Month: March 2017

Motivation, Time and Patience

Shaun Sweeney

“The strongest of all warriors are these two – Time and Patience.”

Leo Tolstoy


I thought I’d start this post with a quote from War and Peace. Just to impress you with how literary I am. I’ve not read the book, but I highly recommend it – if you have the time. And patience.

Using transcription and paying close attention to the speech stream requires a good deal of time and patience. Testing our listening proforma (nothing more complicated than a blank page and a grid) we chose to listen to a section from a short documentary about Diego Rivera and a literary and cultural movement in Mexico (again, all this detail just to impress you).


Detail from a very important and interesting painting I’ve quite forgotten all about.

I was happy to spend this time when transcribing sections of Spanish because I had an interest in the topic of the text. I didn’t mind pausing, replaying, pausing again. I went off on Wikipedia afterwards – in Spanish and English – to find out more. I wrote down a lot of new vocabulary. I was motivated to learn more – both about the content and the language.


We all know how important it is to select (or adapt) material of interest to our students – be it material that appeals to their interests or their academic or professional needs. A common shared interest in group classes I’ve been working with recently is ‘travel’. Not just the day-to-day functional stuff like booking a room and ordering at a restaurant – also the topic in and of itself. They like chatting about it, finding out about new places, relating holiday anecdotes, sharing travel tips…. the list goes on.

It’s not a difficult interest to cater for in a listening lesson. There’s a wealth of material on Youtube for starters. This is a lesson built around a short clip about Lake Tahoe. I’ve never been, but once again, I highly recommend it – it looks very nice. Here’s the clip and tapescript (and many thanks to John Pawlenko for this)

The lesson

The aim here was to develop students’ ability to decode multi-word clusters while listening to a recording about a holiday destination. They do so by employing parallel processing – bottom up decoding skills and top down strategies (using contextual clues).

I’ve used this material with classes from B1.1-B2.2.

As with any audio or video, it’s best to focus in on a short section. The first half is ideal – the second can be saved for homework or follow up work.

You could use the proforma just as before. There are several multi-word clusters in the recording which merit attention and cause all sorts of problems for the second language listener: ‘first on our (list)’ ‘one of the (most)’ ‘is where the’ all jump out on a first listen.

In order to create a bit of variety, we decided to create a minimal-pairs chunk bingo (I know – sounds exciting, right?). Essentially, we want to see if the student can distinguish between ‘first on our’ and ‘first honour’ or ‘one of the’ and ‘one other’.

We wrote out the interesting clusters on scraps of paper and wrote out an equal number of ‘distractors’ before arranging them on a table:


This was just to help us get our heads round the design of the final bingo ‘cards’. You can easily switch around the different scraps of paper to design 4 or 5 different layouts to use in class.

If making your own with different material, make sure you put the similar items next to each other (otherwise it’s just too hard when the students come to do the task).

Here’s the final photocopied version:minimal pair chunk bingo.png

Distinguishing between the different items is hard and requires considerable scaffolding and teacher support. Here you can download one task, developed with Irene Serafini at OxfordTEFL when we team-taught a group of students together. We gave them a discrimination task with both Irene and I reading the same chunk – the first time in isolation and the second time with co-text (see ‘answers’ section at the bottom of the handout). The point here was imply to raise awareness that the two chunks may sound exactly the same. This awareness means the learners have to fall back on schematic knowledge and contextual clues in order to decide which words are being said. Instead of reading these out live, you could record colleagues or friends.

After this awareness-raising task, we went back to the original text, played it through (again it took a couple of times) and students crossed off the phrases they heard until someone got Bingo.


Acknowledgements: John Pawlenko gave me the idea for Bingo while he was planning a lesson on a CELTA course at IH Barcelona. In the end, John went for a different receptive skills procedure, but the bingo seed was planted!

Irena Serafini was involved in a team-teaching project at OxfordTEFL in Barcelona. The discrimination task was her idea. Planning and teaching a class together really helped clarify problems students were having with their listening.

IH Barcelona ELT Conference 2017

Shaun Sweeney

Kicking off with a story of a misunderstanding based on mishearing,  we looked at why the decoding gap and blur gap are important and deserve more attention in our listening lessons.

Richard Caudwell’s metaphor of jungle listening served as a useful frame for why L2 listeners struggle with the speech stream so much. This was illustrated with an example from John Field – see ‘Do you know what I mean?’ on the Greenhouse/Garden/Jungle slide.

We looked at issues of spoken language and the differences with written in terms of word frequency. High frequency chunks and clusters were introduced and we looked at how they can be difficult to perceive when they occur in ‘squeeze zones’ speech units (once again following Cauldwell, 2013).

Here’s a screencast showing how I recorded and cut the required audioclips we used in the session. It’s five minutes long – so you can see it’s quite an easy procedure to make your own using Audacity.

On a recent CELTA course at IH Barcelona we had trainees recording their own listenings for a skills development assignment.

Many thanks to Angela Grimshaw and Michael Clarke for letting me use their recording to show how we can isolate problem soundshapes and use them very quickly and easily to develop our students’ decoding abilities.

Here’s the clips:

Spin Loads

Then with a little more cotext:

Then a longer section, which could be used in class as a way of developing decoding abilities:

Here are the board shots of how the last clip could be built up in class:

board building

We finished up with a bit of crowdsourced microlistening creation. One way of easily creating manageable amounts of natural speech to practise decoding is to record yourself, your colleagues and friends answering a short question. This has a couple of clear benefits to my mind:

  1. It’s really easy to do – over whatsapp, skype, live with your phone….
  2. You have an instant task to orient the listener before doing transcription work (i.e. – what’s the question?)
  3. You have an instant follow up productive task (i.e. the learners can ask each other)

What’s the question these three people were asked?

(Thanks to teachers from IH Barcelona and Oxford House for these)

We made our own in the final few minutes – showing just how quickly this can be done. This time we had a different question – ‘What’s your comfort food?’

The link to the shared drive is here.

Do add some more and let us know how you got on using the clips in class.