Skip to main content

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.


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

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  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.


Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.

Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.


For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.