iELT2018: Listening, just for the phon of it

‘Who wants to get meta?’ asked Kyle.

The 2018 Innovate ELT conference was once again a rewarding (don’t say fun!) day’s professional development. Rather than do a talk, I thought a live lesson with real learners would make a nice change. Many thanks to Traci and Anthony’s classes at Oxford House for agreeing to come and take part. Many thanks as well to Kyle Dugan for posing the question on the online audio swapshop ‘who wants to get meta?’ – asking for recordings about what we did to improve our listening skills. And of course many thanks to the respondents to said question. I chose three for the lesson and edited them down for the students. Thanks then to Charlotte Giller, Sandy Millin and Daniel Pick.

We had an hour, and this meant around 45minutes with the learners and then 15 or so with the observing teachers interviewing the students.

It was all videoed. I’ve finally added this here:

You’ll notice that I managed to keep my shades dangling from my polo shirt. Very cool, I’m sure you agree.

The procedure:

After a brief chat about listening, the learners accessed the files on their mobiles and listened in pairs (using headphone splitters). Once they’d got as much of the content as they were happy with, they moved on to the next speaker. We then came together as a class to focus on some transcription of 3-5 word clusters of the first speaker only (see handout). We did some segmentation work and some ‘botantical walks’ (see Cauldwell 2018) with some of the highly reduced segments. We followed with a mini dictation of similar sounding clusters and then moved on to the final discussion with teachers.

The handouts for the learners, featuring follow-up resources for home study are here.

The handouts for the observing teachers are here – possibly usable with the recorded lesson once I get my hands on it.

The 3 audio files are here.

References from handout and further reading:

  • Cauldwell, R (2013) Phonology for Listening, Birmingham: Speech in Action
  • Cauldwell, R (2018) A syllabus for listening – decoding. Birmingham: Speech in Action
  • Field (2008) Listening in the language classroom. Cambridge: CUP
  • Field (2017) Through the Fog. Presentation given at the IATEFL conference Glasgow.
  • Norrington-Davies (2016) From rules to reasons. Hove. Pavillion.



Stop, Collaborate & Listen.

IH BCN ELT Conference 2018

Almost, but not quite a month has passed since the IH Barcelona 2018 conference – time enough for various work and life priorities to bump this talk write-up further down the to-do list. As in previous years, it was a fun event with many thought-provoking talks and workshops. For a broad view of what went on, Chia Suan Chong, one of Saturday’s plenary speakers has a handy write-up for the ETP blog over here. The IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG have also posted a write-up of the 5 LTSIG sessions here.

As for my own talk – it was focussed on developing listening skills. Talks need titles, as we all know, and so a quick google of idioms with the word ‘listen’ in them was my starting point when preparing. I needed something punchy that would at once grab people’s attention and summarise the essential themes of the talk. My googling yielded a number of unsuitable candidates which were swiftly rejected. People wouldn’t listen up, they’d listen with only half an ear, in fact, the whole thing would likely fall on deaf ears, it’d be like talking to a brick wall – nobody would take any heed of a single thing I was saying.

I stumbled across a conference title generator online. You can try it out here. It gave me: Rhetorical Agency in the listening skills of Visual Culture, which didn’t quite hit the mark either.

stop collab ice.png

So in the end, it was Robert Mathew Van Winkle – nom de plume, ‘Vanilla Ice’, famed wordsmith and renaissance man, whose punchy ‘stop, collaborate and listen’ provided the necessary title from which all other parts of the talk would flow.

After all, the talk was about listening – we’d stop and think if commonly adopted approaches to listening are helpful for learners, and we’d share some material developed collaboratively. It made perfect sense. More sense, at least than the rest of Ice’s song. (Where was he back from – this was his first hit? How exactly does a harpoon flow? Why is he sending word to my mother?? So many questions…)

I’ve taken the liberty of adding the original video here, in case you need reminding of or perhaps introducing to its catchy genius:

So, anyway… back to the talk itself.

