On fluency and spontaneity: beyond “practice makes perfect”

Fluency (intended as effortless effective communication) and Spontaneity (intended as the ability to effectively perform unplanned speech to initiate or respond to speech) are not only about practising speaking on a regular basis. Of course,  practice does help make perfect. However, in instructed language acquisition, the lack of contact time and exposure characteristic of school settings calls for a planned and principled approach to spontaneity which maximises the use of the few hours and resources available. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the main factors and strategies overlooked by many language educators, which promote the development of fluency and spontaneity in non-immersive school settings:

1. Listening to a lot of good-quality 90-to-95 % comprehensible input through activities which model speaking and recycle what you want your students to say many times over (input-flooding). This is the single most deficient and neglected dimension of speaking instruction (Conti and Smith, 2019). Most listening tasks in books and published materials do not model language – they test student on what they hear. That is why Steve Smith and I wrote our latest book.

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2.Understanding what processes speaking involves and targeting them through deliberate practice. So, what kind of speaking you do, not merely the quantity of it, is paramount. Ask yourself: what am I doing this speaking task for? Is it to focus on pronunciation, grammar/syntactic accuracy, fluency, complexity, effective communication, communication strategies etc.? Each purpose will shape the type of task you are going to stage.

 

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3. Making sure students learn to chunk language. Model and teach language in chunks. The longer the stretches of language the students can produce in one go without breaks, the better (Wood, 2010). Pauses should occur at the end of each clause, not in the middle. If pauses occur in the middle of clauses, it may point to disfluency at some level of production, e.g. articulation, vocabulary retrieval issues, grammar/syntax issues, etc.(Segalowitz, 2010). Clause chaining appears to be one of the most effective strategies the human brain has developed in order to reduce cognitive load in fluent communication.

4. Task-repetition: we know that task-repetition leads to improvements in fluency (Bygate, 2015). Students benefit from task-familiarity even 9 weeks after the first execution of a task (Bygate, 2009).

5.Sequencing speaking tasks effectively. For instance: ensuring that an instructional sequence goes from highly structured to less structured production; from planned to unplanned production (the latter occurring very late in a sequence). That a series of listening tasks pave the way for a speaking activity.

6.(this is possibly the most important bit) Preventing anxiety and nurturing the motivation to talk. Anxiety prevention: creating non-threatening opportunities for talking in a non-threatening and empathetic environment; preparing the students effectively for speaking tasks (we know planning reduces cognitive load); providing solid scaffolding for less confident learners (e.g. my prepping them for more challenging tasks through a series of pre-tasks; providing differentiation by support). Motivation-to-talk: avoiding the ‘so-what’ effect (so common in language classrooms), staging tasks which are engaging, FUN and have a clear purpose, possibly real-life like.

 

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7. Specific training in the automatic retrieval of the target linguistic features, by, for instance, gradually increasing the time constraints and communicative pressure in which the students have to deliver the same talk (e.g. in tasks such as the 4,3,2 technique; Messengers; Market place; Speed dating; Ask and move tasks). This kind of fluency training which Paul Nation calls the “fluency strand” is possibly the most neglected, yet by far the most important.

Cumbria transfer mistake

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8. Having classroom routines such as entry, register and exit routines which provide the students with opportunities for implicit learning and with attentional frames for sets of useful formulaic chunks/phrases. Make sure you scaffold each routine appropriately at the beginning to ensure nobody finds it threatening (e.g. put up a poster with key phrases by the door or a sentence builder on the classroom screen). Don’t correct, recast.

9.knowing when to go to production. Way too often students are asked to produce new language features  beyond their current level of competence after insufficient receptive processing of and exposure to them through listening and reading. Yet, we know, that if students go to production to soon (e.g. the classic “repeat after me” on saying something for the very first time) you are likely to induce error and negative learning (de Jong, 2009). Provide plenty of receptive practice before you ask your students to speak and write.

10.Finally, the goals and content of your course is likely to impact the development of fluency. If your course content focuses mainly on grammar structures you are more likely to focus on the accumulation of intellectual knowledge and less on the building of fluent communication. If, on the other hand, as I do, your focus is on communicative functions, you are more likely to stage communicative tasks, which may result in greater fluency.

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These are but a few of the most important – yet often neglected – facets of fluency training. To claim, as I read on certain blogs, that this or that activity promotes spontaneity is vague and unhelpful. Every single speaking activity, even repeating aloud, helps promote fluency and spontaneity to a degree.

However, it is not sufficient to make bizarre claims such as the one that Jenga blocks promote spontaneity, as I have read recently on a blog on the allegedly best way of teaching speaking. It is all too easy and random. One needs to be clear as to how, to what extent and, most importantly, which dimension of speaking competence that activity addresses.

In a nutshell: plan for spontaneity. Have a principled approach to it, possibly one rooted in research evidence, not hearsay or folklore. One which deliberately addresses as many of the above areas as possible.

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To find out more about my approach to language teaching, get hold of our latest book “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” co-authored with Steve Smith

Back to school – my top tips for the new academic year

Back to school

The new academic year is about to start for many colleagues around the world. This post was written in response to those who have asked me what my top tips for successful teaching and learning would be. I initially came up with a twenty bullet points list. I subsequently reduced the list to 15 items, prioritising what the 6,000 teachers and lecturers who have attended my workshops this year identified as their most important take-aways from the sessions.

My top teaching-and-learning tips for the new academic year

1. Promote self-efficacy: set your students up for success.

Self-efficacy (i.e. can-do attitude) is one of the most potent predictors of language learning success (Macaro, 2003). A self-efficacious student has high expectancy of success at the language tasks you stage in the classroom and at language learning in general; s/he is more likely to be intrinsically motivated and resilient. Self-efficacy is built through repeated experiences of success at a task; hence, it must be nurtured carefully, day in day out.

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Instructional strategies that can be used to enhance self-efficacy include: minimizing cognitive load; controlled input-output; scaffolding understanding and production (e.g. through worked examples); pre-task planning; cooperative strategies; etc. (Conti and Smith, 2019).

Considering that FLA (foreign language anxiety), a powerful inhibitor of self-efficacy is rampant in language learning classrooms, teachers must endeavour to create the optimal conditions for learner success without dumbing down teaching and learning (Conti and Smith, 2019). Student self-efficacy is particularly low in Listening because of its test-like nature in many language classrooms (Graham, 2017). Hence, teachers may want to find ways to lower the students’ anxiety in this skill area and design tasks the students enjoy, succeed at and learn from.

Finally, Consider the cognitive load that the input you give and the tasks you set your students cause them: can they handle it? (see point 8 below).

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2. Teach for learning, not coverage. 

Don’t rush through content because the textbook does ! Let’s be mindful of human forgetting rates (see the curve of human forgetting below); most of what you have taught on day 1 will be forgotten by day 7 in the absence of regular spaced recycling (Ebbinghaus, 1885). Hence, recycle each lesson’s target items as much as possible across as many modalities as possible.

Ensure your students receive extensive practice in the target items across a wide range of contexts– this is key as we know that learning is context-specific (the so-called T.A.P. or transfer appropriate processing principle). Coursebooks unfortunately rarely do that, so you will have to heavily supplement them with your own activities and resources.

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The recycling matrix below can help you ensure the core target items in your syllabus are revisited receptively and productively many times over throughout the year and that the core content is interleaved.

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In many schools the course is too heavy on content, especially at beginner to intermediate levels (e.g. UK years 7 to 9) and often students complain that the teacher is going too fast. This is often due to the fact that the schemes of learning are based on the pace suggested by the textbook.

If you are using a UK textbook such as Studio, Expo, Zoom, Stimmt, Viva and Mira and you cover a unit from that textbook per half-term, you may be going too fast. These books do not recycle sufficiently. Devote double the time to that unit. Make ‘Less is more’ your motto. Fluency and automaticity, the ultimate goals of language learning (see point 15 below), require extensive processing and productive practice.

3.Put listening and speaking first.

Language lessons, especially in the formative years of learning, should be mostly about sound (Conti and Smith, 2019). Humans are hard-wired to learn language through sound, and memory of words is mediated by sound, even when we read silently (Field, 2009). Hence making language learning mainly about reading and writing may actually hinder L2 acquisition. Since 45 % of human communication occurs through the aural medium, – and only 25% through reading and writing – listening is the most crucial skill for survival in the target language country.

the most crucial skillset

With beginner to intermediate students, a typical lesson ought to involve listening at least 60 to 70 % of the time. And since most listening tasks usually involve other skills and enhance learning by virtue of this multi-skill synergy, you won’t be neglecting reading, speaking and writing either ! Examples:

  • Traditional reading aloud and reading aloud games a la Conti (e.g ‘Robo de tarjetas’ or ‘Sentence stealer’) involve speaking and reading – even writing if the students are asked to make their own sentences;
  • dictations, from simple transcription tasks to dictocomp and dictogloss, involve listening, writing and reading;
  • activities on songs can involve all four skills;
  • favourites of mine such as Spot the difference, Bad translation, Spot the intruder, Spot the missing detail, Gapped parallel texts and others involve reading, listening and writing.

flooding

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4. Make your listening and reading tasks opportunities to learn new language items and consolidate old ones.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this task feel and look like a test?
  • Is this listening activity / task modelling speaking?
  • Am I dwelling on this text sufficient time for my students to learn?
  • If what we hear lingers in the brain only a few seconds, am I giving my students opportunities to learn from the aural input they have just processed by staging post-tasks that recycle the language in that input?

5. Use a triadic routine for complex tasks (Ellis, 2015; Rost, 2016; Conti and Smith, 2019)

  • Phase 1: Have a pre-task phase which prepares the students as thoroughly as possible for tasks. The preparation could have a metacognitive component (e.g. how can I prevent errors I made before in executing the same task?); a linguistic component drilling in the less familiar language items needed to complete the task and even an affective component aimed at lowering anxiety. Research shows that this preparation, if thoroughly and effectively carried out, contributes to lessening the cognitive load during the execution of the task.
  • Phase 2: students execute the task. Ensure the task falls within the students’ zone of proximal development. If it involves the receptive skills ensure it includes comprehensible input and if it involves output, feasible output.
  • Phase 3: After the task has been completed, have a post-task phase in which you review the performance, address any identified issues and consolidate the linguistic content. This doesn’t mean a ten-minute task, but possibly a series of logically sequenced activities which recycle the key items, help student get better at using them and addresses errors and misgivings. This phase could also include a repetition of the task done in Phase 2.

6. Don’t go to production until you have evidence that your students have consolidated sounds, vocabulary or grammar item receptively.

Give your students plenty of practice through listening and reading tasks before you make them write and/or speak. De Jong (2005) points out that when students produce L2 items which have not been consolidated receptively, they are more likely to make mistakes. Brain imaging research indicates that when students listen the brain is simultaneously ‘speaking’ silently, as it were, as listening activates the same neuronal paths that are normally in use when we speak (except the motor cortex involved in physically producing sounds). In other words, speaking doesn’t mirror listening; listening is speaking without the articulation of sounds. 

As the picture below shows, do lots of extensive ear training before asking students to venture into the production of sounds, especially the more challenging ones.

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7. Teach sentence patterns and high-frequency chunks in context.

Grammar can’t be taught like a math formula: applying a fixed formula to the sentences without the understanding of the meaning in context. Vocabulary can’t be just learned by memorizing without understanding how actual words are used in a sentence.

With beginner to lower-intermediate students, lists of single words are pretty much useless unless the students are fluent in the use of sentence patterns or are very gifted at applying grammar rules to chunk them together as they produce output. It has been calculated by many researchers that 50 % at least of what we write amount to multi-words units; the figure is greater for spoken output. Here is a classification of chunks by Michael Lewis (1990), the father of the lexical approach (you can find a much more fine-grained one in Gustaffson and Verspoor, 2017).

Table 1: classification of lexical items by Lewis (1990)

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Use sentence builders like the one below to model sentence patterns, collocations and colligations.

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Focus on single words only when your students are more advanced and master a wide range of sentence frames they can slot those words in. Flooding your aural and written input with many repetitions of the target sentence patterns is a very effective way of teaching them. Forced written and oral output containing many occurrences of the same target patterns will reinforce the learning of those patterns resulting in greater fluency.

Teaching chunks this way doesn’t mean avoiding teaching your students the grammar that keeps the chunk together. It means securing strong implicit learning of those patterns first; the explicit learning can occur at a later stage, through ‘reverse-engineering’, so to speak.

8.Teach as early and deeply as possible function words (determiners, prepositions, connectives, etc.) 

Function words are the words that glue content-words, phrases and sentences together. They give us important clues about meaning when we listen and read and help us piece together lexis and discourse when we speak and write. Have you ever wondered why many of your final-year students are still not fluent in the recognition and production of connectives, prepositions and even determiners?

The reason is that these words are less noticeable and learnable because they are less semantically and physically salient in the input our students process; hence, unless your texts are packed with occurrences of these words and your tasks focus their students on those words, they will never acquire them. Using input-enhancement techniques (e.g. exaggerating their pronunciation when you speak; using typographic devices to make them more noticeable and distinctive;etc.) evidently helps substantively too, as it promotes noticing.

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9.Avoid cognitive overload

Think about the cognitive complexity of the language items you are planning to teach and of the task you intend to stage to practise them. Also consider the language items you are aiming to teach and ask yourself:  how many cognitive steps does learning those items entail? Are those steps challenging? If the answer is yes, then their cognitive load is likely to be high.

Plan for ways to scaffold comprehension and don’t refrain from using the students’ first language to facilitate learning. Avoid teaching too many paired associates which interfere with each other such as words with their synonyms or antonyms, or words that look or sound very similar, as research shows they cause interference (Nation and MacAlister, 2015). Consider the learning burden of words (see figure 1 below, adapted from Nation, 2007). Use dual coding (e.g. visual and audio input) to facilitate learning. Avoid getting the students to listen to lengthy explanations on audio or video.

Table 2. The learning burden of a word (Nation, 2007)

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Another dimension of cognitive load pertains to the input we give our students. According to research (e.g. Nation and Hu, 2015), the vast majority of L2 learners learn very little from a text which is less than 95 % comprehensible without support. A minority of gifted learners can cope with 90% comprehensible input. Do you give your students, especially when you test them, 90 to 95 % comprehensible input? If you don’t, do you ensure you prepare them thoroughly for that task, bearing in mind that learning the words they are going to hear in a text from a worksheet prior to listening to / reading it won’t help substantively the average learner?

 10.Practise selective error correction.

Teachers spend on average 1 minute of their precious time correcting 100 words of their students’ written output with very modest returns: around 10 % after six months of corrections (Chandler, 2006). And many mistakes are resistant to correction (Conti, 2005, Alroe,2003).

To enhance the effectiveness of your feedback you may want to reduce the number of errors you focus your corrections on. There is evidence that selective error correction which focuses on a very narrow range of errors is more effective than correction which focuses randomly on all or most of the errors in an essay. With younger learners, target only two or three major error categories per term. This will increase your students’ attention to those error types whilst making the corrective process easier and more purposeful for both you and your students. Here are the benefits of focused error correction:

  • it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that their attentional resources can be used more efficiently);
  • such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);
  • it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);
  • students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process);

11.Make learning as interpersonal as possible

L2 learning should involve a balance of focus on meaningful interaction and focus on form. Many of the form-orientated and meaning-based activities language teachers stage as individual work can be turned into interactional tasks/games with a bit of creativity and imagination on our part. Nation and Newton (2009) and Conti and Smith (2019) detail a wide range of listening activities which involve interaction between teachers and students and between students.

12. Focus as much on meaning as you do on form.

Stage activities, tasks and games which focus students on phonemes, morphology and syntax and others that focus on communication. For instance, you could stage awareness-raising activities to draw your students’ attention to a specific item you want to teach (focus on form); followed by drills consolidating that items (focus on form); then stage communicative tasks which involve negotiation of meaning (e.g. Find someone who; surveys; Post and praise; Detectives and informants; Ask and move: Spot the difference; Things in common; Expert jigsaw; Listen, Recall and Repeat; etc.); finally, you could stage a few activities to address frequent errors you noticed during the communicative tasks, thereby focusing on form again.

