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

14 Responses to Discovery listening and other ways to read your students’ minds

  1. Sophia

    “the teacher is a tape recorder” is one of my all time favourite activities, no real prep or mats, sts love it, and so USEFUL! Back to the theme of your blog though, making learners aware of their listening processes – this is rarely dealt with, and I love that you come up with interesting activities while also linking theory to practice. I used to do something similar to Field/Wilson’s analysed dictogloss, but using a mutual dictation with A/B pairs back to back. A uses the “my partner is a tape recorder” technique to take B’s dictation (within a specified time limit). Then they compare and where there were problems they try to identify what was the problem (listening, pronunciation, lexis) and why (which sounds? New/confusing word etc). Then swap roles.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Another great post. The human tape recorder looks like a perfect activity and love Sophia’s twist. I can’t wait to try it out in class. I’m a big fan of dictogloss activities, althought I usually start with a worksheet that has dots in place of words, have the students demarcate sense groups on a first listen, on a second listen have them just write the 1st letter of the first word of each sense group, and on the third reading have them try to do a running dictation. I find the process helps students deal with what could otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information.

    I’ve also done pictogloss activities where the students have to draw a simple image for each word they hear. Theoretically, this conversion of word to image should increase a student’s depth of processing.

    Wow, this comment’s getting a little long. Hope you don’t mind if I link to a short paper I wrote on building listening skills:

    (unfortunately, in the second paragraph, it should read, “subject object verb,” and not “subject verb object,” but can’t get to a real computer to fix it up. 🙁 )

    Thanks again for another post full of rock star ideas. Cake is on its way.


    • Thanks, Kevin. Some great ideas for dictogloss. I agree that it can get a bit overwhelming. I guess if the idea is to compare what they’re hearing with the written form though, maybe giving them the dots might help too much? But for general dictogloss great- and love the pictogloss- never heard of that before!
      Thanks for the link- makes sense of vague references on Twitter to word order! I’ll check it out.

      I’ve read the article now..really interesting, especially the cultural stuff. Of course English really does all run on without much in the way of gaps, so focusing on sense groups and content words is definitely the way to go, isn’t it?

  3. Rachel,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the paper. I just downloaded the Discovery Listening article and think it’s fantastic. I was especially happy to read that Wilson believes a properly graded text is key for listening activities. Lately I’ve had a lot of doubts about the need to use authentic materials, especially around reading and listening and it’s nice to know that my growing reliance on simplified or modified texts is, perhaps, a step in the right direction. I used to spend a lot of class time helping students develop listening ‘strategies’, but I think I run a much more balanced class when it comes to listening activities lately. Hopefully I can use some of these new ideas to make the process of learning to listen a little more enjoyable.


    • Thanks to @Elkysmith for pointing me in the direction of the Discovery Listening article. Good, isn’t it?
      Interesting point about authentic or non authentic. John Field is very pro authentic because, he argues, they naturally contain features of connected speech which students struggle with. I think that’s right, but, I also agree that there are definite benefits to working with texts at the students’ level. Ah well, nothing wrong with accepting paradox!
      Thanks for everything (incl cake).

  4. Thanks for this post Rachael – I think it’s a really important topic. I’m also pleased to see that Magnus Wilson’s article is having as strong an effect on others as it did on me when I first came across it. Mr Wilson, if you’re out there, thank you!

    When I first read the article, I’d just started my MEd(TESOL) and was working on an assignment for a methodology subject. I chose to focus on listening because I’d been struggling for a while with the paradox that, while students felt that listening was both important and difficult for them, they seemed to have little stamina for (coursebook) listening activities in class. When I read Wilson’s article and John Field’s article in the same journal, I finally realised what I had to do!

    I’ve used a very ‘student-centred’ variation of Wilson’s procedure – essentially a dictogloss – many times in class to great effect and a couple of my colleagues have as well. If you’d like to know more, you can see a PowerPoint presentation on it and accompanying notes here:

    The key points for me are:

    1. Using a short recording – 1 minute is ideal – which is well-graded and interesting (it’s best if it’s authentic in my opinion, although you have to search longer and wider; here’s a personal favourite for B2+:
    2. Separating the class into small groups (you can do it as a whole class if you don’t have the resources, but I find it works best with groups of 4-8).
    3. Giving each group access to and control of the recording.

    Although we might like to think we are experts at predicting what features of a text students will have difficulties with, we often get it wrong; this is one of the reasons why it’s best to let the students decide which parts of the recording they need to hear again. By controlling the recording and re-listening when necessary (as determined by the students, not the teacher) they can genuinely ‘discover’ what linguistic features they didn’t understand and why.

    The students can achieve a great deal with little or no intervention by the teacher. Instead, the teacher can step back and ‘discover’ something about the students’ listening abilities.

    My argument for using authentic recordings is that there is far too great a tendency in my experience to ‘shelter’ our students from linguistic features (e.g. false starts, pauses, incomplete sentences, etc.) that they will encounter in real life. I feel that we should start exposing our students to these features as early as possible, otherwise students end up complaining that they have no problems understanding ‘classroom English’ but can’t cope at all with ‘real life’ English.

    • Thanks for this, Kyle. I haven’t looked at the powerpoint yet, but I will.
      I do agree about the need for natural English- though I wonder if perhaps there’s room for both natural and graded- with sightly different aims.
      Storycorps is a great resource, isn’t it?

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  10. GB

    You can find earlier uses of dictogloss in Ruth Wajnryb’s “Grammar Dictation” (1990)

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