Getting real in teaching listening

phonology-for-listening-richard-cauldwell-paperback-cover-artBook review:
Richard Cauldwell: Phonology for Listening. Teaching the Stream of Speech. Speech in Action. Birmingham, UK 2013.
ISBN 0954344723, ISBN-13: 978-0954344726. Printed on demand by Amazon. €25.68

Richard Cauldwell makes a key point: Listening acquisition lags behind the acquisition of other skills, he says, because we treat listening skills as something learners will acquire through enough exposure, as if by osmosis. Instead of teaching listening, we simply test listening comprehension. Drawing on learner diaries, Cauldwell reports that, as a result, learners typically have two complaints:

  • Ying’s dilemma“: Ying from Sinagpore says she can’t catch the words she knows, as she doesn’t understand how their sound shapes change in the middle of sentences, squeezed together, especially in spontaneous speech.
  • Anna’s anger“: A student from Finland is angry at her teachers for underusing recordings. She wants them to go beyond comprehension practice to teach what Cauldwell calls “the realities of the stream of speech.” (p. 3)

Approaching the problem from the standard pronunciation syllabus doesn’t resolve the problem, Cauldwell says, because the “careful speech model” that underlies that syllabus treats language as “a correct, tidy, steady-speed, rule-governed phenomenon,” with a limited set of sounds and rules for sentence types and connected speech phenomena, “optimised for clear pronunciation.” (p. 4) So while it may be easy to use such a syllabus to teach, it doesn’t help learners acquire the listening skills they need. Cauldwell explains the challenge using three metaphors: Beyond the “greenhouse” of the classroom, and outside the “garden” of careful speech, the student of English needs to deal with the unruly “jungle” of spontaneous speech (p. 260). That’s the messy, real world that we need to prepare our students to handle.

Cauldwell’s solution is to take a comprehensive approach, “teaching learners to decode the sound substance of the stream of speech.” (p.1) He lays out a “window on speech framework”, a toolkit for contrasting the clearly pronounced “citation form” with the changed sound shapes in spontaneous speech. The framework is built around the speaker-defined speech unit, rather than the grammar-defined sentence unit, as it reflects “the moment-by-moment choices that speakers make as they communicate.” (p.5) Speech units are defined as multi-word rhythmic sections with prominent and non-prominent syllables, steps up and down in pitch, and tone glides (up, down and level). Cauldwell’s special focus is on the “squeeze zones” of non-prominent syllables contained in speech units, and he highlights the compression of whole word groups.

  • Part 1 (Chapters 1-5) presents the “window on speech” framework, expanding on the work of David Brazil, Richard Bradford, Martin Hewings and others to introduce notation techniques to describe the precise sound effects of squeezing.
  • Part 2 (Chapters 6-10) describes the sound substance of the stream of speech, including shifts in stress. This includes an interesting discussion on syllable timing, i.e. how speakers of an L1 such as French will retain syllable timing when they use English.
  • Part 3 (Chapters 11-15) studies the range of factors influencing the stream of sound, including accents (i.e. Britain, Ireland, North America, and Global including English as a Lingua Franca), as well as how identity, emotion and attitude influence speech.
  • Part 4 (Chapters 16-20) suggests learner activities for spontaneous speech listening, in both low-tech (teacher and peer listening, recordings) and high-tech (recordings and apps) contexts.

Overall, the exercises raise awareness for getting past the “decoding gap”. The key requirement is “letting go of the careful speech model”. While Cauldwell uses sample recordings throughout the book to raise awareness for the specific sound shapes, with careful listening/analyzing and preparing/performing tasks, Part 4 goes the extra step of explaining how to work with the material.

The activities pivot on what Cauldwell calls “savouring” and “handling short stretches of speech“. Such activities often involve drafting a transcript of the various versions of one and the same phrase. Notations bracket phrases in speech units between double lines to signify short breaks in the stream, capitalize the stressed syllables and underline the main stress. One of the exercises goes like this:

18.1 Stepping stones (mp3 sound files 18.01-4)
This pair work activity to explore a variety of ways a phrase can sound is modeled in four recordings using the phrase “It’s the second biggest city in my country, I think.”

  1. First, students or the teacher create a “greenhouse” version of the phrase, i.e. every word is spoken very clearly.
  2. Then they create a slightly messy “garden” version with stress being dictated by the speaker’s personal intended meaning.
  3. After that, pairs speak in unison to contrast the two different versions (then performing before the class). In the recoding, this sounds quite disjointed.
  4. Finally, students are presented a very messy “jungle” version with hesitation, stumbling, hedging (perhaps from the teacher, or from an authentic recording)

This is a rather general awareness-raising exercise that could be used to introduce the overall approach, and to practice noting down a phrase in its different sound shapes.