13.Set fluency as the ultimate goal of your teaching.

Fluency ought to be the ultimate goal of your teaching. Hence, ensure that, once your students ‘know’ the items you have been teaching throughout a unit, they are given plenty of opportunities to use them across all 4 macro-skills and as wide as possible a range of communicative contexts with one goal in mind: the ability to understand and produce language accurately, as effortlessly and fast as possible.

This entails lots of task repetition and executing the same task under increasingly challenging time constraints.  Tasks such as Nation’s (2001) ‘4,3,2 technique’ and ‘Market place’ and Linked-skills tasks or Conti’s ‘Oral fluency cards’, ‘Fast and furious’, ‘Chain reaction’ and ‘Pyramid translation’ involve tons of repetition and challenge the learners to produce the same output at an increasingly higher rate of speed.

If you don’t have time for this fluency-training stage think of ways to make time for it – it is so essential! One solution is to reduce the content of the curriculum; another is laid out in point (14) below.

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14. Avoid time-consuming high-stake end-of-unit tests

In many UK secondary schools, a substantive portion of each term is devoted to the preparation and staging of end-of-unit high-stake assessments. In many of the schools I have worked at or visited over the years, five lessons or more are ‘wasted’ revising for the end-of-unit test, doing the test and then going through it and set useless targets. The end-result? Students who learn to the test, cramming rather than spacing out learning; results which give us an artificial and unreliable snapshot of our students’ progress and do not really advance learning.

Better replace those high-stake end-of-unit tests with several snappy and easy-to mark low-stake assessments which tell us how students are progressing over the course of the term-at-hand. This repeated-measures assessment mode provides more reliable data whilst enabling the teacher to spot deficits as the term progresses allowing him/her to address them before it is too late. The time usually devoted to high-stake end-of-unit tests could then be devoted to the fluency training alluded to in point (13).

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15.Make language learning less of an intellectual endeavour for the few

Language learning should be as inclusive as possible. By making it intellectual and making it more about processing than memorizing through lots of exposure and use, you may penalize the less gifted linguists from day one of your grammar teaching. As Schmitt (1999) points out ‘Processing language is much more complicated than memorizing it‘.

Hence, model useful, high-frequency ready-made chunks for students to memorize; give them masses of opportunities to process those chunks receptively (through listening and reading  95 % comprehensible input) and then produce them in feasible output. This will speed up the onset of fluency because anyone can memorize and recall multi-word chunks, but only a few gifted beginners can piece words together accurately applying grammar rules on the spot -‘online’ – under communicative pressure. Read this if you are interested in finding out how I suggest this can be done.

16. Concluding remarks

I hope you found the above reminders useful. In case you are wondering which five tips I removed from the original list, here they are:

  • Decide on the key pedagogic principles that should underpin teaching and learning in your department;
  • Create a  vocabulary-rich learning environment;
  • Get the students to process texts extensively, at every level of grain:
  • Establish a great rapport with your students. This is as – if not more – important as pedagogic principles and techniques;
  • Be the most empathetic and sympathetic colleague you can be. With every one of your colleagues – not only the ones you like.

 

If you want to find out more about the above principles and techniques and on how they can be implemented in the language classroom, do get hold of the book I have co-authored with Steve Smith, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, available on Amazon

 

“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” – why we wrote it and what it is about

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As many of my readers and followers will know, I have always been very passionate about Listening. Why? Because it is simply the most important language skill, the one that teachers should prioritize in the classroom, the precursor to speaking. How can you ever hope to master Speaking, if you are a poor listener?

As a learner of 14 languages, I have experienced firsthand the frustration of not being able to understand aural input at the early stages of L2 learning when even basic target-language speech sounds like a fast flow of undecipherable gibberish. I have also experienced the enhancing power of comprehensible input, of skillful use of audiovisuals and body language, of aural texts flooded with repetitions, of enhanced input and of lessons revolving mostly around sound and oral communication.

 

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Developing L2 learners’ aural skills is a must as the human brain is hard-wired to learn through listening by our biology and 150,000 years of evolution. Children listen to their caregivers on average for 9,000 thousand hours before they start producing intelligible output. Through incessant repetition, routines, audiovisual cues and body language oozing out love, empathy and patience, caregivers impart on their children their mother tongue through the oral medium. Add to the above that 45 % (some say 65 %) of verbal communication occurs through listening and 30 % through speaking. Only about 25 % occurs through reading and writing.

 

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Yet, in 28 years of teaching and many more as a language learner, I have seen teachers neglect listening skills day in day out. As Chambers (1996) famously pointed out, in the typical English modern language classroom listening is usually about (1) pressing a button, (2) playing an audio track twice to students who answer a number of ‘wh’ or ‘True or False’ questions, (3) giving the answers and (4) assigning a score. What is worse, Chambers (1996) and other subsequent studies have found that listening activities are not usually logically sequenced and integrated in what comes before and after. It is all pretty random and consistent with the textbook’s suggested pedagogic sequence.

 

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Chambers (1996) doesn’t paint a rosy picture. Nor has done any subsequent research. Unsurprisingly, Listening has been labelled the ‘Cinderella skill’, as research has consistently found that it is the skill, teachers

  1. understand the least;
  2. have fewer resources for;
  3. feel the least confident teaching;
  4. neglect the most.

