Are we raising a breed of ‘dyslexic’ foreign language learners?

All teachers who have taught dyslexic children at some point in their career will know how challenging it can be to keep them engaged and motivated, how low their self-confidence as language learners usually is, how frustrated they often get as they struggle to make sense of what they read. But hang on, doesn’t this description also apply to quite a few of the language learners we teach?

Well, in fact, one may argue that many of our students do exhibit a form of deficit in their foreign language competences akin to a disorder called ‘Phonological dyslexia’, described by Ellis (1984) as the inability ‘to read unfamiliar words or non-words aloud, suggesting impairment of grapheme-phoneme conversion and/or phonemic assembly’. In other words, ‘Phonological dyslexics’ are individuals who are not able to sound unfamiliar words out. This inability to convert graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds) – unsurprisingly – seriously impairs these individuals’ reading comprehension skills.

Erler (2004) is highly indicative of this state of affairs. In her study of 359 year 7 students of French (from two middle-achieving English comprehensive schools) she found that after one year of instruction (with two contact hours a week) their knowledge of spelling-sound rules was poor, both schools obtaining the same mean score at the rhyming-word test she administered, i.e. 2.75 correct choices out of 14. She concluded:

The results seem to indicate that, with a few exceptions, pupils had little idea after one year of learning French about spelling-sound rules for principal vowel sounds in the language and for the general rule of silent final consonants. These are key rules for being able to decode from print to sound, and are essential for reading comprehension (p. 5)

What is equally interesting – and tragic – is that only 7.6% of Erler’s informants reported they felt ‘happy’ when reading French aloud in lesson; the vast majority of the students felt negatively about decoding and spelling written French.

Another interesting finding by Erler was that 75 % of the total sample Year 7s thought that it was indeed useful to know pronunciation and 63% stated that they were aware of subvocalizing to sounds when reading in French, confirming what we know about automatic phonological loop activation in working memory during reading (in simpler words: whether we are aware of it or not, the brain automatically converts letters into sounds as we read, even when we are not reading aloud).

These findings are dispiriting for several reasons. Firstly, because, as much L1 and L2 research clearly indicates (e.g. Stanovich, 1980; Bryant and Bradley, 1983; Sprenger and Casalis, 1995; Gathercole and Baddeley, 2001) decoding skills are crucial to comprehension of written texts and poor readers often exhibit serious deficits in their deployment. Heaps of research indicate that a child’s early knowledge of phonological awareness is a strong predictor of their fluency in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Muter and Diethelm (2001) found that students of French as a foreign language who were able to tell where syllables in a word begin and end were more proficient readers than those who didn’t.

Secondly, as I have argued in many of my posts and will write about more extensively in my forthcoming book ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith, 2017), phonological awareness is crucial in listening comprehension in that it helps the brain make sense of the speech flow by identifying word-boundaries, intonation patterns, etc.

Thirdly, and more tragically, as Erler’s concluded, the students she investigated exhibited decoding deficits (in French) comparable to those symptomatic of dyslexic reading impairment. Now, students who are de facto dyslexic are less likely to have high levels of can-do attitude and self-confidence in language learning, both strong predictors of success in language learning (Macaro, 2007). Could this be one of the reasons why many of our students don’t enjoy learning languages? Could addressing this major deficit enhance their motivation? I believe so.

Erler’s findings chime with my own experience as a veteran MFL teacher with over 20 years’ experience at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Decoding skills – also referred in the literature as GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondences), spelling-sound rules or Phonological Awareness  – are not duly emphasized in British schools and, when they are indeed embedded in the curriculum, instruction is undermined – in my opinion – by the following shortcomings which serious limit its effectiveness:

1.Decoding skills instruction is not given sufficient prominence in the curriculum;

2.It is often an add-on; it is not fully integrated with the curriculum content and goals;

3.As per Dr Rachel Hawkes’ approach, phonics are often taught through gestures and tongue twisters, but the target phonemes are rarely consciously and systematically recycled in the lesson through listening, reading and speaking tasks which aim at their organic acquisition. This approach limits the acquisition of the target phonemes as it is divorced from fluency across all four skills and from real-life-like communication. In my approach the target phonemes are consciously recycled in every single task (both receptive and productive) I stage to teach the topic-at-hand (be it grammar, communicative function or vocabulary);

4. Instruction rarely ventures beyond word-level practice, which is not conducive to acquisition – the input we process and the output we produce usually contains more than one word…;

5.The target graphemes are usually sequenced randomly without considering (a) the level of challenge they pose to the learner; (b) how their teaching contributes to facilitate other aspects of L2 acquisition, such as grammar – for instance: (in French) a focus on letters that are silent earlier on in the instruction process will serve the purpose of assisting the acquisition of present tense forms. Instructional sequences ought to be based on a (possibly evidence-based) rationale;

6.Each target phoneme is not usually focused on for sufficiently long periods of time and recycled consistently and extensively across the curriculum;

7.Phonemic awareness skills (see picture below) are not focused on explicitly in the early years of L2 instruction, yet I have found that primary and year 7 students benefit greatly from practising them and research shows clearly that they prime the connection of sound to print.

Figure 1 : the Phonemic awareness development continuum (Courtesy of University of Oregon)


8.Students with poor phonemic sensitivity are not identified at the beginning of the course, yet I found it extremely useful to have a good idea from day one as to who was less gifted in this area of language aptitude (the natural predisposition to decode letters and repeat and manipulate sounds);

9.Students are rarely – if ever – tested on their decoding ability or phonological awareness (to assess progress in these areas). This is a serious shortcoming considering how pivotal this set of skills is for language learning effectiveness and success; I found that including opportunities for assessment (e.g. old school dictation or short transcription tasks) has increased my students’ focus on decoding skills and their motivation to learn them.

These and more common shortcomings of decoding skill instruction will be dealt with in greater depth in my next post.


Many foreign language students in England appear to have poor decoding skills. This hinders the development of their reading and listening fluency whilst seriously denting their confidence. As I have written in my forthcoming TES article ‘Enhancing MFL learner motivation – the road less travelled’, one of the most important reasons why our students lack confidence and motivation may relate to their inability to make sense of the target language, be its grammar or its decoding/pronunciation.

One of the group of students I have been trialling my decoding-skill training program with reported to me the other day that they were so much happier to be finally able to read out written French following a set of specific spelling-to-sound rules. They felt empowered by the decoding pinciples they had been taught, as the constant -often random – guessing frustrated them. I do believe that in languages like French and English, where spelling-sound correspondence can be challenging, a students’ sense of efficacy as a decoder can substantially enhance their motivation.

In conclusion, much more effort and thought should be put into effective decoding-skill instruction, which should go beyond the teaching of sounds through gestures, a few tongue twisters and listening or singing along to song; a principled framework should be arrived at, which integrates phonics instruction organically and systematically with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and extensive practice across all four skills to ensure long-lasting retention and automatization.

To find out more about our ideas on decoding skills instruction get hold of our book, The Language Teacher Toolkit,


Eleven intervention strategies for underachieving L2-listeners

(Co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School)


Your students have not done well in their listening mocks. They are demotivated and lacking confidence in their listening skills. With only a few months to go before the actual exam you are panicking. What to do? Past-paper practice? It did not really solve the problem in the past, in fact it further demotivated a big chunk of your class… If this is you, here are eleven strategies that might just do the trick.

1. Caveat: No quick fix

For your students’ listening skills to improve substantially you will need three to four months of systematic work of the kind envisaged below. Listening skills are notoriously slow to develop because they require the mastery of a vast array of challenging micro-skills that must be executed at very high speed in the brain (words lingering in working memory for only about 2 seconds). Hence, you need to be systematic, patient and resilient, mindful of the fact that the improvements your students will be making will be invisible for several weeks to come but will definitely show up in the end.

2.Daily exposure to substantive amounts of aural input

You need to ensure that your students practise listening on a daily basis. One of the likely reasons why your students are underachieving is because they are not processing aural input often enough and/or not in a way that is conducive to learning. Hence you must:

  • Increase the amount of target language use both on your part and on your students’. Some minimal-prep teacher-led activities: every beginning and/or ending of the lesson, utter sentences for students to translate on the spot (on mini whiteboards or iPads) ; ask the class questions to answer in writing on mini-whiteboards; give them a gapped text and read out to them the full-text version; do (very short) dictations on mini white boards; radically increase the amount of questions you ask, especially closed questions aimed at modelling (e.g. ‘Is it X or Y? questions) ; Some minimal-prep- student-led activities: oral pair-work activities such as survey, role plays, find-someone-who or speak-and-draw activities ; short paired reading-aloud sessions (student A read short paragraph whilst student B translates orally or summarizes the gist of it);
  • Plan tasks which aim at teaching language through listening (L.A.M. = Listening As Modelling). This means less test-like tasks and more tasks of the sort described below (see points 5 to 10 below) which actually focus on developing the core listening micro-skills

Remember: with listening, task variety is key in order not to bore the students but also so as to allow you to recycle the target vocabulary over and over again. Also, keep each task short and sweet and ensure marking is quick and easy.

3.A holistic approach

In order to improve your students’ listening skills you shouldn’t see listening-skills building as separate from reading, speaking, writing and grammar instruction. By ‘holistic’ I mean two things.

Firstly, make sure each listening task does not occur randomly in the instructional sequences you stage in your lessons. For instance, ensure that before the listening comprehension on text ‘X’ the students have received plenty of practice in the unfamiliar language items which occur in that text through plenty of word recognition and pattern recognition tasks. This way your students will come to the listening comprehension tasks more prepared and will have more chances to be successful – this is crucial.

Secondly, focus students on pattern recognition both at word level (e,g.. prefixes and suffixes) and at sentence level (e.g. word order, verb constructions, subordinate clauses) , not only through listening but also through other skills, such as reading.


4.Confidence / self-efficacy building

A language learner’s sense of efficacy (i.e. their perception that they are successful at a given task) is one of the most powerful predictors of success in MFL learning. To enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening you need to scaffold success in every lesson so as to build their confidence in themselves as successful listeners as much as possible. Give them plenty of opportunities to succeed by (a) pitching the tasks carefully to their level: (b) as mentioned above, by prepping them adequately for each listening comp.; (c) by letting them listen to the texts as often as they request; (d) after playing the track a few times read the transcript to them at a slower speed than in the original recording in order to give them another final chance to get it right.

Remember: you can only truly enjoy what you are good – or perceive yourself to be good – at. There is no chance of getting your students to enjoy listening unless they experience some degree of success at it.

5.Ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa

Start all over again from the most basic listening micro-skillset : decoding skills, i.e. the ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa. Focus on the sounds that cause the most serious comprehension issues to your students (e.g. word-endings or ‘eu’ vs ‘u’  in French). Minimal pairs (i.e. identifiying differences between two words that are very similar in sound, such as ‘vous’ and ‘vu’, ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’), rhyming or onset pairs and spot-the-foreign or -silent letters tasks are minimal preparation activities that do work (see this post for more on these tasks). Make sure these sounds are then recycled in any subsequent input they will process (e.g. listening comp) and output (e.g. tongue twisters; role plays) they will produce in the rest of the lesson.

6.Ability to break down the speech flow

This is a very important set of micro-skills. Without the ability to break down the speech flow, your students will never be able to ‘slow down’ the aural input in their heads. So you need to train them on a daily basis in the art of identifying the boundaries of the words they hear. A low prep task: get a set of sentences or a very short text and eliminate the gaps between the words. Then read each line out to the class at slower-than-native-speaker speed asking them to draw the boundaries between the words. Finally show them the original version for marking.

