Transcription – a much underused yet powerful micro-listening skills enhancer


Being a music lover, many years ago (before sites like existed), as a learner of English, French, Spanish and German, I improved my listening skills and vocabulary repertoire by transcribing songs in those languages. Being forced to listen to each song over and over again, the process sharpened my ‘ear’ for the target language sounds whilst forcing me to use dictionaries in search for any word which matched whatever I heard the singer say often using the context to try and guess them. I learnt lots of new words in the process and my pronunciation improved, too, massively.

As a teacher, I have often recycled that learning strategy with my pre-intermediate to upper intermediate students, mostly as homework, but at times in class, too. The objective? Mainly to develop micro-listening skills and spelling, especially word-endings, so problematic for many learners of romance languages; but most importantly, to focus learners on the relationship between the target language phonemic and graphemic systems, which, especially in English and  French, is not always strightforward. As Macaro (2007) rightly notes, Transcription, defined as ‘the converting of authentic recorded text to written form by individuals with the freedom to listen and repeat as often as they wish’  is a much underused activity. He points out three advantages of learning tasks involving transcription.

  1. It practices phonological decoding (which in turns will impact on pronunciation);
  2. It enables the learner to practice analytical skills (by thinking through the separation of the morpho-syntax);
  3. It focuses students on spelling.

I would add a fourth advantage to transcription which relates to the post-task activities. In my experience, when – after completion of the task – the students listen to the same text again whilst reading the original (correct) script, they often experience a few ‘eureka’ moments when they notice the way phonemes relate to their graphemic form. Moreover, quite a few questions about target language phonology will be asked that teachers never usually hear after typical listening comprehension tasks. For instance, the other day, from an L1-Italian student: “Sir, why did he not pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘heir’? I thought you are supposed to pron ‘h’ in English!”. What is remarkable about this question is that I had made that point about the word ‘heir’ several times before in class; yet, the boy only noticed it in the context of this task, due to the greater focus it lays on phoneme-grapheme correspondence.

The following are three transcription tasks I use quite a lot. Teachers should note that for task 1 and 2 it is preferable not to use lengthy texts. Moreover, as I am sure it is evident, teachers should use easy texts to start with and may want to carry out vocabulary building pre-transcription tasks involving the language items found in the target text – especially the more linguistically challenging ones.

  1. Pure transcription of video or audio recording – students simply transcribe the passage they hear, writing down every word. This is more suitable for highly motivated and able groups.
  2. L1-scaffolded transcription – students are provided the L1-translation of the to-be-listened text on the left-hand side of a piece of paper and, whilst listening to it, they write out what they hear in the target language on the right-hand side. The rationale for providing the L1 translation is that it gives the learners some badly needed support when they struggle with more challenging words.
  3. Partial transcription tasks – the students are provided with a gapped transcript of the recording. The gaps involve entire sentences. This type of transcription task is useful in that the sentence preceding each gap helps the students in the decoding of the missing sentence, thereby eliciting the application of inference strategies.

I have been using transcription tasks for a very long time with my more able groups, especially as homework. I use it at KS3, too, with very short texts or sets of 7-8 sentences on a given topic and students find it extremely useful. Giving feedback on them is very simple: scan the transcript from the textbook, show it on the screen and ask the students to self- or peer-correct. The learning benefits cut across several dimension of language acquisition and go well beyond micro-listening skill enhancement. They involve gains in vocabulary, spelling and even grammar and syntax as feedback will inevitably concern itself with ending mistakes.

Combining transcription tasks with narrow listening activities (see my blog on Narrow listening) creates, in my experience, an amazing powerful learning synergy which addresses a wide range of macro- and micro-listening skills components by recycling vocabulary and grammar structures at every possible level of target language processing.

Finally, let us not forget that apart from its value as a teaching and learning strategy, Transcription is a skill that has a number of application in the academic and business world (journalism, social science research, interpreting, etc.).