Category Archives: Listening

Using live listening to prepare for IELTS speaking

The extended monologue

In the second part of the IELTS test, candidates have to speak for 1-2 minutes on a given topic, having been given 1 minute to prepare. (Incidentally, I have mentioned IELTS in the title, because this is perhaps the best known example, but there are other speaking exams (e.g. Cambridge ESOL Skills for Life L1 and L2 ) where candidates have to carry out similar tasks).

Although Part 2 of IELTS is not actually as tough as Part 3, for many candidates, it is the part they dread the most. However, it is also the part where familiarity with the task and plenty of practice can really make a huge difference. As an IELTS examiner, I sometimes examine native speakers applying to emigrate to Australia, and even these perfectly fluent speakers can struggle with Part 2 if unprepared.

In IELTS the candidate is given a number of points to cover. For example:

Describe a leisure activity which you enjoy doing.

You should say:

–          What the activity is and how you do it

–          When and how often you do it

–          What equipment you need

And explain why you enjoy it.

[example from IELTS Foundation Second Edition]

In order to do well in this part of the exam, students need to:

1 Structure their answer well, so that it is coherent and cohesive.

2 Speak fluently, without too many hesitations.

3 Demonstrate accuracy and range in their language.

Live listening is an excellent technique for both modelling the kind of answer the students should be aiming for, and providing a source for language they can use.

What is live listening?

In a nutshell, live listening means listening to the teacher (or another visitor), in a face to face situation, rather than using a pre-prepared recording. The teacher can be a neglected resource in terms of listening, as teachers try to avoid the dreaded ‘teacher talking time’. However, there is a world of difference between the teacher mumbling away to the class instead of giving clear and concise instructions, and using the teacher as a rich resource for listening.

Listening to the teacher speaking at length offers the benefits of:

–          genuine, real-time communication.

–          all the features of natural spoken English (hesitations, false starts, connected speech etc)

–          facial expressions and gestures

–          the opportunity to offer clarifications

Using live listening to prepare for IELTS Part 2

Using set of prompts like those above, the teacher prepares to talk for 1-2 minutes on the topic. You might want to spend more than the 1 minute that candidates are allowed, but it’s important that you don’t script what you are going to say.

Talk for 1-2 minutes to the students, and, ideally, record what you say. They listen and make notes on what you said about each prompt. Carry out brief feedback. This should help them see how to structure their talk, using the prompts.

Then play the recording (or repeat the task) and encourage students to write down any useful ‘chunks’ of language that they hear, which they think they could use in a similar task.

The reason that native speakers are able to speak so quickly and fluently is because they have a huge store of chunks of language which they are able to pull out and use; they don’t have to create every word from scratch. So it makes sense to encourage learners to develop their own store of ‘chunks’.

Here is a Vocaroo recording of me using  the prompts above to talk about Qi Gong

And here is the language I might encourage the learners to pick out from this recording:

The leisure activity that I’d like to talk about is_______

It’s a kind of __________

It’s all about + ing

It’s quite similar to_________

The main thing about _____ is (that)____

I don’t often get around to it.

You don’t actually need any equipment at all.

Sometimes I find it difficult to motivate myself.

I always feel better after I’ve done it.

Spend a little bit of time checking that students understand the ‘chunks’ and can pronounce them fluently, then put them in pairs and ask them to carry out the same task themselves, using any of the chunks they find useful.

The beauty of this activity is that it requires minimal preparation, but, repeated on a regular basis, with different prompt cards, it can really help learners to develop their ability to structure a short talk and to use natural sounding ‘chunks’ of language.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, IELTS, Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary

Discovery listening and other ways to read your students’ minds

What do we know about what is actually happening inside a learner’s head while they are listening? It’s a complicated process. Speech comes at the learner in a continuous stream of sounds. They need to be able to identify and discriminate between these sounds, and recognise their stressed and unstressed versions. They also need to be able to recognise where one word stops and another word starts (particularly hard to do in English, with linking, elision and assimilation). They need to understand the meaning conveyed by stress and intonation.

