Tag Archives: teaching

Preparing Teachers to Teach Listening

Ian Britton
Ian Britton

In my last post (Discovering Field’s Diagnostic Listening Instruction) I explained how I am approaching listening instruction with both a listening class and a teaching listening class using Field’s Diagnostic Listening Instruction.  In this post, I want to focus on what I do with the Teaching Listening class.  I’ll include a good deal of the materials as well as some design tensions that have arisen in the past and how I’m trying to deal with them now.

My main goal is to focus students on modifying texts (audio) and tasks to best assess for gaps in listening skills and to provide skills training to fill those gaps.  In doing so, we focus largely on Field’s Decoding and Meaning-Building Processes.

Chapters 2-4 discuss beginning, intermediate, and advanced level learners (in addition to other topics mixed into each chapter).  These chapters provide for a good launching off point in the discussion of text & task modification for diverse learners.  Students in the class have to consider learner abilities at each level (ACTFL Guidelines are a helpful framework).  They then have to analyze texts (audio) for potential difficulties that learners may encounter.  Doing this for imaginary learners is less than ideal, but this lack of authenticity is address later in the course (see below).  These analyses then inform how the texts and tasks are implemented in instruction.

The activities/lessons that arise out of these activities are rather predictable.  Students tend to focus on aspects of background knowledge, vocabulary, speaker dialect and speed, number of speakers, background noise, and so forth.  This is when the students usually have to be pushed to refer to the decoding and meaning-building processes.  This takes them out of their comfort zone (based on their own learning experiences) and requires them to think about a wide range of processes that inform listening.  Follow-up assignments that required referencing the processes list tend to show a greater variety of modifications and task-types.

Take the following example.  You have a group of largely low-level English language learners.  Through initial assessments of their listening comprehension, you have found that many are unable to distinguish certain phonemes, they have difficulty finding word boundaries (isolating individual words in multiword utterances), and they have difficulty understanding many dialects that differ noticeably from the North American dialects that they have grown used to.

Knowing this about the learners, you have to choose appropriate texts and tasks to address these gaps.  While you certainly can address more than one at a time, it might be helpful here to isolate our learning objectives.  Let’s take the word boundaries issue first.   We should be addressing this specific performance gap and the processes that can help: stress-timed rhythm, stressed and unstressed words (content vs. function), pronunciation of unstressed syllables, common features of connected speech (linking, blending, elision, etc.), and so forth.

Text: Given the objective, the focus should be more on listening to each word.  In order to do this, it would probably be best for the text to be naturally spoken by a familiar speaker (teacher) or in a familiar dialect.  The text should feature content and vocabulary/expressions that learners are largely familiar with.

Task: The task is focused on these listening processes.  Teachers can explicitly teach some aspects like the features of stress-timed rhythm or these aspects can be gleaned by exposure to the language (likely mixed with some guidance by the teacher).  The tasks, however, should be focused an a particular learning objective.  For stress-timed rhythm, students can be asked to mark all of the stressed words in phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.  That task can then quickly move into a discussion about the primacy of syllables over words in listening and pronunciation.  This then leads into discussion/tasks on the pronunciation and identification of unstressed words and syllables.  This can (and should) continue until each of the learning objectives have been addressed.

These tasks are good at focusing learners on modification and role that student variables play in instructional design. However, this is largely an empty academic task.  This year, I have the good fortune to be able to offer a little more authenticity.  Learners in the Teaching Listening class will be developing lessons for actual listening classes offered by the university and taught by me.  This is the first semester that the course has been offered and I was asked to design and implement it.  I decided to eat my own dog food and attempt to apply the principles of a diagnostic listening approach to the course (I’ll write more about that experience later).  In addition, I realized that this could be a great opportunity for the English Education students to design instruction for real learners.

This semester, the Teaching Listening students will spend much of the second half of the semester developing instruction that I will implement in my classes.  The plan is to have small groups be responsible for developing lessons that address common listening problems as diagnosed by the listening class’s midterm exam.  The students will be given access to anonymized testing and assessment data, which will guide their lesson development.  Lessons (with all materials) will be submitted to me and if I think that they would benefit the listening class, I’ll teach those materials.  I’m even considering having the English Education students run the instruction, but I’m not so sure that I’ll do that.  Anyone want to convince me either way?

That’s about it for the overview.  See below for a bunch of materials related to the class.

PowerPoints that I use in the course. The chapter presentations do contain some information and  resources not in the book.