John Field had given the opening plenary of the conference on Friday, and I was hoping to  share some practical classroom applications of the research findings he presented.


Putting an imperative ‘stop’ into a presentation could be seen as somewhat dogmatic, so I decided to clarify why from the outset – for me, this ‘stop’ is about pausing to think rather than barking out commands. I work as a teacher and teacher trainer, I think it’s useful every now and then to stop and to question the procedures I use, the techniques, the lessons and training sessions and ask ‘is this helpful?’. Both language learners and teachers are on the lookout for techniques and approaches which can help them in their development. In terms of listening, students of mine often come up after class and ask for advice on how they can improve specific aspects of their language. When it comes to listening, the advice is very often do more of it: ‘just practice’, ‘Watch TV in English’, ‘Watch a movie in English’, ‘Listen to the radio’, ‘Listen to podcasts’ etc. While there’s a very good common-sense argument for increasing the amount of time students spend doing something in order to get better at it, the time-on-task principle can be criticized for emphasizing quantity over quality, as Paul Nation readily concedes when justifying his four-strands approach to achieving balance in a language curriculum. Just doing more of something doesn’t necessarily make you better at it. It may be necessary, but it certainly isn’t sufficient.

just keep listening

The kind of advice that can be readily found to help learners improve their listening ability (and by extension their language learning ability) is often exactly this – ‘just keep listening’. The implication is that this will all somehow magically sink in and you’ll get better with little effort. Such advice isn’t really helpful – and even the learners themselves know this – here’s a reply from a skeptical learner to the original post. Their skepticism is well-placed.

just keep listening reply.png

The above was posted 6 years ago. At the time of writing there was no reply.

At the same time as telling people to listen more, there’s the oft-invoked exhortation not to worry. In our rush not to upset our students – or raise affective filters if you prefer – we often attempt to cushion them so much that very little learning or language development can take place in a lesson. The original post above advises ‘don’t worry about understanding everything’ – and this is a phrase I’ve heard many a time (I used to use it myself a great deal) and it doesn’t really help anybody get any better at understanding anything. Of course, I’m not suggesting we all turn into caricatures of evil schoolmasters from a sub-Dickensian period piece, but rather that it might not be a bad idea to admit that what we do in a class is challenging, that we should worry, but that we’ll be able to improve through hard work by the end of a lesson / sequence of lessons.

How can we do this?

Firstly, by focussing a lot more on the substance of the speech stream and decoding, especially, but not exclusively at lower levels. Learners up to B1 are so focussed on segmenting and extracting words from the audio signal and matching these on to their mental lexicon that they have little time for ‘higher’ level processes such as inference of unstated facts, inferring speaker viewpoint and so on.

A simple way of doing this is to pause a recording at perceptually difficult parts and have listeners transcribe what they hear. You could do this on the board, using a simple proforma (like this) or by creating a gapfill from the transcript.

In the talk we looked at 3 possible gapfills to use with the following video:

It’s definitely a challenging text – I’ve used it with B2ish and up. And just the first 40 seconds for close perceptual work – the rest either as homework or pre-class ‘flipped’ input. At the stage of the lesson where the gapfill comes in, we’ve already listened to the video a few times and established the situation and many of the details. Depending on the class size, this is done as a whole group or in pairs/threes with me prompting by asking questions such as ‘what are they talking about?’ ‘How much did you get?’. The questions might be about details in the recording – e.g. ‘when was this?’.

Since a lot of these activities are based on a criticism of the comprehension approach, some people have asked me ‘is that allowed? I though questions were banned!’ – to which my response is ‘yes!’ – the difference here is when the questions are asked how and for what purpose. In summary, then, comprehension questions can be utilised:

When: after at least one listening with no questions set.

How: possibly just orally – keeping to the spoken mode, and not always confirming answers.

Why: to gauge how much the learners understood, why and where they didn’t understand so that you can focus on specific parts of the recording afterwards. More of a diagnostic approach than validating correct answers shouted out/written down.

