Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘listening’

Why should they care?

In lessons I have observed, it is often a little step that is missing that could make a real difference to the students’ engagement in a particular activity. By asking yourself ‘Why should they care?’ at every stage of the planning process, it’s easy to make little tweaks that could help students to get more involved.*

Do you recognise any of these situations?


You ask students to discuss a question like this in pairs:

Tell your partner what you did at the weekend.

They each monologue for about 30 seconds, and the whole activity peters out after less than two minutes. Neither student really listened to their partner, and apart from saying a few words in English, they haven’t really got anything out of the activity.

Why should they care?

Here are a few little tweaks that might avoid this situation.

  • Give them a listening task too. These can also be used as questions for feedback after the activity.
    ‘Find something your partner did that you didn’t.’ > Feedback = ask one or two students to say what their partner did and why they didn’t do it.
    ‘Decide whose weekend was more boring.’ > Feedback = put your hand up if you had the most boring weekend.
  • Add challenge.
    Students have 15 seconds to tell their partner what they did – time it strictly. Afterwards they change partners and tell someone else what their partner did. Give them thinking time first to decide/rehearse what to say in that time.
    Students can only say two sentences before their partner speaks. Give an example, and make sure you include questions!
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Students mingle, speaking to as many others as possible. They have to find one person who did the same three things as them/did none of the things they did/did something they wish they’d done.
    Play Chinese whispers with two teams racing to correctly write down one thing each person in their team did.
  • Give them some functional language you want them to use.
    ‘No, really? Why did you do that?’
    ‘That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’

If you want more ideas for how to adapt speaking activities, I’ve got a whole e-book of them!


You ask your students to write a blog post about a place they want to visit. Some of them write a paragraph, others write a whole page.

Why should they care?

  • Get them interested in the topic first.
    Talk about the most popular places a tourist can visit in the students’ countries.
    Get them to decide three things which make a place worth visiting, then compare the list with a partner and narrow it down to three things from their combined lists.
  • Show them what you expect from them.
    Give them a framework, e.g. Paragraph one = a description of the place, including at least three pieces of information about it. Paragraph two = why they want to visit it. Paragraph three = why they haven’t visited it yet/when they plan to visit it. > This can also be used for marking if necessary, giving you an objective way of deciding if they get full marks for content.
    Show a couple of examples from real blogs.
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Allow students to choose if they want to work alone or in pairs.
    Get students to write a paragraph, then pass it on to the next student/pair who write the next paragraph, then pass it on again for the final paragraph.
  • Give students other choices.
    They could write about a place they don’t want to visit/the last interesting place they visited/the most boring place they’ve ever visited.
    Let them decide on the format: a blog post, a poster, a newspaper article, a comic strip…


There is a three-minute audio recording about straw bales in the course book your school requires you to use. 30 seconds in, the students are clearly incredibly bored, and starting to fidget.

A straw bale

Image from Pixabay

Why should they care?

  • Use an image.
    Show them the picture above. Give them a minute to imagine this is real – they think about what they can see/hear/smell/touch/taste. Then tell a partner.
    Give them the image in the middle of a piece of paper. They should draw the bigger picture, then compare it to a partner. Do they have similar pictures?
  • Set them a challenge.
    Get them to think of a minimum of five different things they could use a straw bale for, then compare to a partner.
    Somebody has dumped a straw bale in front of the school. It’s too heavy to lift easily. How will they move it?
  • Make sure they have a clear task to do while they’re listening.
    The first time they listen, they could check predictions they’ve made before listening.
    Get students to come up with three questions they want the answers to. They can be as simple as ‘Why am I listening to a text about straw bales?’ 🙂
  • Use the audio in other ways.
    Break it into 30-second chunks. After each chunk, students should tell a partner what they remember. They could also come up with one question they think will be answer in the next section.
    Pause the audio at a particular point and ask the students what they think the next three words are. You can decide on these points before the lesson if you want to focus on particular pieces of language. This can build students’ confidence when listening to English if you choose chunks of language students are already familiar with.


There’s an article about gender pay gaps in the news, which you think is an important issue and should be discussed with your students. Some students have previously said they would like to read ‘real’ things in class, but in the lesson the students just aren’t interested in the article, and you end up moving on to something else after a few minutes.

Why should they care?

  • Deal with part of the topic first.
    Have pieces of paper around the room, each with the beginning of a statement. Students walk around and write as many sentences using these beginnings as possible in two minutes. Examples might be ‘Women are…’ ‘Men are…’ ‘Women can’t…’ ‘Men can’t…’ ‘It’s important for women to…’ ‘It’s important for men to…’
    Ask students to list five jobs where people get paid a lot of money, and five where they don’t get paid much. They compare lists with other students, then decide whether they think more men or women do those jobs.

Gender pay gap word cloud based on

  • Use a word cloud. allows you put a whole text into their creator.
    Students have five minutes to write as many sentences as they can using the words in the word cloud. These become predictions – they read the text to check what was included.
    They choose one big word, one medium word, and one small word, then predict how these are connected to the story. You could also give them the headline to help.
  • Reflect real life.
    Show students the headline. Ask them if this is something they would read about in their own language. Encourage them to discuss why or why not. If they say they would, ask them to read it. If they wouldn’t, ask them to choose another article from the BBC homepage (give them a time limit). In both cases, get them to tell a partner what they think they’ll still remember about the article tomorrow.
    We often read online articles by skimming them quickly as we scroll down the page. If you have a projector in your classroom, replicate that process. Scroll down relatively slowly, but fast enough that students can’t read everything. When you get to the bottom, minimise the window and ask students to tell their partner what they saw, what they understood, and what (if anything) they’d like to go back and read in more detail.
  • Work with the language.
    Ask students to find phrases which describe companies or replace the name of the company, e.g. ‘major companies’, ‘organisations with 250 or more workers’, ‘the carrier’, ‘the firm’. They discuss why these phrases were selected in each case.
    Get them to list five different sentences with a percentage in them, e.g. ‘Many financial firms feature in the list, including the Co-op Bank – where mean hourly pay is 30.3% lower for women.’ or ‘It said 7% of apprentices last year were men, compared with zero in 2016, while 41% of roles involving helping at children’s tea time were filled by men – compared with 25% in 2016.’ They can analyse the structures these percentages appear in, e.g. ‘X is % lower for Y.’ or ‘% of X were blah blah blah – compared with % in year’

Grammar points

You’ve recently taught students how to use the passive in news articles. In a follow-up piece of writing, there is no evidence of passives at all.

