the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening
by Richard Cauldwell
4: The Post-Listening phase: the importance of handling
What is involved in 'handling' fast speech? When we invite
learners to do a reading task, we ask them to inspect sequences
of words of varying sizes (paragraphs, clauses, phrases)
for evidence to help them complete the tasks we have set.
The same should be true for listening tasks: we should ask
learners to inspect sequences of words (in speech units
of different sizes) for answers to the tasks. However, there
are important differences between reading and listening
tasks: with the written language perception is not an issue,
the words occur and remain for inspection on the page; with
the spoken language the words are not available for
inspection in the same way, they are available only for
inspection in the short-term memory of the learners, and
here perception is an issue. Perception - particularly
the ability to hold sounds in short term memory long enough
to inspect them for meaning - is a skill that is a pre-requisite
One feature of any post-listening phase, therefore, is to
give learners the experience of handling sequences of speech
while inspecting them for clues to understanding. It is
therefore necessary for the learners to re-hear and spend
time (this may be private, or in discussion with a partner
what they hear) with the crucial answer-bearing moments
of a recording, and this must be done before the
learners see the written transcript, so that the ears are
doing the work, not the eyes.
It is vital therefore that the points chosen to be the focus
of the listening task should be both central to the 'meaning'
of the recording, and challenging in terms of perception.
One way of doing this is to select those parts of the recording
which are both using software such as 'Motormouth' (Cauldwell
& Batchelor, 1999) and 'meaningful'.
At some stage (after an appropriate amount of 'ear-handling')
learners should see the written transcript so that they
can get feedback on the accuracy or waywardness of their
perceptions. This is the point in the listening class when
we have the opportunity of actually teaching listening
(which Field 1998 argues for): we can help the learners
bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, but paradoxically
it is the part of a listening comprehension class that is
most often omitted, or to which least time is devoted.
Then comes the second vital stage in handling speech, the
one that made my learners turn from being 'unhappy' to being
'happy'. This stage involves the learners imitating short,
fast, challenging extracts of the recording at the same
time and the same speed as the speaker. The teacher
chooses an extract and first asks learners to look at a
written version and to say it repeatedly to themselves,
gradually increasing the speed at which they say it. The
teacher then plays the selected extract repeatedly (by skilful
use of the rewind button) and the learners try to imitate
as accurately as possible the features of the original.
Such extracts should not be long: the longest sequence of
words I use for such work lasts just over two seconds and
is spoken at 408 words per minute, with two prominent syllables
in the places indicated by upper-case letters:
this is ONE i'm going to be looking at in slightly more
DEtail in fact
My (advanced level) learners find it an exciting challenge
to handle speech in this way, to be able to match native
speaker speeds, and I believe it is important to give learners
at all levels practice of handling fast speech in the two
ways outlined in this section: handling by ear - repeated
listening to the fastest meaning-bearing extracts; and handling
by speaking - imitating the features of the fastest extracts.
It is important to refrain from looking at written versions
of the extract too early (ear-handling should precede eye-handling),
but it is equally important to inspect written versions
of the extracts at some stage.
was a time when listening comprehension did involve perception
exercises (Field 1998), but they have generally disappeared,
a fact that Brown describes as 'a quite extraordinary case
of throwing the baby out with the bath water' (1990: 145).
The emphasis in recent years has been to view listening
as an activity which serves other goals. For example White
(1987, cited in Anderson & Lynch 1988: 66) found teachers
valued listening materials for reasons such as 'good for
starting discussions', 'amusing' and 'consolidates language'.
Nowhere in White's list of reasons is there recognition
of the characteristics unique to fast speech, or of the
necessity that listening activities should have listening
The major suggestions therefore, are that we should expand
the post-listening phase, and we should abandon the
follow-up phase where this takes the focus away from
improving listening. In order to do this we need to provide
teachers with the skills of observing and explaining the
features of fast speech, and provide them with a methodology
which helps their learners become comfortable handling and
understanding fast speech. Our ignorance of the features
of fast speech, our confusion of goals with methodology,
have resulted in our avoiding the nettle of fast speech.
We need to be bold and grasp this nettle to help our learners
become better listeners.
Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1988) Listening. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Brown, G. (1990) Listening to Spoken English. [Second
Edition]. Harlow: Longman.
Brazil, D. (1994) Pronunciation for Advanced Learners
of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brazil, D. (1997) The Communicative Value of Intonation
in English. [Second Edition]. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Cauldwell, R.T. (1996) 'Direct Encounters with Fast Speech
on CD Audio to Teach Listening'. System 24/4: 521-528
Cauldwell, R.T. and Batchelor, T. (1999) 'Mr. Motormouth'.
[Multimedia Toolbook software under development]. Birmingham:
The University of Birmingham.
Field, J. (1998) 'The Changing Face of Listening'.
English Teaching Professional 6: 12-14.
Roach, P. (1982) On the Distinction between 'Stress-timed'
and 'Syllable-timed' languages. In D. Crystal (ed.)
Linguistic controversies, Essays in linguistic theory and
practice. (73-79). London: Edward Arnold.
Ur, P. (1984) Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
White, G. (1987) 'The Teaching of Listening Comprehension
to Learners of English as a Foreign Language: A Survey'.
Unpublished M. Litt. Dissertation, The University of Edinburgh.
in Dublin, educated in England, Richard has taught English
in France, Hong Kong, and Japan. Between May 1990, and
September 2001, he worked at The University of Birmingham's
(UK) English for International Students Unit (EISU).
He now works free-lance, continuing his research, and
applying the results of this research in teacher training,
and classroom materials. His research and teaching centre
on spontaneous speech which he attempt to analyse on
its own terms in all its continually varying,
stream-like, real-time, contextual glory.
web site, which contains his research & articles,
can be found at:
he can be contacted at: email@example.com
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