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.

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.

Varieties of English and EIL/ELF

Just revising for the exam, and know I won’t remember much. Mark had a funny acronym for this condition: CRS, can’t remember shit. Yesterday I learned quite a lot because my concentration was up, so I got some connections that I’d missed before. But this morning, I’m having trouble remembering my middle name.

This was probably my favorite essay question, one I knew was relevant from our MELTA 20th anniversary party with David Graddol, Vicki Hollett, Evan Frendo and Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG, and one I could relate to my current experience. Evan organized a professional development session for ELTABB on the topic, which I unfortunately missed:

Essay question:

  1. Briefly outline your understanding of the term “a variety of English”.
  2. With reference to your reading on English as an international language (EIL), discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English.

The variety and varieties of English

a. English is the world’s lingua franca, and we generally speak of the language in the singular. But in fact English is a vast complex of different varieties, or dissimilar versions of the language spoken by different groups. They range from local dialects such as the non-rhotic Boston accent, to international standards like BBC English, and include mixed-language varieties like Hinglish. The most influential model of the spread of English is Braj Kachru’s model of World Englishes, which he described in three concentric circles: The Inner Circle, where English is a native language (L1), the Outer Circle, where it is a second language, spread by British colonization and now used in government, law and education (L2, e.g. India, Nigeria), and the Expanding Circle, where it is a foreign language in increasingly widespread use.

Sandra Lee McKay (2002) lays out that English has become an international language in four ways:

  1. It is used as a language of wider communication internationally (global sense) and in multicultural societies (local sense).
  2. The use of English is no longer connected to the culture of the Inner Circle countries.
  3. It is embedded in the culture of the countries where it is used.
  4. Its primary function is to enable users of the language to communicate with each other.

A quarter of the world now speaks English, but the largest group is non-native speakers (NNS), who outnumber native speakers (NS) 3:1. (David Crystal 2003)
There have been initiatives to create simplified varieties (Simple English, Globish) to facilitate communication on a global scale, but NNSs appear to be able to create their own lingua franca without outside guidance. In the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE), Barbara Seidlhofer has recorded some 1,250 speakers of 50 different L1s, mostly with European backgrounds, using English with each other. Her findings show that, with few NSs present to provide impulses for (self-)correction, NNSs frequently or consistently:

  • drop the -s in the present simple third person (she go)
  • leave out or add definite and indefinite articles (I enjoy the nature. She is secretary.)
  • add prepositions (We discussed about the trip)
  • rely on selected general verbs (do, have, make…)
  • use an all-purpose question tag (isn’t it?)
  • use that clauses (She want that they go on a trip)
  • do not distinguish between relative pronouns (who vs. which)
  • avoid idioms
  • do not distinguish between /θ/ and /ð/ and substitute other consonants (/s/ /z/ /d/)
  • avoid weak forms and other aspects of connected speech

As this non-standard use does not impede meaningful communication, Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should stop thinking that ELF is simply “Learner English” (Swan/ Smith 2001), a step on the way to EFL proficiency, and acknowledge it as an emergent variety. This raises the question: If ELF is a useful variety of English, is it worth teaching?

2. Before weighing the advantages or disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English, I’d like to look at what the various standard and non-standard varieties of English represent to those involved in English language teaching and learning.

First of all, standards are set with a purpose in mind. The Queen’s or King’s English, institutionalized by a British minority and described by Henry Cecil Wyld some 100 years ago at the height of British colonialism as Received Standard (later Received Pronunciation (RP), BBC English), has traditionally been considered “good English”, providing the international standard in ELT. After WWII, it was challenged in the US, leading to the establishment of a double standard, American Standard English in the USA, and British Standard English elsewhere. As the written standard, it continues to assure reliable communications, playing an immensely important role e.g. for translations in the European Union.

Spoken English, however, is different. Standard English can be pronounced using a variety of accents, but RP is unique, spoken by only a tiny minority associated with class and power. While it is the institutionalized pronunciation target in many parts of the world, providing NNSs with a reliable benchmark, NSs may use it in jest to parody the upper crust. In the Internet age, a wide range of pronunciation models are available to learners, who can train their listening comprehension and select a model spoken by the population they are most likely to deal with.

The teacher’s national variety generally plays some role in which standards a learner is exposed to. Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 famously gave America a sense of national identity, and other countries have also created their national standards. But contrast that narrow view of language as something that a nation can own, with an approach that looks for similarities in worldwide speech patterns, comparing rhythm (stress-timing vs. syllable timing) and rhoticity, as described by McArthur (2001). Based on their L1s, learners may find it easier to acquire one standard over another. For instance, most NS of English use stress-timing, while most of the languages in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are highly syllable-timed, which carries over when they speak English. This explains why they must put so much effort into acquiring a standard accent, and why speakers of English with Asian L1s are mutually intelligible, but very difficult to understand to unpracticed NS ears.