Why should they care?

  • Contextualise.
    Make sure that example sentences you use are all taken from clear contexts, not plucked at random from thin air. Context can really help students to understand new grammar.
    After doing a practice exercise, ask students to choose three sentences. For each sentence they should add a minimum of two sentences before and two after, making a longer paragraph or dialogue. They could leave a space where their chosen sentence appeared for other students to remember what it was.
  • Get them to notice how it’s used outside the classroom.
    Ask students to open an article from English-language news at random. They should underline all of the passive structures they can find. Afterwards, they can compare usage of the passive in different kinds of article – for example, is it used more in articles describing a crime? A sports event? An election?
    Send students on a treasure hunt. Ask them to find one example in the news of each kind of passive you have studied, e.g. present simple passive, past simple passive, present perfect passive. They should find as many as they can and write out the full sentence, all within a specified time, for example 15 minutes.
  • Compare and contrast.
    Give students pairs of sentences in the active and the passive, with each sentence in the pair conveying the same information. Ask them to choose their ‘favourite’ sentence in the pair and say why. For example: ‘The dog ate the cake.’ ‘The cake was eaten by the dog.’ ‘Somebody stole my bag.’ ‘My bag was stolen.’
    Show students a 2-3 sentence paragraph including a passive structure. Ask them to translate it into another language they know. They then use the translation to analyse differences between how the idea of a passive is expressed in their own language(s). For example, emphasis on the object might be conveyed through a change in word order but no change in the verb form.
  • Add it in.
    Give students a short news article in pairs. Ask them to add three passive sentences into the article, wherever they like. They can then compare the results to another group.
    Tell students you expect to see a minimum of two passive structures in the news article you want them to write. Include this in criteria for peer checking before the article is handed in.


You introduced a range of words connected to clothes in your last lesson, like ‘button’, ‘zip’, ‘sleeve’. During a revision activity at the beginning of this lesson, the students need a lot of prompting and they can’t really remember any of them accurately.

Why should they care?

  • Find out what they know.
    If you’re working on vocabulary from a particular lexical set, do a board race first. In this case, divide students into two teams. They race to write as many clothes words on the board as possible in five minutes. Teams switch and work out the points for their opponents: one point for completely correct, half a point if there is a spelling mistake.
    Show them pictures of clothes – three or four items is enough. Ask them to list as many things they can see in the pictures as possible. Point to various things and ask ‘What’s this?’ to prompt students to notice features like the buttons or sleeves, not just the items of clothing themselves.
  • Help them to notice the gaps in their knowledge.
    Display all of the words you’re planning to teach on the board. Ask students to draw pictures for as many of them as possible, but not to worry if they don’t know any of them – they will by the end of the lesson! To reinforce this, repeat the same activity at the end of the lesson and point out how much they’ve improved.
    Give them the first and last letters of the words, like this ‘b_____’, ‘z__p’, ‘s_____e’. Ask them to complete the words to describe parts of clothes. Again, they shouldn’t worry if they don’t know them.
  • Add extra processing.
    Don’t just ask students to read words from a flashcard, show them the picture and get them to remember the word. For extra challenge, they could then spell it. It’s better to do this chorally or in pairs/groups, rather than putting individual students on the spot, as this may affect their confidence if they can’t do it or increase their fear if they think they might be next.
    Display all of the pictures on the board/floor. Students should write as many of the words as possible in their notebooks, then compare the spellings with the vocabulary list. To add challenge, you could get them to switch notebooks with somebody else for the checking stage.
  • Make it real.
    Ask them to choose a word which is new for them. They should think of one time they would expect to say/write the word, and one time they would expect to read/hear it. For example, they might say ‘button’ if they’ve lost a button, or read it in a craft magazine which tells them how to make a teddy bear.
    They choose three new words they want to remember, and write them into short sentences connected to their lives, e.g. ‘I’ve lost three buttons from my coat.’. As an extension, they could then google the sentences and see if they exist on the internet anywhere.

All of the vocabulary tips can be connected to the idea of ‘hooks’. This is a metaphor I use to describe how you remember new information. The more hooks you hang something on, the more likely it is to stay where you put it. When you think about learning new vocabulary (or grammar for that matter), you need to give the students as many hooks as possible to ‘hang’ the new vocabulary from and keep it in their heads.


When you ask students to repeat sentences after you as part of a drill, they sound really bored and/or refuse to do it.

Why should they care?

  • Do you care?
    Record yourself doing some pronunciation work. Listen back to it. What do you think your tone of voice and body language conveys to the students? What does your intonation sound like?
    Before you drill anything, imagine somebody is going to ask ‘What was the point of that?’ Do you have a good answer for them?
  • Play.
    Experiment with different tones of voice, speeds, characters (the Queen, Arnold Schwarzenegger…), positions (standing, sitting, superhero poses)…
    A really popular activity at my school is a stickman drill, where students are in teams. Each team gets a stickman, with one or two extra features of their choice, like a hat or an umbrella. Each team repeats the sentence. Whoever the teacher decides did it best can remove part of their opponents’ stickmen. The aim is to have the most complete stickman by the end of the game. [I still haven’t actually tried this, but I’ve seen it used many times!]
  • Add challenge.
    Don’t just ask students to repeat the same sentence again and again. Get them to change parts of it. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph, you could change the verb (ask), the person (students), the infinitive phrase (to repeat the same sentence) or the time adverbial (again and again). This is known as a substitution drill. Students or the teacher can decide what changes.
    Use key words or images as prompts, so students have to remember the language without having it all in front of them.
  • Add extra support.
    Give students a minute to read and remember the language you’re going to drill, then close their books during the drilling process.
    Break down longer sentences into smaller chunks, then put them back into the full sentence. This is known as backchaining if you do it from the end of the sentence.