And that’s before we start on understanding the actual meaning of the words being used, and the syntax!

No wonder that students at lower levels, without a wide vocabulary or much familiarity with the features of connected speech are so overwhelmed by all these demands that they simply can’t hold onto the meaning of what they are listening to long enough to piece it all together.

In my last post, hosted on the OUPELTGlobal blog, I wrote about ways to develop these bottom up or decoding skills in listening. In response I had a tweet from Kyle Smith (@ElkySmith ), drawing my attention to a fascinating article by Magnus Wilson, on what Wilson terms Discovery Listening. This got me thinking about ways in which we, as teachers, could find out more about our learners’ listening processes- and of course raise the learners’ awareness at the same time.

Discovery Listening

In Discovery Listening, Wilson builds on an idea by John Field (2000), of using dictogloss to develop students’ awareness of how they are processing language. Field’s technique is to carry out a dictogloss, where students note down all the words they can catch while listening, and then discuss their understanding of the overall meaning with classmates afterwards. The idea was to raise awareness of how they can use guesswork to build meaning. Wilson takes this idea further by getting students to try to reconstruct the text more fully after listening, and then compare their versions carefully with the original. It’s a discovery, or ‘noticing’ activity, because students look specifically at what they failed to hear correctly and classify their problems. For example:

I couldn’t hear what sound it was.

I couldn’t separate the sounds into words.

I heard the words but couldn’t remember their meaning quickly enough.

This word was new to me….

As well as raising awareness, Wilson makes the point that ‘noticing’ these issues is likely to make language, or aspects of connected speech ‘stick’ for the learners. While I wouldn’t  suggest carrying out this kind of micro focus all the time, as an occasional activity, I think it could be very effective.


A protocol is a technique used by researchers to try and find out exactly what is going on in someone’s head during a process. Basically, the subject is asked to either talk aloud while they are doing something, explaining their thought processes, or, in stimulated recall protocols, they are reminded of what they were doing, and asked to recall what their thought processes were at the time.

There are lots of examples of protocols being used to discover more about listening in second language acquisition, for example Wu (1998), but I can’t see why this couldn’t be something that teachers could use themselves in the classroom. Obviously we wouldn’t want everyone talking aloud while they listened (!), but after listening to a recording, we could ask students to discuss with a partner which parts they found difficult and why. Or they could listen again with the transcript in front of them, and underline parts that they found difficult to follow, and then discuss why.

Listening log

Another interesting article is Jenny Kemp’s The Listening Log. In it she describes a project carried out at the University of Leicester, on a summer programme, where learners were required to keep a log of at least 5-6 listening experiences they had outside the classroom each week. They were asked to comment on how easy or difficult it was to understand, and what had helped or hindered them (e.g. context, accent). Looking at the examples given, it is evident that this could be a powerful tool for raising awareness and increasing motivation- as well as giving the teacher useful information about each learner’s individual difficulties.

The teacher is a tape-recorder

And finally, a very old (hence the title- should it be the teacher is an Mp3 player?) activity, which is a bit silly and light-hearted, but actually really useful for identifying problem areas.

Simply choose a text- this could be the transcript of something already recorded, or a story, but it needs to be written down, so that it can be reproduced exactly each time. Start to read aloud, as naturally as possible. Learners could be answering questions, or, probably better still for our purposes, trying to write down the text. Whenever the learners want they can shout ‘pause’ ‘rewind’ ‘fast forward’ etc. Of course, you could equally well do this with an actual machine, but believe me, it’s much more entertaining with a teacher doing it. I think students (of all ages), just love being able to bark commands at the teacher!

The serious side of this activity is that you can use it to identify chunks of connected speech that the learners are having difficulty with and then look at the linking, weak forms, assimilation etc with them afterwards.

Please do add any other ideas you have for either raising awareness of, or developing these decoding skills.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening

Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

As with reading, a lack of decoding skills can make it very difficult for learners at lower levels to hold enough meaning in their short term memory to effectively use their meaning building skills. This week I’ve written a post on this, with a range of practical ideas, for the OUP ELT Global Blog. Link here.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening