Wednesday 28 April 2010

How to Teach Speaking

A new teacher who has been observing some of my classes lately as part of her ESL Teacher training asked me this question the other day: "How do I teach speaking?".
At first I thought it was a joke question, because to me the answer seemed so simple, but when I realized that it was a serious question, I had to stop and think about if for a second. At first glance, teaching speaking simply involves providing your students with as many chances to speak as is possible - sometimes in a controlled context, and sometimes in a free context.
The first thing to keep in mind is that when we are helping our language students learn to speak English, we are not actually teaching them to speak. Unless they are infants, they already know how to do that. What we are really helping them with falls into three categories
1. improving fluency (speaking smoothly)
2. improving pronunciation (saying words properly)
3. improving enunciation (Saying words/phrases clearly - I think this includes word and sentence intonation)
Some would say that vocabulary, grammar, and cultural usage also fall into how we teach speaking, but I'd say that while they are critical, they are not only in the domain of speaking. Speaking is about using our mouth and vocal cords to make sounds that people understand as language. It certainly involves other elements like grammar and vocabulary, but they aren't the core of it.
So, back to the main question of how to teach speaking. Let's look at each of the three elements I mentioned above
Improving Fluency
Fluency comes from practice - plain and simple. However it needs to be practice that involves extended use of the language and use of extended sentences. You can not build fluency by repeating single words or short phrases. Fluency at its heart relates to being able to speak for longer periods of time in a smooth way. Broadly speaking, here are a few things that can help build fluency:
1. speeches or presentations
2. group discussions
3. role plays
4. negotiations and debates
5. interviews and meetings
6. chatting in small groups
Improving Pronunciation
Pronunciation is the ability to say words properly with the correct sounds in the correct places. This is a skill that can take a VERY long to develop, but with consistent work and practice, it can be done. There are two keys to proper pronunciation 1) tons of native speaker input and 2) tons of speaking by the learner with native speakers. However, practice and lessons that target specific trouble areas can make a huge difference in a student's ability to deal with issues in pronunciation.
1. working on specific vowels
2. working on trouble consonants (e.g. th for French speakers)
3. working on understanding movement and location of mouth and tongue when making sounds
Improving Enunciation
Enunciation is speaking clearly - perhaps better understood by its opposite which is mumbling or slurring words. Enunciation is a very important aspect of speaking in that poor enunciation can make someone almost impossible to understand. Again improvements in enunciation come from exposure to native speakers, and plenty of natural practice. Of course focused work targeting problem areas can help a great deal as well. Things that can be done to help with enunciation include:
1. focused work on trouble word combinations
2. working on reductions (want to –> wanna)
3. working on sentence level stress points
4. working on word level stress points (e.g. differences between noun/verb forms of same word record/record)
5. working on sentence level intonation patterns
As you may have noticed I haven't provided any specific lesson ideas on how to teach speaking. There are literally hundreds of different activities that you can use in myraid different situations. There isn't one right way, or even one right sequence. Just be sure to give your students plenty of time for talking freely, supplement this with targeted exercises and practice, and actively encourage your students to listen to and speak with as many native speakers as they possibly can on a regular basis.


Outside the context of any classroom, all children who are repeatedly exposed to language, in
normal circumstances will learn it unconsciously. Most adults can learn a language without
studying it. Though they may have more trouble with pronunciation and grammar than
younger learners, they may still be able to communicate fluently. Children and adults who
learn language successfully outside a classroom context seem to share certain similarities.
First of all, they are usually exposed to language which they more or less understand even if,
sometimes, they can't produce the same language spontaneously themselves. Secondly, they
are motivated to learn the language in order to be able to communicate. And communication is
mainly an oral business. And finally they have opportunities to use the language they are
learning, thus checking their own progress and abilities.
All these features of natural language acquisition can be difficult to replicate in the classroom,
but there are elements which are no doubt worth imitating. Obviously enough within the
classroom environment students don't get the same kind of exposure as those who are
"picking up" the language. But we should try to work on motivation, language exposure,
maximised talking time and we should offer chances to use the language.
This module will deal with communicative (or conversational) skills, that is those skills a
speaker must possess when he or she wants to communicate something orally.

Communicative (conversational) skills
When we think about speaking, we mean when the students use any and all the language at
their command to perform some kind of oral task. The important thing is that there should be
a task to complete and that the students should want to complete it.
The reasons why it is a good idea to give students speaking tasks which provoke them to use
all and any language at their command are mainly three:
1) Rehearsal: when students have free discussions or conversations inside the classroom
they have a chance to rehearse having discussions or conversations outside the classroom.
Simply enough, when they meet a new friend from abroad the first conversation will be
about introducing oneself, one's own family etc. Having them take part in a role-play at the
lost property office allows them to rehearse such a real-life event in the safety of the
classroom. It is a way for students to "get the feel" of what communicating in the foreign
language really feels like.
2) Feedback: engagement in a speaking task which demands for the use of all and any
language at the students' command provides feedback for both teacher and students.
3) Engagement: completing a speaking task can be really motivating and give real
satisfaction. Many speaking tasks (role-play, discussions, debate, problem-solving etc.) are
intrinsically enjoyable in themselves and if planned carefully (by the teacher) and
completed successfully (by the students) contribute to increasing their self-esteem. What is conversation?
Teachers often tend to assume that conversation in the language classroom involves nothing
more than putting into practice the grammar and vocabulary skills taught elsewhere in the
course. But if we want to teach conversation well, we need to know something about what
native speakers do when they have conversations. We have chosen to deal with conversation
here, because conversation is what normally occurs in everyday life, in the contacts students
will have with foreign friends or foreign people in general. With the term "conversation" we
refer to a spoken interaction between two or more people who don't follow a fixed schedule.
The purposes of conversation include the exchange of information, the creation and
maintenance of social relationships, the negotiation of status and social roles as well as
deciding on joint actions.
The basic unit of a conversation is an exchange. An exchange consists of two moves (an
initiating move and a response):

A. Would you like a cup of coffee?
B. Yes, please.

We can give a function to each move. In the case above we have offering (A) and accepting
(B). To do so we need to take account of factors such as who the speakers are and where and
when the conversation occurs.
An exchange or a series of exchanges are not necessarily the same thing as a conversation:
A. Excuse me?
B. Yes?
A. How do I get to the railway station from here?
B. Go straight on, then take the first turning on the right. The railway station is at the end of
the street.

ƒ Can you think of other examples of this kind?

The one above is not a conversation because the two speakers want to finish their business as
quickly as possible; on the other hand, conversation is open-ended and has the potential to
develop in any way. It is possible that the example above could contain a conversation if B
enquired about A's nationality and A told him the reason why he wanted to reach the station.
The potential is always there in real life. Unfortunately, many students never have the
confidence or opportunity to go beyond simple exchanges like the one above, so one of the
main aim when teaching speaking skills is to propose exercises and activities which allow
students to develop the ability to initiate and sustain conversation. Conversation is such a natural part of our lives that many people are not conscious of what
happens within it. However, conversation follows certain rules which can be described. During
a conversation:
- usually one person speaks at a time;
- the speakers change;
- the length of any contribution varies;
- there are techniques for allowing the other party or parties to speak;
- neither the content nor the amount of what we say is specified in advance.

The two moves in an exchange are related to each other when the second utterance can be
identified as related to the first. These are called adjacency pairs. Some examples are:
A. Hello!
B. Hi! (greeting-greeting)

A. Are you OK?
B. Yes.

In some cases we can predict the second part of a pair from the first as in the first example. In
other cases there might be a variety of options.

ƒ Let's take a complaint. What are the different parts which might follow a complaint?

