Grasping The Nettle

IATEFL Glasgow 2017

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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:

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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: