An #eltchinwag summary written by Gareth Sears of Centro de Idiomas Macarena, Seville.
Gareth started EFL teaching when he moved to Spain 6 months ago and is currently working for the Centro de Idiomas Macarena in Seville. His background in sound technology fuels his interest in the creation and use of audio tools for ELT and he is equally fascinated second language identity and pronunciation.
He is @GarethSears on Twitter
June’s first #eltchinwag session shone the spotlight on classroom listening materials and our chinwaggers failed to disappoint. This summary takes a look at some of the key topics covered and finishes off with our teachers’ top recommendations for listening.
Authentic vs Coursebook Listenings
Now, authentic is quite a seductive word to an EFL teacher, after all, it’s the real deal. English made by natives, for natives. With the rise of the internet we now have a seemingly never-ending supply of listening materials in all shapes and sizes ready to pour into our students ears. So, how exactly do they stack up against the course book listenings that have become an ELT staple over the decades? Our #eltchinwag kicked off with that very question…
A studious @ChristineMulla got the ball rolling:
“I’ve been reading lots about what’s lost in terms of ‘real’ language in course book texts.” @ChristineMulla
Christine highlighted that they still lack commonplace linguistic features such as “stalling, correction and changing of mind” compared with their authentic cousins, even despite the efforts made to make them “less fake” in recent years (@EdLaur). Our resident student @AeroCross agreed and went as far as to say that these unpredictable factors were a real motivator compared to largely uninspiring, “controlled” CB listenings.
Further praise of authentic materials came from other #chinwag-ers. @Louiseguyett argued that they “expose learners to more accents” than course books currently provide, and I added that traditional course books simply cannot offer the cutting edge content that other authentic sources can, such as current trends, news topics, etc.
Cutting both ways
Yet in spite of these perks it was soon established that authentic listenings were double-edged swords. For one, the very same linguistic artefacts mentioned by @ChristineMulla were quickly marked as being overwhelming for beginners. @Jane_Seely’s students were prone to panic when listening to “real people” and even Christine conceded that with lower levels “sometimes the course book is the only choice”.
The wider array of accents can also be a mixed blessing. My own personal experience of seeingstudents’ faces contort in horror when confronted by some of the richer sounds of English and “native” pace was far from unique, with many of our teachers commenting on the subject:
“[I] sometimes underestimate pace/accent. Think ‘speaker’s a bit fast, but it’ll be fine’, then in class realise not good” @EdLaur
“[Sometimes teachers] fail to hear the ‘thickness’ of the accent” @HadaLitim
“Sts are less aware of accents in English than we are” @SueAnnan
“Was asking my elem sts today what caused probs and they said speed of delivery” @SueAnnan
In addition to this, you also have vernacular lexis rearing its head which can stupefy students (and even natives, as this delightful interview with Hugh Laurie in America proves…) as well as greater demands on planning time compared with ready-to-go coursebook exercises.
Not to be put out, the conversation quickly segued toward practical ways of crossing these authentic obstacles in the classroom and three schools of thought developed as our #eltchinwag-ers grasped the nettle.
Making Authentic Accessible
1. Material Selection
The first of these was in the selection of the materials themselves. @ChristineMulla sang the praises of letting students decide their own authentic listenings to ensure their engagement. Some beginner-friendly authentic listenings were also suggested, such as adverts (@EdLaur) as well as pre-graded authentic materials such as those by Sheila Thorn (@SueAnnan – see below). Furthermore, some of our #eltchinwag-ers took a DIY approach. @HadaLatim suggested using “self made” material graded for the students and I mentioned live listening, where the teacher creates and grades the material on the fly from notes.
The importance of pre-teaching authentic materials to address these problems and ease students into the listening couldn’t be stressed enough. There was no shortage of tweets citing this:
“…a good lead in and prep will help. Scaffolding essential for confidence…” @Louiseguyett
“Lead in help to remove jitters.” @ChristineMulla
“ preteach odd vocab, stress patterns and which words carry meaning“ @SueAnnan
This led to a few novel suggestions for lead ins. For example, @SueAnnan uses wordle to create word clouds from key vocabulary to get ideas flowing prior to listening. @HadaLatim gets her students to contextualise videos with no sound prior to listening, with @EdLaur attesting to the reverse:
“ -cover screen- they hear but don’t see. Ask Qs ‘Are the people inside/outside?’ Amazing what is picked up” @EdLaur
and @ChristineMulla sets up a dictation based around prediction, putting students in pairs “half back to board, half looking” at soundless video and gets those watching to dictate what they see to their partners before swapping.
3. During the listening
The final area where we can help our students navigate the sea of authentic speech is during the listening itself. Breaking up the audio into accessible chunks was mentioned by several #eltchinwag-ers, with a predictive twist from @EdLaur:
“Stop the recording at key points. Ss guess what is said next. Note all suggestions before playing to see who’s right” @EdLaur
We can also repeat the listening to help students get a grasp on the material. @Jane_Seely was curious as to just “how many times” we should do this, which prompted the following words of wisdom:
“Think it depends on your focus. If set questions, more than once – gist + answer. Also difficulty level” @ChristineMulla
“It depends on the aim of the task. Sometimes as many as it takes for everyone to answer, at times just once” @HadaLitim
@EdLaur even built repetition into the lesson stages:
“I repeat a lot! in chunks, with transcript & gaps, reading along with it before acting out if it’s a dialogue.” @EdLaur
This could indeed go a long way toward increasing our students familiarity and confidence with the material, as well as allowing us to ‘zoom’ in on the language incrementally.
