About two and a half years ago I wrote a blog post entitled, Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension? In the time since then it seems that many of us have stopped neglecting those poor decoding skills, and that an interest in how decoding can help develop both listening and reading skills is on the rise.
A recent question posed by Mike Harrison on the IATEFL Facebook page about developing (rather than testing) listening skills led to a flurry of useful links in the comments, which I list below:
And last, but not least, I can now reveal (drum roll), that I have spent the last eighteen months working on a new adult coursebook series for OUP, Navigate, which has a spread in each unit focusing on decoding activities to develop listening and reading skills. Here’s a short video of me talking about the theory behind a listening skills lesson I gave in Oxford over the summer.
You can also see a fuller version of the lesson and download the materials and lesson plan here.
It’s great to see so much happening in this area, and I’d be very happy to add any other links that people have- just comment below.
Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.
In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer. There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.
Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).
The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.
Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ’emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics,texts and tasks – the bedrock of any course. In this article, recently published in English Australia Journal (29/1) I give some ideas for using coursebooks, while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and deal with emergent language. The article is based on my 2013 IATEFL talk.
Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ‘emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics, texts and tasks- the bedrock of any course.
In this 20 minute presentation, I look at some ideas for using coursebooks (or any other off the shelf material) while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and engage with emergent language.
For the New Year I wanted to collect together some of the blog posts which have either inspired my posts over the last year, or that would be great follow up reading. In a few weeks, I will celebrate my first blog birthday, so this post is both a bouquet in the sense of a collection of different blooms, and a big THANK YOU bouquet to all my fellow bloggers and tweeters who have made this such a fun and inspiring year!
I have used the same categories as my blog posts to organise these links, so that the connections are as clear as possible.
A thoughtful and well-informed blog, Luiz Otavio’s ELT Page has a subtitle of ‘thinking beyond the doing’; in other words he’s interested in why we do things, not just in what we do. This post is great at unpicking the process in planning a lesson with a grammar focus.
Taking a slightly different tack, this is a blog post about one teacher’s (Mike Griffin) development in terms of planning, looking with great insight at the balance between ‘fun’ and learning and the impact of finding out about the dogme approach. In his blog, ELT Rants, REviews and Reflections, Mike always gives us plenty to think about.
This post by Hugh Dellar on the Curse of Creativity, caused a lot of controversy (no doubt entirely intentional), but I really liked the way Hugh focused on the need to consider more than whether something is a fun or creative activity, and how creativity, while an important element, should not be the tail that wags the planning dog.
I’m not a big fan of FE jargon- when I first started at an FE College in the late 90s, I managed to sit through a management meeting and understand virtually nothing because of the sheer number of impenetrable acronyms. So SMART targets isn’t something I personally find vvery helpful, and neither does Tony Gurr: Why SMART Goals are just plain dumb.
Although Adrian Underhill is of course synonymous with pronunciation, I only came across his blog quite recently. Thoroughly recommended for both theory and practical ideas.
Alex Grevett, aka @breathyvowel, doesn’t just write about pronunciation, but his blog features a number of interesting posts writing about the pronunciation based courses he runs. This is the most recent.
David Petrie’s TEFLgeek is a favourite blog of mine, with lots of solid methodology and practical ideas. I particularly recommend ‘Is reading aloud, allowed?’
One of the things I really like about @pterolaur’s (Laura Phelps) blog, The Daily Ptefldactyl, is the descriptions of what is happening in her classroom. This post describes a lesson in which one of her teacher mentees in Borneo experimented with kind of ‘silent way’ approach.
As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?
I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.
As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.
I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)
So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).
But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.
Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.
Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL
The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!
But if it has potential..
If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it? You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions. This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.
Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.
Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?
So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?
A common feature in many coursebooks is the ‘Useful Language’ box. This is usually a collection of phrases which the authors consider may be useful for an upcoming speaking activity. A ‘useful language’ box is potentially a great idea because the tendency in speaking activities can be for students to simply stay safe and just use what they already know. Providing this language gives us the opportunity to scaffold their learning and encourage the learners to stretch themselves a bit.
However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.
What do you actually do with the Useful Language box? Just getting students to read through it certainly isn’t enough to get them using the language.
There seems for many students to be a reluctance or inability to use the language straightaway (see this recent conversation on Pearson ELT Community). And if they don’t use it straightaway, what are the chances of them locating and using it at a later date?
I think most people would agree that for students to use new language:
– They need to process the language in some way, work with it, not just be shown it.
– They need to know exactly how to use it in and in what context.
– They need to need to use it.
A good place to start with ‘useful language’ is by having it come out of a recording, rather than just being on the page. With the example above, from New Total English Intermediate, students have been listening to a short presentation, with follow up questions, and, after carrying out other comprehension based tasks, they listen again and tick the phrases they hear being used. They then prepare and give their own mini-presentations.