The procedure for the lesson follows very much that advocated by Field. Here’s a slide stolen from his IATEFL 2017 presentation, but also easily extractable from Listening in the Language Classroom.

JF procedure.png

So, bearing that in mind, we looked at three different gapfill tasks and decided which would be best for this final part focussing on perceptual difficulties. [I’ve done a similar thing with a different video elsewhere – see here for another example.]

Here they are: which would you use?

This lovely gapfill?

gapfill 1

This one?

gapfill 2

…or this one?

gapfill 3

The one I used was the last one. The other two are focussed on either detail(s) [gapfill 2] or lexis [gapfill 1]. These are important things to focus on, but not my focus for this stage of the lesson. The third gapfill looks at parts of the recording featuring words my students know, but which are pronounced in surprising ways (the usual suspects being elision, catenation, assimilation).

Where the students find it difficult to write down the missing words, we can stop, pause, replay and read ourselves from the tapescript (with natural linking but slowing down and speeding up our voices like human taperecorders!). One advantage of using a apped tapescript is that the teacher can focus on areas likely to come up again frequently in later listening – e.g. the last gap above ‘a whole lot of’ has caused many problems for learners up to C1 level for me and appeared in previous and later lessons as an issue in chunks like ‘a lot of’an awful lot of’a load of’a portion of’ etc. Such phrases can be embedded into later microlistening/dictation activities for further practice.

Once the script is complete, it’s worth playing a final time to give a chance to ‘hear’ the words once more in context. This is important for motivation and often leads to a nodding ‘now I can hear it’ appreciation. Of course that won’t always happen, which is why it’s important to return to exercises like this over a series of classes. It also serves as a model to those students who want to practise outside of class but don’t know how to beyond the ‘just listen more’ approach outlined earlier. With an interesting video and a tapescript, they can follow a very similar procedure themselves.


Collaborating with other teachers is a good way of increasing the interest in this area, and reducing your own workload. To this end, as I’ve described before, I set up a Facebook group where teachers (often me, sometimes 30 minutes before a class!) can request soundbites from each other on current topical events. For example, with the detox video posted above, two kind contributors (so far) gave their own views on detoxing. I’ve used these in follow-up homework for some groups, jigsaw listening on mobile devices for another, or just playing straight off my mobile in a one-to-one setting. The fact that these are real people from various parts of the world has often added a level of motivation for the students.

This is building up into a nice crowd-sourced library of short unscripted audio texts and (sometimes) tapescripts which can be used by anyone however they see fit. It’s also had the added advantage of allowing a space to reflect on difficulties our students have with listening and how we as teachers approach it.

If you’d like to join, the group is here. Anything you post can be used by others in the group and you can put in requests for audio responses on anything you may be focussed on in your classes.


That was about it for the talk, and I’ve got a class to dash off to now. In the words of Vanilla Ice, then:

Yo man, let’s get out of here
Word to your mother.


Grasping The Nettle

IATEFL Glasgow 2017

grasping the nettle.png

It was a good conference for listening and phonology, this. Standout sessions from John Field, Sheila Thorn, Richard Cauldwell, Mark Hancock. Sandy Millin’s given a great roundup over here, as ever.

I was pleased to have a good audience for the final session on Friday – including some of the very people who inspired me to get more into listening and receptive phonology in the first place. As usual, the original ideas in the talk were rarely my own. Even the title – it’s lifted from an article by Richard Cauldwell.

john field

John Field looks like he’s about to hit me. He’s not. He’s a very nice man.

After a run through the background literature, and stressing the importance at looking at what causes perceptual difficulties for second language listeners, we looked at a timeless TEFL classic – the gapfill.

I often use transcription in listening lessons. I’ve done so myself in Spanish and with very little in the way of support – sometimes using a grid-type format as I’ve outlined elsewhere. At other times, I’d want a little more focus on the aspects that cause decoding problems for students, and for this a simple gapfill is ideal.