*I recognise that a lot of the tweaks I’ve suggested above may more appropriately answer the question ‘What can I do about it?’, but I find the phrasing ‘Why should they care?’ adds a bit more impact when I’m asking my teachers!

Have you tried any of these tweaks? What other little tweaks do you use to encourage students to care more about activities in class?

P.S. This blogpost has been in the back of my mind for a while now, and reading this post about lead ins by CELTA train is what made me actually write it today 🙂


Lessons you can watch online

For a lot of teachers, it can be hard to find the time or the opportunity to observe and learn from other teachers’ lessons. If that’s you, hopefully you’ll find these videos useful.

I’ve divided them into loose categories, with a sentence or two to help you decide which are the most relevant to you. Within the categories, they’re just in the order I found them! I’d like to thank the many people who’ve sent me links to these videos over the years (though unfortunately I can’t remember exactly who sent me what!)

Please feel free to tell me about other videos I may have missed in the comments, as well as any broken links. I’d particularly appreciate any VYL, YL or teen videos that may be out there, though I know they may be hard to find.

P.S. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched all of these from start to finish, just bits and pieces, so please proceed with caution…

Very young learners

Hubert Puchta introducing vocabulary and using Total Physical Response (TPR) and telling an action story (7 minutes)

An American kindergarten teacher working in a French-language immersion school (27 minutes) (via David Deubelbeiss)

Teacher Allen singing a song and teaching a demo lesson with Chinese kindergarteners (10 minutes)

Another kindergarten lesson in China, this time with 33 children (30 minutes)

Michael Roxas working on adjectives, using TPR and introducing clothes with a kindergarten group, working with a Chinese teacher (27 minutes) Michael has other videos of him teaching kindergarten on his YouTube channel.




Mark Kulek has lots and lots of videos of him teaching. This one shows him working with 25 Japanese 3- and 4- year olds (15 minutes) They are mostly in two playlists: Live Children’s English Classes EFL and How to teach kindergarten English class EFL. A lot of the clips are less than 5 minutes long.


This one shows Mark working with puppets (3 minutes)

Paul Pemberton teaching kindergarteners in China (30 minutes), including a really nice routine for getting kids to put their hands up

Shaun teaching 3 year olds in China for a parents’ open day (15 minutes)

Hannah Sophia Elliot teaching kindergarten in China (41 minutes)

Ann teaching children using a story bag (9 minutes)

Watts English have a series of videos showing children in Prague kindergarten. Here’s the first (20 minutes) Look at the Czech playlist for more, as well as the games bank.

Here’s an example of a teacher using a puppet as part of their WOW! method (5 minutes)

Savannah building rapport with a brand new group of students (4 minutes)

Tony using role plays as part of a demo lesson (23 minutes)

Najmul Hasan (a.k.a. Peter) also has a range of videos of him teaching kindergarten. Here’s one (25 minutes)

Rebecca Eddy teaching shapes to a kindergarten class in China (13 minutes)

This video is designed to show teachers how to run a demo lesson, but there are also lots of useful tips in there and examples of how to set up activities (9 minutes)

Tanner Applegate teaching 3 year olds in China (6 minutes)

Marco Brazil teaching colours to very young learners (4 minutes)

Teaching weather to kindergarten children, with a Chinese teacher also in the room (15 minutes)

Introducing body parts (4 minutes)

Thanks very much to Lucy, who suggested in the comments that I look up kindergarten ESL teacher on YouTube, which led to most of the above videos!

Young learners

Adi Rajan suggested the Teacher Development films available on the British Council website, accompanied by workbooks. Here’s one example (52 minutes):

Marisa Constantinides playing the ‘please’ game, and thereby demonstrating total physical response (TPR) (8 minutes) She wrote about this activity, plus two more with accompanying videos (Thanks for letting me know, Marisa!)

Ashley Haseley teaching sensory reactions in China (12 minutes)

Kaila Smith talking about teaching children in China, with lots of clips from her classes (4 minutes)

Pass the bag, a video of a game shared by Ian Leahy (90 seconds)

Sam playing a days of the week game with Thai children (2 minutes)

This video shows you how to do guided reading with elementary learners – it’s mostly describing the technique, but there are various clips of the teacher at work (11 minutes)

A counting game for kids (2 minutes)

This is a video describing various classroom management techniques shared by Ian Leahy. Although there is a voiceover throughout the entire video, there are lots of clips of exactly what’s happening. (16 minutes)

Gunter Gerngross demonstrating TPR with young learners (3 minutes)

Karlee Demierre using a body parts song (3 minutes)

Introducing animal vocabulary in a demo lesson, with lots of flashcard games (32 minutes)


A shopping lesson with pre-intermediate students using Solutions Pre-Intermediate (17 minutes)

Buse Natalie Vickers teaching clothes (17 minutes)

Ross Thorburn introducing the rooms in a school (6 minutes)…

…and showing how unmonitored group work ran (35 seconds)

Ross Thorburn using flashcards with beginner young learners (1:10)…

…and with elementary young learners (1:30)

Ross also has tips for behaviour management, including live examples from class (5 minutes)…

…and demonstrating routines (7 minutes)

In this video, Ross introduces vocabulary, then takes his class into a shopping mall (8 minutes)

Adults (coursebook-based)

Sarah Troughear teaching a group using Life Pre-Intermediate, based on the topic of transport (60-minutes, including post-lesson analysis)

Clive Brown teaching a group using Life Upper Intermediate, based on the topic of documentary film-makers (37 minutes, including post-lesson analysis)