What is worse, it is also the skill language students enjoy the least and fear the most. In fact, there is a specific form of situational anxiety related to listening which has been documented by many studies. Many students’ expectancy of success or Self-efficacy is at its lowest in Listening. Professor Graham of Reading University, one of the greatest experts alive in the field of listening instruction, has researched L2 students’ self-efficacy in Listening for several decades, always finding the same issue time and again: many students approach listening task with a sense of anxiety and a poor repertoire of listening strategies.

Preventing students’ anxiety and building self-efficacy are two of our main foci in the book. We suggest a range of strategies which encompass considering affective and cognitive factors, input design and delivery, metacognitive and cognitive strategies, as well as task and assessment design. The objective: to develop approach motivation and prevent avoidance motivation from setting in.

 

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Unfortunately, the traditional model of aural skills instruction and published textbook materials (Studio and Expo being amongst the worst French textbooks, in my opinion) perpetuate this status quo, by adopting a swim or sink approach to listening: students listen and carry out comprehension tasks without being taught how to listen in the first place. It is akin throwing football players into a match without ever having taught them the basic skills of passing, dribbling, shooting, heading, tackling, etc.

And when listening skills are ‘taught’ it is by mainly focusing on compensatory strategies such as predicting, guessing from context and/or background knowledge, focusing on key words, etc. – all useful strategies, don’t get me wrong, but not what Steve and I believe listening should be mostly about. This approach to listening is ‘Top-heavy’, i.e. it focuses on the development of the set of top-down processing skills that we use in our first language whenever we experience problems in understanding incoming input ; for instance, when we are talking to someone on a bad skype connection or in a noisy bar or when we are listening to someone with a serious speech impairment. In other words, modern languages students are taught from the beginning to the end of a course to resort to survival skills when they listen; not to try and understand the vast majority of the linguistic cues in the input they hear, as they do in their first language.

This practice sends our students the message : you will never get it, so just guess intelligently from context and focus on keywords to get the information you are asked to provide.

Steve and I believe listening instruction in the formative years of language learning should focus on the process of listening (i.e. developing students’ ability to listen), not on the product (e.g. a score out of ten). The approach we advocate in our book, L.A.M. (or Listening As Modelling) is rooted in this belief.

But being able to focus on the process of listening means understanding the cognitive bases of listening, i.e. what happens in the brain as we listen and the potential barriers to comprehension. Without fully understanding such barriers, it is difficult to empathize with our students and prepare them for effective aural comprehension. Providing our readers with an understanding of the listening processes – based on John Field’s seminal work on the cognition of aural comprehension – is the starting point of our book.

 

the listening process

 

Once identified (1) the various stages of listening comprehension, (2) the vulnerabilities to aural fluency at each level of processing as well as (3) the obstacles that the finite resources of the human brain and the nature of aural input pose to L2 listeners, Steve and I propose a skill-building approach to listening.

By this we mean approaching listening instruction in the same way as a football coach trains his or her players for the big match, i.e.: building up the micro-skills required by the student-listener gradually and steadily, providing 95-98 % comprehensible input and abundant opportunities for processing key language at every level of grain. Whilst the football player needs to master the micro-skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, heading, etc., the learner-listener needs to master the following core abilities:

  • Phonemic processing (recognizing and analyzing sounds)
  • Syllable processing (recognizing and analyzing syllables)
  • Segmenting (identifying word boundaries)
  • Lexical retrieval
  • Parsing (recognizing grammatical and syntactic patterns, functions words, assigning roles to words, recognizing word classes, etc.)
  • Meaning building (understanding meaning of individual sentences)
  • Discourse building

In our book we provide teachers with a vast array of tested strategies and engaging tasks to develop the above skills in their students. The mission: forging students who are versed in the art of extracting cues from aural input at every level of processing, from sound to vocabulary, from grammar to syntax, from grasping the meaning of an utterance to the understanding of a whole text. At the last count the book contained 218 tasks – all research informed – equally distributed across all the above listed areas.

How many times have you taught segmenting, lexical retrieval or parsing skills through listening? In my experience, few teachers do. Yet, in the first 400-500 milliseconds of processing aural input, our brain execute these skills at a very fast speed. Hence, extensive practice in these core micro-abilities is essential.

The structure of the book is outlined in Table 1 below. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a thorough but concise discussion of the theory and research which provide a rationale for our approach, followed by a substantive section packed with a vast array of practical tips, strategies and tasks. The language used is as simplified and jargon-free as possible, in order to render the book accessible to everyone, even to non-classroom practitioners.

Table 1: breakdown of the book’s content

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The only chapters which are different in structure are Chapter 8 and 12. In Chapter 8, we show how listening can be integrated with the other three skills; a very important chapter, in the economy of our book, as a key theme that runs throughout our book is that Listening is a precursor to Speaking and that students should not venture into oral production until they have consolidated the target L2 items receptively first.

In Chapter 12 we provide suggestions on how to develop listening in a language department where this skill is lagging. Here are our 9 principles for framing the planning of an intervention programme:

1. Where are we now? 

An evaluation of current practice is worth carrying out. To what extent do we understand the rationale and research support for activities we do? What percentage of time is spent on one-way and two way-listening? Where listening is happening, to what extent is it focused on process? How do students respond to listening lessons?