Other activities targeting more specific areas include:

  • Practicing clusters of frequent forms
  • Close listening following transcripts
  • Soft focus listening to suggest “mondegreens” – phrases that are misinterpreted because they sound like something else – i.e. “occasionally” can sound like “ok jolly” (p. 285)
  • Formulating multiple choice questions to include an answer that the learner would give based on mistakes in decoding the sound stream
  • Taking phrases from the squeezed version to the clear version and back
  • “Instant dictations” in which you stop recordings and have students write down the last 4 words they’ve heard, which are still fresh in mind and not yet processed for meaning

Finally, Cauldwell suggests using Audacity or another digital editor to record and study the wave shape of sounds, and Audio Notetaker to listen to, analyze and edit the chunks of a given piece of audio.

Overall, Phonology for Listening represents an original and enormously practical approach to teaching an essential language skill that needs attention, and is clearly in need of improvement among many of our students. Highly recommended.


Eric Berne: Games People Play

Games People PlayA seminal, very useful book is turning 50 this coming year. Published in 1964, and the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s, Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne introduced Transactional Analysis, which looked closely at human relationships. He opted to study interaction as transaction, since he said we communicate to get something out of it.
For example, if one person says hello, and the other person doesn’t respond, the first person feels cheated or irritated, since he or she expected to get something out of saying hello.

Berne said we communicate in three ego states, as the parent, the child and the adult. Everybody has these three people inside their head, which explains the mental cacophony we sometimes experience. When we are emotional, we are the child. Supportive or exerting power over others, we are the parent. Acting rationally, and focusing on the objective problems at hand, we are the adult. And the obvious way to go is to be the adult. This still comes across as fresh to me. It’s good, solid, everyday advice, the very basis of Emotional Intelligence, i.e. applying reason to how we engage in social situations with others.

Berne identified six different ways in which people communicate:

  • withdrawal (disengagement)
  • rituals (highly standardized exchanges)
  • pastimes (predictable conversations, polite exchanges of opinions)
  • activities (eg doing math or building something together)
  • games (underhanded, exploiting others)
  • intimacy (a game-free relationship)

The games we play, he says, like “If it weren’t for you”, are all rackets. Anger is one of those rackets, he says. It makes you feel righteous for a while, but doesn’t solve anything. Instead  he says we have to decide to look at what is making us angry and think about why the other person is doing it. That means not letting the other person win the game by allowing ourselves to get angry. It’s an interesting and engaging challenge, and one that can actually improve the situation.

Every game has three parts:

  • the con – the way of cheating used
  • the gimmick – the weakness that makes the other person play the game
  • the payoff – the feeling that people get from playing the game

Among the aspects Berne identified as worthy of therapy are scripts that he said we develop and follow early in life, and can for instance recognize in fairy tales.

Below is a wonderful 1966 NET Science broadcast special on the book. The reporter interviews Dr. Berne at his home in Carmel where the author explains the theory behind Transactional Analysis. The camera then follows the two of them along the gorgeous Carmel coast – where incidentally Helmut and I spent almost a week last summer. And finally we see Dr. Berne in with other California psychologists, Swinging Sixties style. Watch these four short videos for an exquisite introduction to the theory, and take an evocative journey into the epoch when Transactional Analysis was still new.

Eric Berne passed away in 1970. A website dedicated to him contains selected games he identified. See if any of them ring a bell with you. They did with me. ‘Uproar’, with slamming doors, is a game I used to play a lot with my dad when I was a trouble-making teen. And I find it quite sobering to recognize that I still like to indulge the Child in me.

On this note: I want a sun umbrella just like Dr. Bearne’s.

EAP 2013

We had an EAP  conference here in Berlin yesterday organized by the Humboldt University Language Centre. ELTABB, the teachers association I coordinate events with, was involved as one of the sponsors. This was the second such annual conference here in Berlin. Time will tell whether there is a need for such a conference to grow outside Berlin, whether it will wander further afield.

The Humboldt team organized the conference, and after the keynote by Martin Hewings, ran the workshops in the morning (including the great one by Jeffrey Verhey on academic writing, which I went to) and included their partner institutions European University Institute in Fiesole, at the LSE and in Frankfurt/Oder in the final panel discussion. In between came two sets of talks. I went to listen to Steve Kirk (sponsored by ELTABB) and Judith Mader. I’m just summarizing my notes here:

Martin Hewings spoke on the applications of corpus analysis in research, learning and teaching. He expects the focus to shift towards speech, learner English, a wider range of scientific corpora, and more areas of language. The free online corpora he recommended were

  • COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
  • BAWE British Academic Written English
  • MICASE Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English
  • BASE British Academic Spoken English

Looking back on his own early championship of data-driven learning (DDL) in the classroom, he said:

We need to consider whether the outcomes are really worth the time, effort and money needed to set up DDL. Not all students or teachers enjoy the experience of sifting through corpus lines. Though there is value in letting students get their hands dirty and learn to use the corpora, it is more economical for us as teachers to do the necessary research before we go to class and select the information to give to students.

For example, he used his MBA students’ work to create a corpus, and compared that to a corpus created from published articles in their field, to show them how their use of language differs. For instance, he discovered that students used “I” to express opinions (I believe, I think, I feel, I personally, I suppose), whereas the published works used “I” in hypothetical questions on behalf of the business community (Should I buy? When should I invest? How do I know…? If I were doing this…?)
He analyzed the use of adverbs and adjectives in selected structures, e.g. to express similarity and difference:

  • closely/ roughly/ reasonably similar
  • radically/ totally/vastly different
  • essentially/rather/ strikingly similar or different

or to express opinion more subtly:

  • It is important/possible/ difficult/necessary to
  • It is likely/clear/possible that
    It is true that… but…

Then he tipped us off that the best source of authentic examples in context is Google Scholar.

In his workshop, Jeffrey Verhey had us think about what we, what our students, and what our students’ professors consider to be good writing. He told us how he’d begun teaching using George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946) and how his students had said they couldn’t possibly agree with them. We then discussed an example from Judith Butler, who in 1998 won Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Contest” for a sentence in Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time. Also, he related having been told by one of his professors that his style was “journalistisch”, which to him sounded great at the time, but was in fact criticism. That got us talking about purpose, genre, and discourse communities at each academic level.  Jeffrey recommended Helen Sword Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press 2012), who has essentially distilled all of the style guides since Fowler. He then came up with an image that he says his students understand, the contrast of Baroque and Bauhaus architecture, our preference being Bauhaus, he said. That fed into a discussion about personal style and standardization. – A recommendation I’ve come away with is Latham, R. A. Revising Prose, using this basic method to fix style (example).

1. Circle all the “be” verbs
2. Circle the prepositions
3. Ask, what’s the action, who’s performing it?
4. Put the action into a simple active verb (not compound)
5. Start fast — cut out introductory verbiage
6. Once you have a revised, shorter sentence, check to see if you need to add more information

Towards the end Jeff presented the type of phrases in German that drive translators crazy, because they lack the clarity we associate with end weight: “Dieser Zäsur geht die vorliegende Studie nach.”

I got a lot out of Steve Kirk‘s presentation. In his talk on putting the A back in EAP, extended to include thoughts on the use of English as a lingua franca, he focused on putting context first, i.e. treating all text as historic and connected to the specific status and authority of the writer/speaker. As soon as context stops mattering and we focus on accuracy and fluency, we leave what is special and specific to EAP behind. At the University of Durham they aim to skill teachers up to be able to apply scientific methods.

What students need to be doing is dealing with academic matter and expressing complex ideas. Language then follows. So they provide content integrated learning. Speaking and writing are the key skills, the others are ancillary.So what they do is to give their students 4-6 journal articles to read pre-session. That is followed by an essay question. Similarly, a content based lecture precedes speaking. They also have sessions dealing with long reading and note-taking, again a content-based lecture, and finally a 1,000 word essay. He criticized corpus studies as de-contextualizing. Though he hardly had any time at all to expand the idea, he said the importance of ELF is that the local context should lead the way in selecting both the content and the relevant language.

I also heard Judith Mader speak on intercultural conflicts in her diverse classes. The conflicts she presented involved the transgression of rules (a student using the word “bullshit” to criticize a task, another handing in a text copied from the Economist as own writing, chatting away over mobile devices). She drove home that rule-based communication requires that these rules be made explicit from the start. That got me thinking that I personally prefer negotiating emergent rules, as the group forms.

It was also helpful to reflect on the general method of analyzing conflict: Look closely at what the student or students expect of the teacher, and at what the teacher expects of the student(s), and compare and contrast. Other lecturers prefer to do this at the beginning of the course, but I prefer to do a cultural learning styles analysis at the beginning, and then study student preferences as they emerge, reacting flexibly and in the situation. But I’ll be thinking through why this is, and what the consequences are as the summer progresses.

The challenges I face in my diverse classroom involve enabling all learners to advance and grow as they compete with each other. I don’t feel challenged myself. But making them aware of their cultural communication preferences is key to keeping them from unfairly blocking their classmates’ progress, which can lead to skewed assessment. So I am more interested in exploring the role of the teacher as a conflict mediator than as an enforcer of given rules.

