Lessons from Learning

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.