2.Target language

How much L2 are we using in class? To what extent does the Scheme of Work/Learning or Curriculum Plan spell out that L2 use is at the heart of lessons? Is this actually carried out? We wouldn’t suggest a specific percentage of L2 use since this is too directive and classes vary, but a conscious decision can be made that L2 is the default position. Most of the listening students do is, as we’ve seen, interpersonal. So should interactive, communicative lessons be a number one priority – using the language, not talking about it? How would L2 based lessons look? We know this is a challenging area for many teachers. Would they include choral repetition, reading aloud, the use of sentence-builder frames, thorough structured drilling and QA interactions, L2 games, less controlled dialogues such as role-play, adapting dialogues, information gap activities and communicative tasks? We know students who receive a consistent diet of meaningful interaction will inevitably become better listeners. Why not share with students the rationale for what you do?

3. It’s fine to just listen

With pressure on to ensure students are active and ‘having fun’, do we avoid long bouts of listening work? We know listening is by no means a passive task, so while lessons usually need to be varied to hold interest, is it fine to plan for quiet, active listening in lessons, alongside a diet of teacher-led and paired oral practice? Is spending 20 minutes working on a gapped transcript or dictation more beneficial than a piece of unstructured role play or producing a digital artefact? Furthermore, importantly, would overworked teachers be justified in seeing the “listening lesson” as a time to recharge batteries as the class does a calm activity? We’re familiar with this feeling!

4. Not just comprehension

Instead of just doing comprehension, how many exercises do we do which develop the micro-skills of listening? Could we weave into lessons activities we suggest in Chapters 3, 4 and 5? Do we do enough transcription, dictation, gap-filling and intonation practice? Do we take every opportunity to develop phonological and phonics skill by doing specific pronunciation practice, teaching letter to sound equivalents and talking about phonetics and phonology? Do we ever make do with second-best when it comes to pronunciation? With our beginners—intermediate students do we exploit short, comprehensible texts thoroughly, rather than longer, harder to understand texts superficially?

5. Listening for a purpose

We know students enjoy meaning-focused tasks with a purpose so do we build into the Scheme of Work at all levels specific communicative tasks and games where the focus is on listening? Do we find a suitable balance of process-focused, nitty-gritty listening work with information gaps, whole class tasks and purposeful games, such as those described in Chapters 6 and 7? Do we make listening social activity whenever we can? Do we have chats at the door when students enter or leave? Do we start lessons with brief listening and speaking exchanges about likes, dislikes, what students did last weekend, last lesson or last night?

6. Confident listeners

We know making listening feasible builds self-efficacy and creates confident listeners. Are we using texts and our own input at or just above the students’ current level? If we use a challenging resource, do we scaffold exercises sufficiently, working the material intensively so students feel they’ve mastered it? Are we flexible in our use of audio material, reading it aloud or giving extra opportunities to listen? Do we also make occasional use of short, authentic material so students get to hear what the real language sounds like? Do we use all the tricks of the trade to make listening comprehensible: gesture, pictures, facial expression, slowing down and so on. Do we deliberately practise these? Do we translate from time to time, paraphrase, repeat and pause? Do we write language up on the board after using it? Do we use formative assessment techniques to check for understanding?

7. Strategies

When comprehension fails, students may have to fall back on compensatory strategies for coping. Do we help students to think of ways they can work out meaning when they don’t understand the input: their general knowledge of the world, their knowledge of what they might expect people to say, the intonation of what’s said, and other linguistic clues? Do we have techniques for developing these skills, such as modelling, thinking aloud and specific exercises? Do we rely too much on these to compensate for weak decoding skills or an inappropriate choice of text? Have you discussed the role and range of strategies to support listening? Have you considered building these into your Scheme of Work? Do you discuss with students their problems with listening and ways to cope with harder texts? Do we do everything we can to find out what students think about listening? Do we attempt to reduce any anxiety about the process?

8.Vocabulary

If we know that vocabulary knowledge is central to listening skill and language acquisition, how might we improve our approach? Are we doing too much isolated word learning? Could we present and practise words through chunks, sentences and paragraphs? Does our syllabus create opportunities to review vocabulary on a regular basis through tasks and texts? Do we take every opportunity to present vocabulary through the aural medium? Do we keep in mind forgetting rates and the principle of spaced learning?

9.Test and exam preparation

Do we have a planned, agreed approach to the run-up to high stakes exams such as the GCSE? Do we match our teaching to the test and vice versa? How influenced are we by washback? Are our students well versed in the question types they’ll encounter? Are we explicit in telling students what they’ll be tested on? Are our own tests fair, generating scores which will not discourage students?

Compared to our previous book, “The Language Teacher Toolkit”, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is more research-informed. Every key statement is referenced and a quick glance at the 20-page long bibliography will give you a clear idea of the amount of reading and research behind this book.

In conclusion, this is an evidence-informed book written by very experienced teachers (60 years of teaching between the two of us!) for other teachers. There are tons of ideas, games, tasks and strategies that we have magpied from the best or have developed and tested ourselves. We are confident you will find something useful in there.

I am personally very proud of this book and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a clear and no-nonsense guide to listening. Just do not expect magic tricks to pass high-stake examinations. This book is about Listening As Modelling, i.e. building capacity in our student-listeners during the formative years of language learning, when high-stake examinations are not in sight and should in no way affect our teaching.

In our approach L2 instructors are primarily teacher-nurturers, not teacher-examiners. They talk to their students’ eyes; they do not merely press ‘Play’ buttons abdicating modelling to an audio track designed for an anonymous learner. Our mission is to model language, skills and culture; to facilitate linguistic and personal growth; to make learning engaging, enjoyable and successful. Not to quiz students day in day out on what is largely incomprehensible input, thereby building the perception of listening tasks as something you learn little – if anything – from.