Spot-the-intruder is another favourite of mine. Doctor the lyrics of a song or the transcript of an L2-recording by inserting a few extraneous words of your choice, then play the song and ask them to identify the ‘intruders’. The purpose is to get them to listen and focus on phonemic level of the text. The students really enjoy this activity.

7.Teaching vocabulary aurally and in high-frequency chunks

Teach them lots of vocabulary but do it aurally/orally and in phrases/sentences in which they occur more frequently in TL speech. Make sure the students hear each of the words/phrases you explicitly aim to teach in a lesson at least five times. If you do frequent vocabulary mini-tests, as I do, make sure they involve listening.

When testing vocabulary uptake do not simply stage isolated word or chunk recognition; make sure you include the target lexical items in longer sentences, too.

8.Focus on parsing skill

As explained in my post ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, the ability to effectively recognize aurally the patterns that bind words together is crucial to comprehension. Hence, training students in this skill is paramount. Sentence puzzles are a minimal preparation activity which does wonders in this respect (see examples below). I do sentence puzzles or the other similar activities described in this post every day.


9.Inference and predictive skills

I am not very fond of this approach, but training students in the art of guessing intelligently from context has yielded positive outcomes in a number of research studies. Inference: use written texts  for training first and move on to audio texts only when you think they are ready – as applying inference strategies to reading comprehension is easier and less threatening. Model the process to the class in think-aloud demonstrations of how one can use grammar, syntax, key words and knowledge of the world to guess meaning (think-aloud = verbalise your thoughts as you execute the task). Then provide practice by giving them texts with a set number of words for them to infer the meaning of using surrounding context. Prediction: demonstrate approach by think-aloud, then give students jigsaw puzzles or do ‘guess what comes next’ tasks (i.e. students read the beginning of a narrative and have to guess what comes next).

  1. Lots of short low stake assessments

Rather than getting the students to sit through a whole past exam paper – which can be tedious and daunting – do only one task at a time with them as often as possible. As I said above, prep them thoroughly beforehand aiming at them coming to the task with a mastery of around 90 to 95% of the words in the target text.

  1. Retrospective reports

At the beginning of your intervention programme you may want to elicit as much information as possible as to the problems that your students experience in performing listening tasks. One method that usually yields useful data involves retrospective reports carried out immediately after task completion. Ask the students, as part of a classroom discussion or in writing (e.g. on a google doc) to describe what they found difficult about the task. Do this with more than one task, if time allows it, in order to get as clear a picture as possible of what gaps you need to address. Your findings will inform your subsequent planning. I have always found this a very useful exercise.

  1. Task familiarity and task-specific strategies

This is obvious: once identified the exam tasks your students usually lose the most marks in, invest some time going through the past exam papers and identify their most typical features, such as the format, the register, the typical comprehension questions asked, the kind of vocabulary and grammar structures they contain, the syntax (e.g. Is there a lot of subordination? Are they rich in adjectives, adverbs or idioms you do not normally teach?). Your findings will inform your short, medium and long term planning


Anyone aiming at improving the listening skill of a group of underperforming students needs to  plan their intervention in a multi-layered, holistic and eclectic way in the context of an approach which provides extensive practice in the micro-skills which render comprehension possible. This entails addressing all the levels involved in the comprehension of aural input in a systematic way day in day out over a period of at least three to four months before one can see significant results. Finally, drastically increasing the exposure to ‘smart’ aural input which models language use and pattern recognition and recycles high-frequency vocabulary and grammar at will rather than ‘quizzing’ students is key to the enhancement of learner listening skills.

To find out more about my ideas about teaching do get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ the book I co-authored with Steve Smith of




How many new words should you teach per lesson?

Introduction – The wrong question

The question in the title is one of the most common ones I am asked by colleagues from all corners of the globe. And whenever I have googled that question in the past ten years I have always invariably found the same answer crop up in EFL and MFL forums, blogs and websites: 8 to 10 words per contact hour. I have always wondered where those numbers came from as there is no consensus amongst researchers as to what constitutes an ideal number of new words to teach per lesson. Unsurprisingly so. As I will argue below, it is impossible to answer the question with a precise figure unless we define clearly what we mean by ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ new words and have a 360-degree awareness of the target learning contexts with their unique interaction of affective and cognitive factors as well as other important individual variables such as the methodology in use, available resources, logistics, timelines, socio-economic factors, etc.

I personally ‘teach’ 20 to 25 words minimum per lesson, but what the word ‘teach’ means to me may not be what other colleagues take it to mean.

The good news 

The good news for MFL teachers in England and Wales is that by the end of a typical GCSE course the estimated vocabulary size of a successful MFL student should be 2,000 words at GCSE Higher and 1,000 at GCSE Lower (Milton, 2006). If we divide that number by 5 years of learning French (from yr 7 to yr 11) two hours per week, that would equate with, 5.2 words per lesson, in truth a very manageable burden. In 2006, however, the national average showed that GCSE students in English state schools had accrued a vocabulary amounting to less than 1,000 words each (see picture, below, from Milton, 2006).


Why the title question is the wrong question to ask yourself

In deciding how many words to teach per lesson one has to take into account a number of contextual factors which play a decisive role in vocabulary acquisition and, more importantly, the depth and range of one’s learning intentions. The question ‘How many words should I teach?’ cannot be answered unless we first consider the following :

(1) Depth of knowledge – Knowing a word entails knowing many things about the word: its literal meaning, its various connotations, its spelling, its derivations, collocations (knowing the words that usually co-occur with the target word), frequency, pronunciation, the syntactic constructions it is used in, the morphological options it offers and a rich variety of semantic associates such as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (Nagy and Scott, 2000). How deep one intends to go will entail spending more time hence teaching fewer words.E.g., if I teach a set of French irregular adjectives in terms of how they change from masculine to feminine, rather than just focusing on their main meaning and pronunciation of the masculine form, I will evidently have less time which will in turn limit the amount of words I can teach.

(2) Receptive vs Productive knowledge – as Nation (1990) notes vocabulary items in the learners’ receptive vocabulary might not be readily available for productive purposes, since vocabulary reception does not guarantee production. In other words, students may learn to recognize words whilst not being able to use them in speech or in writing. This difference is often overlooked whilst is crucial in planning a vocabulary lesson. If one is planning to simply teach new words for receptive use, they can teach, in my experience, as many as 40 with an able group, as recognition – especially through the written medium – is easier than production.

Moreover, although they are both receptive modalities, learning vocabulary through listening and reading obviously require providing students with two different types of extensive training which means that if you really aim to thoroughly develop the two skill sets – as you should – you will inevitably have less time available.

(3) Speed of recognition and production and degree of contextualisation – When we talk of recognition and production we need to consider (a) the element of speed and  (b) the ability to understand the target words in unfamiliar contexts as markers of mastery . The faster a student recognizes a word (in familiar and unfamiliar contexts) as heard or read will tell us to what degree it has been automatized. The same applies to written and oral production (the hardest to automatize).

A vocabulary item can only be said to be fully acquired when it can be produced spontaneously (and correctly) within the context it was taught as well as unfamiliar contexts. With this in mind, to say ‘I taught ten words in yesterdays’ lesson’ is flawed. I may have presented those words and got the students to practise them and maybe they could recall them in isolation at the end of the lesson or even in one or more sentences. However, that does not mean the words have been learnt, because words are never used in isolation and not simply in two or three sentences learned by rote. Moreover, acquiring a vocabulary item takes weeks and in certain cases even months of practice in context.

(4) Word learnability – the learnability of the target word places further constraints on the number of words one decides to teach. ‘Learnability’ refers to the level of challenge a word poses to the learner. For instance:  long polysyllabic words with unfamiliar phonemes will be harder for beginners to retain; abstract and connotative words are  usually more difficult to acquire than concrete and denotative lexis; cognates are easier to recognize, etc. When deciding how many words to teach, the learnability factor is crucial.

(5) Shallow vs Deep processing –  the method you use will also play an important role in deciding how many words you aim to teach. The deeper the degree of semantic processing the more likely the students are to recall them in the future. Deep processing includes activities such as: establishing association within new and old words, categorizing them; finding opposites and synonyms; writing the definition; inferencing their meanings from context; creating mnemonics to enhance future recall); odd one out; etc. Shallow processing involves little cognitive effort (e.g. learning by repeating aloud; the games). Teacher with effective vocabulary teaching methods are usually more successful at teaching larger amounts of words.

(6) Time, recycling opportunities and learning habits – the numbers of words you can teach will also depend on how many chances you can find in your lesson to recycle them. Do you have enough time, resources or activities in your repertoire for you to recycle each word you set out to teach a minimum of 5 to 8 times (through deep processing tasks) within the lesson? Do you have resources to ensure the recycling of the same items in subsequent lessons?

It takes me a lot of time and effort to create resources that allow me to effectively recycle all the target words I set  out to teach in lesson 1, as well as all the subsequent lessons in which I revisit them. The more words you aim to teach, the more the effort you will have to put in follow-up lessons to create recycling opportunities. This is something you have to factor in when you decide on the number of words to teach in a given lesson or your teaching will have been in vain.

Connected with this is the issue of homework and learning habits and strategies. Are your students the kind of learners who do your homework consistently? If you flip vocabulary learning to them, will they actually do it? What the students do at home and how effectively their learning strategies are will have an impact to on how many words you plan to teach. In the case of one of the two year 9 groups I currently teach the amount of work they do outside the classroom – not their aptitude – profoundly affects the number of words I plan to teach each day.

(7) Chunks –  The memorization of chunks is productive and powerful. It serves two objectives: it enables the student to have chunks of language available for immediate use and it also provides the student with information that can be broken down and analysed at later stages. Chunks allow you teach more words in one go as Working Memory can process chunks made up of 7+/- 2 items (Miller, 1956). Moreover, in real life we rarely process words in isolation.

The main advantage of the use of lexical chunks is that they build on the fluency of the language learner as they facilitate clear, relevant and concise language and are stored as ready-to–use units that can be retrieved and used without the need to compose on-line through word selection and grammatical sequencing. This means that there is less demand on cognitive processing capacity.

I hardly ever teach vocabulary in isolation, unless I am focusing on speed of recognition, decoding/pronunciation or spelling (e.g through the games). I always present vocabulary for the first time either through texts containing comprehensible input which allows easy inferencing from context or through sentence builders (see figure below). Teaching in chunks and short sentences allows me to recycle old material whilst presenting new material but also to include more vocabulary.


(8) Chunking and word awareness – Chunks have another important impact on how many words you will be able to teach. Once you have unpacked each chunk you taught, made the students notice the underlying grammatical pattern (e.g. I want you to go to the cinema) and got them to use that pattern over and over again with new lexical items, you will have enhanced the generative learning power of that chunk. The more morphological (e.g. prefix, suffixes) and syntactic patterns (rather than grammar rules) you teach your students the greater the chances for them to learn new words by ‘hooking’ them to those patterns. This process, known as ‘chunking’ happens in the brain at incredibly high speed in L1 acquisition and plays a crucial role in L2 vocabulary acquisition; hence, the more automatized the ability to recognize those patterns in aural and written input will be in your students, the more likely they will be to learn more words in your lessons.

Word awareness refers to a learner’s ability to ‘unpack’ the way words work both in relation to other words (synonyms, antonyms, collocations, etc.), their word class (adjectives, nouns, etc.) and how they are formed (prefixes, suffixes, etymology, similarities with mother tongue words, etc.). Word awareness promotes chunking, hence, acquisition. Creating a culture of word awareness in your classroom does not require much preparation, just asking lots of questions such as: Is it an adjective or a noun? Does this go before or after the verb? Does it remind you of a word in our language? Why does this word end in ‘-ly’?, etc. Research in word-awareness (also referred to as word-consciousness) it is still pretty scant, but many scholars believe that a strong emphasis on it in the classroom can greatly impact vocabulary acquisition. The more word -aware your students are the greater the amount of words you will be able to teach them in lessons.

(9) The students – last but not least. This is self-evident. Your students are the best source of evidence that you are gauging the amount of vocabulary input correctly. Regular low stakes assessment will tell you how much of what you have taught gets retained or lost along the way as the term advances. Online surveys through google forms or the likes will allow you to find out in a few minutes how they feel about their vocab learning, if you are being too ambitious or spot on. They can also help you find out about their learning habits.

Not all students have the same ability to learn vocabulary. Students who are low in any of the crucial components of language aptitude, especially Working Memory span and Phonemic sensitivity will be particularly disadvantaged and their presence in your class will have to be taken into account as they will be more prone to cognitive overload. Differentiated instruction will be a must in mixed ability classes.

The students’ current level of proficiency will also be an important variable to consider. The more advanced the learner is the easier for them will be to use conscious and subconscious learning strategies to acquire vocabulary. Hence you will be able to teach way more new words per lesson to your advance level students than to your GCSE ones.

Motivation is obviously another crucial factor. I am not going to discuss it as it is beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that motivation enhances cognitive and affective arousal which in turns increases Working Memory span and the chances to memorize words. Hence, the more fun and relevant to your students’ lives and interests your vocabulary teaching is, the more words you will be able to teach effectively.

Concluding remarks

The issues above refer to but a few of the many factors one needs to consider in deciding how many words to teach per lesson. The most important thing I would like the reader to take home from this post is that vocabulary acquisition being a long process, planning a successful vocabulary lesson is about zooming out and thinking about the bigger picture and the longer term: what matters is not how many words you teach in a given lesson but how your subsequent teaching is going to ensure that those words will be automatized both receptively and productively by your learners across a wide range of contexts, both familiar and unfamiliar. In order to do so, the language instructor must master effective vocabulary teaching strategies, know the students well and implement skillful and systematic recycling never losing sight of the challenges that words and the contexts those words are taught in pose to the learner. A culture of word awareness that you build in day in day out through regular questioning, both metalinguistic and metacognitive in nature, will also facilitate your task and allow you to teach an increasingly larger amount of words per lesson, as your students become more alert to the morpho-syntactic properties of the target language words.Ultimately, it will be student feedback and regular low stake assessments that will tell you whether you are teaching the correct amount of words per lesson.

Teaching Grammar through listening (English-as-a-foreign-language version)

1. Introduction

In all of my posts on grammar instruction I have made the very important point that for grammar to be fully acquired it must be practised extensively through all four skills. However, this is not what usually happens, grammar practice occurring in most language classrooms predominantly through the written medium. Hence grammar is mostly read and written, but rarely processed aurally and orally.

Of the four language skills, the one that is always neglected in grammar instruction is definitely Listening. In the typical grammar lesson, the target grammar structure is hardly ever practised through the aural medium.This may not only negatively impact acquisition of that structure, but also listening proficiency development at large. Why? The answer refers to the so-called parsing phase of listening comprehension.

The parsing phase is the stage in the comprehension of aural input in which the listener recognizes a grammar pattern in a string of words and fits it to the surrounding linguistic context. This important stage is paramount not simply to listening comprehension but also to acquisition, because pattern recognition facilitates the chunking of new L2 items and their assimilation in the learner’s existing L2-system.

In this post I intend to show how grammar can be modelled and practised aurally through highly impactful L.A.M. (Listening As Modelling) activities requiring relatively little preparation which I use regularly in my lessons.

2.L.A.M. grammar activities

2.1 Sentence puzzles

Sentence puzzles like the one in Figure 1 below are a very effective way to teach grammar and syntax through listening. The students are provided a set of jumbled-up sentences  to unscramble whilst the teacher utters them in the correct order. The task is for the students to re-write them correctly in the table/grid provided, placing each element of the sentence under the right heading. After completing the transcribing task, the students are charged with inductively working out the rule. The example in Figure 1 focuses on the use of key negatives in English.


Whilst writing the words under each heading in the table the students build an awareness of how word order works, at the same time learning what word class each item belongs in, and all this through the aural medium, thereby combining three skills (listening, reading and writing) together. When the meaning of each word is provided in brackets, new vocabulary is also learnt.

2.2 Sentence builders

Sentence builders take a bit more time to make, but they can be exploited in so many ways that their surrender value is more than worth the effort. The teacher makes and utters sentences using the various chunks of language in the table to demonstrate how the target structure works. Whilst the teacher models the sentences, the students write down their meaning on mini whiteboards. As a follow-up, the students are tasked with working out the rule inductively. Since you are modelling, not testing comprehension, the sentences should be uttered at moderate speed. The example below focuses on the use of negatives and can be used as a follow-up or as a precursor to the sentence puzzle in Figure 1.

sentence builder elt.jpg

2.3 Sorting tasks

The teacher utters a number of sentences each containing a specific structure that s/he wants to draw the students’ attention to. As they listen, the students are tasked with categorizing the structure using a grid or table. In the first example provided in Figure 3, below, the task requires the students to categorize the different verb forms employed in ten sentences uttered by the teacher to reinforce phonological and grammar awareness. Students enjoy sorting tasks; I do them in every single lesson of mine, often exploiting songs.

sorting elt.png

2.4 Listening hunts

In listening hunts the teacher reads a short narrative and the students are asked to spot and write down as many instances as possible of the target structure(s) contained in the text. I usually tell the students in advance the number of occurrences of the target items in order to enhance their focus.

Listening hunt.jpg

2.5 Interlingual comparisons

This technique is particularly effective when the word order in which the target structure is deployed in the L2 is markedly different from the L1. As the example in Figure 5 below shows, erroneous versions of target structure use are provided resulting from word-for-word translation from L1 to L2. The teacher will dictate the correct version of each sentence which will be written right under the flawed version. The students are then charged with figuring out the differences between L1 and L2 usage and inductively work out the rule.


2.6. Find your match

This activity serves two purposes. Firstly, to practise decoding skills and pronunciation; secondly, aural processing of the target structure. The students are provided with cards containing simple sentences featuring the target structure(s). Each card contains four pieces of information about a person; each piece information on the cards has a match in four of the other cards. The task is to go around the classroom interviewing people in order to find the four persons whose cards match one’s own. This tasks is useful in that it elicits a lot of production and receptive processing of the target structure.

Fig 7 – Find your match (French negatives)


2.7 ‘Find someone who’ with cards

Each students is given a card with fictitious details and a grid with the details to look for. The task is to find the people with those details on their cards by asking questions in the target language. Although it may appear as a speaking task, this activity is actually mainly a listening one as the students read out aloud details in response to questions.

Fig.8 – Find someone who with cards (grid to fill in by students as they go around interviewing)



2.8 Partial dictations

Partial dictations are extremely easy to prepare and are very effective in focusing learners on the target structure. All one has to do is (1) create texts packed with instances of target structure use: (2)  gap the texts  where the target structure has been deployed; (3) read out the text whilst the students fill the gaps. Easy and highly effective. Tip: do not use one long text, use several short ones; it keeps the students more focused.

2.9 Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in

Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in as you play them are a great way to model and practise target language use in authentic contexts. Think about the song ‘Once I was seven years old’ by Lukas Graham; how useful for any teachers wanting to hammer in the past tense in English. The only issue, of course, is finding a song which contains a sufficient number of occurrences of the target structure. Once found one, all one has to do is to gap the song (do put the gapped words on display for less able students).

2.10 Interactive oral tasks

Any interactive oral task designed to elicit use of the target structure will obviously provide the students with plenty of aural processing as well as production practice. It is not the scope of this post, but I reserve to deal with ways to provide oral production practice in target structure use in a future post

2.11 Concluding remarks

Grammar must be heard, read, spoken and written by our learners if we want them to fully acquire it. This multi-sensorial approach to grammar instruction is rarely implemented in language lessons. The skill that is most neglected in grammar instruction is undoubtedly Listening, regardless of the fact that the brain is naturally wired to acquire grammar acoustically. More effort must be put by teachers in this area of grammar teaching by integrating traditional activities with skill-based approaches to instruction which provide extensive receptive oral practice through Listening-As-Modelling activities (LAM) and oral interaction.

For more on my ideas on listening, get hold of the book co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The language teacher toolkit’ available on

How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

(co-authored with Dylan Vinales) 1.Introduction The present article is a sequel to the post ‘Eleven reasons why your students underperform in Listening’ published a couple of days a…

Source: How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

(co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)

images (2)


The present article is a sequel to the post ‘Eleven reasons why your students underperform in Listening’ published a couple of days ago. I ended that post stating that in a follow-up article I would suggest practical ways to address the issues in the provision of listening instruction identified as common causes for L2-learner underperformance. Here it is. Please note, however, that since the original version of this article was quite long  I have decided to split it up in two. Hence this post only concerns itself with six of the issues listed below. I reserve to post the second part of the article over the next few days.

2. The issues

Here is a reminder of the issues identified in my previous post:

  1. Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input;
  2. Listening skills are only a peripheral concern; consequently,
  3. not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice in the classroom;
  4. Teachers do not teach listening skills, they quiz students through listening comprehensions, which are tests through and through;
  5. They usually do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.);
  6. They often do not teach students effective top-down processing strategies;
  7. Students do not perceive Listening as crucial to their learning;
  8. Teachers do not usually actually plan listening activities, and how they would best fit in the instructional sequence they are implementing. They typically follow the textbook or play recordings haphazardly at random points in the lessons;
  9. Many of the listening texts adopted do not contain comprehensible input, which makes listening become sheer guesswork;
  10. Students do not enjoy listening tasks;
  11. Students are not self-efficacious, i.e. their expectancy of success at listening tasks is low. Teachers do not plan for or scaffold success in listening adequately;

In the present post I will lay out my approach to listening instruction discussing the ways in which I addressed the above issues with my KS3  (1 to 13) and KS4/IGCSE (14-16) students.

2. A skill-based approach

Being based on Skill-theory, my approach is based on the principles below:

(a) Listening is a form of expertise which is acquired like any other skills, e.g. driving, playing chess, tennis or boxing;

(b) becoming an expert requires extensive practice in important processes so that they become more and more automatic;

(c) achieving any type of expertise requires the novice to adjust their performance slowly but steadily to the way in which an expert listener behaves. Hence, teachers needs to understand expert-listener behaviour if they are to induce it in novices.

This brings us to the first issue.

3.1 Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input (issue 1)

For listening instruction to be successful one needs to be fully aware of and/or consider in one’s planning the cognitive challenges that processing aural input poses to the novice-to-intermediate learner. Let us look at what makes Listening difficult:

  1. Listening is transitory; any sound stays in the brain (in Working Memory’s Phonological store) for one or two seconds and any incoming information will overwrite it;
  2. Hence, students have a very short time-window in which to analyse anything they hear and make sense of it and to carry forward what they understood in the mind in order to understand what comes next;
  3. When listening to a recording, the speech rate is not under the listener’s control (one cannot say ‘speak slower’ as one would do in real life to an interlocutor).

