the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension
by Richard Cauldwell
A common complaint from learners on first visiting an English-speaking
country is that their listening skills cannot cope with fast spontaneous
speech. Four inadequacies in the teaching of listening lead to this complaint:
we rely too much on first language research findings; we neglect perception;
we give learners easy and enjoyable, rather than challenging tasks; we
use listening activities to serve other language-learning goals. I propose
four things: that teachers themselves engage in classroom research in
second language listening; that teachers should be provided with the skills
of observing and explaining the features of fast speech; that teachers
should be prepared for students to be challenged (even frustrated) in
the early parts of a listening lesson; that the post-listening phase should
be expanded to include aural and oral 'handling' of crucial fast extracts
from recordings to improve students' perception skills
Learners, teachers, teacher trainers and university researchers have been
stung by casual contact with the nettle of fast spontaneous speech, and
have tended to avoid further contact. The legacy of this avoidance includes
four problems for the effective teaching of listening. I shall first describe
the four problems; I then suggest ways in which we can improve our teaching
of listening. In doing so, I shall make reference to the standard listening
comprehension class, with four phases: warm-up, while listening, post-listening,
Listening comprehension methodology of the last two decades has been characterised
by systematic avoidance of the painful fact that fast spontaneous
speech is difficult for learners. We avoid confronting this fact in four
ways: we place too much faith in first language research; we rely on,
but refuse to develop, learners' perception skills; we focus on what learners
can manage, rather than on what they have to master; and we favour follow-up
activities such as discussions and writing tasks rather than teaching
Problem 1: Too much faith in first language research
Fourteen years ago, Anderson and Lynch (1988: 21) noted that there was
very little research into listening in a second language. Because
of this gap in research, applied linguists, textbook writers, and teacher
trainers have gone to research in first language listening for guidance.
As a result, listening comprehension exercises are greatly (and in my
view inappropriately) influenced by what is known about successful first
First language research has established that successful listening is characterised
listening for a purpose
making predictions based on contextual information
making guesses when things aren't clear
inferring what is meant where necessary
not listening ('straining') for every word
(adapted from Brown 1990: 148)
Teacher trainers and textbook writers have made appropriate use of some
of these findings, and inappropriate use of others. In particular they
have taken the last of these points ('they don't listen for every word')
and have made it an article of faith. They advocate 'top-down' activities
and urge the avoidance of any activity which could be characterised as
'bottom-up'. Of course, we should be careful about this particular issue:
we don't want learners to strain so much to hear every word that they
cannot understand anything. In my view though, it is a mistake to abandon,
as we have, bottom-up activities which introduce learners to the essential
characteristics of speech.
From first language research comes the teacher's standard advice in a
listening lesson: 'You won't be able to understand every word, and you
don't need to'. I find this explanation illogical: the 'reasoning' goes
something like this:
non-natives don't understand
natives understand without paying attention to every word
therefore, in order to understand, non-natives should not try to pay
attention to every word
statement describes the problem which all listening classes address in
some way; the second is a research finding; the third is the false deduction.
It is not reasonable to deduce from the first two statements that 'improvement
in listening skills follows from not trying to pay attention to every
word'. In acting (as we do) on this illogical deduction, we confuse goals
and methodology: we require learners to simulate the goal of native listener
behaviour instead of teaching learners how to acquire progressively native-like
abilities in perception and understanding. We have made the mistake of
allowing the goal to become the method: we should recognise that the skill
of understanding without attending to every word is a goal to be reached,
not a means of getting there.
Adopting the goal-as-method procedure conveniently allows us to ignore
the fact that native speaker listeners have great advantages over non-natives
particularly in terms of perceptual ability, it allows us to avoid grasping
the nettle of fast speech. Activities which encourage bottom-up processing,
which target learners perceptual abilities, have become taboo.
2: Too much hope in listening out for 'stresses'
Listening exercises are also characterised by the hope which often appears
in the following words of encouragement: 'Just listen to the stresses,
they'll be in the most important words, then you'll understand'.
There are three problems with this view: first, very often, 'important'
words such as negatives are often unstressed, and so-called 'unimportant'
grammatical words such as prepositions and pronouns are stressed;
second, research indicates that it is difficult to pick out stressed words
in a language which is not your own (c.f. Roach, 1982); third, the concept
of stress is loosely defined and fails to distinguish between word-level
stress, and stresses associated with higher order phenomena such as tone
3: Too much help
Although many listening comprehension recordings boast that they are 'natural',
few of them are truly so. Many (though not all) are scripted and artificially
slow. The reasons for this can be found in statements such as the following
from Penny Ur:
may learn best from listening to speech which, while not entirely
authentic, is an approximation to the real thing, and is planned to
take into account the learners' level of ability and particular difficulties.
(Ur, 1984: 23)
find nothing wrong in what Penny Ur says here but I would argue that listening
comprehension materials are often over-charitable in leaning towards 'the
learners' level of ability' and not taking account of the level of ability
required to understand spontaneous fast speech. The gap between the learners'
level and the target level (fast spontaneous speech) is a gap that we
as teachers and materials writers must help learners bridge. But we cannot
help them bridge this gap if we continue with our charitable focus on
what learners can manage at their current level.
In recent years, listening materials in main course textbooks at upper-intermediate
and advanced levels have featured spontaneous speech, and this move is
a good one. However, the methodology (crudely, give the answers, and
move on) has remained much the same, and teachers are not trained
to explain what the features of fast spontaneous speech are.