Home-grown, regional/ local, ethnic, socially-based dialects, like Boston English or Estuary English, are essential to the cultural identity of a given group, and are everywhere in popular culture. To young EFL learners, hits songs and “memes” are often the most engaging areas and can create a bond between people from widely ranging cultures. On the other hand, NS know the dialects to be “non-standard”, and when they would be inappropriate or most effective. These cultural aspects of language in use are highly relevant when learners are planning to spend time in that particular country or area.

However, with the exception of internationally recognizable “memes”, dialects are unhelpful for English as an international language (EIL). As a Japanese executive complained: “Dear English speakers: please drop the dialects.” (McArthur).

There seem to be two main perspectives on English as a lingua franca (ELF). One prioritizes standards. David Graddol’s summarizes: “The use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintaining of standards.” (Graddol 1996) By contrast, widespread, non-standard varieties such as European English (handy, beamer) prioritize ownership and agency. Phonology professor Jennifer Jenkins asks why one variety of English should be more legitimate than another. Instead, she suggests a “Lingua Franca Core” containing phonological elements that she has found speakers of any L1 need when they speak English with a NNS with another L1. The core includes some of the aspects noted by Seidelhofer, and Robin Walker (2010) has provided a set of pronunciation targets to prioritize for speakers of different L1s, based on the core.

As some of my classes are multilingual, and all of my learners deal with a wide range of other non-native speakers, this approach holds much appeal. The Lingua Franca core benchmarks can promote mutual intelligibility. As learners aspire to different standards at different times and for different purposes, it would be wrong, however, to make the Lingua Franca Core the “new standard of English”. There are core areas, weak forms and connected speech, which learners very much do need to be able to understand. In this media age they should to be able to interpret far more sounds than they can speak.

Alan Firth (2009) (thank you, Evan!) highlights the “multicompetencies” that emerge in interaction between speakers of different L1 speakers aiming to achieve an outcome, which he calls “the lingua franca factor”. This is what allows interactors to produce discourse, including strategies like “letting it pass”, and “making it normal” that level the playing field between the people communicating with each other. In business exchanges there is often a concrete need to have an exchange reach an outcome, which provides enough motivation to work towards understanding each other.

I feel the most important aspect of the discussion is the concept of ownership, which gives priority to negotiating meaning over defending form. Developing effective discourse strategies to achieve an outcome is an essential communication skill in any language. This priority is also born out by Ehrenreich’s (2010) study of a German multinational company, where Business English is used as a Lingua Franca (BELF) (again, thank you Evan!). Ehrenreich focuses on the need to improve effective communication (rather than English as such) and suggests that learning might better take place in “communities of practice” and through “learning by doing” rather than traditional English instruction. Her research showed that English proficiency was required in order to be hired, but that conformity with Standard English was in effect an irrelevant concept. When asked which varieties of English they found easiest, the people interviewed reported that it depended on how much practice they had in dealing with any particular one. Intelligibility was seen as a matter of co-construction, rather than variety. Interviewees also reported that native speakers tended to use their linguistic competence as an instrument of power, which NNSs found extremely irritating.

So, to sum up, where does this leave teaching a standard variety of English? While we need to be able to focus our learners on productive skills that are up to the standards expected in the environments they plan to inhabit, and to prepare them to handle a wide variety of relevant contexts, practice shows that they will most probably go on to use English as an instrument to get things done. Our job, then, is to know when to stop teaching the formal aspects of the language, and to give learners space and tools to develop the skills to work out meaning. Or, as Scott Thornbury has written in a related discussion on his blog (2011), “If we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

  • Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Ehrenreich, S. (2010). English as a Business Lingua Franca in a German Multinational Corporation: Meeting the Challenge. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 4: 408-431.
  • Firth, A (2009) The Lingua Franca Factor. Intercultural Pragmatics 6-2, 147-170.
  • Graddol, D. (1996) The Future of English? The British Council.
  • Graddol, D (2006) English Next: Why Global English May Mean the End of English as a Foreign Language. London: British Council.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007): English as a Lingua Franca. Attitude and Identity.
  • McArthur, T. (2001) World Englishes: Trends, Tensions, Varieties, and Standards. Lang Teach. 34, 1-20
  • McKay, S.L. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language
  • Seidelhofer, B. (see VOICE)
  • Swan, M./ Smith, B. (2001) Learner English, CUP
  • Thornbury, S. (2011) A-Z: E is for ELF ( (Accessed 15 July 2011)
  • VOICE website:
  • Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, OUP
  • (This topic was debated in connection with BESIG 2010, in a discussion hosted by Vicki Hollett)

PS: Got lucky! One of the exam essays was a quote from someone saying, back in 2001, that varieties of English should be play a greater role in ELT, much as gender and race had. I might have cut to the chase too quickly, not talking about gender or race, or about ELT as opposed to EFL. But there is so little time in these exams, so I just went for it.