Against the Coursebook Flow for Better Listening

This post is informed by my own research (Jones, 2017), but isn’t exactly part of it. It was partly inspired by a eureka moment at the sink while washing the dishes. I was thinking about coursebooks, and particularly the flow, when the connection came to me. Anyway, more below.

Boom-Box@High

Take a moment to think about how a coursebook lesson flows. No prizes for guessing that it follows PPP. Usually it’s this: Schema activation (recalling and retrieving knowledge about a topic) activity from an image, perhaps some ‘Starter’ questions. Present language, using reading and/or listening text (usually alternating across a unit, with a reading sub-unit and a listening sub-unit). Move on to a grammar exercise or two. Finish with a ‘free’ speaking activity.

I’m going to look at this listening flow. I’m not going to say that schema activation is a waste of time at all but, does it need to be done every time listening is taught? I am going to say no because we don’t always know or have the ability to make reliable predictions about the upcoming content of conversations we are likely to be involved in or overhear. There is also the fact that in a survey I conducted with teachers about what they state their practices and beliefs to be (Jones, 2017), activating schemata massively negatively correlated with teaching bottom-up listening skills. Basically, teachers who say they activate schemata, say they don’t teach bottom-up skills and teachers who say they teach bottom-up skills say they don’t activate schemata. That bottom-up skills are neglected is not a given, however, but it is only the explicitly stated practice of a large minority. So less than half of the teachers I picked up through social media, the freaks who talk about teaching in their free time, teach bottom-up skills explicitly.

Why? “It’s not in the book” actually isn’t the answer. It is usually in the book, but it’s mislabelled as ‘pronunciation’. It’s a chance to practice what John Field (2008) calls ‘microlistening’ (Field, 2008, (ch. 5, p. 19/33), or decoding and practicing listening to features of connected speech in relative isolation to the rest of a larger text. It’s not always fantastic, but I bet, based on a study I did with Japan-based English teachers (Jones, 2016) on beliefs about pronunciation teaching, that it’s omitted by about 20% of teachers, and only taught at word level, with anything longer than phrase level being omitted by roughly half of teachers.

Why? I don’t have evidence for what follows, it’s just a theory, but I think the schema activation picture is a bit more attractive due to the nice flashy image, potentially with a vocabulary bank, compared to a half page made up of IPA characters to target aspects of speech such as weak forms or even scaffolding the decoding of unfamiliar lexical words. Unattractive books (or books that might look difficult due to a lack of images or actually using IPA) won’t be published for fear that they won’t sell, so learners and teachers who may want to use a book are left with the status quo. And the bottom-up listening masquerading as ‘pronunciation’ doesn’t get covered because it isn’t attractive, isn’t as easy to teach as a grammar exercise, and as Ableeva and Stranks (2013) state:

[T]he real purpose of many listening materials, then, appears quite clearly to be one or more of the following: topic extensions; exemplification of grammar; exemplification of functional or lexical items of language; lead-in to a learner speaking activity. All of these
are worthy and defensible aims, but they are not aims which are tied intrinsically to
improving learners’ ability to process spoken language.

(Ableeva & Stranks, 2013. p. 206).

So, it would be nice to have some teachers’ books to tell teachers to make more of the ‘pronunciation’ sections. It would be nice to have the ‘pronunciation’ sections labelled as ‘phonology’ or ‘listening’. It might just then join the dots for a lot of teachers, particularly novice teachers, to build learners skills to help them tackle longer listening texts with more confidence.

References

Ableeva, R. & Stranks, J. “Listening in another language – research and materials” in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Applied Linguistics and Materials Development. London: Bloomsbury.

Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Jones (2016) Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices Regarding Listening and Pronunciation in EFL, Explorations in Teacher Development, 23, 1. 11-17 JALT TD SIG.

Jones (2017) English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Stated Practices Regarding Second
Language Listening Pedagogy and Alignment with Research. Unpublished MA Dissertation. University of Portsmouth.

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A sum up and an invitation

A picture of books

It’s been a good long while since I started this blog and in the meantime I have finished a Trinity DipTESOL and am close to finishing a MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL with Portsmouth University. My Dip was great for the phonology stuff I picked up, and OK for teaching practice (Trinity don’t let you use strong CLT approaches like Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching with a Focus on Form. You are supposed to teach discrete language points). My MA has been great for access to ideas I might never have come across and, well, library access.

But next steps, Marc? Isn’t the title of this blog Freelance Teacher Self Development? It is. And there will be self-driven development. There are irons in fires and action research projects to fire up.

I have some bits and bobs to send to journals, but I think it would be kind of interesting and perhaps useful for the field of language teaching to have a bit of teacher-based research for teachers, on the internet, gates open, widely participated in. I know peer-review is all the rage, but I think that if we make our mistakes in the open, people can see the limitations of what gets done as well as any merits, and so it’s less a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes but more that jumper that was under some others at the back of the drawer. It’s not something everyone would necessarily be all ‘Wow! Amazing!’ about but perhaps ‘I don’t know if this would work in my setting but nobody would die if anything ended up disappointing me.’ I am a born salesman, I know.

So, here’s the bit I am kind of thinking about: after logging five random lessons starting in October 2017 with the same class, did you teach intonation? Why (not)? If so, how (explanation of method, explicit, differentiated or whole class, etc.) Blog your stuff and we can make it big.

Marc, why intonation?

I like phonology a lot and I’m just finishing something that I needed to think about lot of segmental phonology so suprasegmental is almost a break.

Marc, I want to do something about something else.

That would be fantastic. Let me know because I would be super interested in reading about it.

This is such a stupid idea. People don’t have time.

Maybe. How about people who have the time and want to do it, do it?

Anyway, hit me up in the comments.

Pro-Nun See Haitian

Ooh, hello phonology, aren’t you looking fine?

I was just having a bit of a think and thought of a couple of bits that I’ve been doing in classes.

Treating Epenthesis with Epenicillin

You know what? Can we (people teaching learners with mora-based L1s like Japanese) just chill and stop over-egging the minimal pairs pudding? /l/ and /r/ are undoubtedly important to practice but how abouto we try to stoppu our studentsu speakingu like Wario in Mario Kart?

How? Just having them come down on the end sounds (plosives especially but it happens a lot with fricatives and affricates at the end of words, too) and hold it there.

Marc, lunacy! You can’t hold plosives.

No, but you can bring the articulators to where the air is held before termination and then just stop it early. For the non-plosives, hold it and just stop.

The next stage on is to move from the stoppage to the first phoneme of the next word. Drill it a couple more times then drill the whole clause.

It’s not magic, it needs practice but if learners know they can speak without sounding choppy as hell it gives them a foundation for trying harder to avoid it and autonomous in remedying their epenthesis problems.

Where it’s /æt/

With some learners I’ve had lately, I’ve observed the ability to ‘speak fast’, albeit with some mangled vowels.

Harsh!

Not really. Speaking is for communication and if I, somebody with years of experience hearing non-standard pronunciation, can’t understand what’s been said then some actual teaching needs to happen.

This is popular with more playful students but just have students move their jaws from /æ/ to /e/ to /I/ to /i:/ and feel the difference in their mouths. To get a good schwa I go from /æ/ to /з:/ to /ə/ stressing (oh, the irony) that the schwa has no stress. Get a couple of words with the target sounds produced then drill short phrases and short clauses and you have the start of improved intelligibility.