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How do pupils listen and what might this mean for lessons?

I've blogged before about listening being the neglected skill in MFL lessons, as has my colleague Gianfranco. Indeed, Gianfranco gave an interesting talk on listening at the recent ResearchEd English and MFL conference in Oxford. In this blog I'm going to recap how the process of listening occurs and then look at some implications of this process for us as language teachers. My initial source is a chapter by John Field in a book called Debates in Modern Languages Education. John is one of the leading researchers in the field of listening in second language acquisition. Field has written:

"...the listening lesson has been little discussed, researched or challenged; and there is a tendency for teachers to work through well-worn routines without entire conviction." (2008)

Gianfranco and I are intending to write a practical book for teachers in the near future to help them with their thinking about teaching listening skills.

How do learners listen?

It's complex!

According to John Field (2014) the processes involved can be summarised as follows:
  • decoding: matching the sounds reaching the ear to the sounds and syllables of the language
  • lexical search: dividing up connected speech into words and matching them to words stored in vocabulary
  • parsing: imposing a grammatical pattern on a group of words 
  • meaning construction: enriching the bare meaning of the sentence
  • discourse construction: linking information to what went before
Field makes the point that the processes listed above do not happen sequentially, but concurrently, as a listener matches the sounds to their stored lexicon.

But there's much more involved too. It is likely that we don't just store words in our lexicon, but larger chunks or formulae consisting of a group of words which carry a particular meaning, e.g. How are you? All's well that end well. Vorsprung durch Technik!

And, unlike with reading, listeners have very little time to decode and usually no chance to go back and listen again. In addition, as well the largely "bottom-up" decoding skills required to listen, learners need other "top-down" information such as general knowledge of the world and social conventions to fully understand the speech they hear.

Does knowledge of the mechanics of listening help us as language teachers?

Well, I suppose most teachers work under the assumption that you get better at listening by doing lots of it, making it simpler at the start, slowing down speech and scaffolding the process as much as possible with the aid, for example, of images, gesture and translation. Most teachers also recognise that listening is not just about working from an audio source and doing exercises, it's about engaging in conversations with the teacher and fellow students. Every question-answer sequence you do, every drill you lead, every story you tell builds listening skill. This all makes sense and many students make good progress with this general approach.

But can we go further and design tasks which help students develop the processes listed above? Can we design specific tasks which help learners decode, build their lexicon, parse and construct meaning? Can we also make these tasks interesting for students? Let's look at the first three parts of the process.


The key here is surely abundant practice in the phonology of the language and in helping students grasp phoneme/grapheme correspondences (commonly called phonics these days). This is not rocket science. For more able students this process, in my experience almost takes care of itself if students are given lots of opportunities to hear and repeat sounds in context. But there are a range of specific tasks you can do to develop a better "ear" and more accurate pronunciation (these are surely interrelated).

1.  Choral and individual repetition where you insist on accurate reproduction. Quality of delivery comes into play here - if you do repetition without insisting on accuracy you have to ask what purpose it serves. I have observed choral repetition which seems routine and where errors are not corrected.

2.  Focus on sounds which commonly cause difficulty because of their contrast with L1 phonemes (in French this includes "u", "ou", "o", "é", "ait", "r" and nasal vowels). This might well include explicit instruction in how sounds are made as well as repeated practice of the sounds. My preference is to do this in context, not as a separate lesson. Pronunciation needs repeated practice and not just at novice level.

3.  Choral and individual reading aloud - once again quality of delivery is vital; you can't accept second-best. I recently observed a useful technique where a class all read aloud individually with fingers in their ears so they could hear themselves clearly without distraction. I wonder how many teachers practice choral reading aloud. I used to use it right up to Y10 on occasion.

4.  Gap-fill tasks at the syllable and individual letter level. rather than blank out whole words, blank out significant parts of words.

5.  Reciting or using the alphabet. (This was once frowned on since it is not a communicative task, but it is clearly enjoyed by students and serves to recycle and reinforce key sounds.)

6.  Minimal pair activities

These focus on pairs of words where there is just one difference in sound which alters meaning (e.g. in English ship and sheep). As an example from

Number dictation

Write the minimal pairs on the board in a table, as in the example opposite. Drill the pronunciation around the class. Then, dictate four of the words, but tell the students they only need to write the number, not the word. So, if you say "cut, but, ankle, fun" the students should write "1,1,2,1". Then the students work in pairs - one dictates the words, the other says which number.