When creating material for listening, we can often focus on many things other than the speech stream itself and what causes great problems for our students. In the workshop, I shared three different gapfills focussing on different areas. We watched a short clip from a BBC show about India going cashless.

Here’s the tapescript – which bits would you blank out?

tapescript cashless


The ‘Which gapfill?’ challenge.

Gapfills I would have made in the past would often focus on details:

gapfill 2 detail

This is fine, but it’s testing whether listeners have picked up the details of the listening text. I wouldn’t generally use this any more in my classes – I find it more effective for students to ask each other and the teacher if they’re unsure of gist or general details.

The next gapfill looked at something different:


This one focusses mainly on lexis, and again, is probably not one that I would immediately go for if my focus was on developing learners’ perceptual abilities. It could be used, but would require some careful handling.

The final one we looked at is what I would tend to use most these days. It’s worth saying that I would use this after the class had listened a couple of times in order to extract the main ideas and details (by simply playing through and having them discuss what they think these are – clarifying and replaying at their request).

gapfill phon and answers

As the slide heading suggests, I would focus on what’s perceptually difficult. In other words, rather than focus on unusual words or grammar, I would focus on unusual or difficult soundshapes of familiar language. You can’t focus on absolutely everything, of course, so I’d prioritise. Areas I look out for would be function words – those that don’t carry prominence and can get easily missed by the second language learner. Also, what Cauldwell calls ‘squeeze zones’ (e.g. ‘Now I want to find out’) – where many words are rapidly uttered in a non-prominent area of a tone unit. I’d also focus on high-frequency clusters wherever they appear – simply because they have high surrender value – it’s likely the listener will hear them again in spoken English.

Here’s a second example from the talk – this time from a podcast about 3D printing from the Naked Scientists.


Which areas would cause problems for your students?

Here’s what I focussed on with mine:

3dprint answers.png

We looked at the process we need to go through as teachers when doing this: essentially sitting down with the audio and a tapescript and listening to predict what decoding problems students will have:

▪Find / record your text – always consider needs and interest of students

▪Chop it – audacity, tubechop etc. See here for how.

▪Listen with tapescript and a highlighter

▪Make sure you mark times on your tapescript for replaying

▪Predict what they’ll have problems with and prepare for this.

▪Prepare for different levels of T control and intervention.

▪Consider high frequency clusters – something that’s likely to come up again.

▪Focus more on function words.

Once we’ve done the receptive work, we’ll often want to follow up on the content of a listening, so we looked at some activities that do this while keeping a phonological focus rather than moving on to lexis or discussion (not that I’d never do this, just that my intention is sometimes to focus very much on the sounds)

We looked at minimal pair chunk bingo (Catchy title, eh?) I’ve talked about elsewhere

minimal pair chunk bingo pic.png

We also looked at how we can adapt microdictation tasks to try to generalise the features of multi-word chunks. Here’s one that followed the Naked Scientist’s task.

Students can ‘race’ to complete their grids on the left, with the teacher dictating 3 or 4 word clusters of a similar pattern to those picked out of the listening. For example, here we have ‘layer by layer’ in the listening. The teacher could dictate ‘one by one’ ‘bit by bit’ ‘step by step’. Or from the listening we have ‘and the reason it’s’ – the teacher can dictate ‘and the way it’s’, ‘and the place it’s’ and so on. Students have to listen and write the chunk in the correct row on their grids. Once it’s all filled in they can use their grids in pairwork games like Connect Four, or battleships.

Time was running away from me at this stage, so I had to drop the Masterchef lesson – I’ll write it up properly and post materials here in due course when I get a chance.

We did just have time to have a quick look at crowdsourced microlistenings. I used three clips collected from the audience earlier this year at the IH Barcelona conference. As before, the key task was to listen and decide what question they were answering.

The actual question was ‘what’s your comfort food?’, but when using this with students, I wouldn’t worry too much about about getting this exactly right ‘what’s your favourite food?’ works just as well. I’d have students listen several times until they could work out and transcribe the exact words each speaker used. The second one above talks about ‘twiglets’ – I had to listen a few times myself to extract that one. Kudos to Anthony Gaughan who got it on the first listen in the session!

