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. To be added 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.


Back to skoool!

It’s Sunday night and for many of us, classes start tomorrow. Fancy some free material? How about a collaborative TD project for the new year? Read (or skip) to the end for both!

It’s that time of year again. A new calendar year. Will it bring new hopes? New aspirations? New classes? New students? All of the above? I find this time of year often feels familiar. I have the nagging feeling that I could have prepared for it a little earlier. Or that I’ve forgotten how to teach. I’ll doubtless have a sleep interrupted several times to check if I’ve slept through my alarm by mistake. Still, at least there’ll be some friendly faces in the staffroom tomorrow morning.

But then, I won’t be going into a staffroom. Not for a few days yet. Most of my classes are in company or online. Depending on the time of year, I find myself working something like an itinerant salesman, flogging my wares to potential clients. Either that or tapping my way to RSI in front of a computer screen – not quite how I imagined TEFL would pan out. This does have its advantages, of course. Online work means less time spent commuting and with the face-to-face stuff I’m lucky enough to be able to cycle there most of the time. I see new parts of the city. I meet students from all walks. I see inside a range of companies in various locations. One place I rarely am at the moment, though, is a staffroom.


old staffrooom pic


This is a bit of a shame – I miss the halcyon days of racing the length of a London basement on wheely chairs against colleagues. Or the communal cursing of a jammed photocopier. Or the printed picture of the DOS with a ‘big brother is watching you’ slogan. As well as the letting off of various steams, there was often the free-swapping of material, ideas and advice.  In a staffroom there’s also a wealth of different voices and opinions you can record and take into class with you.

I used to have a dictaphone that I used for speaking examination work. It was a very high tech system where we’d record in MP3 format out in the field, then upload onto our computers at home, transfer to a USB stick and then pop in an envelope to be sent to central processing. I like to imagine it sat in a metal filing cabinet like this:


The sort you could then upcycle into a fancy plant potter like this:


But I digress…

The dictaphone was ours to keep (the fringe benefits of TEFL, eh?) and use as we saw fit when off-duty. I used mine to collect some audio snippets from colleagues from time to time that could be used in class. I also had a mini microphone I’d acquired at the turn of the century in Japan. I used it with my minidisc recorder.  I would occasionally surprise people by poking the foam-covered sound catcher under their noses and demand a soundbite. Those days are gone – we now have mobile phones that can capture top-quality audio without the necessity of all that gubbins. And we can send audio and video via instant messenger pretty much instantly.

And that instant messenger is a handy tool. Why, just the other week there was news of another tax avoidance scheme – the sort of news to annoy and enjoy. I have a group of tax lawyers who’ll lap it up, I thought. I had a nice video from the Guardian and a friend who works for HMRC who I could ask for an opinion from. Perfect. I fired off a message asking for his opinion. He’s not got back to me yet. Then there are my uni students studying digital marketing. A close friend of mine works for PR for TV advertising. He’s a perfect match – I whatsapped him requesting a quick soundbite on why TV advertising isn’t dead. He hasn’t done it yet but he said he would. This was a month back and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion he’s not going to deliver on that one. My teacher and ex-teacher friends, however, get back to me all the time. They seem to understand that the idea for the lesson occurred to me very close in time to the actual lesson itself. So when I found a nice video on Vox about open plan offices being over-rated, I quickly messaged a couple of ex-colleagues for contributions on things they thought were over-rated. They got back to me in a matter of minutes! Happy days.

Free lesson material!

Here’s the Vox video. I used the last section only. My students had recently moved premises and were adjusting to their new office space, so it was a nice fit when I saw it pop up in my Facebook feed.

I grabbed the tapescript from the closed captions (you can do this for any youtube video to save yourself some transcription time – to see how, click here)

If you think this might work for your class and want the final tapescript and material I used, it’s here: Openplan is over transcript gapfill. After initial listening for global understanding we focussed on some perceptually tricky bits using the gapfill and then followed up with some receptive phonology work (dictation exercises which then turned into a battleships grid for S-S practice). Similar procedure to the one described in a previous post under ‘then what?’.

Possible tasks

As well as discussion tasks (you’ll notice I dictated discussion questions if you see the end of the word doc), you can have students work in groups to redesign their office/classroom/school.

Follow up

Lexically, my students were attracted to the word ‘overrated’ in the tapescript, and this also tends to bear fruit in discussion, so I focussed on this when harvesting my virtual staffroom’s audio opinions. It ended up being in a later lesson (two for the price of one – yay!) but deciding on what was under or over-rated was a good springboard. Here are a couple of examples, and the tapescript at the end.

Rich isn’t a fan of Love Actually:

Ri takes issue with the question itself:

She’s got a point. Here’s the tapescript – lots of potential to focus on spoken discourse features, receptive phonology or lexical stuff.

Ri and Rich tapescript highlighteddocx

What about you? What do you think’s over-rated?

An invitation to a New Year staffroom

If you think that material would work well in your classroom, do you fancy joining a group of likeminded teachers sharing audio? Make your TD resolution easy – all you need to do is commit to posting a video/news article plus a question for the other members to answer. If you happen to have a tapescript, so much the better, but all we really need to start with is the audio clip. Natural, unrehearsed audio is what we’re after (or video – it’s easy enough if you’ve got a smartphone). So I’ve set up a facebook group.  Who’s in?











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: