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Using authentic recordings in listening lessons

This is a summary of and reflection on some key points from Chapter 14 of John Field’s book Listening in the Language Classroom (2009). Field is one if the most eminent researchers on listening and his meticulous book is required reading for anyone wishing to study this aspect of language learning. Chapter 14 focuses on the use of authentic recordings.

So, a few questions for you to begin with:

What do you consider an authentic recording to be?
Does your course include any?
How often do you think we should use them?
Should they be used at all levels, including beginners?
What are the issues involved with exploiting authentic recordings?

Let’s look at some of what Field has to say on these questions.

First, in terms of what constitutes authenticity, he uses a definition from Morrow (2007):

“a stretch of real language, produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to carry a real message of some sort.”

Actually, you could just about stretch that definition to any coursebook recording, assuming that the speaker and your students are human! But I think we know what is meant here: we are talking about recordings of speech which were not especially written or even improvised with learners in mind. This can include conversations, news broadcasts, speeches, radio plays and the like. (Note that some of these are originally written language designed to be read.)

Field notes that two useful ways of contrasting authentic and non-authentic recordings are by considering whether they are (1) graded or ungraded (chosen or produced according to their lexical and syntactic simplicity) and (2) scripted or unscripted (all or nearly all of the recordings you use from coursebooks or exam papers are scripted, of course, even at advanced level - note that was not the case in A-level exams of some years ago, when authentic radio broadcast extracts were used).

Now, while Field acknowledges that beginners and intermediate students need to get a large diet of graded listening input (input simplified to include a large majority of already known language), he is of the firm belief that students of all levels need to hear authentic language above their level to give them experience of coping with real life situations. (We have all heard students say how, for example, “real” French is not like what they hear in the classroom.) Incidentally, we may think students “know” a word, but it may be, as Field points out, that they don’t recognise it in the context of the recording they are listening to, so it’s not right to assume that an individual or class knows, say, 90% of a text.

He writes:

“...a listener needs extensive experience of handling input in which a proportion (sometimes a large proportion) of the language is not known and recognised.”

This is so that learners can acquire techniques for dealing with uncertainties which they would encounter not nearly so much when listening to L1. For example, he argues, they need to learn ways of inferring meaning from the wider context when they don’t recognise words, chunks or longer stretches of language. Giving a diet of simplified material, he says, is like feeding a child exclusively on baby food and then wondering why they can’t cope with an adult diet.

(I find that analogy a bit contentious myself, to the extent that you can wean all learners off graded material by offering them a very occasional authentic meal, but babies need baby food and to give them real food would be a waste of time and even dangerous!)

Field goes on to argue that some authentic speech is actually easier to process than scripted speech since it contains built-in hesitation, word order changes to focus on key meanings and so on. This is true, but rarely the case, I think.

But obtaining unscripted, authentic recordings is not that easy, so, as Field says, publishers and exam boards choose to use authentic texts re-recorded by actors, or semi-authentic texts where actors improvise following a general set of instructions. (In reality, the coursebooks you use usually use recordings which are not even semi-authentic. They are mostly written texts recorded by actors with minor elements of natural speech (hesitation words) thrown in. In addition, publishers and exam boards have copyright to keep in mind - it can be hard and expensive to obtain.)

The internet now makes it easier to find authentic recordings which the teacher can grade by language or topic difficulty, but as I know myself, it’s hard to find material for beginners and even intermediates. The examples Field quotes are for more advanced learners (e.g. news broadcasts) but he does cite some useful criteria for choosing texts, from McGrath (2002):

1. Relevance to the syllabus and learners’ needs.
2. Intrinsic interest of the topic (suitable pre-listening activities can increase interest).
3. Cultural appropriateness. (Could anything be beyond the learners’ understanding or cause offence?)
4. Linguistic demands.
5. Cognitive demands. (How complex are the ideas or overall structure?)
6. Quality. (How clear are the speakers?)
7. Exploitability. (How well does the recording lend itself to other activities?)

Now, as I’ve mentioned, Field argues for authentic recordings to be included at all levels, but he does acknowledge what he calls the “conservative” view that they are best reserved for advanced students. He recognises that we shouldn’t put off beginners with material that’s too hard and off-putting. So his case for beginners is that we should still use some authentic recordings but make them accessible by, for example, simplifying the task type, choosing graded authentic material, graduating the activities you do with a hard text, and forewarning students that they don’t need to understand everything, thus giving them a more positive mindset.

(This is the traditional defence for authentic resources and one which I only have limited sympathy myself - and that’s from a teacher who spent his career working with generally higher-attaining pupils. My main issue here is that for learning to occur it is generally thought best for input to be comprehensible, i.e. easy enough to understand in almost its entirety. I understand the dilemma here - students do need to learn to cope with authentic language - but I would lean more towards comprehensibility and artificiality than Field seems to want to.)

Field’s chapter continues with an exploration of how one might better integrate the use of authentic and non-authentic texts. Useful tasks might include:

1. Transcribing a short section of authentic speech and analysing what makes it distinctive.
2. Comparing tapescripts of a scripted recording and an authentic one.
3. Giving a gapped transcript with features omitted which might be characteristic of authentic speech.

(I can see a possible use of these with advanced students, but not with beginners or intermediates. It feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.)

To conclude his chapter Field recognises that real “authenticity” cannot be achieved in the classroom, but summarises the value and problems of unscripted and ungraded recordings. He sees the use of authentic recordings as a necessity “at some point” and sees a case for using them as early as possible, partly because, even if students give up the language early, at least they have had some experience of hearing the cadences of natural speech and of “constructing meaning from scant evidence”. In sum, although it’s important not to confuse and put off students, we should allow them to realise that decoding real-life discourse is different to coping in the classroom.

Overall this chapter is a careful and interesting discussion of the issues which ought to get teachers thinking about their practice. Field probably leans a little more towards using authentic resources than I would as a former MFL teacher, rather than an EFL teacher. I wonder what you think. Do feel free to leave a comment.

References

Field, J. (2009). Listening in the Language Classroom. CUP.
Morrow, K. (1977). “Authentic texts in ESP”. In S. Holde, (ed.) English for Specific Purposes. London: Modern English Publications, p. 13-17.
McGrath, I. (2002). Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh University Press, Chapter 6.



However, Field



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Comments

  1. I have wrestled with how to best use authentic materials, both as a middle school French teacher and currently as a (mostly) ESL adult instructor. I tend to agree with you that low level learners are so off out sometimes that they just turn off of a task with “authentic” language. When I was teaching French, our department stressed “authentic” materials so much though that my student did become accustomed to not understanding everything.

    However, I have some highly proficient professional students who are at the appropriate level for these authentic audio. In fact, audio aimed at learners is almost always too easy for them. I will have to check out Field (2009). Thank you for the post.

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