Tag Archives: fluency

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

Markers, fillers and hedging: not landscape gardening but authentic communication

What differences do you notice between the following two extracts?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the way we live now- we have to change somehow, um, you know. We’re gonna end up with- with no water, with no heating, with- with nothing if we don’t change the way that we all live, so I think the point that he’s making about um homes being smaller um so that we can afford to heat them and to have water for them and, you know, different furniture and things like that is a really great idea.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we have to change the way we live now. If we don’t change, we’re going to end up with no water, no heating, with nothing, in fact. So, I think the point he’s making about homes being smaller, so that we can afford to heat them, and have water for them, is a great idea.

The first example comes from a semi authentic recording we made for New Total English Intermediate. The second is a ‘cleaned-up’ version. It’s been cleaned up by trying to simplify the syntax a bit, removing repetition and hesitation and taking out some of the markers and fillers.

The second version is perhaps more representative of a typical scripted dialogue (though things are changing, as we’ll discuss later); the first version is certainly more representative of how people actually speak.

In his article, ‘Lessons from the analysis of chunks‘, Michael McCarthy makes the point that two word chunks such as ‘you know’ ‘I mean’ and ‘kind of’ are actually much more frequent than many very common words such as ‘their’ ‘where’  or ‘friend’.

These high frequency chunks have a central part to play in communication. Some are often referred to as ‘fillers’. They can certainly act as ways of holding the floor while we think what to say next, but many high frequency chunks also have other clear pragmatic uses:

Referring to or checking shared knowledge: you know, you know what I mean.

Clarifying: I mean, like

Hedging (being indirect so as to save the other person face): I think, kind of, I don’t know if, a little bit, quite, actually, sort of

Vagueness: and things like that (see above example), a couple of, something

Everyday speech is full of these kinds of features, so aren’t we doing our students a disservice by presenting them with too sanitized a version of spoken English?

Alex Gilmore, in the article ‘A comparison of textbook and authentic  interactions.’ finds that dialogues in the newer coursebooks (in 2004, when the article was published), ‘are beginning to incorporate more natural discourse features.’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this trend has continued, and, furthermore, there is a recent move towards using more authentic or semi authentic material (such as in New Total English or Speakout).

It is certainly possible to have too much authenticity, and some transcripts of real conversations are pretty much unintelligible, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that including these features in recordings helps learners in processing real life interactions.

Getting students to ‘notice’ markers, fillers and hedging.

Obviously when students are listening to a recording, they are generally focused on picking out the key elements of meaning. However, we can focus on these high frequency chunks as a follow up task.

–          Just as I did at the beginning of the post, you can rewrite part of an authentic transcript in a ‘cleaned up’ way and ask students to find the differences.

–          Alternatively, give out the ‘cleaned up’ transcript and ask students to listen and write down any extra words or phrases they hear.

–          Or, if you can make your own recordings, you could record a semi authentic dialogue, and then a scripted version of the same conversation and ask students what differences they notice.

–          Give out cards with the high frequency chunks on, and ask students to hold them up whenever they hear ‘their’ chunk. (In some discourse the student with ‘you know’ may get quite tired arms..)

Encouraging students to use markers, fillers and hedging.

The first thing to say is that it is probably more important for students to be aware of these chunks than it is for them to be able to use them all.

However, many of these high frequency chunks can be very useful in gaining a little time to think when speaking, while still sounding fluent. Equally, not using hedging or vagueness can make discourse seem very brusque and even a bit aggressive or rude.

Here are some examples of very frequent chunks which I think learners could benefit from being able to use productively:



a bit

you know what I mean

and things like that/and stuff like that

a lot of people

there’s a lot of

I don’t know what/how/if

First, learners need to hear these phrases in context.

Secondly, they will need help with how to pronounce them, as chunks of language, with all the features of connected speech.

And then they will need to see how they could incorporate them into their own language use.

–          A good way of doing this is to get learners to record a short dialogue or monologue, write out a transcript, and then see which of the chunks they either included, or could have included.

–          Or ask learners to repeat a speaking task (with a new partner perhaps), and this time try to incorporate a few more high frequency chunks.


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

Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?


Drilling has certainly fallen out of favour in recent years. Strongly associated with the behaviourist approach it is often seen as non-communicative, boring, patronising…. A recent ELTChat on the subject brought up all the negatives, but also provided a long list of positive reasons for drilling. For example:

  • Building confidence
  • Helping learners get their tongues round new words
  • Picking up pace and getting students’ attention
  • Developing ability to produce (and understand) connected speech

And perhaps the key reason, for me at any rate: drilling or repetition is an important step towards fluency. Especially at lower levels, it is quite natural to rehearse (at least mentally) before tackling a speaking situation.  Repeating something helps us to ‘notice’ what we are repeating and assimilate it into our store of language. The ELTChat I referred to concentrated mostly on drilling words or single chunks. There are plenty of benefits to this, but in this post I want to concentrate on some techniques which are probably even more out of favour: drilling and repeating dialogues and narratives.