ƒ Here are some adjacency pairs where the second part is missing. Can you complete them?
ƒ What nationality are you?
ƒ …………………………

ƒ Would you like something to drink?
ƒ ……………………………………

ƒ Remember to record the film on Channel 5 for me this evening.
ƒ …………………………………………………………………..

ƒ My head aches.
ƒ ……………….

We need to think about ways of developing appropriate second parts to adjacency pairs from
the start. For example many drills require students to reply to yes/no questions with "yes" or
"no" plus a repetition of the auxiliary. We therefore get exchanges like this one:
A. Has Sandra arrived?
B. No, she hasn't.

What students do not often get are opportunities to practise other options, such as:

A. Has Sandra arrived?
B. There has been an accident on the motorway. She has just called to say she's stuck up.

Another reason why students usually appear flat and unresponsive in conversation is the
tendency to encourage them to produce isolated sentences containing a target structure, e.g.
If I won the lottery I'd travel around the world.
We all should keep in mind that a minimal answer does nothing to drive the conversation

Many students have great difficulty in getting into a conversation, in knowing when to give up
their turn to others, and in bringing a conversation to a close. In order for conversation to
work smoothly, all participants have to be alert to signals that a speaker is about to finish his
or her turn and be able to come in with a contribution which fits the direction in which the
conversation is moving. We need to train students to sense when someone is about to finish.
Falling intonation is often a signal for this.
Besides, students often lose their turn because they hesitate in order to find the right word.
Teaching them expressions like Wait, there's more or That's not all as well as fillers or
hesitation devices such as Erm…, Well…, etc will help them to keep going.

As regards topics, we must keep in mind that different cultures talk about different things in
their everyday lives. Native speakers are very aware of what they should and should not talk
about with specific categories of people in their own language. That is why both teachers and
students need to develop a sense of taboo subjects if they are to avoid offence.

ƒ Can you think of any taboo subject for English people?

Simplification in informal speech

ƒ Have you ever met a person who pronounces the individual sounds and words of English
beautifully but who still sounds very foreign? What's the reason, in your opinion?

In English the sound quality of a word, particularly the vowels and certain consonants, changes
depending on whether the word is said in isolation or as a part of a continuous stream of
words. Some of this is a result of simplification of informal speech owing to the fact that English is a stress-timed language. This means that between two stressed syllables there is the
same interval of time.
Let's take two sentences:
1. I caught a bus.
2. It's a bus I caught.

ƒ Do they contain the same number of words or syllables?
ƒ What do they have in common?

The two sentences are the same length when spoken because they contain the same number
of stressed syllables (two each). This means that the unstressed syllables have to be squeezed
in. The vowels belonging to unstressed syllables very often become the weak vowel
represented by the symbol [∂]. The weak vowel or "schwa" is the most common sound in
spoken English.
Another peculiarity of spoken English is elision, that is the "missing out" of a consonant or
vowel or even both.
If you give each part of a word the same value (as it normally happens in Italian), this can
have a wearying effect on the native speaker listener. This was particularly true with Trinity
Exams last year. Students who were very accurate and whose vocabulary was rich but who
spoke, I would say, flatly, got lower marks than students who were far less accurate but were
able to reproduce the stress-timed pattern typical of the English language. This shows that it is
worth pointing out weak forms from the start for recognition and production.

Planning communicative activities
Many students repeatedly say that their main purpose in learning English is to be able to
speak. Nevertheless, most of them don't talk readily in class and the "discussion lessons" in
which the teacher does most of the talking are still too prevalent.

ƒ Pause and consider: when you were a student, did you take part in any lesson which dealt
with discussing a specific issue? Did you talk a lot? Who talked the most?

ƒ As a teacher, have you ever favoured discussion in class (obviously using L2)? Were your
lessons successful or were you not satisfied with them? In either case which were the
issues you discussed?

If you find that lessons where discussion took place were not successful as the teacher did
most of the talking, consider if the students were prepared for the discussion or fluency
activity. Preparation is a vital ingredient for success. Students need to be orientated to the topic. You just can't enter the classroom and say: Today we are going to talk about ethnic
cleansing through the centuries (the issue may be relevant to a fifth-year class, though).

ƒ Empathise with your students: if you were one of them, how would you feel? Why would
you rather sit quietly in the back row hoping your teacher takes no notice of you than
engage in a passionate attack against ethnic cleansing?

Some simple techniques which can be used to prepare students for a particular topic are the
- the use of audio/visual aids to arouse interest;
- a general orientation to the topic: a short text, questionnaire, a video extract. (This pre-
speaking task must never be too long but it is recommended);
- exercises focussing on key words needed for a task.

Students may need to be orientated to the task. The general rule is to formulate tasks in terms
students can understand and make sure that the instructions are clear.

ƒ Record yourself while you are giving instructions for a speaking activity. Listen. Were the
instructions clear? How would you modify them?

One possible paradigm for instruction-giving is as follows:
- Think through instructions from the point of view of the student.
- Include only the essential information in simple, clear language.
- Insist on silence and make sure you can be seen. Make eye-contact.
- Use demonstration and gestures where possible to go with your explanation.
- Make sure the students have understood what to do. Do this by asking for a demonstration
or for an answer to a question which proves understanding. A yes/no answer to a question
like Do you understand? Are you with me? is not particularly revealing.

Gower and Walters1
state that "the way you give instructions indicates the way you exercise
control and your attitude to the group… Generally students (…) would not appreciate you trying
to be more polite. It would be time-wasting and slow things down and would involve you in
more complicated language than they can readily understand".

ƒ What is your view?

What has been said so far as regards instructions concerns all the other skills we are going to
deal with in the following modules. Last but not least is the choice of the topic to discuss. Students are sometimes not
motivated to talk because they lack involvement in the topic. However, even where students
admit interest, they may be unwilling to talk about it in English because they lack the linguistic
resources. It is a good idea to talk about things which are within the students' experience or
which they think they might influence their future lives or attitudes. I am thinking of the
terrorist attacks to the U.S. last year: the students were motivated and involved to speak
about what had happened because they felt it was something that was linked to their hopes
and fears for the future.
One idea to help students go is finding the topic to discuss but instead of discussing it under a
general perspective, you could try setting a specific related problem. Let's take, for example,
the new war the American President would willingly wage against Iraq. You could divide the
class into two groups, one in favour of a military response to overthrow Iraqi dictator, Saddam
Hussein, the other more careful and prone to turn to diplomacy and intelligence instead. Give
them some articles with different viewpoints and the results of the poll conducted among
Americans and tell them they must decide (and agree) on how to cope with this crucial issue:
going to war or relying on intelligence and diplomacy?

When dealing with speaking activities, it is important to ensure that the students develop a
sense that they are making progress. Often students do not realise just how much more
confident and fluent they are becoming. One reason may be that they may rarely get the
opportunity to take a leading role in conversation; it is well worth trying, then, to programme
activities and pair work in which brilliant students have to sustain a conversation with those at
lower level, in order to give them the experience of being the driving force in a conversation.
This is particularly important in view of the consolidation of self-esteem, which we must never
forget when dealing with teenagers.
Getting students to compare their current efforts with recordings made in the earliest stages of
the course is another way of boosting confidence.
In many cases students will have external objectives such as the oral examinations run by
organisations such as Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and Trinity College. It is
therefore useful to show the extent to which students are making progress towards their
examination objective by including an element of exam practice in the programme. This is a
possible approach to how this can be set up:
- make your students fully aware of what a satisfactory performance in the examination
involves. For example, show them a film of a Trinity exam interview, commenting on the
mastery of language but also on fluency and on the examiner's gestures and fillers;
- an identification of areas which are critical for a good performance in the exam might then
be followed by controlled practice of exam-type tasks;

Gower R., Walters S. Teaching Practice Handbook, Heinemann, 1988. - you should also give your students practice in exam conditions. Feedback from these tasks
is particularly valuable in that it fosters self-evaluation and improvement.
Towards communicative competence
According to William Littlewood2
there is a continuum of classroom activities to promote
communicative competence:
Control Performing memorised dialogues
Contextualised drills
Cued dialogues
Discourse Chains
Role play

Step 1: Controlled activities
Although conversational competence can only come from fluency activities or natural language
interaction outside the classroom, there is an argument for the use of controlled activities
which help students develop confidence as well as the ability to participate in and maintain
simple conversations.

