materials were picked out from The official guide to the new TOEIC test Vol. 3. Although the TOEIC is a high-stakes test, one drawback is that the spoken texts are short and each one has only three corresponding questions. Therefore, it is doubtful that the same results would have emerged if different test materials such as the listening section of the TOEFL or the IELTS had been used. Another limitation is that the participants in the present study were required to listen to four different spoken texts—two conversations and two talks—in one test. Some of the students voluntarily confessed that it was tough for them especially when they were tired or sleepy. Listening tests are likely to be influenced by human factors such as anxiety (Chang and Read 2008). In addition, the contents, not the format, of the spoken text might affect students’ test performance. Iimura (2010a) mentioned that spoken texts are likely to become difficult as their information load becomes high. Thus, factors other than test formats or test materials might have affected the participants’ listening test performance.
With the above-mentioned limitations in mind, the present study obtained enough evidence to issue the following claim. It is not very likely that differences in listening test format greatly affect students’ test performance. The number of times students hear the questions is also not very likely to make a statistically significant difference to their performance even with L1 support. The group who listened to the questions only once achieved scores similar to those who listened to the questions before and after the spoken text. Iimura’s (2010b) study suggested that repeating questions in English does not affect students’ listening test performance. From his findings, we suspected that his subjects might not have understood the test questions accurately. However, the participants in the present study received L1 support and thus they must have comprehended the questions correctly. From the results, we conclude that understanding test questions perfectly by listening to the questions twice is not very likely to boost students’ test performance.
In the present study, one issue remains unsolved. Is L1 support helpful enough to overcome the disadvantage of not reading the questions visually? Did the students in Classes 1 and 2 achieve similar scores to those in Class 3 simply because they received L1 support? In Chang and Read’s (2013) study, test takers performed slightly better if the questions and options were both written: 66 % in the oral mode as opposed to 68 % in the written mode. Thus, we can presume that in the present study, L1 support might have made up for the 2 % difference between the oral mode and the written mode. From a different perspective, however, it is worth investigating why the students in Class 3, a control group, were not able to outperform the students in Classes 1 and 2. It might be because the advantage of reading the written questions is not strong enough to allow one to outperform those who are not allowed to read the questions. Filipi (2012) suggested that questions were more difficult and challenging if they were written in the target language. Thus, it is worth comparing students who read the questions only in English with students who receive L1 support in reading the questions. Further research is needed in this respect.
The EIKEN Test, also called the STEP Test, is an English proficiency test conducted by the EIKEN Foundation of Japan, which is a Japanese public-interest incorporated foundation established in 1963. There are seven levels: Grade 1, Pre-1, 2, Pre-2, 3, 4, and 5. The Grade 1 EIKEN Test is the most difficult while Grade 5 the easiest. The Grade 2 EIKEN Test is suitable for high school graduates.
Each table is provided with the topic of each spoken text. The way to determine the correct answer to each of the three questions is also written under each table. For example, “Q1 the same expression” means that the correct answer to Question 1 involves the same expression as that used in the spoken text. “Q2 similar expression” means that the correct answer to Question 2 contains expressions similar to that used in the text. In these cases, it is easier to find the key word. “Q1 deduction” means that test takers have to deduce what the answer to Question 1 is from the spoken text. Therefore, this type of question is the most difficult.
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The author declares that she has no competing interests.
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Mihara, K. An analysis of the differences among L2 listening comprehension test formats. Language Testing in Asia 5, 12 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40468-015-0021-5
- Test formats
- L1 support