Ha-Joon Chang

Ha-Joon Chang, Professor of Political Economy of Development at the University of Cambridge, explains economics very clearly and simply. In his book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, he argues these 23 tenets:

  1. There is really no such thing as a free market.
  2. Companies should not be run in the interest of their owners.
  3. Most people in rich countries get paid more than they should.
  4. The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet.
  5. Assume the worst about people, and you get the worst.
  6. Greater macroeconomic stability has not made the world economy more stable.
  7. Free-market policies rarely make poor countries richer.
  8. Capital has a nationality.
  9. We do not live in a post-industrial age.
  10. The US does not have the highest living standard in the world.
  11. Africa is not destined for under-development.
  12. Government can pick winners.
  13. Making rich people richer doesn’t make the rest of us richer.
  14. US managers are over-priced.
  15. People in poor countries are more entrepreneurial than people in rich countries.
  16. We are not smart enough to leave things to the market.
  17. More education in itself is not going to make a country richer.
  18. What is good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the US.
  19. Despite the fall of Communism, we are still living in planned economies.
  20. Equality of opportunities is unequal.
  21. Big government makes people more, not less, open to changes.
  22. Financial markets need to become less, not more, efficient.
  23. Good economic policy does not require good economists.

My key takeaway:

Maximizing shareholder value is the root of the problem of western style capitalism: with dispersed ownership, individual shareholders don’t have the incentive to commit to the long-term success of the company. Floating shareholders are running companies in the name of shareholder maximization. There is no investment in R&D and training and machinery, because results in 5 or 10 years are not interesting. Today, over 60% of corporate profit are given out as dividends, as compared to 35 to 45 percent in the 1970s. Companies have less cash to invest, and that is not being used for appropriate long-term development.

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.

Ian Badger on Listening, and apps for teaching

I had the opportunity to hear Ian Badger speak at MELTA in the mid-2000s, and even back then he was saying we should be teaching the English people need at the workplace, not the standardized language codified and prescribed in Business Engl9780007423217ish course books. Now he has an excellent book/audio CD, Collins English for Business: Listening, which I’ve been recommending wholeheartedly to learners for self-study.

Using a self-study book in class for teaching when I am the only one who has bought it is always treading a very fine line in terms of copyright infringement. MELTA recently held a webinar on the topic, broadcast by BESIG/LTSIG, which a small group from ELTABB attended. (Read Khushi Pasquale’s excellent review.)

In my compact classes for assistants, I have been using a few of the really wonderful audio selections from the book to exercise my learners’ listening skills. I give them an introduction to what we will be doing, and then quickly dictate a few content-related questions to them, or a line to recognize or differentiate. We then listen to the selection. After  discussing the answers, they get two more questions to build lexis.

Frankly, this does not work ideally, because a listener really needs more visual support when doing a listening task, a book or worksheet, to focus his or her attention. The problem is that, in my real world of teaching, there is no way I can get everyone in a class to buy a book, especially not when it is a supplement. And I’m definitely not allowed to photocopy. Even extracting a short text and putting it into the script I write myself as a quote, attributing the source, would mean having to explicitly ask for permission from the publisher. I have avoided that so far, though perhaps it might be a way forward.

In any case, now I’ve bought the Collins Business English Listening App, containing the same audio. An app is naturally geared to self-study. However, I can also use it in teaching: With my iPad hooked up to a projector, from now on I’ll be able to go to the selection and play it, and while we listen I’ll be able to let the learners do the interactive exercises, much as they would with more standard classware products, projected to the front of the class, with them giving and dictating answers, or reading along in the transcript.

I’m not sure whether this is legal. However, if I just use the material as an extract, and I use it well, I would argue that I am doing far more to recommend the publication to potential customers than to damage it through unauthorized use.

I really think apps can change the game in teaching. Tablets are the future. They may be pricey, and Apple may not be the business machine of choice in the corporate world, but more and more learners are getting them, and “getting it”. I just hope publishers see the light and start making apps explicitly for teaching, as classware. There should be apps to purchase bite-sized bits of content and to present that content in class; apps to buy for home study; and apps to select and push content around, e.g. allowing us to upload tasks and completed work to a wiki-like course site. And they should be simple, and preferably all-in-one. It’s what English teaching professionals are waiting for.

Reposted below is Ian Badger’s presentation at IATEFL 2012, which contains some of the excellent audio collected in “Collins Business English: Listening”.

It would be wonderful if he were to come to Berlin to give a workshop at ELTABB. That’s way up on my wishlist.