If we consider what a listener needs to do in order to comprehend any speech signal and build meaning, the picture becomes even more complex; comprehension of aural input goes through the following phases (Field, 2014):

  1. A decoding phase, in which she needs to ‘translate’ input into the sounds of the language
  2. A lexical search phase, in which she searches her brain (Long-term memory) for words which match or nearly match these sounds. This helps her break the speech flow she hears further and make sense of it (in a movement that goes from phoneme to syllable to word to phrase)
  3. A parsing phase, in which she must recognize a grammar pattern in a string of words and fit a word to the linguistic context surrounding it
  4. A meaning-building phase in which, having ‘broken’ the speech flow, identified the words she heard and how they fit grammatically in the sentence she finally makes sense of it
  5. A discourse-construction phase, in which the understanding of each unit of meaning (e.g. sentence) is connected to the larger context of the narrative. In this phase, one’s background knowledge will help enhance comprehension by using (a) using world knowledge; (b) knowledge of the speaker; (c) experiences of similar speech events; (d) knowledge of the topic; (c) what has been said so far. For less competent listeners this phase is very important as it compensates for gaps in understanding.

To make things harder, research evidence indicates that listeners do not wait until the end of an utterance before working out its meaning. They appear to analyse what a speaker is saying at a delay of only about ¼ second, or the length of an English syllable (Field, 2014). This means that listening is an on-line process which relies on automatic predictions by the brain which occur at very high speed in the brain.

Because listening is on-line, test-takers often form a first-pass hypothesis and cling to it – difficult to blame them in view of the very limited time-window they have to interpret the input. This entails that if one or two key words at the begining of a sentence or other important meaning unit are misunderstood, the knock-on effect on what follows may be disastrous and unlikely to be corrected during the second take when the audio is re-played.

Implications for teaching and learning – Firstly, effective listening instruction must concern itself with the mastery of each and every one of the above processes, with a special focus on Phases 1 to 3.

Secondly, although all of the above is crucial to effective comprehension, Decoding skills are obviously the most important set of skills, as without the effective identification of the boundaries of the words we hear, the aural input we process will sound as an unintelligible speech flow and the whole comprehension process could not even start. Ironically, though, this is also the most neglected set of skills in L2 instruction.

Since they are so important, Decoding Skills should be addressed explicitly in  any long-, medium- and short-term curriculum planning. I will  discuss how in section 3.4, below.

Thirdly, students must be taught masses of vocabulary through the aural medium, not as isolated items but across as wide a range of linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Important: no point teaching vocabulary only through the written medium as the lexical search phase is activated by its sound. Students must hear the words many times over whether through (a) peer read-aloud sessions; (b) jigsaw listening; (c) dictations (keep them short and snappy not to bore them); (d) gapped dictations; (e) songs or texts with gapped transcripts; (f) narrow listening and any other L.A.M. (listening-as-modelling) activities discussed here.

I feature three or four L.A.M. activities in every single lesson of mine and it has paid enormous dividends in terms of enhanced aural comprehension, decoding skills and pronunciation.

Fourthly, students must be trained in recognizing words fast, under time pressure. This will involve lots of practice which starts with the students being exposed to  aural input uttered at a slower speech rate and gradually increasing in speed of delivery.

For instance, at the beginning of a unit of work you may utter model sentences (for students to translate or transcribe on mini-whiteboards) at a moderate speech rate; as the unit progresses and students will have processed those or similar sentences several times aurally, you will increase the speed of delivery until their listening fluency will allow them to understand near-native talk.

Similarly, do use past exam papers for practice, but at the early stages of the GCSE course you will read them out to them at a slower rate pitched to the level of listening fluency of your students; as the year progresses you will gradually increase the speed until they will be ready for the exam recordings. During the early stages of this process, do repeat chunks of texts if the students ask you to do so – these requests will provide you with a valuable insight into their decoding and parsing issues.

Fifthly, limited grammar is not an option, as it is crucial for the parsing phase. Consequently, to begin with, one must ensure that the core grammar points in your Examination Board’ syllabus are covered thoroughly; secondly, students must process each grammar structure through the aural medium as often as possible – this is the most neglected dimension of L2-teaching and one of the main reasons, in my opinion, why students often struggle to acquire grammar.

Why? Firstly, because part of the challenges that L2 grammar poses to L2 learners refer to pronunciation and or to decoding skills. Secondly, because modelling and practising how grammar works solely through the visual modality clashes with the way our brain is wired. Thirdly, it is evident that learning the same concept through a synergy of modalities (listening + reading + speaking + writing) is likely to be more effective than simply doing it through one or two as usually happens. Finally, whilst listening the students need to focus harder and recruit more attentional resources which may result in greater cognitive arousal and increased Working Memory span

A zero preparation activity to achieve this consists in simply uttering sentences containing the target structure and ask them to translate on mini-boards – I do this in the first and last part of every single lesson of mine, uttering model sentences with high surrender value, i.e. sentences which can be used across several topics, contain core vocabulary and key grammar structures. Another very useful minimal preparation activity involves: (1) showing the students a sentence in which the target structure has been used incorrectly, then (2) uttering the correct version of that sentence and finally (3) asking to notice the difference and amend the initial sentence.

An activity requiring more preparation that I carry out in every single lesson of mine involves the use of sentence builders and sentence puzzles like the ones in the pictures below. I read out sentences putting together the different chunks in the sentence-builder/ sentence-puzzle to model the use of the grammar structure in context and students write translation on mini-board. This activity kills several birds with one stone because it addresses the decoding, lexical and parsing level all in one go and creates connections between a specific grammar structure and several lexical items. Figures 1 and 2 shows 2 sample activities. More techniques for enhancing parsing skills are suggested  below, in section 3.4.

Fig.1 Sentence puzzle : teacher pronounces  the jumbled-up sentences below in the correct order as the students re-write them in the table


Fig. 2  – Sentence builder.  (Typo in column 4 – it should read ‘à present’)


3.2 Listening skills are only a peripheral concern (issue 2); consequently not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice (issue 3) and students do not perceive the importance of listening (issue 7)

In most Modern Language classrooms listening is grossly neglected, despite the fact that it is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014).

The human brain is wired to learn languages through listening; hence, by not using the aural medium to teach, we miss out on a daily basis on an extremely important opportunity to enhance our students’ learning. Both my article here and in Smiths and Conti’s (2016) – the Language Teacher Toolkit –  I suggest a range of minimal preparation / high impact listening-as-modelling activities which teach language through listening.

Moreover, even when we read we activate L2 words phonologically, which means that even when interpreting written texts we use the way it sounds to make sense of it. This means that if students do not distinguish clearly between words that sound similar their reading comprehension may be impaired.

Teachers need to recognize that Listening must be a priority not just because 25 % of the exam includes listening, but because learning a language through Listening greatly enhances acquisition. The teaching and learning in my lessons has been hugely enhanced by increasing my focus on listening in the last three years or so.

Finally we need to consider that, in view of the importance of Listening in the language learning process, by not emphasizing it in our lessons we are sending our students the message that listening is not important; this perception is unlikely to motivate them to work on it in class and to pursue it autonomously at home.

Implications for the classroom – First of all, I strongly recommend investing 40 to 60 % of each and every lesson into: (1) listening activities which consist of Listening-as-modelling activities or L.A.M. (this may include work on decoding skills); (2) oral interaction tasks (which includes listening); (3) critical listening (student listening to a peer’s oral output to evaluate or translate it) and (4) listening comprehension. I usually devote around 30 % of a typical lesson to listening, 30 % to speaking, 30 % to reading (mainly as a follow-up to the listening tasks) and only about 10 to writing (of the interpersonal sort).  As for vocabulary learning, I mainly flip it  (students do it at home in the run-up to the lesson as homework) unless we do vocab games or builders as a pre-reading or speaking task.

A culture of listening ought to be created in the classroom whereby (1) the students understand the importance of listening for their development as language learners; (2) they learn new language items from it; (3) they experience listening to appreciate the culture of the target language country (e.g. through videos, songs, movie trailers); (4) they are encouraged to practise listening autonomously (e.g. for personal, enrichment, fun, consolidation work).

Carrying out directed-critical-listening activities three or four times per term, in which the students evaluate oral output from their peers with a focus on specific sounds, intonation patterns or the correct deployment of a grammar structure helps me foster this culture of listening by bringing a metacognitive edge to the process.

An even more effectve way to bring Listening skills into the students and teachers’ focal awareness is by exploiting the exam ‘washback effect’. In other words, give more weighting or prominence to Listening in the exams so that you and your colleagues will be putting more effort into it and the students will focus on it more actively. I reckon that if Examination boards did this, the quality of teaching and learning in the UK will greatly improve.

Finally, another important implication for teachers is that they should not limit their listening activities to comprehension tasks – which brings me to the next point.

3.3   Issue 4: the vast majority of the listening activities staged in lessons consist of comprehension tasks

Listening tasks should be considered as tests through and through and, as I argued here, students do not learn much from them. Tasks like these do not explicitly train your students in decoding skills, do not teach new vocabulary or foster the noticing of new grammar/lexical structures – as the students are focusing on picking out details or establishing if certain statements are true or false and are not encouraged to focus on other levels of the text.

Implications for the classroom – Think about the five phases of listening outlined in paragraph 2.2, i.e.:


2.Lexical search


4.Sentence Meaning-construction

4.Whole Discourse construction

When teaching a specific topic or sub-topic, (1) ensure you have first trained your students to handle each of the above levels, especially the first three. (2) Do a lot of work on the decoding/pronunciation of the target vocabulary in that sub-topic, especially the words containing the most challenging phonemes (see in the next point how); (3) provide them with plenty of opportunities for processing the target vocabulary and the target grammar aurally. (4) When you are confident that they are ready to understand most of the text in the listening comprehension and all they need is a bit of inference and guesswork using context and their knowledge of the world, then, and only then, carry out one or more challenging comprehension tasks.

One useful tip: before you and/or the class mark the listening comprehension, put up on the screen the transcript and ask the students to explain why they gave the answer they came up with; it is a bit time consuming but will give you an insight into how much they really understood and into what they found most problematic. If you can, as a follow-up task, gap the transcript where the most interesting words and grammar structures are and do a partial dictation.

3.4.  Teachers do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.)

This is a point I have touched in paragraph 2.3 above and made in many previous posts of mine (e.g. here, here an here), so I will go straight to the implications for teaching.

Implications for teaching and learning

1.Decoding skills – Your Schemes of Work ought to include work on pronunciation and decoding skills (how to turn letters and combination of letters into sound) from the very early stages of instruction. Primary is the place where this is systematically done for the first language – why is not systematically done for the second language too?

So, first of all brainstorm with your colleagues the decoding issues which in your experience (both as a learner and a teacher) hinder your students’ understanding of the target language. In French, for instance, you will focus on things like liaison, the difference between ‘e’ and ‘é’, ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’  and any other words or phrase that may sound similar (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’). When you have identified the core items, embed micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) like the ones below in your long-, medium- and short term planning. Make sure you recycle the core items across all units.

MLEs take little time to prepare, the students like them and learn a lot from them.