Activities for Authentic Listenings
After tackling the hard issues the time came to brainstorm our top activities with authentic listenings. So without further ado here are some top tips from the team:
“predicting which lexis will belong to a particular news story- and listening to see if correct” @SueAnnan
“prediction/check questions. Safe but effective, especially with little known topics”
“gap fills from transcripts for ‘chunk’ pronunciation focus” @GarethSears
“listen for target language. Give each L a few words, when they hear their words they have to stand up! Fun intro”@Louiseguyett (alternative to standing: “Use cards” – @ChristineMulla)
“Ss analyse relationships of people based on intonation and word use. then I show the clip.”
“After a gist and detail task, I love having them deconstruct an utterance 1) stress words 2) unstressed words 3) pron” @HadaLitim
A particularly interesting, albeit slightly more technically demanding, suggestion was made by @SueAnnan, who uses the free audio editor Audacity to remove one side of a dialogue and gets students to “imagine what was said”. Inspiring stuff for the tech savvy, and if you’d like to know the basics here’s a slideshow that goes over the basics.
Of course, no discussion about activities and materials would be quite complete without the topic of mixed levels popping up and as we went into the final 10 minutes our hosts @ELTIreland asked:
“How do you adapt listening materials across mixed levels?”
To which the following suggestions were given:
“always have extra question types for 2nd or 3rd listening for stronger Ss” @Louiseguyett
“adapt the tasks and the number/type of qs” @SueAnnan
“Also good to have some vocab focus. Maybe give a list of synonyms, Ss try hear partner and write.” @ChristineMulla
“graded Qs? Use another CD player with background noise, put adv. Ss further away from source” @GarethSears
And with that another satisfying #eltchinwag came to a close, with some grand ideas coming in from all sides. Not least were some top notch suggestions for listening materials. In the last few minutes we were asked for our preferences, but sure enough they were coming in thick and fast from the start, so I’ve concluded this summary with a list of them all with some further links to keep you busy. Enjoy!
“TED talks. Love those” @EdLaur
“feels more personal while being entertaining” @AeroCross
“Love @TEDTalks” @ChristineMulla
“TED TALKS!” @GarethSears
There was a lot of love for the non-profit organisation with “Ideas worth spreading” and it was a clear favourite for harvesting authentic listenings. They feature expert speakers (some with non-standard English accents) talking passionately about a variety contemporary issues and are bound to get students talking.
In addition to the main site, which offers audio and video versions of the talks with subtitles and transcripts, there are a number of good sites with respect to teaching with TED talks. I’ll throw in two personal favourites:
- tedxesl, which features monthly lesson plans with a handy PDF with language questions and discussion topics.
- teaching with TED, which is a wiki of biblical proportions specifically teachers in mind.
“Has to be songs for me! Especially 80’s hits!” @Jane_Seely
Although some serious needs analysis will need to be done before breaking out the “hair metal”, songs were suggested as a great authentic resource for language teaching. They can be used to surreptitiously teach all kinds of English to those who love a good tune and a fine number of dedicated sites exist with pre-made worksheets and materials, including:
“Stand-up is especially useful for accents & speed. Forces me to make sense of things with very little time to think.” @AeroCross
“Classrooms in which laughter is welcome help bring learning to life.” so why not add a little laughter as @AeroCross suggests? The pace, timing and cultural nuance in stand up is bound to stretch even the most advanced learners. YouTube is a great place to start searching for the comedy gold, and I would point Chrome users toward the Video Downloader Professional app for offline youtube viewing.
“The only success I’ve had re: authentic materials is with podcasts and high levels” @Jane_Seely
“With podcasts, videos, and talks, you encounter things you would never hear in class” @AeroCross
Podcasts come in all shapes and sizes and can really be a great resource to focus on our learner’s interests. Being an Apple creation (“pod” referring to the iPod, and “cast” from webcast, if you’re interested…) the iTunes store is a great place to start looking and many are free. Alternatively you could pick the fruits of a quick Google search as many websites host their own or you could try Google Play.
Language learning podcasts
Sure, podcasts have already popped up, but being the eclectic little critters they are they even come in ‘esl’ flavour. @HadaLitim sang the praises of podcasts in english saying they provided a “great transition” from coursebook to authentic, although you did have to subscribe to receive the worksheets.
Similar sites include:
- eslpod (another subscription site)
- ello (A personal favourite as it includes many different accents and are given in conversational settings)
Unscripted listening courses
“Sheila Thorn does a great series of books of authentic listening, combining both” @SueAnnan
Having seen the deficiencies of prescripted materials that serve a narrow language base, some materials designers have taken it upon themselves to start with the conversation and work backward to prepare students for language outside the classroom. An example of this is Sheila Thorn’s Real Lives, Real Listening series, as given by @SueAnnan.
Sounds Interesting / Intriguing
“One of the first things [I do] is to train sts to listen. I use Sounds interesting/intriguing to do that. Having no words helps…” @SueAnnan
Another novel and quite inspired suggestion that came from @SueAnnan refers to Alan Maley’s “sounds interesting/intriguing” series. With these ,students are invited to give a personal interpretation of a sequence of events suggested by a series of sounds, rather than a conversation. No doubt this is a great way to get schemata and imaginations firing regardless of level and I’m personally looking forward to experimenting with the concept in the future!
Although it seems to have gone out of print (you might be able to track it down on Amazon second hand…) you can use FreeSound to download your own creative commons audio files and paste them together using an audio editor like Audacity to replicate the concept.
 To throw in a quick ‘authentic materials’ definition – “Materials designed for native speakers and not for language learners” (Harmer 1991). Although it can be debated that listening in a classroom environment isn’t truly authentic, life is short and 140 characters is even shorter… 😉
 Dickinson, D., “Humor and the Multiple Intelligence”, New Horizons for Learning, Seattle, WA,