There was no time to actually record our own, so we pretty much wrapped things up there.

Here’s the slides from the talk:

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.

Lesson 1: Just 2 questions

Aim: Develop listening skills for gist and detail, work on decoding speech stream


Where the lesson came from:

Taking a well-deserved break from our computer screens, we went out on a delightful daytrip to the Priorat region in Catalunya. Fresh air, olive oil tasting, hiking, food, wine – lovely stuff. Part of the trip included a tour of an olive oil co-operative. Our eyes were delighted by conveyor belts, threshing machines, big steel vats while our ears were bombarded with descriptions of processes, facts, numbers and statistics. It was all rather reminiscent of an IELTS test (other proficiency tests are available). I spoke about this at IATEFL in Birmingham this year – you can find the slides here.


The lessons from learning we took from this olive oil process listening were:

  1. The importance of pairwork (surprise surprise!)
  2. L1 use was, er, useful
    • pretask: raising our awareness of the process by googling olive oil production on our phones before the visit
    • during task: guessing translations, comparing ideas
    • and post-task: when researching and recording vocabulary.
  3. We wanted to learn new words and were motivated to follow up with self-set study of vocabulary
  4. We had a desire for many repetitions – not always satisfied
  5. We had two basic questions:
    • What did she just say?
    • What does that mean?


This fed into how I next taught a listening class.

The most important lesson from learning above was probably the fifth. Instead of comprehension questions, these two key questions – What did (they) say? What does that mean? – would guide the process. Since this was a class and not real-life, there were naturally some differences. There would be opportunity for repeat listenings, and this was to be dictated by the students themselves asking for repetitions of sections they wished. Another key difference was the dramatic reduction of a pre-listening stage. In order for the students to attend to decoding the speech stream, I didn’t want to build context up so much that it negated any need to actually listen to the text. The lead-in to the listening itself was just a picture of two people. I told the students they’d just switched on the TV and seen this image and to guess what they were talking about. Here it is:


What do you think?

My students variously gave ‘nuclear weapons’ ‘terrorism’ ‘refugees’

Watch the clip here.

(It’s about tourism in Iran)



  1. Students listen and tick how many subtopics they notice – this isn’t fixed – it could be 2, it could be 5, it’s up to the listeners.
  2. Students compare ideas then listen again – this time naming the subtopics.
  3. Students compare and listen a third time, noting down with symbols where they want to listen again, or when they’re not sure they understood.
  4. Students compare and request specific subsections to be repeated.
  5. Teacher instructs students to transcribe specific short sections – utterances of up to 10 words.
  6. This may take many repeats. The teacher can slow down the recording here (use VLC to do this) or read from the tapescript – being careful to retain features of connected speech, but can still slow down the rate of speech. Other teacher support options are giving the number of words (helping sts to ‘segment’ the speech stream), giving first letters of said words and so on. Once students have the ‘answer’ it’s a good idea to play the original video again at original speed so they get a chance to ‘hear’ it.
  7. Once your listeners have had a thoroughly good listening workout and are looking a little tired (which may take longer than you would suspect) move on to a post-listening task of your choice. This particular lesson lent itself well to discussion tasks around the topic of tourism and a kind of replication task where students applied the interview questions / subtopics to their context – in our case tourism in Barcelona.


Here’s a more visual run-through:



We trialled this proforma and sequence with a few different classes. The video was engaging and the learners were very keen to transcribe the actual words they heard – even if they were comfortable with the gist and detail – they really wanted to get to grips with decoding.

We also tried out the proforma and lesson sequence ourselves, using a short  Spanish language video about Mexican culture, painting and so on (not a topic I know a lot about). This led to a refining of the original proforma, so if you want to try out this sequence, you can download the documents here.


