By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A free downloadable lesson, based on a video from StoryCorps, which tells the true story of Storm Reyes, who grew up poor in a migrant camp in Washington State. Students start by watching the video without sound, which encourages them to make predictions, which they then check on a second viewing. There is then some further comprehension and discussion, before an activity which helps students to develop their listening skills by focusing on the weak forms that are so difficult to hear.
Finally there is a focus on opinion or comment adverbs, before a speaking activity to round up the lesson, about the topic of books and reading.
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.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic audio recording from Storycorps.com, where Virginia recalls a good deed her father did during the Great Depression in America.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with a short text giving some background to the Depression of the 1930s, and invites students to think about parallels with the situation in some countries today and what can, or should be done by individuals and governments.
Students then listen to the audio, which is quite short and simple, listening both for gist and specific information.
There is then a focus on narrative tenses, specifically simple past and past perfect. This could work as part of an introduction to past perfect, or as a review at higher levels. Students then try to retell Virginia’s story, using tenses appropriately, before going on to tell their own ‘good deed’ stories.
Click on the photo here, or the photo of Virginia in the lesson plan, for the link to the audio.
A free downloadable lesson using another wonderful animated authentic recording from www.storycorps.com. Joshua, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, interviews his mother, giving us insights into what it’s like for him to be different from others, and the loving relationship between the two of them. Great for raising awareness of Asperger’s and of bullying, and very touching.
The lesson involves listening and inferring meaning, plenty of discussion, and also has a focus on ellipsis, where words are omitted because the meaning is clear.
Probably most suitable from B2/Upper Intermediate+, but a good intermediate class could probably cope, as the way the lesson is structured and the animation provide support.
A free downloadable lesson based around another wonderful animated true story from www.storycorps.com. The conversation between a mother and daughter looks back on the family’s struggles as poor immigrants to the US, and how the daughter was inspired by her mother’s determination.
The lesson is suitable from Pre-Intermediate +/A2+, particularly because the animation helps with comprehension. After watching and listening, there is a focus on impersonal pronouns/adverbs (something, anything, everyone.nowhere etc) and a discussion task which brings in more vocabulary to describe qualities we’d like to pass onto our children. Again, this could be adapted to lower and higher levels through the choice of vocabulary.
For all incurable romantics, a free downloadable lesson about Rachel P Salazar in Thailand and Ruben P Salazar in the US, who found love when an email was delivered to the wrong RP Salazar by mistake. Suitable from Intermediate level (B1) upwards, the lesson uses an authentic recording from www.storycorps.com, which has also been animated. The lesson focuses on vocabulary (uses of like) and grammar (would and used to) from the recording, and asks students to think about the role of luck or fate in our lives, and whether there really is someone for everyone. The lesson finishes with a speaking activity where students can tell the tale of how they and their partner (or a couple they know) met.
And if you want to celebrate Random Acts of Kindness Week instead (or as well), there’s another lesson here.
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming increasingly familiar to many people, but it is still not that clear to many, I think, what exactly it means. Mindfulness isn’t about drifting off into your inner world; it’s more about being fully conscious, really aware of what we’re doing and feeling, right now.
Most of us spend most of our time only dimly aware of what’s happening for us right now. We are usually too busy making future plans, worrying about stuff, remembering things and reacting to situations based on what we think we’ve learnt in the past. Our mind is crowded out with all sorts of stuff.
However, mindfulness isn’t about having an empty mind; it’s about being focused.
Why mindfulness for teachers?
For many people, myself included, one of the great attractions of teaching is that it can be so absorbing that I often find myself in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. When we are totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning. This is a very enjoyable form of mindfulness, and it can be encouraged by developing our own mindfulness practice outside the classroom.
Mindfulness , flow, feeling connected is not so much something that we have to acquire, as something which is always there, but that we tend to be very good at blocking out through anxiety, fear, anger, mind-chatter, judgements and so on.
The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it is to connect to that peaceful place when we’re under pressure, students are playing up, the lesson plan isn’t working and so on.
Mindfulness helps us to be able to respond to a difficult situation calmly, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of feeling angry with ourselves or the students, or feeling that we’re not good enough or whatever our particular ‘favourite’ reaction might be.
Rather than feeling exhausted and drained at the end of a class, we’ll feel energised and alive (and so will the students).
Techniques to develop mindfulness
A key personal discovery is how important it is to start the day right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get things back on track, but it seems to really help to start by getting into the right frame of mind. How you do this is a matter of individual choice, of course: meditation, a brisk walk taking full notice of nature around you or simply setting your intention for the day- reminding yourself to stay in touch with what’s actually happening, take proper breaks, eat well, or to be kinder to yourself etc.
Whenever you remember (and don’t beat yourself up for forgetting, because you will most of the time), check in with what’s actually happening, and how you are feeling. When those feelings are negative, don’t deny or suppress them- just notice them and accept them (rather than telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way), and most of the time they’ll just fade away. When they don’t, you can put them to one side until later and then try a bit of pillow bashing, talking stuff through, writing it all down and so on. But remember that your thoughts aren’t necessarily true- they’re just thoughts. This may help you not to get too caught up in the drama of it all.
Every so often (decide when in advance), take a few minutes to just breathe and become aware. I like to go for a short walk outside.
There are several excellent books on developing mindfulness which I would recommend for developing your own practice:
Any of these books will guide you through exercises designed to help build your inner resilience, dissipate stress, help you to be in the ‘flow’, help you deal with difficult situations and students and generally greatly improve your quality of life.
In my next post, I’d like to look at how you can encourage mindfulness from your students- in ways that won’t feel too different from what you already do, but that may make a difference to the quality of learning.
Patient: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got two theik, a near rake, sore rise, bruise darms a stummer cake and I far tall the time.