Other course materials:



Discovering Field’s Diagnostic Listening Instruction

Photo by garageolimpo
Photo by garageolimpo

When I was first given a class on teaching listening, I scoured the bookstores for a textbook.  It was at that point I realized just how little respect listening instruction receives in publication.  There are a handful of books that cover a mix of speaking and listening, including a well-respected book by Paul Nation, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. Most of these books short change listening, though Nation treats it better than most.  A class dedicated to the practice of teaching listening shouldn’t have to share a text with speaking instruction.  A focused class deserves a focused text.

I finally found John Field’s book, Listening in the Language Classroom.  Field’s book is an amazing take on listening instruction.  He promotes using a “diagnostic approach” to listening instruction, which he contrasts with what he refers to as a “comprehension approach.”  This changed the way that I approached language instruction and the preparation of teachers who will have to do the same. I was one of the many who treated listening as a kind of solitary unit that learners either got or didn’t get. I never thought thought about WHY they had difficulties understanding past the obvious (and overly emphasized) issues of speed and vocabulary.

I was excited to use this with my students at the time and did so in that first semester.  It was one of the biggest disasters of my teaching career.  I rightfully had high expectations for the students in the class (all English Education majors), but I so completely misjudged the difficulty of the text.  It was a rookie mistake and both the students and I suffered for it.  I ended up sidelining the book and created outlines and presentations for the students to read/listen to instead (those outlines can be found on this Posterous site until the service closes down on April 30, 2013).  While that experience soured me on using Field’s book with my students, it did nothing to dissuade me from using his ideas with future classes.

I now try to integrate Field’s concepts and approach to instruction with a much easier, accessible text for learners in my classes (Practical English Language Teaching: Listening).  This series of books is written to be as accessible as possible to novice learners in the field of TESOL.  The “Listening” book is no exception.  In the past, I’ve spread the book out over the duration of a semester while sprinkling in concepts from the Field book to add depth.

This semester I’m trying something new.  The first 4 chapters will be done primarily as self-study, while I put more of a focus on Field’s concepts and the application of those concepts with different groups of learners (in parallel with chapters 2-4 in the PELT: Listening text).  The second half of the semester students will primarily be developing lessons for two listening courses taught at the university, with a focus on diagnosing student problems and implementing instructional interventions that address these weaknesses.  I’m quite excited about this partnership and a little nervous as well.

I’ll be following up here on this project throughout the semester, discussing the challenges and, hopefully, successes throughout.


I’d love to hear any thoughts that you have.  What experiences have you had with teaching listening or with teaching teachers how to to teach listening (that’s a mouthful)?  Anything I should look out for? Anything I should try?  Any great lessons that go beyond simple comprehension?

My Problems with Educational Technology Hype

Anyone who knows me (or at least follows me online) knows that I am not a Luddite.  On the contrary, I’m an early adopter, particularly regarding software and Web services.  I love to use the newest and shiniest tech.  This is, at least, until I understand it better.  If I can’t figure out a use-case for my personal uses, that new thing will join the digital trash heap quickly.  As a teacher, however, the use-case has to be very strong for me to even consider using a tech with my classes.  I’ve been burned too many times over the years by my own irrational exuberance only to find the tech (or more importantly, my methods) fail miserably.

As I continue to work on tempering my own use of tech in my classes, I see what looks like a myopic rush save money via educational technology.  I’m not against saving money, mind you.  I’m rather fiscally conservative. However, I am against doing anything in an uncritical way as I believe is happening how.

What got me thinking about this was a post by TechCrunch (Anticipating a Blended Classroom Boom Led by Education Startups).  This article discusses companies that may contribute to wonderful learning environments, these kinds of systems can help with automated tracking and personalized content recommendations for students.  This can, in turn, be used by teachers to then customize instructional interventions for individual students (or more likely whole classes).  The article does a good job emphasizing the collaborative role of the technologies and educators.  However, the “Boom” got me thinking about the baser realities that are likely to emerge in this space.

Tony Bates must by on a similar wave length as he posted on this yesterday (My summer paranoia: computers will replace teachers in higher education).  He detailed a whole host of problems with the desire to automatize education.  I agree with much of what he said. My responses to his end-of-post questions are below.

1. Anyone else share my paranoia? (about computers replacing computers – anything else, see a doctor) : Shared, but I wouldn’t call it paranoia, necessarily. I can’t tell you its a bad thing until I see it implemented. Of course, computers replacing human teachers is rather unlikely. However, computers reducing the number of teachers is probably on the horizon.

