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.


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.