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We hope that reading this book will deepen your understanding of listening, raise your awareness of its key role in learning and enhance your sense of efficacy and agency vis-à-vis this key skill. In the words of our concluding remarks on page 248 of our book:

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Finally, let me thank Dr Elspeth Jones, Professor Emerita at Leeds Beckett University, expert in Internationalism and – last but not least – Steve’s spouse, for patiently editing and formatting the book.

I hope you enjoy our book if you do get hold of it. Any feedback will be much appreciated.

Gianfranco

“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is available for purchase on Amazon.

Beyond transcription: unlocking the full power of dictation – My favourite dictation tasks

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0. Introduction

Dictations were taboo for many years in mainstream language education. However, with recent research findings indicating that decoding skills (the ability to match print to sound) are crucial to language acquisition, especially in the realms of listening and reading fluency development, they have become ‘fashionable’ again.

I have always been a passionate advocate of dictation and have been using it for over 30 years as a means to develop decoding and listening skills, but also to foster metalinguistic awareness, vocabulary learning and syntactic knowledge.

In this post, I set out to discuss some of my favourite dictation tasks, reserving to provide a much wider range of techniques in my forthcoming book*.

1.Delayed dictation

Delayed dictation is a great zero-prep activity. Younger learners love it, it’s great fun and helps practise a key language processing skill, ‘holding chunks in working memory’, as well as, of course, decoding and transcription skills. This is how it unfolds:

Step 1 – Utter a sentence that the students are familiar with, or at least 95-98 % comprehensible input, and tell them to ‘hold it inside their heads’ for ten seconds.

Step 2- As they try to hold the sentence in their heads, count up to ten (aloud), make funny noises or utter random words in the target language to distract them .

Step 3 – Finally, ask them to write the words down on their mini whiteboards and show you.

Tip : you can follow this up with ‘Sentence puzzle’ (see below)

The effectiveness of delayed dictation refers to two well-known cognitive mechanisms: the Zeigarnik effect and the ‘Desirable difficulty’ principle.

The ‘Zeigarnik effect’ (Zeigarnick, 1927) posits that a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves retention and cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task. Delayed dictation, by interrupting the task, induces a cognitive tension which may enhance retention.

‘Desirable difficulties’ is a concept develop by R. A. Bjork (1994). The main idea is that introducing difficulties during learning will result in superior long-term retention because the greatest gains in storage strength occur when retrieval strength is low. Delayed dictation involves a desirable difficulty, in that the learner must hold the chunk in working memory as s/he rehearse it prior to writing it down.

Here are two forms of delayed dictation one can deploy to develop students syntactic awareness whilst practicing transcribing skills.

1.1 Delayed dictation with signaled combining

Step 1 – Show the sentence to be combined with the cue in brackets. For instance:

I have a sister (who)

Her name is Marie

Step 2 – Combine the sentences, e.g. I have a sister who is called Marie’ and say it to the class

Step 3 – After 10 seconds, the students write the sentence out on their mini whiteboards.

Tips: this task can be an effective prelude to an explicit sentence-combining task.

1.2 Delayed dictation with open sentence combining

Step 1 – show the sentences to be combined. For instance:

I have a sister

My sister is called Marie

She is friendly, pleasant and helpful

I argue with her from time to time

she is too talkative

Step 2 – combine the sentences according to whichever pattern you intend to model or reinforce, for instance, and utter the resulting sentence, e.g.:

my sister, who is called Marie, is very friendly, pleasant and helpful but from time to time I argue with her because she is too talkative

Step 3 – after 10  seconds, the students are tasked with writing the sentence as the teacher uttered it

Mad dictation

Mad dictation is a dictation in which you alternate slow, moderate, fast and very past pace. It is very successful with students of all ages, but especially younger learners.

Preparation: select a text containing familiar sentence patterns and around 90% comprehensible input.

Step 1 – Tell the students to listen to the text as you read it at near-native speed and to note down key words

Step 2 – Tell them to pair up with another student and to compare the key words they noted down. Tell them they are going to work with that person for the remainder of the task.

Step 3 – Read the text a second time. This time read some bits slowly, some fast and some at moderate pace. The purpose of these changes of speed is to get the students to miss some of the words out.

Step 4 – The students work again with their partner in an attempt to reconstruct the text.

Step 5 – Read the text a final time, still varying the speed of delivery.

Step 5 – The students are given another chance to work with their partner.

Step 6 – They are now given 30 seconds to go around the tables and steal information from other pairs

Tip – some of the students might panic the first time you stage this activity. Hence, it is helpful to let them know how the activity will unfold.

3. Sentence puzzles with metalinguistic categories

Sentence puzzles are a great way to sensitize students to syntactic order through the aural medium. A fantastic (recapping) lesson starter or plenary task that students love. When you add the metalinguistic categories element, you also enhance their language awareness and contribute to the explicit development of their parsing skills.

Step 1 – Write on the board the short-hand / symbols of a sentence pattern you have modelled and your students are familiar with. For instance, :

Time marker + Subject + Verb + Adverb of place

Step 2 – Ask the students to copy out the above in their books / or mini whiteboard

Step 3 – Utter a jumbled-up version of a sentence which follows that pattern. Ensure the students are very familiar with every word in the sentence

Step 4 – The students now unjumble the sentences they hear placing each element under the appropriate heading. For example :

Time marker        Subject            Verb           Adverbial of place

Hier                         Je                 suis allé             au cinéma

 

  1. Partial dictations with parsing grids

Partial dictations can be used to focus students explicitly on phonology, morphology and syntax by omitting from the gapped text the students must complete a key constituent of the target structure.  In this sense, they can effectively promote noticing.