We have to help learners cope with speech which is above their
current level, and to arrive at a description of 'above current level',
we need a description of the topmost level - a description of the features
of 'difficult' (fast spontaneous) speech. We need such a description for
use in teaching so that we can have an equal focus on both where our learners
are, and where they have to get to: this description should form part
of teacher training - it should be part of every teacher's tool-kit.
Problem 4: Rushing to the follow-up
We offer too little help in the post-listening phase. My impression is
(and this is backed up by research by Field 1998) that of the four phases
of a listening lesson it is the post-listening phase which has
the least amount of time devoted to it. The first - warm-up - phase
(with contextualisation and personalisation) and the fourth - follow-up
- phase (often a discussion or writing task) have the most time devoted
to them. It is at this point that avoidance is at its most obvious worst,
and the reasons for it can be found in the standard training of communicative
Our training predisposes us to obey a communicative imperative which demands
rapid movement to the next activity to keep the variety, interest, and
motivation high: we are anxious to see and hear learners enjoying social
interaction in English. We prefer this high level of social 'buzz' to
staying with and helping learners through the difficulties of a recording:
when there might be silent private struggles to perceive and understand
the acoustic blur of speech.
In the description of problems a number of themes emerged: research into
L2 listening, teacher training, grasping the nettle, and methodology.
Suggestion 1: Research into L2 listening in the classroom
Fry(1) (personal communication) advises, where
circumstances permit, allowing learners to control the tape-recorder so
that they can work on, and re-hear, those passages of the recording that
they have problems with. Fry's experience is with classes of adult learners
of English: he divides the class up into small groups and, after having
done the warm up phase and set the listening task, he gives each group
a tape-recorder, and the tape, and leaves it to the group to control the
tape-recorder. He reports being very surprised at what they found easy,
and what they find difficult in listening.
My experience of working with learners with computer controlled access
to recordings (reported in part in Cauldwell, 1996) is also one in which
I learned a great deal about their powers and weaknesses in perception
and understanding. It brought home to me the fact that their difficulties
lay in what were for me 'surprising' places.
So there are two benefits to allowing learners to control of the tape
recorder: they can focus on their own needs; and for the teachers it amounts
to research into second language listening - teachers discover
where gaps in understanding and perception lie.
Suggestion 2: A fast speech phonology
Teachers should be trained in 'observing' speech, and particularly the
authentic speech that now is a feature of many listening comprehension
and general textbooks. This training does not currently take place. The
training they get is in the area of fixed position phonology for the teaching
of pronunciation. This training is typically concerned with the articulation
of minimal pairs of consonants and vowels so that teachers can explain
to learners how they can improve their pronunciation.
But these current approaches to 'phonology for pronunciation' do not give
adequate preparation for dealing with the features of authentic fast speech,
not even in the areas where they might be thought to do so: elision, assimilation,
sentence stress, and intonation. The 'rules of speech' presented in such
materials are derived from introspection concerning how decontextualised
written sentences might be read aloud. These 'rules of speech' are inadequate
to account for what happens in fast spontaneous speech.
There is therefore a need for a 'fast speech phonology' which prepares
teachers to observe and explain the variability of fast speech. A major
element of this training would be to encourage teachers to rid their minds
of the expectations and rules they have inherited from fixed position
phonology. As for what else might be included, Field (1998: 13) suggests
features such as 'hesitations, stuttering, false starts, and long, loosely
structured sentences'. To this list one can add all the features of speech
described in Brazil (1994; 1997) - prominences, tone units of different
sizes, tones, pitch height. One can also add the differences between citation
and running forms of words, turn taking, accent, voice quality, and the
effects of speed on speech.
Suggestion 3: Grasping the nettle
Learners will claim that fast speech is too difficult for them: and teachers
will naturally feel tempted to give them easier, slower, scripted materials
that they feel comfortable with. If this solution is adopted however,
learners will be under-prepared to cope with the fast spontaneous speech
that will come their way when they meet native speakers of English.
It is necessary to allow learners to feel challenged, and it may be necessary
for them to feel frustrated by the demands of the listening task. I took
a survey of one class of seven advanced learners of English (teachers
of English from Japan) at the moment when they were deeply immersed in
a difficult recording, and attempting to answer questions relating to
the recording. I asked them to score their feelings on a five point scale
with 'A' as 'happy' and 'E' 'unhappy'. Some time later, after doing the
post-listening exercises I asked them to make judgments on the same scale.
The results are shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Survey of learners' feelings before and after post-listening
Table 1 shows that there was a major shift in feeling between the end
of the while listening phase and the end of the post-listening phase:
learners moved from being broadly 'unhappy' to broadly 'happy'. (The means
by which this change was brought about will be described in the next section.)
Here, it is important to note that it is vital for teachers to be prepared
for periods of learner frustration, and to have the methodological training
and knowledge base to help learners through periods of discomfort and
frustration to increasingly sophisticated levels of perception and understanding.
If the goal is to help learners become better listeners, it is vital that
they learn to be comfortable handling fast speech.
(1) John Fry of the British Council, Hong Kong
4: The Post-Listening phase: the importance of handling speech
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 for understanding.
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
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 goals.
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
Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1988) Listening. Oxford: Oxford University
Brown, G. (1990) Listening to Spoken English. [Second Edition].
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 Press.
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
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.
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:
And he can
be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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