  1. Minimal pairs – two near homophones (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’) are provided in writing but you will pronounce only one of them; student to identify the one you uttered. This is a very useful activity because of what we said about listening being processed online, at very high speed; students lack flexibility in their interpretation of what they hear, hence, once they interpret a word wrongly they are not likely  to change their mind (Field, 2014). Since many weaker learners will often base their interpretation on one or two key words they hear to build meaning, they can be easily misled by near homophones;
  2. Focus-on-word-endings activities – these are  very useful when it comes to highly inflected languages like German, Spanish, Italian and French. Minimal prep activities: (1) gap the ending of words, utter the words and ask students to fill the gaps; (2) Write five or six words you are teaching as part of the current unit and utter five or six words you taught previously that rhyme with them; students to match the rhyming words; (3) Write 3 or 4 set of letters or combinations of letters (in French: ent, in, ont, ant) and utter ten words which contain those letters in their endings; students to identify which words contain the target letter-set.
  3. Spot the error – Give the students a list of sentences containing a given target item that you have just practised through minimal pairs (e.g. em). Then read them out loud making sure that you read the target item wrongly.
  4. Spot the liaison (in French) – write 8 sentences containing instances of liaison, read them out loud and ask students to identify where the liaison occurs
  5. Spot the intruder – Write a sentence on the board but when you read it out loud add in an extra word or sound. Students to write the extra word on mini-board or repeat the extra sound.

For more tasks of this sort, read here or here .

2.Parsing skills – First of all, make sure than when you introduce and practise a new grammar point you do so through the oral/aural medium; in my post on grammar teaching (here) I have given many examples of how this can be done. In sum, make sure that through sentence builders, partial dictation, L2-to-L1 translation on mini-white-boards (as you utter sentences containing the target grammar structures) the students ‘hear’ the grammar structure and process it orally.

A low prep/ high impact activity involves directed attention to specific grammar features. Whilst listening to the recording (or you) the students need to identify the occurrence(s) in the text of specific items (e.g. how many irregular adjectives/ perfect tenses/ if clauses did you spot? Songs add a bit of enjoyment to this type of activity ; get the lyrics from and identify any interesting grammar features you may want to direct your students’ attention to.

Inductive learning activities through listening are also very useful in this respect. For instance, provide the students with ten sentences in the first language containing the new grammar structure(s), e.g. the use of ‘rien’ in French. Then read out to them the translation of each sentence and ask them to infer the rule in groups of two or three.

Another task requiring minimal preparation involves giving students a first language sentence and then utter two translations of it, one grammatically correct and one wrong. Students to tell you which one is correct and why.

All of the above activities direct students’ attention to grammar through the listening medium training their ear to process grammar aurally and not simply through the visual (reading) or grapho-motor (writing) modality as far too often happens in the ML classroom.

Moreover it is also important to make sure that in every grammar lessons students employ the core grammar structures in the context of oral interaction. Stage work on decoding skills prior to the interaction and ask them to pay particular attention to specific sounds involved in the production of the grammar structure (e.g. Spanish: do not pronounce ‘h’ in pronouncing ‘Hacer’ ; French: focus on pronunciation of ‘je’, ‘ne’ ‘me’ as opposed to ‘j’ai’, ‘n’ai’, ‘mais’).

3. Lexical recognition skills – As already mentioned above, you ought to ensure that students process the core vocabulary over and over again through the aural medium and across as many linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Sentence builders come handy in this respect because they present words in several combinations with other parts of speech.When you are dealing with high frequency words which in your experience occur often in the listening exam papers, make sure the students can distinguish them clearly from their homophones or near homophones. Use minimal-pair activities to reinforce such differences.

4. Concluding remarks

Listening instruction and sound curriculum design ought to always keep in sight the full scope of the processes involved in the comprehension of aural input, the challenges they pose to the L2 learners and the abilities exhibited by expert listeners as they make sense of what they hear. In the above, I have outlined the main challenges and suggested ways in which teachers can address them in the classroom through minimal preparation / high impact activities. The main points I made:

  • Listening must be given more prominence in ML lessons;
  • Teachers must see the development of listening skills as a core concern in their practice and pass on this perception to their students whilst encouraging them to practise listening autonomously;
  • Listening activities should be used to model new language not simply to test students;
  • Decoding and parsing skills should be focused on in every lesson, especially at the early stages of instruction;
  • Listening instruction based solely on listening comprehension tasks is likely to be ineffective and to engender disaffection is less-able-to –guess students.

In the second part of the article I set out to explore how we can promote top-down processing skills (e.g. predictive strategies and using context to infer meaning), plan effective instructional sequences as well as affective issues referring to motivation and self-efficacy

Listening instruction (PART 1) – How the brain processes aural input, instructional challenges and implications for the L2-classroom

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith (co-author with Gianfranco Conti of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ ) and Dylan Viñales (ML teacher at Garden International School)


1. Introduction – The least practised, understood and researched language skill

Since posting my three articles on listening ( ‘Listening  – the often mis-taught skill’, ‘So…how do we teach listening?” and “Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”) I have been flooded with messages from Modern Language teachers worldwide, all asking me invariably the same question: “So, how do I improve my students’ listening skills ?”.

This has brought home to me the realization that many L2 teachers – and not simply those working within the English-and-Wales educational system –  are unsure and anxious about what constitutes effective listening instruction practice. This is not surprising; as Professor Weir and his co-workers (in Weir et al., 2013) point out, of the four language skills listening is by far the “least practised in the language classroom, the least researched and the least understood.” To-date, Listening is not fully integrated in L2 curricula (Macaro, 2003)

Yet, listening is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014) – ironic how the two top skills on this list are also the most neglected by British-trained teachers…

As a teacher trainee – both at Uni and during my teaching practice – and even on my MA TEFL (where Professor Weir was ironically one of my lecturers)  I was taught close to nothing on how to teach listening; for many years I simply taught listening as I had been taught it myself at school or as prescribed by the course-book in use. CPD on listening was pretty useless and centred on facilitating student guesswork, rather than providing teachers with guiding principles on how to enhance learner listening skills. This is, to my knowledge, what most teachers do and that is why Steve Smith and I devoted an entire chapter of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ to aural skills in an attempt to address some of the most important challenges posed by Listening instruction.

1.1 A ‘trilogy’ about Listening Instruction: goals and expected outcomes

This is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of posts written in collaboration with MFL guru Steve Smith and Garden International School colleague Dylan Viñales. The objectives of these posts are to (1) Discuss the mechanisms underlying the way humans process and interact cognitively and affectively with aural input and listening instruction (in PART 1); (2) identify the shortcomings of much current Listening instructions (PART 2 – to be published next week) and (3)Examine the implications for the classroom (more superficially in PART 1 and in much greater depth and detail in PART 3) and discuss the approach that I have undertaken (not always succesfully) in my own classroom practice in collaboration with some colleagues at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur).

PART 1 – Identifying the challenges listening-skill instruction poses to teachers and learners

In this post I will narrow down the focus and concentrate on novice-to-intermediate learners discussing how, based on Skill-acquisition models of language learning and my own classroom experience teachers may be able to enhance their students’ proficiency. I will start with a concise reminder of how L2 learners interact with L2 aural input both cognitively and affectively

2. Some important facts about how human interact with and process aural input

2.1 Top-down and Bottom-up processing

There is a general consensus amongst researchers that the human brain comprehends aural input by applying synergistically two types of processing: Top-down and Bottom-up. Top-down processing involves applying our knowledge of the world (schemata), all we know about a specific subject, topic, situation or group of people in the understanding of input which relates to that subject, topic, situation or group of people (Macaro, 2013). For instance, in listening to a love song in a foreign language we have a whole set of expectations about what it is going to be about and we can make educated guesses about what line is going to come next even if we do not understand each and every word – purely based on our previous experiences of listening to love songs.

Brown (2007) identifies the following Top-down skills which he labels Listening macro-skills (for conversational discourse):

  1. Recognize cohesive devices in spoken discourse.
  2. Recognize the communicative functions of utterances, according to situations, participants, goals.
  3. Infer situations, participants, goals using real-world knowledge. (pragmatic competence)
  4. From events, ideas, etc., described, predict outcomes, infer links and connections between events, deduce causes and effects, and detect such relations such as main idea, supporting idea, new information, given information, generalization, and exemplification.
  5. Distinguish between literal and implied meanings.
  6. Use facial, kinesic, body language, and other nonverbal cues to decipher meanings.
  7. Develop and use a battery of listening strategies, such as detecting key words, guessing the meaning of words from context, appealing for help, and signaling comprehension or lack thereof. (p.308)

Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, involves interpreting the aural input by analysing basic linguistic features such as recognizing word boundaries, stress and intonation, grammatical word-classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (tenses, agreement, pluralisation, etc.).Below is Brown’s (2007) list of listening comprehension micro-skills (for conversational discourse) (p. 308)

  1. Retain chunks of language of different lengths in short-term memory
  2. Discriminate among the distinctive sounds of [the target language]
  3. Recognize English stress patterns, words in stressed and unstressed positions, rhythmic structure, intonational contours, and their role in signaling information.
  4. Recognize reduced forms of words.
  5. Distinguish word boundaries, recognize a core of words, and interpret word order patterns and their significance.
  6. Process speech containing pauses, errors, corrections, and other performance variables.
  7. Process speech at different rates of delivery.
  8. Recognize grammatical word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (e.g., tense, agreement, pluralization), patterns, rules, and elliptical forms.
  9. Detect sentence constituents and distinguish between major and minor constituents.
  10. Recognize that a particular meaning may be expressed in different grammatical forms. (308)

The two processing modes ‘work’ together, concurrently and synergistically to help making sense of what we hear.  Going back to the love song example, for instance, my previous experience of listening to love songs by singer ‘X’, will give rise, in listening to one of her songs, to a set of expectations about what the song is about (top-down processing). The song’s title and the video-clip that accompanies it will expand the set of predictions I am building. My predictions will be confirmed or discarded by the words I will be able to identify (bottom-up processing) whilst at the same time helping me make sense of the words I do not understand. It should be noted that, in my attempt to identify a challenging word I may use its sound (phonological level), its word-class (morphological level), its position in the sentence (syntactic level) – amongst other cues- in order to recognize or make sense of it.

Skills 1, 5 and 7 on the above micro-skills list (in bold) are particularly important as skill 1 speeds up processing, freeing up cognitive space for our brain (working memory) to focus on meaning and skill 5 helps us make sense of what we hear by segmenting the aural input. Without segmentation aural input is perceived by the students as an unintelligible fast-running flow. The inability to segment input, linked with poorly developed decoding skills, is the greatest obstacle to understanding for many novice-to-intermediate learners and the main reason of learner disaffection and low self-efficacy vis-à-vis listening. Hence the need that I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs for systematic and extensive decoding-skill instruction (i.e. the ability to transform graphemes into phonemes, letters into sounds) from the very early days of L2 instruction (read my post here:Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”).

As for skill 7, it is paramount for students to get used to different speeds of delivery in order to train their aural-input processing skills – reading the same text several times at different speeds, from slower to nearnative speed or viceversa pays dividends in this regard, in my experience.

As I will point out in PART 2, very few – if any at all – of the skills identified by Brown (2007) are explicitly and systematically addressed by curriculum designers and course-books in use in most UK educational settings. Yet, they provide teachers with a very useful blueprint for listening instruction by isolating the core macro- and micro-skills; a much needed framework, considering that much L2 listening instruction is currently designed and conducted in an unstructured and in same cases, haphazard fashion. I strongly believe that by integrating the core skills amongst those identified by Brown (2007) in our curriculum and explicitly teaching them to our students we can significantly enhance the impact of listening instruction.

