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.


Google Translate

I use Google Translate in my work, and like to introduce it to advanced English students who need to do translation at work. But you need to study very closely what this great tool does and doesn’t do. Based on the World Wide Web, Google Translate is really quite helpful for suggesting collocations (word partnerships) and colligations (grammar structures following given words), such as, in the example below,

  • adverbs after verbs, e.g. “think independently”
  • gerunds after prepositions, e.g. “without losing sight” or “dynamic way of doing”

But you naturally need to rearrange and adjust the various parts of speech, since German sentence structure is so different. I’ve highlighted the corresponding sections in the slide you see below. Also, German abstract terms carry meanings not transported in the more common sense English translation, and therefore need to be extended:

  • Unternehmer ist er weniger im Sinne … sondern …
  • His entrepreneurial qualities lie less in … than …

Note that when you use Google Translate, you can mouse over to view and select additional suggested translations. The more reference material goes in, the better Google Translate gets. So have a look:

German: In Max Mustermann begegnet man dem fast klassisch zu nennenden Vertriebsmann, der ausgeprägte Macherqualitäten besitzt und unabhängig denkt und handelt. Unternehmer ist er weniger im Sinne eines ganzheitlich denkenden und sorgfältig analysierenden Managers, sondern eher in Hinblick auf seine zupackende und dynamische Art, die Dinge anzugehen und umzusetzen, ohne jemals das Ziel und das gewünschte Ergebnis aus den Augen zu verlieren.

Google Translate: In Joe Blow, one encounters the most classic to be mentioned salesman who has distinctive makers qualities and thinks and acts independently. Entrepreneur, he is less in terms of a holistic thinking and carefully analyzed manager, but rather in terms of their purposeful and dynamic way of doing things and implement without ever losing sight of the target and the desired result in mind.

Improved: Joe Blow has many of the distinctive qualities of the classic salesman, a man of action who thinks and acts independently. His entrepreneurial qualities as a manager lie less in holistic thinking and careful analysis than in his purposeful and dynamic way of approaching and implementing things without ever losing sight of the target and the desired result.


Hans Rosling’s creative teaching technologies – realia, boxes, Lego

I’m thinking through how useful I find using small manipulable toys like cuisinaire rods and Lego to visualize information, to explain and teach things in a small classroom, for example in one-to-one training. Recently I’ve joined a group exploring the terrain of using Lego, and so I’m thinking back to how I have used these tools with various clients over the years.  Now I’ve stumbled upon a video of Hans Rosling using Lego, an opportunity to ponder quietly what the effect is on the learner.

Hans Rosling is unquestionably one of the best international presenters in the world, having captured the visual essence of development in his moving bubble charts (Gapmminder).But he’s also given  a mind-blowing presentation of progress using a washing machine. He has presented using Ikea boxes, and now, in a new video, he uses Lego. First, here are the three presentations with realia, boxes and Lego:

Washing machine:

Ikea boxes:


I frankly really appreciate the use of real life realia, they evoke emotion the way a multifunctional building toy simply can’t. I use things or at least pictures of things quite a lot. Saying that one abstract box represents one thing and placing it next to an identical other box representing a different thing places additional cognitive load on the viewer. That can be good or bad, depending on whether the load is rewarded in some way. It helps if you add visual distinction to the box, the way Hans Rosling does with the realia he pulls out of his Ikea boxes, like some magician. That adds a lovely element of play and surprize.

Bare Lego on the other hand without playing clown or dress-up will divide the public. It can be charming to those with happy memories of the building toy, or with lots of practice building with their kids. That charm can be harnessed to focus attention. I think, however, that the blocks need to be very well connected visually to stories as they are told. I once saw Mark Powell use cuisinaire rods that way, and it got me down the road of storytelling with little blocks and rods. I’ve found that once those stories start to materialize and are understood, there is a creative spark that you can kindle and develop as you hand things over, step by step, to the students. And then I think the additional cognitive load is actually exactly what you need, because the learners are more engaged and working harder at the same time.

Beyond that, however, what these presentations show me at least is that it’s easy to visualize the big picture with simple tools, or to tell a simple story, but to see and remember the details, e.g. ratios between groups or development over time, and in fact figures of any kind, you really need graphics. Nothing replaces complex graphics for communicating complex data, and in turn relating that, when it is well done, to a big idea.

Top service from SurveyMonkey

We’re just organizing a conference here in Berlin, we being a group of lecturers working across institutions, using a Ning platform we’ve called EULEAP to connect internationally. The institution that will be hosting this conference, the Humboldt Language Centre, is directed by Cornelia Hacke and the whole project is powered by the impressive David Bowskill and his team. At ELTABB we’re providing support. Michelle Teveliet has set up a great conference site here: EAP Conference 2013. You couldn’t wish for a better team. The lineup for the conference is impressive, the topics good, and it’s free to participants thanks to the great sponsors.
Now, the only issue is that we have limited space – only 100 people can attend including the organizers and speakers. That means we needed a way to organize signup. Michelle wisely opted for SurveyMonkey. But initially we hit a major snag. Just a day after the conference was first posted in a forum on the EULEAP Ning and had started being announced across various informal networks, and just before we wanted to go live and send out a formal mail shot to all interested partners, SurveyMonkey had technical trouble and shut down. Shock! They’ve explained what happened here. Anyway, that was the bad news, a bit of a bad morning here. But the good news is that they were back after 4 hours, and there was some nice person with a good sense of humor and a lot of patience tweeting away, calming the nerves of hundreds of users who were also missing the service. I can only second what A Crock wrote: Top customer service.  Here’s a brief history of those 4 hours documented on Twitter.


Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.

Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am

“The Visible Man”, Bangladeshi-born American Hasan Elahi, says that he was mistakenly included on the US government terrorist watch list — “and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off”. (Wired) In response, he has dedicated his work to surveillance culture and has put the minute details of his life and travels online. See his website and engaging and thought-provoking talk on TED.

If you’re learning English, don’t watch the video here, though; watch it on the TED site instead, where you can follow this, like most of the talks, in the interactive transcript. Click on any part of the transcript, and the video plays that part. If you’re practicing listening comprehension, keep the section very short, listen to it several times, and try to repeat his words with the same emphasis to get a sense of the way the speaker stresses some syllables (the stressed syllable in the words that carry meaning), and unstresses all the others. The TED talks, along with the fantastic English Central, and for everyday topics, Video Jug, are great for self-study listening comprehension.

Pros and cons of selected apps for adult learners of English

I’ve blogged about fun, productive apps on Ask Auntie Web, and posted a summary about technology in teaching a while ago, but check out apps all the time to ponder their overall usefulness. When assessing learner tools I ask:

  1. What does it actually require the learners to do linguistically (that they could not do equally well or better without it)?
  2. Can they modify their work, to discuss their work in progress (to avoid the slick surface hiding essential vacuity)?
  3. Does the app itself encourage learners to revisit and show off what they can do (not what the app can do)?
  4. Can learners share and collaborate in a way that makes immediate sense to them? (In other words, are they learning socially?)

Though I enjoy apps throughly myself, and encourage self-study and give feedback on work learners send me after using them, the social component is computer-mediated, heads together over a screen, and that rarely seems more valuable than other in-class activities – at least with academics and business people – and at least when time is very short. Apps, to me, are ideal when learners can dip in and do something, and then redo it better, after which they can take the learnings away and put them into something away from the computer or handheld device. At the purely technical level, these criteria must be met:

  1. Is it free? (In class individual use is obviously very different from what individual learners may do at home or on their hand-helds, or platforms we can provide and administrate for the whole group or school!)
  2. Is it simple enough to use for that particular group? (And do you have the time to engage them in tech learning)
  3. If it requires “sign-up” to output a result, are the learners able and willing to engage in that? (Remember privacy issues)
  4. Since I include apps with tasks in Moodle for self-study, apps that embed well are more attractive. Quite often the embed code interferes with HTML code, e.g. here on WordPress, so links are sometimes the better option.

One of the nice apps to use in class for dialogue scripting/building which meets the above criteria is the very easy, which I used to make this Bundestrojaner scene (Anne)

Benefits: The learner can access this app immediately and simply, without signing up or having to create avatars. (Caution: requires Flash.) Simply select a scenario and your actors and begin typing in text. After outputting the finished text-to-speech product, you can go back and edit the dialogue. The creator can share the link to the finished product through all the regular social media channels and e-mail, or embed it in a blog, wiki or website. For a small fee, it can also be downloaded as a file. On the whole, the scenarios are somewhat limited, but technologically more creative students will very quickly find that you can create your own cutomized animations, so taking a very simple and functional first step together is really all that is needed.

Drawbacks: Like most text to speech apps, the computer-generated audio leaves much to be desired, as it doesn’t translate into natural speech in terms of nuclear stress, intonation and connected speech (and in this case, gives incorrect word stress for “Facebook”, provides strange pronunciation for “discussing” that sounds as if I wrote “discursing” (but I doublechecked, honest!)  and makes mincemeat of the inserted German words). Creative punctuation helps a little to adjust nuclear stress, and the differences between machine speech and human speech are a great opportunity to discuss what makes English pronunciation special. But you do have to decide whether going the roundabout route of having two cartoon characters read out your dialogue is what you want. — Here’s another sample video made with this app, with similar issues: Hard copy by Anne at

Animating text using Wondersay

I dislike animated text for presentations, it just seems silly to make text hard to read. But giving the “solution” to a quiz, e.g. using the “letters falling into place” animation this app provides, adds a nice touch. Ask learners to fill in the blanks in a quote, e.g. “The learner needs _________ and _________ to learn the language fast.” Then play an answer:

made on Wondersay – Animate text with style

Benefits: No skills required, though the app allows the user to experiment with animations. And learners can select quotes and do the same exercise with their classmates.

Drawbacks: It’s actually quite difficult to get this app to give you the animation you selected. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Then, once you open the link to your Wondersay animation, it begins automatically as soon as the page opens, and you can’t start or stop it. Once played, the sentence is visible as part of a rather ugly initial screen, without the “film still” picture that many apps provide. This means that the app doesn’t work well as an embedded animation on Moodle or here on WordPress. It’s far better simply to link to it. But seriously, when would you really want to? You can’t study a nice-looking version of the sentence in peace, post-animation, so I see the educational value of this kind of tool to be very limited. (Prove me wrong!)