Andrew Walkley using an image to get students interested in a coursebook topic and lead in to a discussion (6 minutes)

Stacey Hughes teaching using an e-book – find out more (10 minutes)

Me 🙂 teaching upper intermediate students – working with gerunds and infinitives (8 minutes) – find out more

Me clarifying the difference between ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’ with upper intermediate (9 minutes)

Me teaching money vocab to intermediate students (15 minutes)

Adults (non-coursebook-based)

Billy Hasirci teaching a demo lesson for a CELTA course (he’s the tutor!) He’s working with intermediate students, listening to a song (41 minutes)

Hugh Dellar demonstrating the lexical approach, including lots of whiteboard work (18 minutes)

Elizabeth Kuizenga Romijn teaching high-level beginners (I would say elementary) cooking vocabulary using realia (38 minutes)

John Bartik teaching beginners the phrase ‘I like ______’ (13 minutes)

Chris Westergaard teaching animal vocabulary to a group of intermediate students (14 minutes)…

…and movie vocabulary to another intermediate group (10 minutes)

Functional language to help students debate, I’d guess at intermediate or upper intermediate level. I don’t know the teacher’s name, but it was shared on the ELT Experiences blog (17 minutes)

You can watch Luke Meddings teaching a dogme [What is dogme?] lesson by going to the British Council website. (40 minutes) There is a video of him using dogme with another group (26 minutes) and reflecting on it (24 minutes) available on the English Agenda website.

Martin Sketchley experimenting with dogme (9 minutes)…

…and doing a dictogloss (14 minutes)

Dr. Frances A. Boyd demonstrating lots of error correction techniques (14 minutes) (via Matt Noble)

Laura Patsko demonstrating how to do a pronunciation needs analysis with a multilingual class – find out more (16 minutes)

You can watch a process writing lesson by going to the British Council website. (37 minutes)

Fergus Fadden working on reading with an elementary group as a demo lesson (23 minutes) (Thanks Lucy)

Ross Thorburn teaching an IELTS speaking class, working on describing a city you’ve visited (15 minutes)…

…and teaching an intermediate class to give advice (20 minutes)

Andrew Drummond demonstrating a present-practice-produce (PPP) lesson structure using jobs (a demo lesson for trainees)… (21 minutes)

…and using PPP to teach the functional language of interrupting, followed by an analysis of the lesson stages (28 minutes)

Paullo Abreu (?) teaching second conditional (1 hour)

Olha Madylus teaching vocabulary and grammar to elementary students as a demo on a CELTA course (15 minutes)

Very small groups

Lavender teaching vocabulary (5 minutes)

Short clips

4 clips of Hugh Dellar (I think with upper intermediate students)

  1. Monitoring a discussion

2. Upgrading and clarifying language (3:30)

3. Setting up a speaking activity (1:20)

4. Clarifying language (3:30)

Martin Sketchley doing an activity with Arabic students to help them with spelling (6 minutes)

Katy Simpson-Davies using jazz chants (3:30)

Ian Leahy demonstrating 3 games, 1 each with adults, young learners and teens (3 minutes)

Ross Thorburn teaching adults to accept and reject invitations (3 minutes)

Conveying grammatical meaning, focussing on ‘used to’ and ‘would’ on Ross Thorburn’s channel (3 minutes)

Ross Thorburn giving instructions (3 minutes)

Online teaching

Fergus Fadden teaching a lesson on Google + (13 minutes)

Mark McKinnon working on connected speech – the clip is part of a full blog post explaining what’s going on in the lesson.

Trainee teachers

CELTA TP7, as uploaded by English with Stephanie, intermediate students, restaurants (45 minutes)

And TP8, focussing on functional language, again with intermediate students (35 minutes)

David teaching during CELTA uploaded by Insearch LearningCentre (60 minutes) – I’m guessing it’s elementary or pre-intermediate students, talking about a trip to Japan

Anastasia, a Russian trainee who did her CELTA in 2012 (47 minutes)


Please feel free to suggest any extra videos or to tell me if there are any broken links.

Stepping into the real world: Transitioning listening (PARK Conference November 2017)

My very first presenting experience was sharing a couple of activities at a swapshop at a PARK conference, I think in 2009. I went to every one of the PARK conferences while I lived in Brno, so it was lovely to be invited to present this time round, and to be able to do it due to a Polish national holiday 🙂

PARK logo

I did a version of a talk I first presented at IATEFL 2014, sharing activities you can use to train students to understand real-world listening, not just coursebook audio. You can find it here, along with all of the audio from the presentation.

If you’d like to find other resources connected to listening skills, beyond the ones shared in the presentation, I would also recommend:

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: Listening and pronunciation

Since I did an assessed lesson based on listening for my Delta, I’ve been interested in finding out more ways to help my students develop their listening skills. I even did a presentation on it myself at IATEFL Harrogate 2014, heavily influenced by John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom [affiliate link]. Richard Cauldwell’s book Phonology for listening: Teaching the stream of speech [another affiliate link!] has also been very useful in helping me to understand why it can be so difficult for learners to decode fluent connected speech. I was therefore very pleased to be able to attend presentations given by both John and Richard during this IATEFL. The other presentations summarised in this post were from the Forum on Listening.

Listening attentively

Still my favourite listening picture…

I haven’t tried to summarise Jane Setter’s plenary on intonation for two reasons: 1. I couldn’t get it all into tweets, 2. to fully appreciate the intonation differences, you really need to watch/listen to it yourself!

You can also watch an interview with Jane recorded after the plenary.

I definitely feel like I understand intonation and how to teach it much better now! Sue Swift also wrote about the plenary at ELT Notebook.

Listening: ways out of the fog (John Field)

John started by telling us that he has been ‘worrying about listening for the last 34 years’.

The typical comprehension approach starts with pre-listening and activating schemata, something that doesn’t reflect real life. We also don’t pre-teach vocabulary in real life, so it’s counter-productive in training. The next step is to set questions to target listening, then play the recording, check answers, and replay key sections (providing answers as we go). However, this approach doesn’t actually train learners to become better listeners.