2.2 Processing capacity

Working Memory (WM) Processing capacity is a very important determinant of how effectively and efficiently our students comprehend aural input. As Cornell professor Morten Christiansen and his Warwick Univeristy colleague Nick Chater put it   in a recent ground-breaking paper (Chistiansen and Chater, 2016):,“the ability to quickly process linguistic input […] is a strong predictor of language acquisition outcomes from infancy to midde childhood.”

This is because Working Memory having very limited cognitive space available for the processing of any incoming information, if it is performing too many tasks at the same time it will experience overload and that information will be lost due to divided attention. In order to create more cognitive space, the brain tends to automatize lower order skills (e.g. decoding skills; segmenting aural output; recognizing grammatical word class) so that it has more processing capacity to devote to higher order cognitive skills such as analyzing meaning, building inferences, etc. Hence, without enabling our students to automatise the micro-skills on Brown’s (2007) list, their brain will never manage to have sufficient cognitive space to process higher level listening tasks.

2.2.1 A few important facts about Working Memory 

As concisely laid out in my post on Working Memory (here), WM is a buffer between the world and Long-Term Memory; a ‘device’ in our brain which processes any incoming information and, should the rehearsal of such information be successful, commits it to Long-term Memory (where it will be stored for ever). As you read this post, your WM is processing my words interpreting them based on the existing information in your Long-Term Memory. WM activates information through chains of association triggered by the sound, meaning, grammar, etc. of whatever input it processes. So, for example, if I hear the word ‘dog’, everything to do with the notion of dog will receive electrical impulses along the brain neural network; the language items more strongly connected in our personal processing history will receive the greatest activation and will be easier to recall.

Models of Working Memory posit a system made up of two slave systems, the Visio-spatial Scratchpad which stores images (including language characters from ideographic languages, e.g. Chinese) and a Phonological loop which stores the sounds we hear and consists of two parts: the phonological store (inner ear) and the articulatory control process (inner speech). A third component, the Central Executive, is in charge of orchestrating the functioning of the two slave systems and of managing the flow of data to and from Long-Term Memory.

Much of our students’ success at comprehending L2 aural input will hinge on how efficiently and effectively Working Memory processes such input. This is because:

  1. Working memory storage is fragile – it takes a minimum distraction for the information being processed to be lost (forgetting from divided attention);
  2. Working memory storage capacity is very limited: 7+/- 2 digits only according to Miller (1965), less according to others (Christiansen and Chater, 2016). The Phonological Loop (more precisely: the phonological store or inner ear) can only store only about 1 to 2 seconds of speech at any one time (some say even much less – 100 milliseconds). This has three important implications: (a) that individuals genetically endowed with a larger working memory span will have an advantage; (b) that the ability to store language will be a function of how effectively the students can decode and pronounce the sounds they hear (since the faster they can reproduce the sounds the smaller the space in the phonological store they will occupy) – the argument for ultra-emphasizing decoding-skills instruction; (c) whatever information ‘X’ students hold in Working Memory as they process aural input will be lost when new incoming information ‘Y’ arrives, which means that students have an extremely short time frame to process what they hear before it is overwritten by new input. As Christiansen and Chater (2016) posit, the brain speeds up language processing by ‘chunking’ linguistic material into a hierarchy of increasingly abstract representational formats, from phonemes to syllables, to words, phrases, sentences, discourse. ‘Chunking’ prevents the information held in Working Memory from being erased for ever from our brain (to learn more about chunking read here
  3. The brain works like Google – A given language item’s processing history will determine (a) how easily it will be processed and comprehended and (b) the extent to which it will facilitate or slow down comprehension. Why? An analogy with Google search will help illustrate what I mean: this morning I as I was typing into the Google search box ‘we don’t’ a number of options appear in a hierarchical arrangement: ‘ we don’t talk any more’, ‘we don’t want another hero’, etc. In other words Google statistically predicted the sentence I was looking for based on Google users’ behaviours to-date or, when I searched through my own Google account, based on my own searching history to-date. The brain operates similarly, based on our individual processing history with specific language items; so, just like Google, on hearing the words ‘ we don’t’ our Working Memory will automatically activate any words , phrases, sentences containing those three words that we have heard more frequently; the ones heard most frequently will receive the strongest activation, the ones processed least frequently, the weakest. Other cues/constraints from the environment (e.g. the topic we are talking about, the facial expressions of our interlocutor, etc.) will affect the activation of those words/phrases/sentences too, to a certain extent. (Macaro, 2003).

The most important implications of the above are that:

(a) learners need to practise a lot more listening than they typically do at present, day in, day out. This is fundamental. Ideally, teachers would put a lot of effort in promoting independent listening outside lesson time for pleasure or at least through homework;

(b)  again: listening micro-skills, especially decoding skills, must be taught (I will deal with this point more extensive in my next post)

(c) the core language items must be recycled extensively through listening/speaking across as many contexts as possible -not simply reading and writing – for the reasons outlined in point 3 above (ease of retrieval depending on an individual’s processing history of each language item acquired).

2.3 Differences between audio-recording-based listening comprehension and real-life listening

In real-life conversation and whilst watching audio-visual material paralinguistic features such as visual expressions and other gestures render aural comprehension easier as compared to listening to a recorded text. Moreover, in conversational listening the listener benefits from  repetitions, redundancies, hesitation and pauses in the input which easify comprehension. The typical listening comprehensions we give our students do not offer these facilitative features in their input. This brings into questions the validity of audio-recording-based listening comprehensions (especially in high stake tests and national examinations) as they do not necessarily prepare students for real-life communication. These isssues bring us to the next point.

2.4 Listenership

Listenership refers in the literature to the ability to comprehend our interlocutor(s)’ input and respond to it in real time in the context of a conversational exchange. As it is obvious, it requires the acquisition of an altogether different set of skills to the ones we deploy in ‘passive listening’ activities such as the execution of a listening comprehension task). Listenership thus refers undoubtedly to the most important set of language skills an autonomous L2 speakers requires in the real world, whether as a tourist finding their way around Paris or as a businesswoman negotiating a deal in a video-conference. Listenership can only be acquired through masses of oral communicative practice

2.5 The Listening-as-modelling vs the Listening-to-test-comprehension approaches

In the early stages of L1 acquisition new language items are picked up through highly simplified aural input which is produced by parents/caregivers at a slower speech rate than in normal native-speaker-to-native-speaker communication; repetition and use of gestures to facilitate comprehension are frequent too. Caregiver speech rate increases significantly as the child’s processing ability increases.

The same often happens when,say, an English Native/Expert speaker interacts with a much less proficient L2 speaker. For instance, yesterday, as I was talking to an L2 Italian speaker I found myself talking to them pretty much in the same way as I used to talk to my daughter when she was two, repeating key words several times with greater emphasis, exaggerating facial expressions, pointing at objects around me and often producing ungrammatical utterances to facilitate understanding on their part (e.g. leaving the verb unconjugated and using discourse markers only to indicate the future).

A slower speech rate, lots of visual cues (whether through images and gestures), simplified (comprehensible) input, lots of repetition and translation (yes- translation!) facilitate the new-language modelling function that aural input performs in the early phases of language acquisition; it provides speakers with poor aural-input processing ability with more time and greater chances to notice new linguistic features as segmentation (identifying the boundaries of words) is easier to perform. This is important, as noticing a new phoneme, word or morpheme is thought to mark the beginning of its acquisition (Schmidt, 1990, 1993,1994,1995).

Smith and Conti (2016) drew a clear distinction between the Listening-as-modelling and the Listening-for-testing-comprehension or ‘Quiz approach’ to listening-skill instruction. The former concerns itself with ensuring that L2 students learn through every single aural activity staged; the latter, sadly the more common approach in the typical UK classroom, concerns itself with providing practice in picking out details in order to answer a few questions on a recorded text heard two or three times – hardly an effective way to model new language. As I will discuss in the sequel to this post, to be published next week, the predominance of the ‘quiz approach’ remains to-date the root cause of the inefficacy of much listening instruction; as I shall argue there, listening-comprehension tasks can indeed play an important role in listening-skills acquisition, but only provided that much listening-as-modelling as occurred before.

By listening-as-modelling I do not simply mean the very common practice of asking the students to repeat a word or short phrase a couple of times after the teacher utters them since, as mentioned above, speech stays in working memory for too short a time for that sort of repetition to lead to acquisition. Also such practice models short phrases, not sentence building or more extensive and complex discourse.

Reading aloud is one example of listening-as-modelling that is indeed practised in a number of UK learning settings. In our book (Smith and Conti,2016) Steve and I provide a strong rationale for using it and there is mounting evidence (e.g. Seo, 2014) that even a few minutes per lessons can significantly impact speaking proficiency and willingness to communicate.

And how about the teacher using the target language in most of the lessons? Not an uncommon occurrence in UK classrooms, after all…Well,  it may be argued that teacher fronted talk in the target language does constitute Listening-as-modelling when the target language is used to explicitly model and recycle new language and to deliberately promote noticing (as in the example Steve Smith provides in our books in the section on target language use). However, in 25 years of lesson observations in British schools, I have indeed seen target-language teacher talk being used effectively to facilitate comprehension, but not to explicitly model specific language items through systematically recycled ‘patterned’ input. The teacher’s aural input is usually spontaneous – not a bad thing; however, when teacher contact time is limited (one or two hours a week), this kind of aural input is unlikely to substantially enhance acquisition – at least in my experience. I do believe, however, that in immersive or other input-rich L2 environments such practice can indeed significantly impact learning.

As I reserve to discuss in greater depth in my next post, Listening-as-modelling includes instructional activities which focus the learners on pronunciation and decoding skills, in an effort to facilitate phonological processing and segmentation; on predictive strategies; on the identification of word-classes and systems; on the understanding of syntax and sentence building; on the development of aural-input processing; on building metacognition vis-à-vis the listening process. Listening comprehension is built in such activities but in a way that scaffolds the modelling.

2.6 The affective response

So far we have looked at the way learner cognition responds to aural input. How about the affective response? In my experience, the ‘quiz’ approach, especially in the absence of adequate training in inference strategies and differentiation (difficult when all students listen to the same track at the same pace from the same input source) has led to a generation of disaffected listeners. This is tragic considering the wealth of L2 audio-visual material available on the web. However, as long as listening instruction limits itself to quizzes it will elicit guesswork and guesswork will rarely build learner self-efficacy, a crucial precursor, as Smith and Conti (2016) argued, for the development of intrinsic motivation.

For self-efficacy vis-à-vis aural-input-processing to be fostered in the classroom, the learners must be adequately prepped for any listening task which may be perceived as a test (e.g. a listening comprehension) by a few listening-as-modelling activities which recycle very similar lexical material and phonetic, grammatical and syntactic patterns so as to scaffold success. In the sequel to this post (PART 2) I will explain how I attempt to do it.

3. Conclusions to Part 1: first set of implications for teaching and learning and issues to be tackled in Part 2

The above discussion has huge implications for listening-skills instruction. Please note that each of the point below will be treated more extensively and with several examples in my next post.

(1) students need tons of listening practice which aims at speeding up processing (i.e. automatising ‘chunking’) – I will discuss how in the sequel to this post. A culture of listening-for-learning as opposed to listening-for-testing must be established in the classroom since the very early days of instruction through a variety of activities which aim at modelling comprehensible input and elicit a positive affective response (e.g. jigsaw listenings using songs; sentence building mats,  watching short movies with subtitles; story-telling with visuals). Moreover, speed of delivery should be reduced and varied (in a formative way) and linguistic content should be simplified with repetitions added in if necessary to facilitate comprehension. Transcripts and translations (e.g. parallel texts) could be used to scaffold the modelling process (this, too, will be discussed in my next post).

(2) students need EXTENSIVE practice in pronunciation and decoding skills from the very beginning of their L2 learning experience (e.g. through listening-micro-skills enhancers , partial transcription tasks and even short dictations ). I use them a lot in my lessons and students find them useful and fun. The set of new phonemes and corresponding graphemes taught should not, in my experience, amount to more than three or four per lesson.

(3) listening practice must recycle the target lexical material as much as possible in order to facilitate ‘chunking’ and future ease of retrieval from Long Term Memory. This may call for strategies like narrow listening, i.e. the administration of a series of listening texts which are very similar in terms of lexical, grammatical and syntactic content, thereby requiring increasingly less inferences on the part of the student-listener. At this link you will find an example of L2-French Narrow Reading texts which can be used for Narrow Listening, too. Again, narrow listening is something I used a lot in my lessons, usually preceded by a  battery of narrow reading texts containing the same linguistic material

(4) the target words and set phrases (especially if they are part of an Examination Board core vocabulary) must be recycled through the aural medium in as many different semantic, grammatical and phonetic contexts as possible in order to create a processing history which will facilitate comprehension in the long run (see 2.2.1 above).

(5)  The development of listening-skills, especially those underlying the ability to listen and respond to aural input (listenership) goes hand-in-hand with the development of oral communication skills. Hence, oral communicative activities (e.g. student-to-student conversations) should feature as often as possible in lessons. In order to ensure the type of recycling envisaged in point 3 and 4 above, such oral activities should include a substantial amount of structured activities ‘forcing’ learners to produce the target material (e.g. oral translations; role plays with prompts; cued picture tasks).

(6) listening comprehension tasks should be used almost exclusively as ‘plenary’ activities or tests to be carried out after much modelling of the linguistic material they contain has occurred. This will be perceived by the learners as much fairer than being asked to perform guesswork on an aural text containing lots of unfamiliar language and will enhance their chances to experience success, which will feed into their self-efficacy as L2- listeners. Teachers with good pronunciation may want to read the transcripts themselves rather than play the recording with less adept student-listeners, to facilitate processing. Please note that the Listening-as-modelling I envisage does include a comprehension component.

(7), curriculum planners may want to explicitly and systematically address in their long-/medium- and short-term planning the existing listening macro-skills and micro-skills taxonomies (e.g. the one by Brown, 2007, above). This would provide the curriculum  (e.g. Schemes of Work) with a structure and a specific set of objectives to focus on – surely a massive improvement over the haphazard way in which listening instruction is currently carried out. I use pre-listening tasks mainly as a vehicle for the modelling of the inference/predictive strategies envisaged by Brown’s (2007) and decoding skills (e.g. by reinforcing challenging sounds contained in the target text which may impair comprehension). I tend to use tasks involving focus on micro-skills in the in-listening activities I stage (three or four per task), jigsaw listening, segmentation tasks (identifying word boundaries) and patterns/system identification tasks (identifying word classes, tenses etc.), being my favourites. I use post-listening tasks, instead, for metacognitive reflection or critical listening (see my next post).

(8) Finally, as part of the Listening-for-learning approach, teachers ought to exploit any given recording much more than it is currently done by course-books. Carrying out three or four different activities with the same texts plus a pre-listening and a post-listening one will enhance the chances that the target vocabulary and linguistic features in the listening piece will be retained.

In a nutshell, the current teaching of listening skills does, in my opinion, need a drastic shake-up. The most important change language educators ought to implement is one of mindset, from a culture of listening-for-testing to one of listening-as-learning. This entails more Listening-as-modelling practice as well as more focus on Listenership, which in turns implies more oral interaction in the classroom.This change in orientation – which does not rule out using listening comprehesion tasks, as I hope it is clear from the above discussion – is fundamental if we want to equip the 21st century L2 learners with the skill set required to become effective autonomous listeners.

3.1 What I will write about in PART 2

In my next post I reserve to  delve deeper into the above implications and to discuss the ‘how’ I implement them as part of my daily classroom practice. I shall also point out the most common shortcomings of typical listening-skills instruction in the UK as identified by Steve, Dylan and myself, discussing the way we have addressed them (not always successfully) throughout the last academic year in our classroom practice (at Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur).

Part 2 and 3, the next posts in the ‘trilogy’, will concern itself with the following shortcomings of listening instruction, delving in much greater depth into the day-to-day strategies I have implemented in my classroom practice to address them in collaboration with my colleague Dylan Vinales at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur):

  1. Insufficient aural/oral skills practice
  2. Poor curriculum design/lesson planning
  3. Ineffective sequencing and integration with other skills
  4. Insufficient ‘patterned’ recycling
  5. Inadequate exploitation of listening resources
  6. Lack of differentiation
  7. The ‘quiz approach’
  8. Insufficient use of listening-as-modelling
  9. No systematic and explicit focus on the development of aural-input processing ability
  10. Insufficient practice in listenership skills


Please note: To find out more about Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti’s ideas on the above, get hold of their book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’



Brown, D. H. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016). Creating language: Integrating evolution, acquisition, and processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Macaro, E (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language A Guide to Recent Research and Its Applications. London:Continuum.

Richards, J. C. (1983). Listening comprehension: Approach, design, procedure. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 219-239.

Rukadevi, D. (2014). The Role of listening in language acquisition; the challenges and strategies in teaching listening. International Journal of Education and Information studies, 4, 59-63

Seo (2014) Does reading aloud improve foreign language learners’ speaking ability. GSTF International Journal on Education (JEd) Vol.2 No.1, June 2014

Smith and Conti (2016). The Language Teacher Toolkit. Amazon.

Weir, C J, Vidakovic, I and Galaczi, E D (2013). Measured Constructs: A history of Cambridge English language examinations 1913-2012. Studies in Language Testing 37

So…how do we ‘teach’ listening?

images (2)

In previous blogs on the topic of listening skills pedagogy (e.g. here) I noted how in UK secondary schools the methods used to teach this pivotal skill are often inadequate. My criticism centred around the following points:

  1. There is little focus on practising phonological processing micro-skills. Yet these are essential as listening involves first and foremost bottom-up processing skills; hence, to develop learners’ ability to effectively and efficiently process the L2 sounds and match what they hear to the mental representation they have of those sounds in Long-term memory is paramount. To facilitate the acquisition of the L2 phonological system I advocated the importance of emphasising phonological awareness from the very early stages of instruction.
  2. Top-down processing skills and strategies are rarely explicitly and systematically taught. Listening comprehension is also about applying inferential skills; predicting what comes next based on the expectations that make up our schemata about a given situation.
  3. Listening comprehensions are over-used with detrimental effects on many learners’ self-efficacy as L2 listeners. Listening comprehensions are tests through and through. As such, there is a place for them in the L2 classroom: as plenaries, after much practice has occurred. A listening comprehension task on a given topic (e.g. environmental issues) should be carried out after the students have had extensive listening practice on that topic which has involved vocabulary, structures, discourse functions, etc, similar to those found in that comprehension task. Otherwise, it will be unfair and will encourage a perception of listening tasks by the students as guessing games. But listening tasks should not be guessing games. Students should come to a listening activity equipped with developed enough listening strategies, phonological processing ability and vocabulary to be able to succeed at it; or we, as teacher, will have failed along with our students. The worst outcome of this practice is usually, in my experience, that the less capable of ‘guessing’ will develop low self-efficacy levels and motivation vis-à-vis listening tasks.
  4. The learning potential of listening texts is often not exploited sufficiently. This is particularly the case for the listening tasks found in textbooks. Typically the teacher plays an audio-track two or three times; the students do a listening comprehension task (e.g. True or False); the answers are marked; finally the class move on to a new task. What has actually been learnt? What happened to the potential of the text for practising other levels of the text or other skills other than picking details?
  5. Listening tasks do not occur in textbooks or schemes of work as part of a well-thought out learning sequence. In his review of the relevant research Macaro (2007) points out that in most UK classrooms listening tasks are rarely effectively integrated with what come before or after; especially in textbooks.
  6. When authentic texts are used by teachers, students are not effectively prepped. Listening tasks invoving ‘authentic’ materials (e.g. youtube videos) are assigned without preparing the students adequately for them in linguistic terms. The assumption made is that it is ‘comprehensible’ input; truth is, often it is not, at least not for all of the students in the class and the logic of the listening task as a guessing game often applies here, too.
  7. Speed of delivery. For the sake of ‘authenticity’, the speed of many published instructional listening materials is native or near-native. However, this is not always pedagogically sound when we are dealing with novice to pre-intermediate learners unless we are engaging in the ‘guessing’ game again. After all, in naturalistic settings people talk to novice non-native speakers more slowly and clearly that they would normally do and often simplify their input. This is done by teachers, too, when they speak to the class. However, this is far too often not done by course-books and it is rarely the case for ‘authentic’ listening texts. My students, in a very recent survey of student opinion I conducted in my school, complained that the listening tracks in the course books and published materials in use were either too easy or too difficult; rarely ‘right’.
  8. Listening is the least practised skill in L2 classrooms – or at least definitely less practised than reading and writing. This is a huge problem as recent research shows that listening proficiency is a strong predictor of language learning success; even higher than aptitude.

2. Teaching implications

First of all, let us consider what effective listening entails. In order to comprehend L2 spoken texts our learners will need to

  1. be able to recognize the words they hear; know where they begin and where they end – as when they do not, L2 speech sounds like a fast unintelligible flow of gibberish. This entails (1) knowing their pronunciation or being able to infer its graphemic form (spelling) based on one’s L2 phonological awareness; (2) knowing their meaning;
  2. be able to identify how the function words perform in the target text, both in terms of grammar and discourse;
  3. possess well-developed top-down processing skills in order to be able to compensate for lack of vocabulary; hence, they need practice in schemata activation and application in real operating conditions.

These are, in my view, the implications of the above discussion for the L2 classroom:

  1. Listening activities (possibly of the kind listed below) should feature in most lessons, the long-term goal being: students listening to L2 audio material for pleasure and/or personal enrichment (at home / in class);
  2. Listening activities should focus on bottom-up processing skills through:
  • Phonological awareness tasks (see my posts on listening micro-skill enhancers and on transcription tasks: here ) ;
  • Word (meaning) recognition tasks. This could start from simple matching tasks (e.g. match picture to word) to translation tasks (e.g. teacher says word/lexical phrases and student writes meaning on mini-board/iPad)
  • Metalinguistic awareness tasks (e.g. identification of what word-class lexical items fall into).
  1. Teachers should practise top-down processing skills through (1) jigsaw listening or ‘predict what comes next’ activities; (2) explicitly modelling of and practice in effective inferential strategies (e.g. using context and key-words identification to infer meaning; contextualized brainstorming before listening). Comprehension tasks can be used here.
  1. Challenging listening comprehension tasks should come at the end of a sequence of listening (or listening + reading/speaking/writing tasks). This is an example of what a teacher could do to prepare a student for a challenging listening comprehension – one would not do all of them, of course, and some of the tasks below may be replaced with reading/speaking or writing activities focusing on the same language items for the sake of variety.

