In our first blog of 2019, Sheila Thorn addresses the challenges of writing ELT classroom materials to accompany authentic recordings.

I have been writing classroom materials to accompany authentic recordings for most of my ELT career and I am delighted to share some of my hard-won knowledge with MaWSIG members.

Before we look at the actual materials writing, we need to address the fact that real-world listening is a million miles away from the scripted and graded recordings in ELT coursebooks, which are performed by actors who speak in a very different way to the rest of us – so much so that students are faced with two Englishes: the ELT one and the real-world one. Unless we expose our students to authentic speech in all its complexity, we are doing them a huge disservice by not preparing them for listening in the real world outside the ELT classroom.

There are two types of recordings that we can use: off-air, e.g. BBC radio programmes, and self-made, e.g. recordings of friends chatting over dinner. The former tend to be transactional, i.e. imparting information, and produced by fluent speakers. The latter tend to be interactional, where the focus is on the social interaction between speakers rather than solely imparting information.

There are two main approaches we can take with both types of recording. The first is the traditional listening comprehension (L/C) approach, where we write closed or open questions, true/false and multiple-choice items to exploit the content of the text. We can also write gap-fill items that focus on useful lexis. These exercises are straightforward to write with transactional recordings, but some adjustment needs to be made with interactional recordings, where there tends to be less factual content. With these, the writer can focus on the interaction itself, such as the relationship between the speakers, or they might ask questions such as ‘How do you think Emma felt when the others laughed at the end of her story?’

However, there is a problem with the L/C approach in that it only tests students – it doesn’t actually train them to become better at listening. This is certainly true if you take the example of the teacher who does a L/C with a class, checks the answers and then moves on to another activity without any analysis of why some students got some answers wrong. When analysis does occur, the reasons for wrong answers are nearly always due to decoding problems – students simply couldn’t recognise key words in the stream of speech, even when those words are part of their active vocabulary (Cauldwell, 2018; Field, 2008).

This brings me on to the second way of exploiting authentic recordings: the decoding approach. Rather than the main focus being on the content – what was said – with this approach the focus is on decoding the stream of speech and on how things were said. And whereas the listening comprehension approach is extensive, in that it is used with longer recordings, the decoding approach is intensive, in that it focuses on short extracts from these same, or other, recordings, but exploits them more fully.

Before looking at decoding exercises, we need to address the problem of automaticity. The fact is that fluent English speakers who have been exposed to hundreds of thousands of hours of spoken English can automatically recognise/decode words in a stream of speech by their merest traces, or even if no trace is actually present. They only have problems if they are in a noisy environment, if the speaker has a speech impediment or an unfamiliar accent, or if they themselves have hearing problems. To be a good writer of decoding materials, you have to ‘turn off’ this automaticity and listen through the ears of students. Rather than focusing on what you assume (generally erroneously) to be present in the sound signal, you have to concentrate and ascertain what actually is, or is not, present. And this, as I know from my own experience, is easier said than done – it will certainly require repeated listening.

Materials writers who specialise in authentic listening are few and far between. Possibly one of the reasons for this is that they are put off by the specialist terminology of linguistics, with terms such as labiodental fricatives and inflectional morphology. But the fact is that all you need to be a good decoding writer is to be able to hear how far the words in a stream of speech have diverged from their citation form, that is, their pronunciation in isolation. The reason for this divergence is that speakers emphasise those words that are important in getting their meaning across and the less important words tend to be less carefully articulated so that we get reduced forms. And it is these reduced forms that students, who generally have only been exposed to graded and carefully articulated ELT listening recordings, struggle with and need our help to decode.

The key to writing decoding exercises is to listen to a text and identify stretches of speech with reduced forms which can easily be excised from it. Essentially, nearly every word, apart from the stressed ones, will be reduced to some extent, and you can choose to focus on faster or slower stretches where reduction is more, or less, prevalent. Using a program such as Audacity, you can extract these to a separate sound file. These sound files can then be used as the basis for gap-fills or short dictations.

Unlike L/C gap-fills, where the focus is on important content words, the focus of decoding gap-fills is on reduced forms – things like ‘dint’ for ‘didn’t’ or ‘Cunejus’ for ‘Can I just’. It really isn’t rocket science, provided you switch off your automaticity.

I would just like to add that, as an experienced editor, I welcome the fact that more and more ELT coursebooks that cross my desk now include authentic videos and listening texts. However, I constantly feel that authors are missing opportunities when it comes to writing practice materials to exploit them.

They still tend to focus on L/C rather than decoding. For example, a unit on the perennial topic of food may be accompanied by videos where people are interviewed about their favourite dishes, followed by a true/false exercise, when it would be far more beneficial to students if there were additional decoding exercises based on how the speakers actually articulated the words they used to express their preferences.

When authors do actually tackle those features of spoken English that students find so challenging, they just seem to nibble around the edges. Rather than addressing head-on what Cauldwell (2018) refers to as the ‘mess’ of spontaneous speech, they tend to present what I call ‘quasi-rules’, such as linking or elision, which are relatively easy to handle and describe, but which are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the huge amount of reduction present in authentic speech. For example, they may pick out the fact that the speaker linked the final /z/ sound of ‘cheeses’ with the initial vowel sound in ‘and’, and follow this with an exercise featuring specially written linking examples performed by actors. It would be far more beneficial to focus instead on reduced forms of words in the recording that are in the students’ active vocabulary and that are challenging, but not impossible, to decode due to their being in unstressed positions.

Decoding exercises can form the basis of lively interactive classroom activities where students work together to solve what is essentially a puzzle. This makes decoding practice far more rewarding for both teacher and students than conventional L/C exercises, which can be rather isolating. Decoding exercises also help students by training their ears and making them aware of just how much authentic spoken English diverges from ELT spoken English. Regular exposure to authentic recordings, combined with decoding practice, will have a considerable effect on students’ listening ability and enable us to impart an essential skill that our students will be able to utilise outside the ELT classroom.

Richard Cauldwell (2018) A Syllabus for Listening – Decoding speechinaction
John Field (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom CUP

Sheila Thorn is an experienced ELT teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and examination writer with a special interest in authentic listening.  She founded The Listening Business in 1998 and is the author of the Real Lives, Real Listening series (Collins), a series featuring authentic recordings and listening training materials for students from elementary to advanced level. Sheila regularly speaks at national and international conferences on various aspects of listening training and testing, and has written a number of significant articles in this field. She is currently building up a bank of authentic recordings with decoding, comprehension and language development activities for students at all levels.