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.


Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better

Sound expert Julian Treasure says, “We are losing our listening… We don’t want oratory anymore, we now want sound bites. And the art of conversation is being replaced – dangerously, I think – by personal broadcasting”. Here he suggests five ways to re-tune our ears, and adjust the way we listen.

  1. silence – don’t distance yourself from noise, actively seek out silence
  2. the mixer – count how many channels of sound you can hear – practice pattern distinction
  3. savouring – enjoy mundane sounds
  4. move your listening position to the one that is most appropriate to the situation – alternate between filters (active / passive; reductive / expansive; critical / empathetic)
  5. practice RASA (Sanskrit for juice or essence).
    The acronym RASA stands for
    Receive – ‘pay attention to the person’
    Appreciate – ‘make little noises like “hmm,” “oh,” “okay”‘
    Summarize – ‘the word “so” is very important in communication’
    Ask – ‘ask questions afterward’

Listening is on my agenda for many reasons this week:

  • Had an interesting personal encounter with someone who was too involved in his own situation to tune in to others. That reminded me that there are many things that may inhibit listening skills.
  • Took part in a professional development workshop at ELTABB on the teacher’s physical presence (including Amy Cuddy’s body language life hacks), which focused on the broadcasting side of the ‘teaching body’, and how the class will respond to it. That was quite interesting, but necessarily reduced what actually goes on in teacher-student interaction, and made me more aware of the subtle give and take we use across all channels of communication.
  • Preparing another presentation workshop for Friday, and will be incorporating receptive skills training.

These are some of the various ‘filters’ that I connect to a listening task:

    • listen for content as if you had to learn and remember for an exam
    • listen for material as if you had to write an article for the general public
    • listen for scientific value – would you fund this speaker’s research?
    • listen for engagement / entertainment value – would you choose to listen to this speaker if you were free to choose between reading and listening to the live presentation? Is the speaker telling the story well?
    • listen as a coach (empathic) or critic (critical) – what makes for appropriate and constructive criticism from each of these positions of listening?

      This has proven to be a productive exercise, as learners take it in turns to listen to each presenter through these filters, giving different kinds of feedback as a result. This more holistic, content- and person-focused approach makes the presenters and listeners work harder than if they focused ‘only’ on, say, body language But I also give them more standard tasks, such as listen/watch for specific aspects of presentation techniques:

      • voice pitch and volume / projection
      • body language open/closed
      • movements eloquent / congruent
      • eye contact
      • count use of fillers like and, so, then, uhm

      Learning to listen to scientific lectures

      One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.

      The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.

      The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:

      Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.

      The TED Talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.

      Video Lectures is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.

      In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees,  President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”:  In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”,  he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.

      For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.

      Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.