Skip to main content

Enjoying sounds (2)

This is the second blog in this mini-series about teaching listening and which is based on a chapter in my 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.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…