(not a great picture, I know, but it shows why the student thought the answer to a question was ‘crack’, when in fact it was ‘nature reserves’ – they misheard the word ‘attract’ in the stream of speech)

John thinks that we can get a lot more out of the comprehension approach. We should forget about activating schemata and pre-teaching vocabulary, as these don’t happen in real life, though we should quickly introduce students to the context and the number of speakers, as they would normally know this, e.g. two people talking on a bus.

It isn’t usually the script that causes the problem, it’s the recording. The item writer is not involved in the recording. Tasks also need to be carefully thought out, as we give away in writing a lot of what’s in the recording, and encourage test-wise strategies, rather than strategies for general listening. To improve their approach, the teacher needs to prepare the listening in detail – using the script WITH the recording. What’s perceptually difficult?

There should be a first play for SS adjust to speakers’ voices, listening globally without the pressure of questions, and without using questions to guess in advance what they’re likely to hear. If you’re going to use questions, set them before the second listen, so that they don’t interfere with the learners’ perceptions the first time they hear the text. Check and DIAGNOSE reasons for learners’ answers, then replay parts identified by you AND students as perceptually difficult. Transcribe short sections, especially if they are particularly problematic. Listeners are individuals, each with their own problems with a recording, and these change over time and with experience. If you can afford it, provide a listening centre where listeners can work on their own problems individually. Give learners a transcript at the end of the lesson and ask them to listen again. Set listening homework. Though my students almost never do it – I need to have more engaging tasks and clearer developmental reasons for them to do it!

Do we need better materials? YES! New writers often don’t have a clear idea of what a skills approach is. Materials should take pressure off the teacher, guiding them, and focussing on the difficult parts of the recording. Field suggests open-ended questions, so the class can talk about possible answers. Sometimes you could use short clips with a single question, instead of the more normal long excerpts with multiple questions. You could also embed oral questions in the script rather than written questions to stay within the same modality (so have the speaker ask a question, then pause for answer).  Materials should demonstrate a better understanding of the processes that underlie successful listening and design questions to target them.

We also need to understand better what it is we’re actually teaching! When you listen you:

  1. decode sounds
  2. search for words
  3. parse (grammar)
  4. construct meaning
  5. construct discourse

Sometimes context makes us distort the phonemes we think we’ve heard to make it fit the context. To handle the speech signal, we have to adjust to speaker’s voice (pitch, speech rate etc), then match the set of squeaks/buzzes we hear to the sound system of English. But do phonemes really exist? They are so variable, maybe they don’t. This echoes Richard Cauldwell – see below. To handle words, we have to divide connected speech, recognise spoken word forms, link them to what’s know about the topic. To parse, we must hold in our heads the words which have already been said, recognise grammatical patterns, and work out the word’s sense in it’s co-text. To construct meaning, we have to put what we’ve heard into a wider context, interpret new information in relation to this, infer information the speaker has taken for granted, and link words like he/she/it to what they refer to. This is followed by putting it into wider discourse (I couldn’t keep up at this stage!) There’s an awful lot going on!

How does this knowledge help us? An expert listener does these things automatically, but L2 listeners need lots of effort to do each of these things, so it can be hard for them to form the ‘big picture’ of what they’re listening to. Up to about B1, learners have to give a lot of attention to decoding at word level, limiting their ability to tap into wider meaning (I’ve definitely found this with Polish). Strategy instruction should therefore mainly be done with lower-level learners to equip them with the fact that they often can’t make wider sense of what they’re hearing. Strategy training helps them with real-world situations and to compensate for gaps in text. Lower-level learners needs process training and strategies training to fill in gaps.

You can use the same audio, but vary the task to target any of the five levels of listening.

We should also vary the levels of our strategies instruction:

A syllabus for listening: less top-down! More bottom-up (Richard Cauldwell)

Richard relishes fast, messy speech and tries to find ways to help learners understand it. His CoolSpeech app was an ELTons 2013 winner for digital innovation, and he is currently in the process of writing a follow-up to Phonology for listening: Teaching the stream of speech [affiliate link] which will provide a clear syllabus for listening for language teachers to work from.

All words have multiple sound shapes. Decoding is the skill of recognising words in the sound substance (or ‘fog’ in John Field’s words). The sound substance is the acoustic blur of speech, which exits the mouth, travels through the air, and hits the ear. It’s what exists before perception.

Richard uses a metaphor for different speeds and qualities of speech. The greenhouse is the place for citation forms. In the garden, sounds touch each other gently through the basic rules of connected speech. In the jungle, wild things happen and all bets are off. He argues there are different goals for pronunciation (clarity/intelligibility) and listening (understanding fast, messy, authentic speech).

Teachers tend to brush the mess of sound under the carpet, so even CPE Grade A students have ‘can’t do’ listening points. Every word has a ‘word cloud’: a range of possible word shapes in fluent speech, of which the citation form is the least likely.

The examples of ‘and’ above were all taken from a single conversation, with only one instance of it even vaguely approaching the citation form.

Here are just some of the changes which can happen in fluent speech (in the jungle):

  • Consonant death: this can appear in many ways e.g. that changes to ‘at
  • d’eth drop: anenatwasat– no ‘th’s (instead of and that was that)
  • B-drop/B-soft – often happens with adverbs e.g. superbly – the ‘b’ can be lost or very soft
  • Smoothie: when diphthongs/long vowels change to just one of their elements: like > læ

There were a lot more, but I just couldn’t keep up!

To help student, we need to delve below the word that is meant to the sound substance itself – what sounds were actually produced. Field and Thorn both advocate using short clips to help students focus (see ‘the bathtub experiment’ below too). Audacity is the best tool to help you break up the stream of speech.

Try this activity: replace the ‘i’ with each of the vowel sounds in the image. This helps students to prepare for different possible ‘shapes’ and accents:

Or take a phrase for a walk in the jungle, and give your students an earworm to take home with them:

The earworm should be short term, memory length, annoying, and stick in their head to prepare them for perception. I sometimes wake up with words or phrases like this in my head from foreign languages.

Have students listen along with an audio, and when they get to the most important part of it (the ‘wave’), get them to speak along with it (‘ride the wave’):

If you’d like to find out more, have a look at Richard’s website.

After the conference, I noticed that Richard shared Tubequizard as a link on his handout – it’s an excellent way to help students to focus on connected speech.

Adventures in listening: the bathtub experiment (Marie Willoughby)

Marie teaches students who attend full-time classes at IH London. She finds her students only get so far with listening before they begin to disengage. Sheila Thorn inspired Marie to start trying different ways of approaching listening in the classroom, and after listening to an episode of the The Moth podcast, she realised she had the perfect material to use, talking about a man who sailed across the English Channel in a bathtub. The only problem was that it was 17 minutes long! Marie decided to break it into a series of mini episodes, each with a cliffhanger. She then used these over a series of lessons.

Marie found that the best texts to use as episodes have a clear narrative, but are outside normal experience. In this case, pure sound is better than video, as students are more invested in understanding what they’re hearing, and will therefore try harder to apply the decoding strategies. If they have pictures to help them, they don’t need to work so hard to apply the strategies. Once she had the episode, she asked two questions: What stops them underrstanding? What will help them understand later?

First, they always listened with no task, then worked together to co-construct the text with other students. They then moved on to focussing on a particular decoding strategy, which students were then able to apply in later lessons. By using short excerpts in small chunks you have time to pause and get students to consider the language in  more detail. For example:

  • Decode past perfect v. past simple when listening, first as a gapfill with a section they were familiar with, then listening to the next part of the story and saying what they heard.
  • Say why a speaker would choose one particular phrase, or why they would repeat it.
  • Listen to his description of a problem. Draw it on mini whiteboards.
  • The storyteller talked about English/French attitudes to each other, so Marie asked them to research it, after which the students understood the jokes better.
  • Vocab was a problem, especially familiar words in a new context, so she got students to listen and complete a sentence, then think about the meaning.

What are the benefits of using an ‘adventure in episodes’? There’s no need to reset context or activate genre knowledge each time. Prediction is a natural part of listening to such a story. The students were really motivated to find out what happened next. Intensive decoding work really bore fruit – they were invested in doing detailed intensive listening work. It also developed their autonomy.

I really like this idea, especially for summer school or 121 lessons, though I think it could take quite a lot of work to prepare. It reminds me of my French teacher introducing us to the French musical version of Roméo et Juliette, with us listening to one song each week and trying to follow the story. You could also use the BBC Short Cuts or Listening Project podcasts. Of course, once you have it for one adventure, they don’t date much, so you should have it for the future. If teachers share this kind of thing on blogs, you could have examples to draw from. If you choose to do this, please share the link below!

Listening using smart devices: effects on student interaction and autonomy (Clive Shaw)

The conventional classroom layout has speakers at the front, but Clive wanted to know what happens if we change where students/teachers are in the room. If the teacher is in control, it’s not easy to monitor, and students don’t have much of an opportunity to work on their own listening strategies. It’s also difficult for students to transition from the controlled environment of the classroom to the unguided environment of the lecture hall (Clive works in EAP – I think this is true all the time, and this prompted by IATEFL Harrogate presentation).

Clive investigated how listening from a smartphone changed the dynamic, encouraged autonomy and gave students the opportunity to employ strategies. He designed the materials based on two sources: taken from YouTube or by creating his own recordings. To get the recordings to the students he used TubeChop for YouTube and Audioboom for his own recordings, then a link shortener (my preferred one is Recognising that these took longer to prepare than coursebook audio, Clive deliberately selected easy-to-prepare tasks, for example two-column notetaking.

The biggest difference in the classroom was the seating plan:

Each group had one phone, and the weakest student was normally in control of it. Clive found out that students became more aware of listening strategies they employed when using smartphones. Students were more able to use context/syntax to decode problem areas as they could play it again as many times as they wanted to. Students were also encouraged to make their own decisions about when and how to review extract.

I’ve always played with seating arrangements, but it had never occurred to me to do it with listening extracts before. This seems like a great way of helping mixed-ability groups in particular, and also helps students to get used to background noise when listening, something we don’t do enough of.

Tweets from other sessions

Here’s Pete Clements’ summary of the above session.

One day I’d like to actually see Mark Hancock present! This year it was about accents:

Laura Patsko’s session on how to give feedback on learners’ pronunciation was one I was sad to miss, but luckily Cambridge recorded it, so I’ll be able to catch up. Here are some tweets to give you a flavour of it:

Three things I’ve done in class this week

As a Director of Studies, I no longer get much time in the classroom or much time to plan for my lessons (!), but when I do, I like to try and experiment a bit. Here are three things I’ve tried this week:

Translation mingle

After introducing a new set of vocab or bit of grammar:
  • Get students to write 2-3 personalised examples of the language, which you check as they write.
  • They choose one sentence to translate into L1, in this case Polish.
  • Students mingle, saying their Polish sentence. Their partner has to translate it back into English.
  • The L1 speaker tells them “Yes, that’s perfect.” or “No, try again.” Once they’ve tried it a few times, the L1 speaker gives them the correct version if they’re struggling.

This worked particularly well with gerunds and infinitives, where patterns differ from Polish. You don’t need to know the L1 to do this activity, as students will correct each other. It’s probably the second or third time I’ve done it, and it definitely won’t be the last.

Mystery words

I learnt this activity years ago, but have never had a chance to try it. Having worked with some easily confused words (e.g. remind/remember, avoid/prevent) in the previous class, it seemed like a good opportunity to try it this week. We revised the words at the beginning of the class. I then gave each student a piece of scrap paper with one pair of words on it. They remembered them, wrote their name on it, and gave it back to me. Throughout the rest of the lesson, they had to use the words as much as possible and notice what words other people used. At the end of the lesson, they said what pair of words they thought other students had.

Unfortunately it didn’t work particularly well, as although I tried to change pairs a couple of times, students didn’t really have the chance to use their words with a lot of others in the class, so they could only guess about two or three pairs. Some of the cunning ones used a whole range of words to confuse the rest of the class, which was a good idea. I asked the group if they liked it, but they weren’t that enthralled, so it’ll be a while before I use it again.

Listening training

Listening attentively

Regular readers will know that I’m quite interested in trying to work out how to train students to become better listeners. A 5-minute audio in our coursebook this week prompted me to find a different way to approach it, as the two tasks in the book seemed like an invitation for boredom (listen once, tick the things the speaker mentions; listen again, make additional notes). Instead, students had to listen and clap when they heard one of the things the speaker mentioned, at which point I paused the audio. They then had to tell their partner/group what they’d heard, and write on a mini whiteboard what they thought would come next. For instance, this could be ‘an example of X’, or some specific phrases they expected to hear. We then listened to check if they were correct. The idea here is to tap into the natural prediction that we do all the time when listening/reading, and show students that they were able to do it in English. We used about half of the audio in this way, then did the original tasks for the second half. It seemed to go down well, and I think the group were generally quite surprised at how well they could do it. I was also very pleased that one of the weaker students in the group was the only person to clap the first time round, as the others were listening for exact words instead of the general message – hopefully this served as a confidence boost.

What did you try in your classroom this week?

Using podcasts to develop listening skills (Teaching English Associates)

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

My contribution for May is advice for both teachers and students on how to use podcasts to develop their listening skills.

IATEFL Birmingham 2016: We’re all teachers

The best plenary ever

Silvana Richardson spoke articulately and memorably about a huge issue in our field: discrimination against non-native speakers and the primacy of the native speaker. It was easily the best plenary I have seen at IATEFL, and I urge you to watch it yourself. Go on, I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’ve seen it (you have, haven’t you?), here are my thoughts. And if you haven’t seen it, read Lizzie Pinard’s summary of the plenary as it was happening. Then go and watch it to get the full effect. Have I told you you should watch this?

As Silvana said, why are we referring to over 80% of the teachers in our profession as a ‘non’? This implies that they are in some way inadequate or lacking, and leads to the continuation of the native speaker myth.

The words we say construct reality.

If we don’t think about what we are saying, and the impact of the words we are using, we are propagating the myth that ‘native speaker’ is better. This logic is faulty:

The native speaker is the best model. I am a native speaker. Therefore, I am the best model. The native speaker is the best teacher. I am a native speaker. Therefore I am the ideal teacher.

And in what way could this ever be considered correct?

The native speaker is the best model.
I am not a native speaker.
Therefore I am not the best model.

The native speaker is the ideal teacher.
I am not a native speaker.
Therefore I am not an ideal teacher.

What students really need is good teachers, and there are good and bad teachers from every language background, whether monolingual or multilingual. The language you are born speaking does not determine your ability to teach. They are two entirely different skill sets. As somebody said on Twitter:

We should not forget the ‘teaching’ part of ‘English teaching’. Linguistic competence should not be the only factor.

I agree completely that implying that native speakers are in someone superior, regardless of the teaching qualifications they possess, devalues our entire profession, and the hard work those of us who care about our jobs put into it. It is also damaging to the identities of those who suffer because of prejudices towards non-native speakers. The Johns of this world should not be allowed to teach without having to go out and get qualified:

The native speaker fallacy legacy: John. 'Jack of all trades and master of none'

And yes, I am fully aware that I may seem something of a hypocrite, as I started as a backpacking volunteer (though I knew I wanted to do the CELTA – which many might argue is not enough). I have friends who have used the luck of their native speaker identity to get jobs, although I am not aware of them having advertised themselves as such and I don’t know if they knew that this would have been a hell of a lot harder for somebody who was not born in one of the ‘inner circle’ three/four/six English-speaking countries.

Silvana included a lot of research findings in her plenary, the upshot of which is that there is inconclusive evidence as to whether students prefer ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ teachers. In fact, some students prefer non-natives, and some want a mixture of both. Very few seem to want natives only. (See Lizzie’s post or slides 31-42 of Silvana’s presentation (downloadable at the bottom of the page) for the full information about the findings) Slides 43 and 44 show the research referring to the perceived advantages and disadvantages of each type of teacher, although I would say that these are only at first, and many of these skills can be learnt through training. Having said that, I can never know what it is like to learn English as a second language, despite being an experienced language learner.

Ultimately, the ‘native speaker myth’ is just that, a myth. There is no research anywhere which conclusively proves that an L2 only classroom is better, or that students all prefer to be taught by ‘native speakers’, whatever they are.


What can we do?

[Copied from Lizzie Pinard’s summary]

“We need to find out more about this issue, become more aware. Write about equality for NESTS and NNEST.

Teachers: Join an advocacy campaign and show support. Write a statement supporting this campaign. Promote advocacy initiatives on social media. Start a discussion in your workplace to raise awareness. Do research, more is needed.

Teacher educators: review programmes in terms of the scope. What is the ultimate goal of these programmes? To develop well-rounded critical professionals or churning out skilled technicists who can produce monolingualism for export? Consider the content and methodology – is there critical exploration? Are they sufficiently inclusive? Sensitive to glocalisation? Using the students’ own language? What about bilingual identities? The elephant in the room is teacher’s own language proficiency – how can we help teachers develop this? [See the information about Damian William’s workshop below]

Workplace: Do you have an Equal Ops policy? Do you implement it? Are you proud of it? Do you challenge students’ expectations? Do you recruit based on merit?

Equal ops in work place

Teachers associations: Issue a statement against the discrimination of NNESTs. TESOL France writes to employers who write native speakerist ads to discourage them from that. Create alignment maps of professional qualifications of teachers of EFL at regional, national and international levels. Encourage members not to apply for positions where advertisement is discriminatory.”