2. Do you believe we should replace teachers (or instructors) with computers? What are your reasons? : As above, replacing teachers is an impossibility for much of what we currently think of as education (change the definition and I’ll change my answer). However, reducing the number of teachers is possibility. Off-loading rote learning activities and basic assessment, providing useful learning objects that address some of the needs of individual students, and reducing the time that students meet with teachers can enable teachers to work with more students in the same amount of time (ideally). Again, though, it’s all in the implementation. I haven’t seen/heard of a good one yet.

3. Can online learning improve productivity in post-secondary education without getting rid of most instructors? : It can, but it won’t. The way to move anything forward in higher ed is to show that it can save money (whether it really will or not) and not that it is a more effective educational approach.

I also share his concern over MOOCs and automated marking:

Let’s start with xMOOCs and automated marking and peer review to get around the awkward point that one instructor cannot provide adequate feedback to thousands of students. No problem: a combination of big data collection and analysis and multiple-choice testing will solve most problems, and the ones that it won’t solve will be solved by dumb students marking less dumb students.

Though, I might have stated it a little differently than ” dumb students marking less dumb students.” I’d hope that this was a bit of humor and not him saying that students (or their teachers) can’t learn from one another.

The movement to crowdsource and open education is one that is rooted in the belief that there is a great amount of knowledge and power in the crowd and a great amount of value in opening education for everyone (able to afford a computer and Internet access).  I truly belief in this as well.  I think that many of those promoting MOOCs believe this as well.  However, I cannot believe that course offerings by companies like Coursera can best a course that features healthy interaction with a knowledgeable other (teacher or peer), which is a whole lot less likely in a MOOC.  Having participated in a couple, I find them little different than course offerings I had 10 years ago that gave me a reading, required me to post a response on a discussion forum, and then required me to respond to a peer.  There is value in the approach, but when you take a knowledgeable other out of the equation, it’s little more than mental masturbation.

It’s the small things

Just today I had a revelation when ordering coffee and a scone a local coffee shop (Caribou Coffee). For those of you who know me, you’ll probably say that’s where all of my revelations come from because I spend all of my time in coffee shops.  That’s true.  What’s more true is that I even use coffee shops and the language used in them as my favorite examples in my methods classes.

I like to talk about the importance of scripts.  These are common patterns of interactions embedded in specific contexts. The coffee shop is one of my favorites. The understanding of scripts helps people with limited L2 language skills to cope and communicate in L2 contexts.  Ordering at a coffee shop is relatively standard across shops and countries (thanks to Starbucks), particularly across Starbucks shops.  Even if I understand little Korean, I can still order at Starbucks in Korea.  The more differences between scripts, the greater the likelihood of confusion and breakdowns in communication (not to mention failure to accomplish your task).

At a coffee shop today (granted it wasn’t Starbucks), I came to the realization that my time away from the US makes me a less reliable guide to operating in this culture.  It was a small thing, but similar differences can reduce teachers’ effectiveness the longer they are abroad.  Now, we can have discussions of whether one needs up to date knowledge of one of the target language cultures to this degree, but I do think it is another hole in the cult of the native speaker.

By now, you may be asking what brought on this realization.  As I say in the title, it’s the small things.  Coffee shops here (at least the big ones) don’t really do mugs.  They might have them, but the default is a to go cup.  Even the ones that they had at this Caribou Coffee were only for smalls.  So, while they did say, “for here or to go,” staying true to the script, my response didn’t determine which type of cup I received.  Secondly, I got a scone.  The same thing I get when I go to Starbucks in Korea just about every time.  There, scones are served with jelly and butter.  When I asked for that here, I was met with a confused look and an employee digging through the refrig to see if they had either of those (they didn’t).

What does all of this mean?  First, it means that while I am in Korean, things change in the US.  Yes, I know, really deep, Dan.  However, these change without my notice and leave me less prepared to operate in my native culture.  That is a strange feeling.  Second, it means that my expectations of my native culture are influenced by businesses (and thus culture) that I associate with the US, but in reality operate outside of US cultural expectations.  This is a subconscious expectation on my part, but one that is very real. In this way, I develop Korean expectations for US language and culture that color my interactions with those people, businesses, and contexts in my native land.

I don’t have anywhere else to go with this. It was just something of my lived experience that I wanted to get out there.