Finally, some key reflections from this first lesson:


  1. The text can be very challenging, but with adequate support, needn’t be demotivating.
  2. Learners need a little ‘training’ in how to use the proforma. Clear instructions about noting subtopics etc are vital. I always used a football example: If the main topic is ‘Football’ (again, not a topic I know a lot about), subtopics could be ‘Teams’ ‘Man of the match’ ‘League position’ etc.
  3. Listeners are happy to repeat a small chunk MANY times, but eventually will need ‘the answer’. For ourselves, this was the transcript of the Spanish video. For our students this came in the form of teacher support – see point 6 in the procedure above.
  4. Reminding your class to be silent when transcribing is happening is important.
  5. One minute is plenty for intensive study like this.
  6. ‘Ghostwords’ were a common sticking point requiring teacher support. For the Iran listening, ‘we’ve seen a rise, first of all this year’ led many listeners to hear ‘festival’ This is one that really benefits from classroom focus, as it crops up frequently. Focussing on high frequency chunks like this is clearly helpful. Incidentally, we had the same problem with the Spanish listening – where ‘llego a ser’ was heard ‘something(?) hacer’. This relates to something Richard Cauldwell has called ‘the decoding gap‘.
  7. Accent can cause problems. For this lesson, the presenter’s pronunciation of one key word – Iran – caused one of the classes great difficulty. In this lesson, immediate teacher support was useful, but it highlighted the need for a focus on accent. ‘Tuning in’ to accent can be a useful activity (e.g. having listeners hear the speaker for a period of time before actually conducting any comprehension work – an idea picked up from Annie McDonald’s IATEFL talk from last year.

Listening proforma: Click here to download

Click interview transcript to download

IATEFL Birmingham 2016

IATEFL Birmingham 2016birminghamlogo-1.jpg

Developing Listening Skills: 

Lessons From Learning

Shaun Sweeney

It was a challenge to get through much in 20 minutes, as there were three of us squeezed into a forum on listening skills materials.

I was chuffed, though,  to be in a forum with someone like Annie McDonald, whose work I admire a good deal. She opened proceedings with a great talk on techniques and materials to use to develop listening skills. capture20160426215134563Her kitten earworm is still very much in my ears – as I’m sure it is yours if you were in attendance. ‘I know a little bit about kittens…..’ If you haven’t visited her (and Mark Hancock’s) site yet, you really must. If you have already, you should probably go back anyway, even if only for a bit. Little bit. A little bit…

Lesley Kendall from Durham University followed, outlining her creation of a set of EAP listening and speaking materials from scratch. The paucity of decent listening materials for university students on pre and in-sessional courses is something that plagues many of us who work in the area, so it was good to hear how Lesley tackled the issue. Now if only they were published somewhere…

Following on from this, I gave a brief run through of some of the alternatives to comprehension question-based listening activities we’ve been developing and trialling with students and trainees here in Barcelona. More on this in the ‘lessons from learning’ posts – I’ll be adding more resources as time allows. For the time being, here are the slides. You can download them by clicking on the ‘settings’ cog.

Lessons from Learning: Context

Shaun Sweeney

A little bit of context:DSCF5070.JPG

I moved from Italy to Spain, or more accurately from Milan to Barcelona, just over 2 years ago. By this time, I should be quite good at Spanish, right? Well, sadly, like many of us in this profession, I have to put in a lot of work hours to keep the wolves from the door and this has perhaps impacted on20150816_161153 the amount of time I’ve had to spend on studying and learning a new language. I spend a lot of time in the classroom, reading lesson plans, giving feedback, moderating forums – all of it in English, my first language. So I haven’t had the opportunity to really engage and interact in Spanish (let alone Catalan) enough to see striking improvements.

Or maybe I’m just lazy and making excuses – you decide.

Either way, I’m in a good position to experience the feeling many of our learners go through when trying to make sense of episodic, sporadic L2 input. This goes for all aspects of the language learning process, and it’s of course something of a conceit to separate out skills such as listening  from systems like phonology and lexis, but being at a low stage of language development, bombarded daily with messages in at least one foreign tongue and trying to make heads, tails, caps, cabezas, colas or creus of them all has lead me to focus on listening.