ƒ Remember your first English lessons. What kind of student were you? Were you always
ready to raise your hand to be invited to speak in the foreign language or did you hope the
teacher didn't see you?

Many students have to overcome a psychological barrier before they are prepared to speak in
the foreign language. Some students feel uneasy when they have to speak in the classroom
situation because there is always an audience, others contribute in the sheltered environment
of the classroom but are at a loss when they have to use the language outside. A few prefer
not to speak at all and are then denied opportunities for practice.
Within the classroom a major source of threat against speaking is the individual's perception of
himself/herself and the other students. Threat reduction is possible by building up personal
security through the use of getting-to-know-you activities which promote trust as well as
articulation activities3 which give the opportunity to use English sounds in a safe

William Littlewood, Communicative Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press, 1981. Getting-to-know-you activities
They are meant to build a positive atmosphere of trust within a group.

LEVEL Any level (including beginners) (from A1)
TIME 5-10 minutes
AIM Introducing students to each other
PROCEDURE 1. Ask the students to sit in a semi-circle and
nominate one student to introduce
2. The person next to him/her must then
repeat his/her name, and then introduce
3. Ask your students to repeat this procedure
around the semi-circle, each one repeating
the name of the person before them and
then saying their own name. For example:
A. I'm Roberto.
B. Roberto, I'm Paola.
C. Roberto, Paola., I'm Francesco.
D. Roberto, Paola, Francesco, I'm Giulia.
More advanced students might tackle the
A. I'm Francesco. I'm from Mestre.
B. He's Francesco. He's from Mestre. I'm
Bianca, and I'm from Marcon.
C. He's Francesco. He's from Mestre. She's
Bianca. She's from Marcon. I'm Piero,
and I'm from Mirano.

REMARKS 1. Twelve represents a maximum number for
this activity. (Split the class into two semi-
circles if the students are more.)
2. You should always take a turn to show you
are learning too.

The names for the different kinds of activities within communicative competence and the examples are taken from
Rob Nolasco, Lois Arthur, Conversation, Oxford University Press, 1987, which has offered plenty of ideas for the
writing of this module.
LEVEL Elementary to intermediate (A2 to B2)
TIME 15-20 minutes
AIM Students are given statements of personal
information about other students and they
have to ask questions in order to establish the
person's identity.
PREPARATION Have available enough small pieces of paper
for the whole class.
PROCEDURE 1. Give each of your students a piece of
paper and ask them to write four facts
about themselves. These can be anything
they choose, e.g. I was born in February, I
own a bicycle, I like Limp Bizkit etc. as
long as the statement is true.
2. Tell the students to fold their pieces of
paper and pass them anonymously to the
front of the class.
3. Collect them together and then redistribute
them so that each student has personal
information about another student.
4. Once the students have had a chance to
look at the personal information, tell them
that they will have to find out whose
information they have by turning the
statements into questions, and then asking
other students those questions. You can
exercise control over the activity in a
variety of ways:
- by deciding on the form of the question
which is allowable, such as Who was born
in February?;
- by deciding whether to nominate students
to speak or to allow them free choice;
- by deciding whether or not to allow
students to move about.
5. Once you have decided on the rules for the activity you can set it in motion. The
activity ends when everybody has found
out whose personal information they have.
REMARKS If the initial statements were collected in the
previous lesson, or copied out two or three
times, you could distribute more than one set
of information to each student. This would be
needed to make a mingling activity more

ƒ Focus on the "Guess who?" activity. What kind of practical problems may arise? How would
you cope with them?

Articulation activities
When students come to speak in a foreign language they often find themselves inhibited by
the prospects of having to make what to them are strange and even comic sounds. One way to
tackle this problem is to give students the opportunity to experiment with sounds.
LEVEL Elementary and above (from A2)
TIME 15-20 minutes
AIM For students: making a recording after listening carefully to a taped
PREPARATION Select a natural model for students to imitate.
PROCEDURE Ask the students to listen to the tape and to repeat any of the utterances
they have heard, until they are ready to be recorded. The activity is self-
directed, but you should be available for consultation. The finished product
can be a subject of feedback and evaluation.
REMARKS The activity is self-regulatory. This is important if students are not to be
threatened by having to repeat something they feel uncertain about. This
activity also fosters the notion of rehearsing what we are about to say,
something many people do in their own language, anyway.

Dialogue building
The use of cues or prompts to build up dialogues is a commonly-used technique. The cues or
prompts determine the content of what is said, and dialogue building activities can range from
being highly controlled to very free. Dialogue building is not a substitute for fluency work, but
used sparingly it allows the possibility of giving weaker students a chance to say something.
ƒ Go through a course-book and find an activity of this kind. Send it to our forum saying
whether it is a highly controlled one or a free one. Use a ranking scale where 1 stands for
highly controlled, 5 very free.

In the early stages of conversational development students can be taught to take the part of
the person who responds to what somebody else has said, by producing an appropriate
response or "gambit".
Here's a list of what we might teach:
1. Language to indicate the speaker's agreement with what has been said:
- Yes, it is.
- Yes, that's right.
- Of course, it is.
- Quite, absolutely true.
- Yes, I do / Yes, he was / Yes, they were….
2. Language which indicates polite disagreement:
- Well, not really.
- Not quite, no.
- Perhaps not quite as bad/good/difficult as that.
- Em, I don't know.
3. Language to indicate possible doubt:
- I'm not quite sure.
- Really?
- Is that right?
- Is that so?
- Are you sure?
4. Language to provide positive and negative feedback:
- Great!
- That's nice.
- Very nice indeed (good, clear, pretty)…
- Really nice.
- Sounds lovely! (informal)
- Not very nice.
- No at all nice/clear …
- Very nasty indeed (disagreeable, bad, noisy) …
- Sounds awful. (informal) 5. Language to encourage confirmation and more information:
- Is that right?
- Really?
- No kidding? (informal)
- You're not!
One way of getting students used to the function of short responses is to build them into drills.
Although such practice is semi-mechanical students enjoy the challenge of getting the stress
and intonation of the short response right. The important thing is not to use drills too

Step 2: Awareness activities
Students need to become aware of what native speakers do in conversation if they are
themselves to achieve communicative competence in the target language. The focus of the
awareness activities will be then on promoting the following issues:
- the ability to "sound" English by drawing attention to critical elements which can be
usefully imitated (weak forms);
- development of the ability to interpret what is being said;
- a feeling for what is appropriate in conversation;
- awareness of strategies used to further conversation;
- awareness of the target culture.
Awareness activities can be used from the earliest stages of learning.

Observation tasks
They are used to encourage students to become sensitive to particular features of
conversation. Observation should always be directed through the use of task sheets and these
can be used to focus on:
- audio recordings of people talking;
- video recordings of people talking;
- conversations as they occur in real time.
The simplest observation tasks require the observer to mark the presence or absence of a
particular feature.
LEVEL Elementary and above (from A2)
TIME 15-20 minutes
AIM Making students sensitive to expressions
which encourage the other speaker to
PREPARATION Select an audio or video tape that contains
examples of this type of expression. Hand out the task sheet below to the students.
Listen to the extract of people talking. Make a tick (√) next to each of the expressions in the
list whenever you hear one of the speakers using it.
‰ Really?

Teaching Speaking
Many language learners regard speaking ability as the measure of knowing a language. These learners define fluency as the ability to converse with others, much more than the ability to read, write, or comprehend oral language. They regard speaking as the most important skill they can acquire, and they assess their progress in terms of their accomplishments in spoken communication.
Language learners need to recognize that speaking involves three areas of knowledge:
• Mechanics (pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary): Using the right words in the right order with the correct pronunciation
• Functions (transaction and interaction): Knowing when clarity of message is essential (transaction/information exchange) and when precise understanding is not required (interaction/relationship building)
• Social and cultural rules and norms (turn-taking, rate of speech, length of pauses between speakers, relative roles of participants): Understanding how to take into account who is speaking to whom, in what circumstances, about what, and for what reason.
In the communicative model of language teaching, instructors help their students develop this body of knowledge by providing authentic practice that prepares students for real-life communication situations. They help their students develop the ability to produce grammatically correct, logically connected sentences that are appropriate to specific contexts, and to do so using acceptable (that is, comprehensible) pronunciation.
Teaching Speaking
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Speaking
The goal of teaching speaking skills is communicative efficiency. Learners should be able to make themselves understood, using their current proficiency to the fullest. They should try to avoid confusion in the message due to faulty pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, and to observe the social and cultural rules that apply in each communication situation.
To help students develop communicative efficiency in speaking, instructors can use a balanced activities approach that combines language input, structured output, and communicative output.
Language input comes in the form of teacher talk, listening activities, reading passages, and the language heard and read outside of class. It gives learners the material they need to begin producing language themselves.
Language input may be content oriented or form oriented.
• Content-oriented input focuses on information, whether it is a simple weather report or an extended lecture on an academic topic. Content-oriented input may also include descriptions of learning strategies and examples of their use.
• Form-oriented input focuses on ways of using the language: guidance from the teacher or another source on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar (linguistic competence); appropriate things to say in specific contexts (discourse competence); expectations for rate of speech, pause length, turn-taking, and other social aspects of language use (sociolinguistic competence); and explicit instruction in phrases to use to ask for clarification and repair miscommunication (strategic competence).
In the presentation part of a lesson, an instructor combines content-oriented and form-oriented input. The amount of input that is actually provided in the target language depends on students' listening proficiency and also on the situation. For students at lower levels, or in situations where a quick explanation on a grammar topic is needed, an explanation in English may be more appropriate than one in the target language.
For more on input, see Guidelines for Instruction.
Structured output focuses on correct form. In structured output, students may have options for responses, but all of the options require them to use the specific form or structure that the teacher has just introduced.
Structured output is designed to make learners comfortable producing specific language items recently introduced, sometimes in combination with previously learned items. Instructors often use structured output exercises as a transition between the presentation stage and the practice stage of a lesson plan. textbook exercises also often make good structured output practice activities.
In communicative output, the learners' main purpose is to complete a task, such as obtaining information, developing a travel plan, or creating a video. To complete the task, they may use the language that the instructor has just presented, but they also may draw on any other vocabulary, grammar, and communication strategies that they know. In communicative output activities, the criterion of success is whether the learner gets the message across. Accuracy is not a consideration unless the lack of it interferes with the message.
In everyday communication, spoken exchanges take place because there is some sort of information gap between the participants. Communicative output activities involve a similar real information gap. In order to complete the task, students must reduce or eliminate the information gap. In these activities, language is a tool, not an end in itself.
In a balanced activities approach, the teacher uses a variety of activities from these different categories of input and output. Learners at all proficiency levels, including beginners, benefit from this variety; it is more motivating, and it is also more likely to result in effective language learning.
Strategies for Developing Speaking Skills
Students often think that the ability to speak a language is the product of language learning, but speaking is also a crucial part of the language learning process. Effective instructors teach students speaking strategies -- using minimal responses, recognizing scripts, and using language to talk about language -- that they can use to help themselves expand their knowledge of the language and their confidence in using it. These instructors help students learn to speak so that the students can use speaking to learn.
1. Using minimal responses
Language learners who lack confidence in their ability to participate successfully in oral interaction often listen in silence while others do the talking. One way to encourage such learners to begin to participate is to help them build up a stock of minimal responses that they can use in different types of exchanges. Such responses can be especially useful for beginners.
Minimal responses are predictable, often idiomatic phrases that conversation participants use to indicate understanding, agreement, doubt, and other responses to what another speaker is saying. Having a stock of such responses enables a learner to focus on what the other participant is saying, without having to simultaneously plan a response.
2. Recognizing scripts
Some communication situations are associated with a predictable set of spoken exchanges -- a script. Greetings, apologies, compliments, invitations, and other functions that are influenced by social and cultural norms often follow patterns or scripts. So do the transactional exchanges involved in activities such as obtaining information and making a purchase. In these scripts, the relationship between a speaker's turn and the one that follows it can often be anticipated.
Instructors can help students develop speaking ability by making them aware of the scripts for different situations so that they can predict what they will hear and what they will need to say in response. Through interactive activities, instructors can give students practice in managing and varying the language that different scripts contain.
3. Using language to talk about language
Language learners are often too embarrassed or shy to say anything when they do not understand another speaker or when they realize that a conversation partner has not understood them. Instructors can help students overcome this reticence by assuring them that misunderstanding and the need for clarification can occur in any type of interaction, whatever the participants' language skill levels. Instructors can also give students strategies and phrases to use for clarification and comprehension check.
By encouraging students to use clarification phrases in class when misunderstanding occurs, and by responding positively when they do, instructors can create an authentic practice environment within the classroom itself. As they develop control of various clarification strategies, students will gain confidence in their ability to manage the various communication situations that they may encounter outside the classroom.

Developing Speaking Activities
Traditional classroom speaking practice often takes the form of drills in which one person asks a question and another gives an answer. The question and the answer are structured and predictable, and often there is only one correct, predetermined answer. The purpose of asking and answering the question is to demonstrate the ability to ask and answer the question.
In contrast, the purpose of real communication is to accomplish a task, such as conveying a telephone message, obtaining information, or expressing an opinion. In real communication, participants must manage uncertainty about what the other person will say. Authentic communication involves an information gap; each participant has information that the other does not have. In addition, to achieve their purpose, participants may have to clarify their meaning or ask for confirmation of their own understanding.
To create classroom speaking activities that will develop communicative competence, instructors need to incorporate a purpose and an information gap and allow for multiple forms of expression. However, quantity alone will not necessarily produce competent speakers. Instructors need to combine structured output activities, which allow for error correction and increased accuracy, with communicative output activities that give students opportunities to practice language use more freely.
Structured Output Activities
Two common kinds of structured output activities are information gap and jigsaw activities. In both these types of activities, students complete a task by obtaining missing information, a feature the activities have in common with real communication. However, information gap and jigsaw activities also set up practice on specific items of language. In this respect they are more like drills than like communication.
Information Gap Activities
• Filling the gaps in a schedule or timetable: Partner A holds an airline timetable with some of the arrival and departure times missing. Partner B has the same timetable but with different blank spaces. The two partners are not permitted to see each other's timetables and must fill in the blanks by asking each other appropriate questions. The features of language that are practiced would include questions beginning with "when" or "at what time." Answers would be limited mostly to time expressions like "at 8:15" or "at ten in the evening."
• Completing the picture: The two partners have similar pictures, each with different missing details, and they cooperate to find all the missing details. In another variation, no items are missing, but similar items differ in appearance. For example, in one picture, a man walking along the street may be wearing an overcoat, while in the other the man is wearing a jacket. The features of grammar and vocabulary that are practiced are determined by the content of the pictures and the items that are missing or different. Differences in the activities depicted lead to practice of different verbs. Differences in number, size, and shape lead to adjective practice. Differing locations would probably be described with prepositional phrases.
These activities may be set up so that the partners must practice more than just grammatical and lexical features. For example, the timetable activity gains a social dimension when one partner assumes the role of a student trying to make an appointment with a partner who takes the role of a professor. Each partner has pages from an appointment book in which certain dates and times are already filled in and other times are still available for an appointment. Of course, the open times don't match exactly, so there must be some polite negotiation to arrive at a mutually convenient time for a meeting or a conference.
Jigsaw Activities
Jigsaw activities are more elaborate information gap activities that can be done with several partners. In a jigsaw activity, each partner has one or a few pieces of the "puzzle," and the partners must cooperate to fit all the pieces into a whole picture. The puzzle piece may take one of several forms. It may be one panel from a comic strip or one photo from a set that tells a story. It may be one sentence from a written narrative. It may be a tape recording of a conversation, in which case no two partners hear exactly the same conversation.
• In one fairly simple jigsaw activity, students work in groups of four. Each student in the group receives one panel from a comic strip. Partners may not show each other their panels. Together the four panels present this narrative: a man takes a container of ice cream from the freezer; he serves himself several scoops of ice cream; he sits in front of the TV eating his ice cream; he returns with the empty bowl to the kitchen and finds that he left the container of ice cream, now melting, on the kitchen counter. These pictures have a clear narrative line and the partners are not likely to disagree about the appropriate sequencing. You can make the task more demanding, however, by using pictures that lend themselves to alternative sequences, so that the partners have to negotiate among themselves to agree on a satisfactory sequence.
• More elaborate jigsaws may proceed in two stages. Students first work in input groups (groups A, B, C, and D) to receive information. Each group receives a different part of the total information for the task. Students then reorganize into groups of four with one student each from A, B, C, and D, and use the information they received to complete the task. Such an organization could be used, for example, when the input is given in the form of a tape recording. Groups A, B, C, and D each hear a different recording of a short news bulletin. The four recordings all contain the same general information, but each has one or more details that the others do not. In the second stage, students reconstruct the complete story by comparing the four versions.
With information gap and jigsaw activities, instructors need to be conscious of the language demands they place on their students. If an activity calls for language your students have not already practiced, you can brainstorm with them when setting up the activity to preview the language they will need, eliciting what they already know and supplementing what they are able to produce themselves.
Structured output activities can form an effective bridge between instructor modeling and communicative output because they are partly authentic and partly artificial. Like authentic communication, they feature information gaps that must be bridged for successful completion of the task. However, where authentic communication allows speakers to use all of the language they know, structured output activities lead students to practice specific features of language and to practice only in brief sentences, not in extended discourse. Also, structured output situations are contrived and more like games than real communication, and the participants' social roles are irrelevant to the performance of the activity. This structure controls the number of variables that students must deal with when they are first exposed to new material. As they become comfortable, they can move on to true communicative output activities.
Communicative Output Activities
Communicative output activities allow students to practice using all of the language they know in situations that resemble real settings. In these activities, students must work together to develop a plan, resolve a problem, or complete a task. The most common types of communicative output activity are role plays and discussions .
In role plays, students are assigned roles and put into situations that they may eventually encounter outside the classroom. Because role plays imitate life, the range of language functions that may be used expands considerably. Also, the role relationships among the students as they play their parts call for them to practice and develop their sociolinguistic competence. They have to use language that is appropriate to the situation and to the characters.
Students usually find role playing enjoyable, but students who lack self-confidence or have lower proficiency levels may find them intimidating at first. To succeed with role plays:
• Prepare carefully: Introduce the activity by describing the situation and making sure that all of the students understand it
• Set a goal or outcome: Be sure the students understand what the product of the role play should be, whether a plan, a schedule, a group opinion, or some other product
• Use role cards: Give each student a card that describes the person or role to be played. For lower-level students, the cards can include words or expressions that that person might use.
• Brainstorm: Before you start the role play, have students brainstorm as a class to predict what vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic expressions they might use.
• Keep groups small: Less-confident students will feel more able to participate if they do not have to compete with many voices.
• Give students time to prepare: Let them work individually to outline their ideas and the language they will need to express them.
• Be present as a resource, not a monitor: Stay in communicative mode to answer students' questions. Do not correct their pronunciation or grammar unless they specifically ask you about it.
• Allow students to work at their own levels: Each student has individual language skills, an individual approach to working in groups, and a specific role to play in the activity. Do not expect all students to contribute equally to the discussion, or to use every grammar point you have taught.
• Do topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the outcome of their role plays.
• Do linguistic follow-up: After the role play is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation problems you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan to review pronunciation or grammar anyway.
Discussions, like role plays, succeed when the instructor prepares students first, and then gets out of the way. To succeed with discussions:
• Prepare the students: Give them input (both topical information and language forms) so that they will have something to say and the language with which to say it.
• Offer choices: Let students suggest the topic for discussion or choose from several options. Discussion does not always have to be about serious issues. Students are likely to be more motivated to participate if the topic is television programs, plans for a vacation, or news about mutual friends. Weighty topics like how to combat pollution are not as engaging and place heavy demands on students' linguistic competence.
• Set a goal or outcome: This can be a group product, such as a letter to the editor, or individual reports on the views of others in the group.
• Use small groups instead of whole-class discussion: Large groups can make participation difficult.
• Keep it short: Give students a defined period of time, not more than 8-10 minutes, for discussion. Allow them to stop sooner if they run out of things to say.
• Allow students to participate in their own way: Not every student will feel comfortable talking about every topic. Do not expect all of them to contribute equally to the conversation.
• Do topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the results of their discussion.
• Do linguistic follow-up: After the discussion is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation problems you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan to review pronunciation or grammar anyway.
Through well-prepared communicative output activities such as role plays and discussions, you can encourage students to experiment and innovate with the language, and create a supportive atmosphere that allows them to make mistakes without fear of embarrassment. This will contribute to their self-confidence as speakers and to their motivation to learn more.

How to Teach Reading

Traditionally, the purpose of learning to read in a language has been to have access to the literature written in that language. In language instruction, reading materials have traditionally been chosen from literary texts that represent "higher" forms of culture.
This approach assumes that students learn to read a language by studying its vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, not by actually reading it. In this approach, lower level learners read only sentences and paragraphs generated by textbook writers and instructors. The reading of authentic materials is limited to the works of great authors and reserved for upper level students who have developed the language skills needed to read them.
The communicative approach to language teaching has given instructors a different understanding of the role of reading in the language classroom and the types of texts that can be used in instruction. When the goal of instruction is communicative competence, everyday materials such as train schedules, newspaper articles, and travel and tourism Web sites become appropriate classroom materials, because reading them is one way communicative competence is developed. Instruction in reading and reading practice thus become essential parts of language teaching at every level.
Reading Purpose and Reading Comprehension
Reading is an activity with a purpose. A person may read in order to gain information or verify existing knowledge, or in order to critique a writer's ideas or writing style. A person may also read for enjoyment, or to enhance knowledge of the language being read. The purpose(s) for reading guide the reader's selection of texts.
The purpose for reading also determines the appropriate approach to reading comprehension. A person who needs to know whether she can afford to eat at a particular restaurant needs to comprehend the pricing information provided on the menu, but does not need to recognize the name of every appetizer listed. A person reading poetry for enjoyment needs to recognize the words the poet uses and the ways they are put together, but does not need to identify main idea and supporting details. However, a person using a scientific article to support an opinion needs to know the vocabulary that is used, understand the facts and cause-effect sequences that are presented, and recognize ideas that are presented as hypotheses and givens.
Reading research shows that good readers
• Read extensively
• Integrate information in the text with existing knowledge
• Have a flexible reading style, depending on what they are reading
• Are motivated
• Rely on different skills interacting: perceptual processing, phonemic processing, recall
• Read for a purpose; reading serves a function
Reading as a Process
Reading is an interactive process that goes on between the reader and the text, resulting in comprehension. The text presents letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs that encode meaning. The reader uses knowledge, skills, and strategies to determine what that meaning is.
Reader knowledge, skills, and strategies include
• Linguistic competence: the ability to recognize the elements of the writing system; knowledge of vocabulary; knowledge of how words are structured into sentences
• Discourse competence: knowledge of discourse markers and how they connect parts of the text to one another
• Sociolinguistic competence: knowledge about different types of texts and their usual structure and content
• Strategic competence: the ability to use top-down strategies (see Strategies for Developing Reading Skills for descriptions), as well as knowledge of the language (a bottom-up strategy)
The purpose(s) for reading and the type of text determine the specific knowledge, skills, and strategies that readers need to apply to achieve comprehension. Reading comprehension is thus much more than decoding. Reading comprehension results when the reader knows which skills and strategies are appropriate for the type of text, and understands how to apply them to accomplish the reading purpose.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Reading
Instructors want to produce students who, even if they do not have complete control of the grammar or an extensive lexicon, can fend for themselves in communication situations. In the case of reading, this means producing students who can use reading strategies to maximize their comprehension of text, identify relevant and non-relevant information, and tolerate less than word-by-word comprehension.
Focus: The Reading Process
To accomplish this goal, instructors focus on the process of reading rather than on its product.
• They develop students' awareness of the reading process and reading strategies by asking students to think and talk about how they read in their native language.
• They allow students to practice the full repertoire of reading strategies by using authentic reading tasks. They encourage students to read to learn (and have an authentic purpose for reading) by giving students some choice of reading material.
• When working with reading tasks in class, they show students the strategies that will work best for the reading purpose and the type of text. They explain how and why students should use the strategies.
• They have students practice reading strategies in class and ask them to practice outside of class in their reading assignments. They encourage students to be conscious of what they're doing while they complete reading assignments.
• They encourage students to evaluate their comprehension and self-report their use of strategies. They build comprehension checks into in-class and out-of-class reading assignments, and periodically review how and when to use particular strategies.
• They encourage the development of reading skills and the use of reading strategies by using the target language to convey instructions and course-related information in written form: office hours, homework assignments, test content.
• They do not assume that students will transfer strategy use from one task to another. They explicitly mention how a particular strategy can be used in a different type of reading task or with another skill.
By raising students' awareness of reading as a skill that requires active engagement, and by explicitly teaching reading strategies, instructors help their students develop both the ability and the confidence to handle communication situations they may encounter beyond the classroom. In this way they give their students the foundation for communicative competence in the new language.
Integrating Reading Strategies
Instruction in reading strategies is not an add-on, but rather an integral part of the use of reading activities in the language classroom. Instructors can help their students become effective readers by teaching them how to use strategies before, during, and after reading.
Before reading: Plan for the reading task
• Set a purpose or decide in advance what to read for
• Decide if more linguistic or background knowledge is needed
• Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attend to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focus on the words and phrases)
During and after reading: Monitor comprehension
• Verify predictions and check for inaccurate guesses
• Decide what is and is not important to understand
• Reread to check comprehension
• Ask for help
After reading: Evaluate comprehension and strategy use
• Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area
• Evaluate overall progress in reading and in particular types of reading tasks
• Decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task
• Modify strategies if necessary
Using Authentic Materials and Approaches
For students to develop communicative competence in reading, classroom and homework reading activities must resemble (or be) real-life reading tasks that involve meaningful communication. They must therefore be authentic in three ways.
1. The reading material must be authentic: It must be the kind of material that students will need and want to be able to read when traveling, studying abroad, or using the language in other contexts outside the classroom.
When selecting texts for student assignments, remember that the difficulty of a reading text is less a function of the language, and more a function of the conceptual difficulty and the task(s) that students are expected to complete. Simplifying a text by changing the language often removes natural redundancy and makes the organization somewhat difficult for students to predict. This actually makes a text more difficult to read than if the original were used.
Rather than simplifying a text by changing its language, make it more approachable by eliciting students' existing knowledge in pre-reading discussion, reviewing new vocabulary before reading, and asking students to perform tasks that are within their competence, such as skimming to get the main idea or scanning for specific information, before they begin intensive reading.
2. The reading purpose must be authentic: Students must be reading for reasons that make sense and have relevance to them. "Because the teacher assigned it" is not an authentic reason for reading a text.
To identify relevant reading purposes, ask students how they plan to use the language they are learning and what topics they are interested in reading and learning about. Give them opportunities to choose their reading assignments, and encourage them to use the library, the Internet, and foreign language newsstands and bookstores to find other things they would like to read.
3. The reading approach must be authentic: Students should read the text in a way that matches the reading purpose, the type of text, and the way people normally read. This means that reading aloud will take place only in situations where it would take place outside the classroom, such as reading for pleasure. The majority of students' reading should be done silently.
Reading Aloud in the Classroom
Students do not learn to read by reading aloud. A person who reads aloud and comprehends the meaning of the text is coordinating word recognition with comprehension and speaking and pronunciation ability in highly complex ways. Students whose language skills are limited are not able to process at this level, and end up having to drop one or more of the elements. Usually the dropped element is comprehension, and reading aloud becomes word calling: simply pronouncing a series of words without regard for the meaning they carry individually and together. Word calling is not productive for the student who is doing it, and it is boring for other students to listen to.
• There are two ways to use reading aloud productively in the language classroom. Read aloud to your students as they follow along silently. You have the ability to use inflection and tone to help them hear what the text is saying. Following along as you read will help students move from word-by-word reading to reading in phrases and thought units, as they do in their first language.
• Use the "read and look up" technique. With this technique, a student reads a phrase or sentence silently as many times as necessary, then looks up (away from the text) and tells you what the phrase or sentence says. This encourages students to read for ideas, rather than for word recognition.

Strategies for Developing Reading Skills
Using Reading Strategies
Language instructors are often frustrated by the fact that students do not automatically transfer the strategies they use when reading in their native language to reading in a language they are learning. Instead, they seem to think reading means starting at the beginning and going word by word, stopping to look up every unknown vocabulary item, until they reach the end. When they do this, students are relying exclusively on their linguistic knowledge, a bottom-up strategy. One of the most important functions of the language instructor, then, is to help students move past this idea and use top-down strategies as they do in their native language.
Effective language instructors show students how they can adjust their reading behavior to deal with a variety of situations, types of input, and reading purposes. They help students develop a set of reading strategies and match appropriate strategies to each reading situation.
Strategies that can help students read more quickly and effectively include
• Previewing: reviewing titles, section headings, and photo captions to get a sense of the structure and content of a reading selection
• Predicting: using knowledge of the subject matter to make predictions about content and vocabulary and check comprehension; using knowledge of the text type and purpose to make predictions about discourse structure; using knowledge about the author to make predictions about writing style, vocabulary, and content
• Skimming and scanning: using a quick survey of the text to get the main idea, identify text structure, confirm or question predictions
• Guessing from context: using prior knowledge of the subject and the ideas in the text as clues to the meanings of unknown words, instead of stopping to look them up
• Paraphrasing: stopping at the end of a section to check comprehension by restating the information and ideas in the text
Instructors can help students learn when and how to use reading strategies in several ways.
• By modeling the strategies aloud, talking through the processes of previewing, predicting, skimming and scanning, and paraphrasing. This shows students how the strategies work and how much they can know about a text before they begin to read word by word.
• By allowing time in class for group and individual previewing and predicting activities as preparation for in-class or out-of-class reading. Allocating class time to these activities indicates their importance and value.
• By using cloze (fill in the blank) exercises to review vocabulary items. This helps students learn to guess meaning from context.
• By encouraging students to talk about what strategies they think will help them approach a reading assignment, and then talking after reading about what strategies they actually used. This helps students develop flexibility in their choice of strategies.
When language learners use reading strategies, they find that they can control the reading experience, and they gain confidence in their ability to read the language.
Reading to Learn
Reading is an essential part of language instruction at every level because it supports learning in multiple ways.
• Reading to learn the language: Reading material is language input. By giving students a variety of materials to read, instructors provide multiple opportunities for students to absorb vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and discourse structure as they occur in authentic contexts. Students thus gain a more complete picture of the ways in which the elements of the language work together to convey meaning.
• Reading for content information: Students' purpose for reading in their native language is often to obtain information about a subject they are studying, and this purpose can be useful in the language learning classroom as well. Reading for content information in the language classroom gives students both authentic reading material and an authentic purpose for reading.
• Reading for cultural knowledge and awareness: Reading everyday materials that are designed for native speakers can give students insight into the lifestyles and worldviews of the people whose language they are studying. When students have access to newspapers, magazines, and Web sites, they are exposed to culture in all its variety, and monolithic cultural stereotypes begin to break down.
When reading to learn, students need to follow four basic steps:
1. Figure out the purpose for reading. Activate background knowledge of the topic in order to predict or anticipate content and identify appropriate reading strategies.
2. Attend to the parts of the text that are relevant to the identified purpose and ignore the rest. This selectivity enables students to focus on specific items in the input and reduces the amount of information they have to hold in short-term memory.
3. Select strategies that are appropriate to the reading task and use them flexibly and interactively. Students' comprehension improves and their confidence increases when they use top-down and bottom-up skills simultaneously to construct meaning.
4. Check comprehension while reading and when the reading task is completed. Monitoring comprehension helps students detect inconsistencies and comprehension failures, helping them learn to use alternate strategies.

how to teach listening

Teaching Listening Better: Is Listening being taught as well as it could be?
In Listening classes, students are usually given practice in listening but they are not actually taught listening. Practice is not enough.
Research and case studies have told us many things about how listening should be taught. But often, this knowledge has not made the jump into classroom practice. While many classes are based on the idea of giving students lots of practice with English, research tells us that we also need to teach listening.
In addition to giving students plenty of listening practice. We should also break the skill of listening into micro-skill components and make sure that our students are aware of what they need to know to understand how to listen to English.
A Teacher's Checklist
Students need to know and understand:
• how words link together (liaison)
• how vowels weaken (the central vowel)
• how sounds mix together (assimilation)
• how sounds disappear (elision)
• how syllables disappear (ellipsis)
• how helping sounds are used between vowel sounds (intrusion)
• how intonation helps with conversational turn taking (intonation)
• how stress signals new information (prominence)
• how to use grammar to help guess meaning (strategies)
• how to use discourse knowledge to help guess meaning (strategies)
• how to use knowledge of intonation and stress to guess meaning (strategies)
Do your students know all these features of natural English? They should.
Everyone knows that many Japanese say that 'listening' is their weak point with English. There is a very simple reason for this. Most Japanese students have never been taught how to listen to English. They have had practice but they have never actually been taught or given guidance about how to listen to English.
We, along with many of you, want to change this
What do we teach when we teach Listening?
When we teach listening we need to teach not only English, but we also need to teach how it is used. We need to teach both:
1. the language system, (our knowledge of language: grammar and vocabulary etc.) and
2. the use of the language system, (the skills of language use)
The problem with most listening classes, is that they get stuck at number 1. Too many classes concentrate on teaching the language system and miss the skills of language, in this case listening.
Our knowledge of the language system includes our knowledge of words, how these words are properly put in order (syntax or grammar), how these words are said in connected streams (phonology), how these words are strung together in longer texts (discourse) and so on.
Using the language system involves how we apply this knowledge of the language system to understand or convey meaning and how we apply particular skills to understanding and conveying meaning.
The Listening Skills (an all too often forgotten skill set)
Listening skills are often divided into two groups:
• bottom up listening skills and
• top down listening skills
Bottom up listening skills, or bottom up processing, refers to the decoding process, the direct decoding of language into meaningful units, from sound waves through the air, in through our ears and into our brain where meaning is decoded. To do this students need to know the code. How the sounds work and how they string together and how the codes can change in different ways when they're strung together. And most students have never been taught how English changes when it's strung together in sentences.
Top-down processing refers to how we use our world knowledge to attribute meaning to language input; how our knowledge of social convention helps us understand meaning.
These are the skills that listening teachers should be teaching in their classes but all too often are not. (Unless of course you are already using our listening textbook!!!) To offer a quote: "An understanding of the role of bottom-up and top-down processes in listening is central to any theory of listening comprehension" (Richards, 1990:50). We agree.
The Default Method
In most classrooms around Japan, the common way to teach listening is to have students listen to some language tape, then the teacher asks a few comprehension questions. Did the students understand? No? Well ok, play the tape again. Ask the question again. Did they understand? No. Ok, well . . . tell them to practice and one day they'll get used to English and will be able to understand. Practice practice! Practice makes perfect.
Or you might pick out a particular grammar point. This passage uses the present perfect quite a bit, so you might go over some of the differences between the simple past and the present perfect. Maybe write a formula or two up on the board. This is the approach taken by most teachers and it is insufficient.
This might very well be a good grammar lesson but it's not listening. Students need to be told how English works and also how to use their knowledge to improve their skills. Yes practice makes perfect. But instruction can make this process happen much more efficiently. We need to teach our students.
Well known SLA (Second Language Acquisition) expert Richard Schmidt, has put forward a theory called the "Noticing Hypothesis", which states that learners have to notice something before they can learn it. And as such, we need to help our students notice language points. Teachers need to teach.
"There is support in the literature for the hypothesis that attention is required for all learning. Learners need to pay attention to input and pay particular attention to whatever aspect of the input (phonology, morphology, pragmatics, discourse, etc) that you are concerned to learn" (Schmidt: 1995)
An ideal listening class should thus provide both practice and instruction. Students need practice in listening for meaning and also some instruction about how to do so effectively.
"Classroom data from a number of studies offer support for the view that form focused instruction and corrective feedback provided within the context of communicative programs are more effective in promoting second language learning than programs which are limited to a virtually exclusive emphasis on either accuracy or fluency". (Lightbrown & Spada)
What Listening Teachers Need to Do
Give students practice in listenings which ask students to interpret and understand meaning, together with listenings which teach learners about how English is actually spoken. That is,students need practice in listening for meaning and instruction about how to do this, (a focus on form).
Such an approach has been the recommended method for teaching listening for years and yet the "Practice makes perfect plus a little grammar" approach is still common. We want to change this!
You've read our views. We'd now like to hear your views. Send us your comments and we'll post them here. Let's start a dialog and move our teaching forward. Help us to make things better.
A Teaching Method Supported by Second Language Acquisition Research
We've put together an annotated bibliography on teaching methods for listening. A read through these books and articles would certainly give the listening teacher a sound awareness of many of the issues facing them when teaching in the classroom. Another suggestion might be to use our textbook, Top-Up Listening. This is a book written by teachers, all with advanced qualifications in education and years of experience. Furthermore this book has been edited and tested by editors with advanced teaching qualifications in and years of experience. Top-Up Listening teaches listening in accordance with all that we know about teaching listening. In short this book teaches listening they way listening is supposed to be taught!
Lastly if you are interested in information on teaching listening or resources for further study send us an email.
Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any ESL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice. It's frustrating for students because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Speaking and writing also have very specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills, however they are difficult to quantify.
One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn't understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying translate a specific word. Some students convince themselves that they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.
They key to helping students improve their listening skills is to convince them that not understanding is OK. This is more of an attitude adjustment than anything else, and it is easier for some students to accept than others. Another important point that I try to teach my students (with differing amounts of success) is that they need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time.
I like to use this analogy: Imagine you want to get in shape. You decide to begin jogging. The very first day you go out and jog seven miles. If you are lucky, you might even be able to jog the seven miles. However, chances are good that you will not soon go out jogging again. Fitness trainers have taught us that we must begin with little steps. Begin jogging short distances and walk some as well, over time you can build up the distance. Using this approach, you'll be much more likely to continue jogging and get fit.
Students need to apply the same approach to listening skills. Encourage them to get a film, or listen to an English radio station, but not to watch an entire film or listen for two hours. Students should often listen, but they should listen for short periods - five to ten minutes. This should happen four or five times a week. Even if they don't understand anything, five to ten minutes is a minor investement. However, for this strategy to work, students must not expect improved understanding too quickly. The brain is capable of amazing things if given time, students must have the patience to wait for results. If a student continues this exercise over two to three months their listening comprehension skills will greatly improve.
Teaching Listening
Listening skills are vital for your learners. Of the 'four skills,' listening is by far the most frequently used. Listening and speaking are often taught together, but beginners, especially non-literate ones, should be given more listening than speaking practice. It's important to speak as close to natural speed as possible, although with beginners some slowing is usually necessary. Without reducing your speaking speed, you can make your language easier to comprehend by simplifying your vocabulary, using shorter sentences, and increasing the number and length of pauses in your speech.
There are many types of listening activities. Those that don't require learners to produce language in response are easier than those that do. Learners can be asked to physically respond to a command (for example, "please open the door"), select an appropriate picture or object, circle the correct letter or word on a worksheet, draw a route on a map, or fill in a chart as they listen. It's more difficult to repeat back what was heard, translate into the native language, take notes, make an outline, or answer comprehension questions. To add more challenge, learners can continue a story text, solve a problem, perform a similar task with a classmate after listening to a model (for example, order a cake from a bakery), or participate in real-time conversation.
Good listening lessons go beyond the listening task itself with related activities before and after the listening. Here is the basic structure:
• Before Listening
Prepare your learners by introducing the topic and finding out what they already know about it. A good way to do this is to have a brainstorming session and some discussion questions related to the topic. Then provide any necessary background information and new vocabulary they will need for the listening activity.
• During Listening
Be specific about what students need to listen for. They can listen for selective details or general content, or for an emotional tone such as happy, surprised, or angry. If they are not marking answers or otherwise responding while listening, tell them ahead of time what will be required afterward.
• After Listening
Finish with an activity to extend the topic and help students remember new vocabulary. This could be a discussion group, craft project, writing task, game, etc.
The following ideas will help make your listening activities successful.
• Noise
Reduce distractions and noise during the listening segment. You may need to close doors or windows or ask children in the room to be quiet for a few minutes.
• Equipment
If you are using a cassette player, make sure it produces acceptable sound quality. A counter on the machine will aid tremendously in cueing up tapes. Bring extra batteries or an extension cord with you.
• Repetition
Read or play the text a total of 2-3 times. Tell students in advance you will repeat it. This will reduce their anxiety about not catching it all the first time. You can also ask them to listen for different information each time through.
• Content
Unless your text is merely a list of items, talk about the content as well as specific language used. The material should be interesting and appropriate for your class level in topic, speed, and vocabulary. You may need to explain reductions (like 'gonna' for 'going to') and fillers (like 'um' or 'uh-huh').
• Recording Your Own Tape
Write appropriate text (or use something from your textbook) and have another English speaker read it onto tape. Copy the recording three times so you don't need to rewind. The reader should not simply read three times, because students want to hear exact repetition of the pronunciation, intonation, and pace, not just the words.
• Video
You can play a video clip with the sound off and ask students to make predictions about what dialog is taking place. Then play it again with sound and discuss why they were right or wrong in their predictions. You can also play the sound without the video first, and show the video after students have guessed what is going on.
• Homework
Give students a listening task to do between classes. Encourage them to listen to public announcements in airports, bus stations, supermarkets, etc. and try to write down what they heard. Tell them the telephone number of a cinema and ask them to write down the playing times of a specific movie. Give them a tape recording of yourself with questions, dictation, or a worksheet to complete.
Look for listening activities in the Activities and Lesson Materials sections of this guide. If your learners can use a computer with internet access and headphones or speakers, you may direct them toward the following listening practice sites. You could also assign specific activities from these sites as homework. Teach new vocabulary ahead of time if necessary.