For instance, as far as phonology are concerned, you could gap the parts of word which refer to the target sounds and students will have to complete the words as they listen.

In the realm of morphology, instead, imagine teaching the perfect tense of French verbs ; you could gap all the auxiliaries or all the past participles. Another example pertains to word ending in highly inflected languages, which could be gapped to draw the students’ attention to the gender and number of nouns/adjectives or to verb tenses and/or conjugations.

Parsing grids (see example in Fig. 1 below) can be used in combination with partial dictations, thereby focusing the students more explicitly on syntax.

parsin grid

5. Spot the missing word

In this task, words are omitted from the text. In this sense, it could be considered a partial dictation, the notable difference being that the students are not alerted to the presence of a gap by a blank space.

To add a metalinguistic focus, the words removed could refer to item the students usually tend to omit by mistake (e.g. the auxiliary in the formation of the perfect tense in French or Italian).

Step 1 – Remove words (containing the target sounds if your focus in phonological) from a text.

Step 2 – Read out the text

Step 3 – The students are required to write down the missing words in the correct place

6. Write it as you hear it

This task is not a dictation in the traditional sense of the word, but it is very effective in raising student awareness of GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondence) through the transcription of oral input, by contrasting the way words sound with their spelling. For this reason, this task is most useful with less transparent languages such as English and French. This is how it unfolds:

Step 1 – Display a few sentences on the board and give the students a copy of those sentences on a sheet

Step 2 – Read them out at moderate pace enunciating them as clearly as possible

Step 3 – Ask the students, as they listen, to write, under the correct version they have their own phonetic transcription of what they heard.

Step 4 – Ask them to pair up with two other students and to come up with a phonetic transcription they all agree with

7. Syllabling

Syllable processing may contribute more to the all-important decoding phase of listening comprehension than phoneme processing (Field, 2015).

A growing body of research suggests that we process aural input by dividing it in syllables not in phonemes, as it is commonly believed.

Syllable-level information appears to contribute more than is sometimes realised to effective processing for the following reasons (Field, 2015):

(1) many words are monosyllabic;

(2) single stressed syllable provide cues to the identity of longer words;

(3) to the function of words (content versus function words) and

(4) to where the boundaries of words fall.

(5) The rhythm of a language is shaped by what happens at syllable level.

Yet, most listening instruction concerns itself with phonemes. As John Field points out, in focusing on syllables, EFL teachers need to concern themselves with at least three factors which shape a language’s rhythm.

(1) the structure of a syllable (i.e. the number of consonants that a language permits within a syllable). Most languages have a CV (consonant – vowel) and CVC. Spanish and Italian rely heavily on open CV syllable. English allows very complex structures (e.g. CCCVCCCC, e.g. in the word strengths).

(2) the frequency of weak syllables (like those in English containing schwa ).

(3) the ratio between the time taken by weak and by strong syllables.

An unfamiliar rhythm can interfere significantly with a listener’s ability to recognize known words in connected speech.

There is a fixed number of syllables, around 500, in every languages. This is one of a range of activities I have used over the years to focus my student onto the most frequent syllables in the target language.

Step 1 – Dictate syllable by syllable. Students transcribe

Step 2 – Dictate syllable by syllable again. Students check and make changes if they feel fit

Step 4 –  Students pair up with another student and compare transcriptions

8. Read, look up and say it

This task combines a technique originally devised by Jones (1960), ‘Read and look up’, with dictation. It is a form of dictation with a double whammy, in that both partners are actually being challenged.

Step 1 – Partner 1, who dictates, must read silently a set of sentences one by one.

Step 2 – he must then look up and repeat each sentence to Partner 2 without looking at the text as s/he speaks. Every time s/he manages to recall the full sentence s/he scores a point per word s/he remembers correctly.

Step 3 – Partner 2, on the other hand, will get a point for each word s/he transcribes correctly

9.Collocational grids

9.1 Modelling dictation

Collocational grids (see example in Fig 2) can be used to model collocations, as in the activity below:

Step 1 – Give a students a grid like the one in figure 1 below, designed to practise verb collocations, in which the first collocation partner is provided (e.g. I read , I play, I watch, I listen to)

Step 2 –  Utter sentences which contain both the first and the second collocation partner too (e.g. I read a book, I play tennis, I watch a film, I listen to a song) whilst the students note them down in the appropriate row of the grid (e.g. book, poem, article, novel, will be written on the same row as ‘read’)

Fig 2. – A collocational grid

collocational grids

9.2 Retrieval practice

Collocational grids can also be used for retrieval practice. For instance, going back to the example in the picture, you could utter the noun phrases ‘a book’ , ‘a gift’, ‘stamps’, ‘music’,etc. in random order, and the students will have to write them on the correct row.

10.Concluding remarks

There is much more to dictation than meets the eyes. As the examples above clearly show, they can impact L2 development on different levels, from spelling to decoding skills, vocabulary and syntax. What is key, as I always reiterate, is to ensure the input is 98 % comprehensible, and flooded with many occurrences of the target patterns. The point in the instructional sequence they occur at is evidently also crucial.