For French you could contrast tu with tout, blond with blanc, les with lait, vin with vend. Tasks like this can be made up on the spot in the context of a topic. The bingo angle gives the task a motivational twist.

Another fun minimal pair task along similar lines if you favour group work is this (from the same source as above):

Students work in groups of 3-4. Put a few minimal pairs on slips of paper (one word per paper) and give a set to each group. Then call out a word. The students race to grab the correct word. Keep calling until there's none left. Then get the students working within their groups. One student calls out the words, the others grab the word he/she said. Encourage lots of competition to keep them motivated.

Here is a third game pupils would enjoy and which focuses on individual sounds:

As Idea 1, you put the table with your minimal pairs on the board. Assign each sound an action. For example, the sound /r/ could be "stand up", and the sound /l/ could be "sit down". Then you call out the words, and the students should perform the action. The last student to do the correct action becomes 'caller' and calls out the next word.

Lexical search

If students are to match sounds to their lexicon they need a big enough lexicon! This clearly reinforces the claim that teaching vocabulary should be prioritised over teaching grammar. Most meaning is conveyed through vocabulary, not knowledge of syntax.

So here we are in the area of vocabulary building, which I won't take much further here. The boundaries between words can be very problematic, however, especially in French where there are issues of mute letters and liaisons. Here is a possible task. Take this extract form a Francis Cabrel song called Madame X:

Madame X et ses enfants 
Tout l’hiver sans chauffage 
Caravane pour des gens 

Même pas du voyage
Pourtant comme elle dit
C’est pas elle la plus mal lotie
Elle en connaît qui couchent dehors
Dans les parages
Quand y’a toutes ces voitures de sport
Dans les garages

The task is simply, at some point in the teaching sequence, to underline or highlight all the mute consonants in word-final position (I have marked them in bold).


Meaning is not just constructed from knowledge of individual words and chunks of course. Morphological and syntactic skills is built up by all kinds of structured tasks, some explicit instruction in rules (a debated area!) as well as hearing and reading lots of comprehensible input. But this can be achieved by tasks which are specifically focused on listening. Gianfranco has been focusing on this in recent blogs, e.g. here and here.

Here are four activities which develop grammatical skills through listening:

Tense recognition and use

This is not just about hearing the the words, it involves picking up other clues in the sentence as well as more general contextual clues.

a. Tense-spotting (low intermediate). Hand out a list of time expressions, e.g. last weekend, tomorrow, at the moment, last night, next week. Read out a list of statements with the time expression omitted, e.g. I went to the doctor's or I shall go to London. Each time the students must tick off the appropriate time expression. To give a twist, tell them in advance that there will be a certain number of ticks to get right for each time expression. Be careful to avoid doubtful choices (e.g. the present tense can be used for both present and future time). This should reinforce students' association of certain time expressions with certain tenses.

b. If clauses (imperfect and conditional). Come up with 20 scenarios of the type What would you do if...? Give students a list of 20 actions they would take (in the present conditional mood/tense). As you read out each question, students tick of a plausible solution. You could also do the reverse: you read a solution which students must match to the initial What would you do if...?

It would then make sense to reinforce the task with pair work and written reinforcement. For example, the original list of solutions would be hidden, you would read out each scenario and students would write out their solution. To make the task more challenging and enjoyable, you could tell students to produce their own original (maybe humorous solution). Verb forms could be suggested on the board if needed.

c. Song gap-fills

Gap-fills with songs are commonplace, but you can choose your songs to focus on grammatical points, e.g. a particular tense. When listening to a song your focus is likely to be on the meaning of the song, but there is nothing to stop you blanking out all verbs or verb endings.

d. Question-answer sequences with pictures

One of the staples of language teaching is presenting and practising tenses through the use of pictures. For example, you can present, say, eight pairs of pictures in two columns. In the left-hand column you depict a person's life as it is now; in the right-hand column you depict their life either in the future (to practise the future tense) or the past (tom practise the imperfect).

In the presentation stage you recount the person's life now and in the past (or the future) emphasising the sounds associated with the tense (e.g. in French the "ait" sound of the imperfect). Keep doing repetition and QA work using the pictures before you look at the written form. When you eventually reveal the written form the sounds should be better embedded in students' memories, then reinforced by the spelling differences between tenses.

Through this process meaningful language is listened to, but with a focus on verb forms.

* Reference

J. Field (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge, CUP.
P. Driscoll, E. Macaro, A. Swarbrick (eds) (2014) Debates in Modern Languages Education, Oxford, Routledge.

Image: Pixabay, free of copyright


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