Doctor: I see, perhaps you’d like to way tin the corridor?
(Try reading it aloud)
The joke [apologies for the vulgarity 😉 ] showcases a good number of examples of features of connected speech. Teacher can tend to shy away from highlighting these in the classroom, but research shows that teaching learners about connected speech can really make a difference in terms of how well they understand native speakers. See for example, Authentic Communication: whyzit important ta teach reduced forms (Brown 2006) . Equally, some ability to use these features in their own speech will also be likely to make students more confident and fluent speakers.
Features of connected speech
As a brief overview, there is a strong tendency in English to simplify and link words together in the stream of speech, in order to help the language flow rhythmically. Some of the most common features:
This is when the sound at the end of one word changes to make it easier to say the next word. For example:
‘ten boys’ sounds like ‘ tem boys’ (the /n/ sound changes to the bilabial /m/ to make it easier to transition to the also bilabial /b/)
Incidentally bilabial just means two lips together, which is a good example of the kind of jargon that puts people off!
This is when the last consonant of the first word is joined to the first vowel of the next word. This is very very common in English, and can be very confusing for students. For example:
‘an apple’ sounds like ‘a napple’ (Teacher, what is a napple?)
Elision means that you lose a sound in the middle of a consonant cluster, sometimes from the middle of a word. E.g. ‘sandwich’ becomes ‘sanwich’.
Or from the end of a word. For example:
‘fish and chips’ ‘fishnchips’
This is when an extra sound ‘intrudes’. There are three sounds that often do this /r/ /j/ and /w/
E.g. ‘go on’ sounds like ‘gowon’
I agree sounds like ‘aiyagree’
Law and order sounds like ‘lawrunorder’
[I probably should have used a phonemic keyboard!]
If you want to discover more about features of connected speech- and I think it’s fascinating stuff, there’s a list of useful books at the end of the post, but now let’s look at some activities to help raise awareness and encourage more natural sounding speech.
Connected speech activities
I remember reading somewhere that there are three ways to deal with pronunciation in the classroom: integrating it into other activities, dealing with it discretely, and completely ignoring it. 😉 Let’s assume we aren’t going to do the latter, and look at the other two approaches.
I strongly believe that students should be made aware of the basics of connected speech right from the start. I don’t mean that you should be teaching your beginners exactly what catenation is, but you can certainly show them how words link together and what happens to sounds in the stream of speech. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t even need to know very much about the technical aspects; you just need to listen to yourself very carefully and notice what is happening in your mouth as you speak.
Drilling and using the board
At lower levels, we tend to teach quite a lot of functional chunks, such as ‘What’s your name?’ Phonetically that could be transcribed as /wɔ:tsjəneɪm/. However, this is likely to confuse (terrify) the students. Instead, using the board, you can just show the students how the words link by using arrows, and write the schwa /ə/over the top of ‘your’ . Alternatively, you can use your fingers to show how the three words (separate fingers) meld into one long sound (push fingers together). And model and drill the phrase as it is said naturally.
If students struggle with longer phrases, try the technique of back-chaining, starting from the last sound and working up to the whole sound bit by bit. For example with ‘Where do you come from?’ you drill ‘frum’ ‘kumfrum’ ‘dz-kumfrum’ ‘where-dz-kumfrum’ I have no idea why this works- but it does.
Using recording scripts
Where new language has been recorded (or by recording it yourself), ask students to first look at the chunk of language written down and try saying it a few times. Then play the recording several times and ask them to write down what they hear, however they want to spell it. Use the two written forms to elicit the differences (such as the use of the schwa) and then drill the more natural pronunciation. You could of course just say the phrase for them, but it can be hard to keep repeating something exactly the same way.
Make it part of presenting new language
Whenever you are dealing with new language, you need to be thinking about the meaning, the form AND the pronunciation. So if you’re teaching ‘Have you ever + past participle’, make sure you’re teaching it as something like /əvju:w’evə/ not ‘Have… you… ever…’ You don’t need to explain that the first /h/ is elided or that there’s an intrusive /w/- just provide a good model.
Incidentally, I say ‘something like’ because individual ways of connecting and simplifying speech do vary a bit.
Be aware of the difficulties connected speech may cause with listening
If students struggle to understand something in a recording, or that you say, be aware that they may actually know all the words, just not recognise them in the stream of speech. A great example of this is the student who asked me what ‘festival’ meant. I went into an explanation, giving examples of different festivals…but teacher, he said, why do you always say it at the beginning of the lesson? (I was saying First of all…).
If students don’t understand a phrase, see if they do understand it written down and then take the opportunity to highlight the differences between the written and spoken forms.
As well as teaching connected speech as you go along, it is also worth doing some discrete activities for the purpose of awareness-raising.
A good activity to start learners thinking about connected speech and weak forms is to dictate just part of some phrases. For example: ‘uvbin’. After students have written these down as best they can (this should be a light-hearted activity), you dictate the full phrase, in this case ‘I’ve been to Paris.’.
After doing a listening activity, try doing a dictation where you handout the recording script, with chunks of 2-3 words missing. These should include some aspects of connected speech. Students have to complete the gaps, which will help to develop their decoding skills.
Mark Hancock has some great activities in Pronunciation Games and on the HancockMacDonald website. I particularly like The Word Blender, a game for A2/B1 students which starts to help students identify some of the features of connected speech.
This is necessarily a very brief and somewhat simplistic overview. For more information and ideas, you could try:
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.
At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.
When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.
But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/ / and /s /?
Minimal pairs, minimal importance?
It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:
‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’
Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.
So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?
Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?
Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.
It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.
So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.
Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:
With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/
The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.
The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.
The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.
There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)
Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:
Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.
Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.
If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:
And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’
A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.
E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.
Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively, learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites (for example www.shiporsheep.com) where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.
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