Like many of us, I’m sure, I’ve been dissatisfied for a while with the way listening skills development is still often approached – a two stage comprehension model which fails to dig very deeply into the processes at work and which doesn’t do much more than test comprehension, rather than teach how to listen or develop listening ability. I should stress that I’m not being new or revolutionary in my insight here – these things have been said time and again by many others, and with much more academic rigour and eloquence than you’ll find here from me.


For instance, you’ll no doubt have read Scott Thornbury’s entertaining post about the travelling gnome – and if you haven’t, you must. It may be overstated somewhat, but I’m sure we can recognise the key features of what  ‘doing a listening’ all too often means. That was in 2011.



John Field published his excellent book Listening in the Language Classroom three years before that, in 2008. He challenged us to reconsider an approach to teaching listening that relied on comprehension questions. This after numerous articles outlining how to focus more on the underlying processes of listening, rather than the product of correct answers.

Examples of dissatisfaction with what we do when teaching listening can be found even further back – take these quotes from Sheerin almost 30 years ago now, in 1987:

Listening comprehension lessons are all too often a series of listening tests in which tapes are played, comprehension exercises are attempted by the learners, and feedback is given in the form of the ‘right’ answer. In lessons such as this, listening is not being taught but tested.

In the rest of her paper, Sheerin highlights the importance of building up context and focussing on discourse features of the text being used (one wonders if it was the teacher’s or learner’s choice to hear a recording about how to make paper aeroplanes, but anyway). Sheerin concludes (my emphasis in bold) by stating that:

there is still woefully little attention paid to what happens when the whole process goes awry and the learner fails to understand. I know of no listening course which suggests how to diagnose the cause of failure, or how to prevent similar failures in the future. If we are claiming to teach listening comprehension, then it is imperative that we provide more help for learners than merely telling them that their answers are wrong, and the right answers are X, Y and Z. We need instead to consider very carefully the nature of the discourse in order to try to ascertain what difficulties it presents, and what sort of information or training the learner might need in order to understand similar discourse types in the future.

When we bear all this in mind, it’s surprising perhaps to see the endurance of the classic comprehension model with two or at most three listenings – first for gist and then for certain details deemed important by the teacher. It has its place, yes. It’s effective for assessing listening, sure. But why do we stick with it when it comes to attempting to develop listening skills?

Perhaps because it’s relatively easy to produce a set of comprehension questions. Perhaps because we teach for exams which have just such a set of comprehension questions. And once we have a set of questions, it’s easy, or seems easy to ‘do a listening’. To play through a couple of times, get the students to compare answers and then reveal said answers on the board, a projection or in an answer key. And then what? The students who didn’t get the answers will sometimes diligently scribble them all down  – focussing on the product rather than developing the process. I’ve always found this mildly amusing – as if writing the correct answer will help in any way now that we’re moving on to discuss our opinions of the text. It’s over at this stage. From the point of view of developing skills, there’s often no real need for them to write down anything. But they clearly want to have answers. And I empathise – I want to have answers when I’m listening to a foreign language text in or outside of the classroom. And no doubt so do you. But answers to pre-set questions are at times irrelevant to our own individual curiosity and our own individual skills development.
792px-StateLibQld_2_179487_Doris_Auguste_Heindorff_listening_to_a_gramophone,_New_Farm,_Brisbane,_1903-1913So, perhaps the key thing to do is to dispense entirely with the set of pre-set written questions in favour of a learner-led exploration of the listening text. Let me once again stress that this is nothing new (again see e.g. Field, 2008) but it seems to me that this idea has yet to take hold. We appear to crave something to ‘hang’ our listening lessons on. Takling this problem was the focus of the ‘lessons from learning’ thread devoted to listening here. We decided to go with a simple proforma to aid a listening sequence. The first attempt was with the Iran Tourism lesson.