Task 1: vocabulary building activities (in which the vocabulary in the target listening comprehension task are presented and practised)

Task 2: phonological-awareness-enhancing skills (e.g. the same words in Step 1 are gapped and have to be completed whilst listening; gap-fill with missing words to fill in; partial transcription tasks)

Task 3: Word recognition tasks – match words with picture/English word;

Task 4: Listen to short sentences and translate;

Task 5: Listen to a set of sentences and Identify key grammatical / discourse features (e.g. spot the adjectives or categorize the verbs heard in tenses)

Task 6: Jigsaw listening of a text similar to the listening comprehension (both in topic and structure);

Task 7a: listening to the target comprehension task one or two times, with transcript on screen (students can ask questions about words. You can set a limit to the number of words they can ask about);

Task 7b (alternative to 7a): partial transcription task using the target comprehension task;

Task 8: Students carry out listening comprehension (no transcript available);

Task 9: Transcript shown on screen and vocabulary building and/or reading comprehension tasks carried out on text to consolidate any interesting/useful lexical items.

5. In order not to ‘waste’ the full learning potential of a listening track, one could use it to address various levels of the   text, e.g. (after pre-listening vocabulary activities targeting potentially challenging words):

  • Firstly, by gapping the transcript of text (taking out words or phrases) and asking the students to fill in the gap (multiple-choice) – transcript projected on screen;
  • Secondly (after removing transcript), by carrying out a jigsaw listening activity;
  • Thirdly,by noting down as many verbs as they can identify in the text (specifying the tenses they are in?)
  • Fourthly, by listing a few ideas/facts contained in the text (in English or TL) in random order and asking the students to rearrange them in the order in which they occur in the text;
  • Fifthly, by doing a true/false/not mentioned comprehension;
  • Vocabulary recycling follow up may ensue.
  1. In order to lessen cognitive load and facilitate retention of the target vocabulary the listening texts used in the same lesson or sequence of lessons should recycle the same lexis. Narrow listening, whereby the students are exposed – through different activities – to four or five (short) texts on the same topic and containing more or less the same lexis, may be very valuable in this respect. It helps the students understanding by recycling the same language material; when the texts are made increasingly (slightly) more difficult, it facilitates differentiation for teachers; it increase retention through recycling. It goes without saying that the input should be pitched at the right level (comprehensible input).
  1. Teachers should expose students to TL speech/narrative uttered at a speed which is accessible to the students they are teaching. Hence, if using audio-tracks or video, they may want to produce them themselves with the help of native or expert speakers. I do it all the time and it is not that time consuming. Narrow listening could come in very handy in this respect; the four or five target texts could be recorded at different speed, starting from fairly slow and becoming increasingly faster from text 2 onwards.
  1. When using authentic listening texts/videos teachers should prep the students thoroughly by presenting and practising extensively any new vocabulary contained in the text or any other element (e.g. cultural references) which may pose a serious cognitive challenge.

In conclusion, L2 teachers should emphasize listening much more than it is currently done in the typical MFL classroom. Also, serious thought should go into the selection and sequencing of listening tasks.When selecting a listening comprehension and planning listening activities one should ask oneself the following crucial questions:

  1. Am I actually teaching listening skills through this task or am I merely testing students on their inferential ability?
  2. What skills am I teaching: top-down / bottom-up or both? How?
  3. How can I make sure that as many of my students as possible will succeed at the task I am planning? What are they going to find difficult about this task and how am I going to prepare them for these challenges?
  4. How can I exploit the full potential of this text for learning?

Although all of the above questions are pivotal, I do believe that the third one is by far the most important. Far too often, for reasons that have often baffled me, listening tasks are unfairly constructed to ‘trick’ students in getting the wrong answer. Sentences like ‘I have a cat but not a dog’ seem to have been put in just to disorientate the learner. For what learning gain? To discriminate which learner picks up on the negative and which one doesn’t ? Teachers and textbooks need to get out of this listening-as-a test mentality. Listening being possibly the most difficult set of skills to develop we need to ensure that students do well at and enjoy it. In this day and age, when so many free videos and audio-materials are available on the internet, we need, more than ever, to develop self-efficacious listeners who autonomously seek opportunities for practice; this can only be achieved if learners experience success frequently in our lessons.

More on listening in my article “Listening – the often mis-taught skill”  and in the book I co-authored with Steve Smith “The language teacher toolkit”

Narrow reading and narrow listening – enhancing receptive skills through focused and purposeful recycling


As mentioned in previous posts, listening in my opinion is not taught effectively in many MFL classrooms as students are often engaged in listening comprehension tasks that ‘feel’ more like tests and involve almost exclusively top-down processing skills. Another reason is that instructors and textbooks often do not exploit the full potential of the target texts. Students listen to a recording two or three times, answer a few comprehension questions and then the text is ‘ditched’ and the teacher moves on to a new text  which may deal with a similar topic area but rarely recycles the same material. As far as reading is concerned, things are a bit better and occasionally textbooks do provide two or three activities on the same text. But even so, the full potential of a text is often wasted.

In what follows I propose an approach to listening and reading that I have used very often over the years, which, although quite time-consuming, can yield great results if executed properly and implemented regularly.

Narrow listening

When I was in my teens, Internet did not exist and finding the lyrics of a song, in Italy – where I lived in those days – was not easy. Hence, a lot of my school mates, aware of my anglo-phone background (my mother having grown up in England) would ask me to write up the lyrics of the British hits that were ‘invading’ and taking over Italy at that time. To be able to do that, although I was already near-native at that stage, I had to listen to each song over and over again, sometimes going over the same line a dozen times to decode problematic words.

Useless to say, that process was as useful as it was tedious; I learnt loads, both in terms of bottom-up processing skills and in terms of vocabulary. But can we ask students to do the same? Apart from a few highly self-motivated individuals, the vast majority of our learners would not. Yet, as I argued in a previous post, if students simply listen to a text once or twice only, the learning benefits will be relatively low; students often need to process the same text several times in order to fully understand and learn new vocabulary from it.

One obvious solution is to exploit each text several times by engaging the learners in four or five tasks based around it.  However, this can be boring and repetitive. So, what can one do, to ensure that the students listen to the same words over and over again without listening and re-listening to the same text?

I found a possible solution a few years back, whilst reading the work of Stephen Krashen and his ‘narrow listening’ technique. ‘Narrow listening’ involves asking several L2 proficient/native speakers to talk about a specific topic whilst recording them in the process; the questions should be quite ‘narrow’ in their focus so as to elicit similar content and, consequently, language (vocabulary and grammar). At the end of the process one would listen to all the recordings obtained thereby being exposed several times to fairly similar language.

When I first got acquainted with this technique, I liked its aims: firstly, to facilitate learner understanding of the target input, by creating the same ‘narrow’ context for each interview and by recycling the same vocabulary over and over again; secondly, to consolidate vocabulary through that recycling. However, Krashen’s approach, being based on a spontaneous response on the part of the interviewees, does not guarantee any control on the teacher’s part over the vocabulary contained in their input. This means that the effect that song-transcribing had on me could not be guaranteed 100 % all of the time through Krashen’s technique.

Hence I decided to adapt Krashen’s model and increase my degree of control over the input. In my model, the interviewees are not just improvising; each is given a script that will not take longer than 30 to 40 seconds to read for beginner to pre-intermediate learners and about 1 minute for GCSE level students. The wording of each script is quite similar – but not identical – and the input is ‘comprehensible’ (i.e. mostly familiar language or cognates, with a few unfamiliar words). The ‘secret’ is to make sure that the same pool of words is recycled constantly whilst the texts sound different and have slightly different messages (e.g. some negative; some positive; some ‘neutral’) – not an easy thing to do. Even though the process can be quite laborious, the learning benefits of this practice in terms of vocabulary acquisition, consolidation and self-efficacy are remarkable.

In international schools like the one I work at where there are lots of young native speakers of the target language(s) (and their parents) this approach is not too difficult to implement. But one can go about it a different way, by searching the web for short videos/recordings which are very similar in content. I did that, for instance, in the context of daily routine; I found a serious of youtube videos shot by French teenagers, which actually contained very similar language and used them for narrow listening tasks. In the absence of L2 native speakers, other L2 experts (e.g. colleagues) may be used.

But what tasks should the students be involved in whilst narrow-listening? Unlike Krashen, who believes they should not be doing anything but listening, I do believe the students should be demonstrating understanding one way or another. The type of activity we decide to engage them in will depend on what we are trying to focus them on: is it inferring the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary? Is it consolidating old vocabulary? Is it listening for gist? Is it identifying specific details? Or is it all of the above? The answers to these questions will determine the in-listening tasks we will set. I usually do one or more of the following:

  1. Given the word in English spot the French/Spanish equivalent on the recording;
  2. Identify the meaning of the following French words in the recording;
  3. Jot down two/three/four etc. main points each speaker makes;
  4. Spot the speakers who express similar/different opinions or do/have done similar/different things;
  5. Comprehension questions. As you will know if you read my previous posts, these are not my favourite kind of tasks.

Narrow listening activities should be preceded by warm-up vocabulary and schemata activation activities and followed by consolidation activities further recycling the target lexis in order to maximize retention.

Narrow reading

The same principle underlying narrow listening can be applied to reading with the same beneficial impact on L2 acquisition. In fact, I often use the transcripts employed in narrow listening for my narrow reading sessions. I strongly recommend using fewer texts for narrow reading than one would use in narrow listening. Narrow reading is easier to implement as there’s no need for native speakers and similar texts are easy to find. For instance, recently I was doing some work on the environment and finding five similar texts on things to do or not to do to protect the environment was easy – and each text was authentic L2 material.

In conclusion, narrow listening is a technique that I recommend to colleagues and that I wish textbooks and other published instructional materials adopted more often than they currently do. It has the great advantage of exposing the students to similar comprehensible input, which allows for easier access to unfamiliar language, due to the contextual and linguistic clues they get from listening to several similar texts; moreover, similar vocabulary is recycled over and over again which fosters consolidation and retention; finally, students get to listen to accessible L2 language for relatively long time as uttered by different people. However, it does require some extra-work and the availability of several L2 experts willing to co-operate.

In order to save time and effort, Krashen’s approach may be easier to implement and can work, too, if one chooses the right questions. I do it sometimes and ask students to go around school with their iPads – not in lesson time, obviously –  to interview as many L2 native speaker schoolmates as possible about a specific topic (e.g. food in the canteen). When the focus of the question is very narrow (e.g. talk to be about a typical day in school), the likelihood of the vocabulary overlapping across interviewees is quite high.

Listening -the often ‘mis-taught’ skill. Part one: the issues undermining aural skills instruction

The Language Gym

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Listening is a very important skill, definitely the most crucial to first language acquisition. Yet, in my experience and in my review of the relevant literature, I have found it to be the one that is possibly taught and resourced least effectively. This is hardly surprising, in that of all four macro language skills, listening is  the most ‘obscure’ in terms of what we know about the processes it involves. Why? Because it is difficult for researchers and teachers to decode what ‘goes on’ in the listener’s head as s/he attends to aural input. Hence, there is little valid research evidence on which to build a reliable pedagogic reference framework for listening skills instruction.

I have decided to split this article in two parts as the subject matter requires more extensive treatment than other topics I have previously tackled in my blog and because the psycholinguistic rationales for the…

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