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Enjoying sounds (2)

This is the second blog in this mini-series about teaching listening and which is based on a chapter in my forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher.

Teacher talk

In recent years teacher talk has become unfashionable in some quarters. It’s certainly true that too much talk and too little student activity is undesirable, but in language teaching we know how valuable teacher talk can be in providing meaningful target language input. Talking at length has its value too. Here are two simple, low-preparation, high-impact examples which demonstrate the point:

“Detect my lies”

Give a simple account about yourself or, for example, what you did during the last weekend or a recent holiday. You can choose your topic depending on what theme, grammar or vocabulary you’ve recently covered. Simply talk for about two minutes and ask the class to detect five lies within your account. You could make these quite subtle inaccuracies or blindingly obvious inventions, depending on your class. Use as many verbal cues as possible to help students understand, e.g. repetition, rewording and hesitation.

Interview with a visitor

Your visitor might be a foreign language assistant, a native speaker visitor or even a colleague of yours. You interview the person for about 5-10 minutes, while the class either take notes or complete an information grid, including personal details such as name, age, family, hobbies, films recently watched, favourite music, travel experiences, and so on. For this activity to be successful it’s important that the visitor be primed in terms of how much language your class knows. If you show the person the information grid beforehand this helps greatly. The students report their answers to you or a partner.


Many effective teachers use transcribing and formal dictation to develop listening skill, grammatical competence and spelling. Dictation is very effective when you want your class to be particularly calm and focused, but you have to pitch it at the right level. It’s very easy to make dictation too difficult, in which case it becomes dispiriting and counter-productive for all concerned. It’s an excellent task for revision purposes, but only once structures and vocabulary have been taught and practised. As an exercise in pedagogical analysis consider the following, with regard to dictation:

Dictation or “running dictation”?

Running dictation, when you get students to work in pairs, with one partner fetching the text pinned up somewhere in the room and “delivering” to their partner, the scribe, is a popular task since students enjoy it and it keeps them physically active.  But is it better than traditional teacher-led dictation?

In either form, dictation can be tailored very precisely to the class, as can the speed of delivery when you do it in the traditional way. It’s particularly useful in French where the sound-spelling correspondences are more difficult than with, say, German or Spanish.

In favour of traditional dictation:
  • Students get to hear a better TL model. This means that students develop a better notion of the relationship between sounds, spellings, morphology and syntax.
  • Student concentration may be good for long periods. It’s usually useful for maintaining good behaviour.
  • Students often say they enjoy it.

  • It may seem very passive. Some students find it so hard that they dislike doing it. Some teachers find it dull.
  • Although it involves listening and thinking, there’s no speaking.

In favour of running dictation:
  • The students are speaking as well as listening.
  • They get quite excited and competitive; it's fun for them.
  • Because it's physically active it may suit restless students.
  • The students collaborate, e.g. they spell out words to each other. 

  • The students may hear poor models of pronunciation so develop a weak sense of sound/grammar/spelling relationships.

You may draw your own conclusions, but I’d consider using both approaches depending on whether you wish to emphasise the fun side or the “hard work” aspect. If I wanted to calm a class, I’d use formal dictation; if I wanted to excite the class, I’d do running dictation.

Of course, there are other ways of doing dictation, including simple paired dictation at the desk (which could be in the form of taking a phone message with students sitting back to back, to make it a little more fun.) An idea to make dictation more accessible is to give students a sheet marked rather like this:

_ _ _   _ _ _ _ _ . _ _ - _  _ _ _ _ _?  This gives them more clues to spelling when doing the task because the number of letters per word is indicated.

In the last blog I shall look at the idea of teaching grammar through listening (with thanks to Gianfranco Conti) before making some concluding remarks.


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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…