This approach works in terms of providing context, and it also means that there is a model for pronunciation, which is often very important with functional language (more later). However, there is still, I feel, something missing between identifying the phrases and being expected to use them.
If the ‘useful language’ came from a recording, students will already have some idea of how they can be used in context. If not, you will, I think, need to provide some. Live listening can be good way of doing this (see my previous post for details). Essentially, you provide the model, ideally recording yourself so that it can be replayed. With the example of useful language given here, you might ask a confident student to give a short presentation on a very familiar and unthreatening topic and warn them that you will ask lots of questions! You can then play the recording back and start to work with the language, as discussed below.
Other ideas for processing the language
Exactly how you do this obviously depends on the language, but, for example, with the language box above, you could ask students to divide the first section into phrases to use when you don’t understand, and phrases to use when you want more information. If the categories aren’t clear-cut, so much the better as this will force students to discuss why they have chosen to put a phrase in that category- and thus create more processing.
Useful language boxes often have phrases with elllipses (…….), so that students can complete them however they choose. Fine, if they have the faintest idea how to complete them! So, one task could be to give them a context, and ask them to write a completion for each phrase. For example, with this useful language box, you could give a short talk yourself, or use the recording, or use a short video and ask students to prepare questions using the stems. This will also help you to see whether they are able to use them grammatically. As an example, I think many students might struggle with completing ‘What I’d like to know is…’ because of the emphatic structure used.
Rather than showing them the useful language box, try closing the book and dictating the phrases. You could add some challenge by mixing up the phrases and asking them to decide where in the box they belong (in this example, in ‘Asking for clarification or more information, or in dealing with difficult questions)
You should make sure that you dictate the phrases in a natural way, as complete phrases, with appropriate intonation, and normal features of connected speech. This will then have the added bonuses of providing a further model of how to say the phrase, and raising awareness of connected speech. For example, some students may well write down ‘What I like to know is..’, rather than ‘What I’d like to know is..’, giving the opportunity to focus on the ’ ‘d’ they didn’t hear.
You may have noticed that the activities so far are more focused on writing than speaking, which may seem odd when these phrases are provided for a speaking activity. However, writing can be a good way of bridging the gap between new language and speaking. In ‘How to teach Speaking’, Scott Thornbury points out, ‘Inevitably, because of the constraints placed on mental processing by the demands of real-time speaking, learners tend to rely on a very narrow repertoire of memorized expressions in face-to-face interaction…it may sometimes help to reduce the processing demands on them..one way of slowing down processing is to turn the speaking task into a writing one.’
The following two ideas both come from this book:
– Paper conversations. Learners have a conversation, but, instead of speaking, they write the conversation on paper. The teacher can then easily monitor and make suggestions for improvement.
– Rewriting. Students can be given a simple dialogue and asked to rewrite or modify it to use the new language.
Work on pronunciation
As mentioned above, pronunciation is particularly important in using functional-type phrases. They need to be delivered fluently, as a chunk, or they are likely to sound a bit odd and artificial. Intonation is also often extremely important. Think about the phrase, ‘Are you saying…?’ This needs to be delivered with the right intonation, or it could sound pretty aggressive!
So students need a good model- either a recording, or the teacher- and they need to practise drilling the phrases, getting their tongues round the connected speech and using the right intonation.
A fun way of working on intonation is to ‘say’ the phrases using just ‘Mmmm, mmmm’. Students have to guess which phrase you are saying. As they become more confident, they can do this themselves in pairs.
Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity
After time spent processing and preparing, students should be much more likely to use the language in a follow-up speaking activity anyway. However, there are a few ways to encourage this further.
– As described by Antonia Clare in the Pearson ELT discussion I mentioned earlier, you can write phrases on cards and hand out a few to each student. They need to try to put ‘their’ phrases into the conversation as naturally as possible. If the other students feel it wasn’t natural, they could have to take the card back.
– A certain amount of pressure, such as recording the conversation or giving a presentation to the class can encourage students to focus more on using the new language.
– Similarly having an observer in the group, whose job it is to notice when people use the ‘useful language’ can help to focus the mind.
– Depending on the language and the teaching context, students can be asked to go away and ‘notice’ any of the phrases being used in conversation over the next week (on TV, eavesdropping at the bus-stop etc).
When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.
This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.
However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.
Listening from the middle
In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.
Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.
Pausing and predicting
Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.
There are several ways I can think of to do this:
1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.
2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk. This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English
Pausing and focusing on language
These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills
1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.
E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.
2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.
3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.
E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)
Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.
To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.
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