Dialogue builds

I did my CELTA so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then (!). It was also at IH in Cairo, which I rather suspect was a little behind the times in terms of materials. The result was that my initial training centred around the coursebook series Streamlines and Strategies. Lots of drilling and repetition.

One of the first techniques I learnt was a dialogue build. For the uninitiated, it goes like this: Set up the situation, using a photo (or in pre-IWB days two stick figures on the board). Elicit where the characters are, who they are, what’s happening and so on. This is often a service encounter (e.g. in a café), but can be anything you like.

Then you elicit the dialogue from the students, line by line. As you accept each line, you help learners correct it if necessary and then model the final version, with appropriate connected speech and intonation, getting the students to repeat it. You DON’T write the dialogue on the board, but do indicate where each line starts and who is speaking. You might also add question marks or little visual clues. As you go through the dialogue you keep returning to the start, getting students to keep repeating the dialogue, and thus memorising it. You can do this whole class, or divide the class into the number of characters or ask individuals to do each line. It’s good to have a bit of variety here.

Once the class knows the dialogue by heart, they can practise a little more in pairs, changing roles. You can also have a bit of fun with it by getting one of the characters to change their answers, so that the first person has to react spontaneously. (Good idea to model what to do first with lower level learners) Finally, you can elicit the dialogue once more, writing it onto the board so that the students have a clear written version. Alternatively, you could get students to come up and write it on the board, giving scope for some work on correcting spellings, missing articles and so on.

A dialogue build is a great technique to have up your sleeve for a last minute cover lesson. It’s obviously most appropriate for lower level learners, but could be done with more advanced students if the chunks of language elicited were more demanding. At the end of it, the students have memorised a whole set of (hopefully useful) chunks of language and can produce them fluently at will. Fluent speakers are essentially those who have enough chunks of language that they can stick together to keep going, so teaching chunks in this way is a real help.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with learners with low levels of literacy. I can’t understand why it isn’t an ESOL staple. You don’t need any equipment except a board and pens (great for those community halls), it doesn’t rely at all on reading and writing, it can be adapted for specific situations that learners might have to deal with (ringing for a doctor’s appointment, for example) and once it’s elicited onto the board it provides a copying activity where the meaning is already very clear (and was indeed student generated).

Alternative versions

Instead of eliciting the whole dialogue, you could give them one half or the dialogue (i.e. all that one person says) and elicit the missing responses. Then proceed as above. A good alternative for learners who can read quite well, is to start by writing the elicited dialogue onto the board. Drill as a class, making sure you are giving a good model of natural pronunciation, then ask learners to practise it in pairs. As they are practising, gradually wipe off words and lines from the dialogue. As it disappears, they have to remember more and more. Finally you can re-elicit it onto the board or get them to write it down on the board, or in pairs on paper. This could work equally well with a narrative.

Another old, but great, idea comes from Mario Rinvolucri’s book, Dictation. In this activity, you do the repeating (at least to start with) and the students listen and mime the actions. It works really well with younger learners, but if you have a lively class, adults could enjoy it too. Here’s the text (slightly adapted)

You’re standing in front of the Coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket. Take out three 50p coins. Put them in one by one. You hear the machine click. Choose your drink and press the button. You hear a terrible groan from the machine. Clunk! A can drops down. Pick it up. Open the can. It squirts Coke in your face. Take a tissue out of your pocket. Rub your eye. Lick your lips. Take a sip. Burp!

First read the text right through, just to orientate students. Then read again and elicit a movement for each line. Get all the students doing it. Then read a third time with all the students doing all the movements.  You can make this stage fast as possible if you want a bit of fun. Then give the students a version of the text with most of it missing. They have to work together to recreate the text.

This is a form of dictogloss, but the difference is that doing the actions should help them to remember what’s missing. If they get stuck, get them to do the actions and try and remember that way. This is the stage at which they should be drilling the language themselves, as they try to recall it. You can obviously differentiate this activity by giving less of the text to more able students and vice versa. Finally you get the whole class to carry out the actions while saying the text (from memory).

All of these ideas are extremely preparation-light and student generated. They provide a way to help learners appropriate new chunks of language to their store, and the challenge of memorisation also provides interest and stimulation. Maybe it’s time for a revival?


Filed under Differentiation, Pronunciation, Speaking, Teaching methodology