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Towards a programme of listening instruction

Gianfranco Conti and I are gradually working towards publishing a book about teaching listening skills in the languages classroom. We hope to achieve our goal by around Christmas when the aforementioned volume could easily fit into your stocking!

The proposed title is Breaking the Sound Barrier, and both Gianfranco and I have written and spoken a number of times about the so-called Cinderella skill of listening. In prepping for this book, which will be mainly focused on practical classroom ideas, I have been re-reading John Field’s 2009 book Listening in the Language Classroom. Its main tenet is that the traditional comprehension model of teaching listening (essentially a product-based approach where pupils often perceive listening as a test of comprehension) should be complemented by a process-based model where we teach students how to listen, in particular how to deal with the difficult practice of decoding complex streams of sound in the stream of language.

In the concluding chapter of his book Field puts forwards some thoughts on how teachers might best organise their approach to teaching listening. Let me sum up his key points here. (My point here is not to provide very specific examples of classroom activities - we shall do this in our book - but to indicate a possible framework, at least as Field sees it.

1. Make PROCESS central. Practise specific processes from the outset so that inefficient routines do not become entrenched from the start.
2. Focus on DECODING.
3. Make WORD RECOGNITION the initial priority. Inexperienced listeners focus on words first and teaching students to recognise words in the sound stream gives them “islands of reliability” on which to hypothesise meaning.
4. Encourage meaning building from GENERAL CONTEXT more than co-text, i.e. the words and chunks surrounding individual words. “Co-text cannot assumed to be available until a certain level of decoding ability has been achieved.”
5. STRATEGY INSTRUCTION is important in the early stages. It helps students unlock the code despite limitations in language. (This could mean, for example, getting students to practise using cues such as tone of voice, knowledge of the context and their L1 knowledge.)
6. INTEGRATE processes and strategies, helping students make choices between them.
7. Use a DIAGNOSTIC APPROACH to highlight processes or strategies that have been wrongly used. This helps the teacher see if the approach has been working.
8. Provide AUTHENTIC SPEECH from early on but with level-appropriate tasks. See my previous blog post for a discussion about this.

Field goes on to provide some additional detail on these eight priorities. I would note his strong support for process development, what Gianfranco has blogged about when describing “micro-listening activities”. (Just do a search on his blog at As mentioned above, Field recommends activities on word recognition first, notably transcription tasks based on short segments of speech. Secondly, he recommends a focus on decoding skills with intensive exercises (e.g. sound to spelling tasks) before moving to more meaning-focused activities (comprehension).

(You may note in passing to what extent your own text book or teaching reflects these recommendations. For myself, I tended to move to meaning based tasks very quickly, even when the focus was on individual word recognition with beginners, e.g. identifying meaning by recognising “appartement” and “maison” in “ J’habite dans une maison en ville.” Field recommends delaying work on larger scale issues such as argument construction until decoding has been mastered to a high enough level. (Is there something just a bit too linear and unrealistic in this approach?)

As regards strategy training, to which he also gives priority, he mentions, among other things, training students to know that some language they hear is redundant, that they don’t have to get everything and that there are ways students can build hypotheses using contextual clues, cognates and so on. ( These points will be obvious to many practising teachers.)

With respect to authentic speech it sensibly recommends starting small with short snippets, providing simple tasks including transcription. (Note in passing the priority given to transcription - a task somewhat anathema to the original communicative approach - and I would suggest teachers might be wary of placing too great an emphasis on exercises which may be too uncommunicative and plain boring. Short bursts of transcription are probably called for.)

Diagnostic practice obviously requires recognising where things are going wrong and doing remedial work. (At a simple level this might mean recognising that transcription tasks need more scaffolding, e.g. gap-fill.)

Finally, it would be wrong to claim that Field sees little place for comprehension exercises, but rather that less time should be spent on them, especially at lower levels. In our book we shall provide plenty of examples of usable process-based exercises along with two-way (interpersonal) listening lesson ideas and a clear exposition of how listening develops long-term through comprehensible input and communicative classroom activities, including question-answer, games and other interactions, both teacher-student and student-student.

To conclude, whatever combination of process and comprehension-based tasks you do, you only get better at listening by doing lots of it. If you see listening as the number one skill to develop (as I do) then I would suggest it needs to be integral to nearly all lessons.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I totally agree with the points that you make. I had the privilege and pleasure of some long talks about listening with John Field at an EFL conference in Exeter a few years ago after he came to a presentation of mine.
    Working at an Italian University we have developed an app which I use with students to help with their decoding and then move on to more communicative activities based on what they have been listening to.
    I'm always taken aback by how little most students are able to decode. Assuming an i+1 level, how long would you imagine a student takes to decode one minute of audio? (Most people's guesses are way out on this calculation!)

    1. Hi Anthony. Thanks for leaving a comment. I don’t know the answer to your question! My only slight reservation about Field’s recommendations in his book are that for adolescent classroom learners the transcription tasks are just a bit dull. I’d use them in moderation. My gut feeling is that communication/interaction is still the go-to way of developing listening, supplemented by micro-listening process activities.

    2. Yes, I know what you mean. The way I have dealt with the potential dullness is by talking them through listening skills, getting them to realise that most comprehension exercises in textbooks are not so much exercises at all but rather tests. As such one could make a point that they are not really learning activities at all! So micro-listening skills are just as vital as macro-listening, but at the moment all efforts in the publishing world are basically macro-oriented.
      I take your point that transcription on its own could be a bit deathly, so it needs to be spiced up a bit, which is where the app comes in. My experience with pen-and-paper transcription is that if they try it as a class of 25, after a few minutes I have 25 different transcriptions, which is a total nightmare for teacher and pupil. Therein lies the clue, probably, as to why micro-listening is not more common in language classes.
      When we first tried out the app, it needed to be on PC, and we discovered to our initial horror that half of the PCs wouldn't work, so we apologised and put two to a computer: the result was extraordinary, as the students worked together as a team, thus creating a little competition, getting involved in metalinguistic discussion (which in my experience is incredibly rewarding and yet very difficult to get students to do), and my job became helping them out rather than teaching, and they often ignored me when I tried to intervene (ha!).
      What I find is that they will transcribe half of the sentence, but be unable to decode the rest without a lot of work and help, clicking to get clues as to meaning, a letter to help them out, a comment on overall meaning etc., otherwise i+1 transcription could be disheartening ending up as being a series of increasingly desperate guesses. That all makes it quite a tough job for a programmer as you can probably imagine!

      So, what I find is that working first on macro (and understanding very little), then on micro (decoding everything), and then returning to macro and understanding everything they hear (of course!) gives them a great sense of achievement and confidence in their ability to train their brains to listen. So any dullness flies out of the window, as there is a constant process of discovery together with their classmates.


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