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.



‘Tis the season

…to be preparing end-of-term assessments?…to be writing reports?…to be casting around for ideas on how to suitably round off the calendar year with your class?


Cagatio – every kid’s favourite present-pooing Christmas log!

That’s how my season feels. And in an attempt to get into the spirit of Christmas, I thought I’d share some editable materials that might work in your class. I don’t know if they’ll work in mine yet – I’ll find out in a couple of hours and possibly come back and let you know!


I have mainly adult classes and I’m in Catalonia, where they celebrate in all manner of wonderful (and somewhat weird and scatalogical ways it might be added). My classes generally want to focus on the topical, and at the time of writing, Christmas is just that.

Here are some audio clips based around Christmas. I cajoled and blackmailed various friends and colleagues into sending them via instant messenger. The tapescripts are included, so you can download and make your own listening and language resources as you see fit.

You’ll probably have better ideas, but I’ll probably follow this kind of sequence:

1. a gist listening – what question did I get them to answer? (The actual question is relatively unimportant – I’d accept anything close enough.)

2. Some detailed listening and decoding work by replaying and pausing where they request/look confused. Replay and have them transcribe (lots of nice high-frequency chunks my classes have been focussing on in there – ‘kind of’, ‘that kind of thing’, ‘dunno’, ‘just’…)

3. Study the tapescript and listen a final time.

4. Focus on language aspects they’re curious about and highlight some interesting grammatical structures (e.g. ‘get to do sth’ – both speakers in the first 3 clips use this a lot – why?)

5. Have them answer the same questions posed to the speakers here.

6. er..that’s it. A bit of cake and cava, maybe? Here’s hoping they’ll bring some in. But not so much we end up like the speaker in ‘christmas4’ clip below.

Here’s the material:

And speaker 2:

Speaker 2, extra nugget:

Speaker 3, excess Christmas spirit:

and the tapescripts:

Download Tapescripts.




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:

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.