The plenary has already generated a lot of follow-up in the week since it happened. Here are a few examples:

The future is in bilingual and plurilingual identities, not monolingual, whatever that ‘mono’ is. Silvana quoted Lo Bianco:

There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other is knowing only English.

I have already heard some people who would previously have referred to themselves as ‘non-natives’ change this to ‘bilingual’ 🙂

The future is in being proud of our identities, whatever they are, and never having to fake or hide them to get a job.

Here’s Silvana talking before the plenary about the main issues covered:

Thank you so much to Silvana Richardson for bringing this issue out into the spotlight. There were many of us with tears in our eyes at the end of this plenary, including me, and it got a well-deserved standing ovation. I hope that this is the beginning of the end, and that we will soon all be able to say ‘I’m an English teacher.’ without anyone asking us where we were born.

(Addendum: Later posts which have arisen directly from Silvana’s plenary are:

  • NEST privilege by Jennie Wright)

Other sessions directly related to this dichotomy

Unfortunately I missed some other sessions which added to the debate, but thankfully Lizzie Pinard has reported on them. I recommend checking out her summaries:

  • Tackling Native Speakerism (panel discussion with Marek Kiczkowiak, Burcu Akyol, Christopher Graham, Josh Round)
    Quote from Burcu Aykol: “It’s not about being NS or NNS, it’s about being qualified. Both have strengths and weaknesses, things found easier and more difficult. We need to free ourselves from our prejudices and stereotypes, leave aside prejudices to really talk about education.”
  • I’m a non-native English speaker teacher – hear me roar! (Dita Phillips)
    Dita is originally from the Czech Republic, and now works as a teacher and CELTA trainer in Oxford in the UK. This is her story.
  • The Q&A follow up to Silvana’s plenary
    A quote from the audience: “It’s not dispensing with the idea of NS-NNS, it’s actually being equal and that equality to be placed on the basis of qualification and competence which includes language competence. But language competence doesn’t mean native modelling.”

Marek Kiczkowiak is one of the founders of TEFL Equity Advocates. I’ve shared one of their posts before, but for some reason had never put their badge onto my blog. This has now been remedied.

TEFL Equity Advocates support badge

Click on the badge to go to the site

In this interview Marek and Burcu talk about some of the issues surrounding non-native teachers in ELT, and about the founding of TEFL Equity Advocates:

And finally, a couple of relevant tweet from Jack Richards’ talk:

The LDT Toolkit (Damian Williams)

One of the areas mentioned by Silvana and others as still holding some teachers back is their own language proficiency. Damian presented tips for help teachers to develop their English proficiency, and pointed out that there are very few books out there for this area, and it seems to be valued much lesson than developing other skills which are more directly related to teaching, like use of technology. For many teachers who have learnt English, their main use of it now is in the classroom, and they get little exposure to it with anyone other than their students.

He gave activities to incorporate raising linguistic awareness into methodology courses through guided discovery, and ways to highlight methodology within language courses aimed at teachers. Lizzie Pinard has a list of all of the activities in her summary of the session.

This is something I would like to develop at IH Bydgoszcz. It was an idea in the back of my head before, but now I would like to make it a priority and try to work out if we can offer something like this at the school next year.

The world’s language: using authentic non-native input in the classroom (Lewis Lansford)

Lewis is one of the authors of the new National Geographic Keynote series (of which I have contributed to the workbooks!) One of the things I particularly like about this series is that right the way from B1 up to C2 level, no distinction is made between L1 and L2 English speakers. The focus is on what they have to say, not which language they grew up speaking.

In his presentation, Lewis showed us clips from three TED talks:

The videos he shared include different stress patterns, ‘mistakes’ with grammar, and people who have ‘missed’ the target of native-like speech, but as he said, that is not the target they were aiming for. They are all successful communicators. Their accents are features, not hindrances, and they do not need to aim to lose them.

He spoke a little about English as Lingua Franca, and some of the features of this type of English. If you’d like to find out more, including ways of working with ELF in the classroom and other examples on L2 user models of English, I’d highly recommend the ELFpron blog.

Lewis highlighted the need to use international models of English to prepare our learners for the real world by training them in listening to authentic English from many different speakers. Unless they move to an English-speaking country, they are much much more likely to mostly speak to other L2 users than to L1 English users. They therefore need to hear other accents in the classroom to increase their awareness of cultural and linguistic differences in the way people use English, depending on their language background.

You can also read Robin Walker’s summary of the talk.

Can you hear me? Teacher perceptions of listening skills (Patricia Reynolds)

The fact that we need more exposure to different accents was echoed in a presentation by Dr. Patricia Reynolds. She showed us surprising findings from a research project she did which showed that many L2 users of English working as ESL teachers in the United States found it very difficult to assess the speaking proficiency of anyone from a different language background to their own. When she contacted the providers of a particular US English proficiency test, they said that anybody who had done the training could administer the test to the same standard, but this is not what she found in her research.

Non-natives score other non-natives’ spoken output more harshly than natives do.

This highlighted the fact that they (and, in fact, all of us!) need more exposure to a wide range of different accents in English before we can be expected to assess proficiency. This begs the question of how valid exam results are, and whether, for example, somebody who is unfamiliar with Arabic accents in English might grade more harshly than somebody who is used to them. It is also a question of increasing the confidence of her trainees so that they feel able to assess students from any language background fairly.

How many of you had coursework in your teacher training where you were required to listen to speakers with other accents?

This takes me back to my classroom at IH Newcastle, where I often had to ‘translate’ Arabic English to Spanish English to Chinese English etc, as students could not understand those from other L1 backgrounds, especially at lower levels.

It is an area which requires further investigation and awareness raising, particularly among the providers of standardised tests.

Last word

I really hope it won’t be long before the native/non-native issue is not an issue any more, but I know it will require work from everyone. If anybody would like to share their stories or write a blog post about their thoughts on this issue, I would be very happy to host them. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me through the comments.

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