Teaching Listening
Listening is the language modality that is used most frequently. It has been estimated that adults spend almost half their communication time listening, and students may receive as much as 90% of their in-school information through listening to instructors and to one another. Often, however, language learners do not recognize the level of effort that goes into developing listening ability.
Far from passively receiving and recording aural input, listeners actively involve themselves in the interpretation of what they hear, bringing their own background knowledge and linguistic knowledge to bear on the information contained in the aural text. Not all listening is the same; casual greetings, for example, require a different sort of listening capability than do academic lectures. Language learning requires intentional listening that employs strategies for identifying sounds and making meaning from them.
Listening involves a sender (a person, radio, television), a message, and a receiver (the listener). Listeners often must process messages as they come, even if they are still processing what they have just heard, without backtracking or looking ahead. In addition, listeners must cope with the sender's choice of vocabulary, structure, and rate of delivery. The complexity of the listening process is magnified in second language contexts, where the receiver also has incomplete control of the language.
Given the importance of listening in language learning and teaching, it is essential for language teachers to help their students become effective listeners. In the communicative approach to language teaching, this means modeling listening strategies and providing listening practice in authentic situations: those that learners are likely to encounter when they use the language outside the classroom.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Listening
Instructors want to produce students who, even if they do not have complete control of the grammar or an extensive lexicon, can fend for themselves in communication situations. In the case of listening, this means producing students who can use listening strategies to maximize their comprehension of aural input, identify relevant and non-relevant information, and tolerate less than word-by-word comprehension.
Focus: The Listening Process
To accomplish this goal, instructors focus on the process of listening rather than on its product.
• They develop students' awareness of the listening process and listening strategies by asking students to think and talk about how they listen in their native language.
• They allow students to practice the full repertoire of listening strategies by using authentic listening tasks.
• They behave as authentic listeners by responding to student communication as a listener rather than as a teacher.
• When working with listening tasks in class, they show students the strategies that will work best for the listening purpose and the type of text. They explain how and why students should use the strategies.
• They have students practice listening strategies in class and ask them to practice outside of class in their listening assignments. They encourage students to be conscious of what they're doing while they complete listening tape assignments.
• They encourage students to evaluate their comprehension and their strategy use immediately after completing an assignment. They build comprehension checks into in-class and out-of-class listening assignments, and periodically review how and when to use particular strategies.
• They encourage the development of listening skills and the use of listening strategies by using the target language to conduct classroom business: making announcements, assigning homework, describing the content and format of tests.
• They do not assume that students will transfer strategy use from one task to another. They explicitly mention how a particular strategy can be used in a different type of listening task or with another skill.
By raising students' awareness of listening as a skill that requires active engagement, and by explicitly teaching listening strategies, instructors help their students develop both the ability and the confidence to handle communication situations they may encounter beyond the classroom. In this way they give their students the foundation for communicative competence in the new language.
Integrating Metacognitive Strategies
Before listening: Plan for the listening task
• Set a purpose or decide in advance what to listen for
• Decide if more linguistic or background knowledge is needed
• Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attend to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focus on the words and phrases)
During and after listening: Monitor comprehension
• Verify predictions and check for inaccurate guesses
• Decide what is and is not important to understand
• Listen/view again to check comprehension
• Ask for help
After listening: Evaluate comprehension and strategy use
• Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area
• Evaluate overall progress in listening and in particular types of listening tasks
• Decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task
• Modify strategies if necessary
Using Authentic Materials and Situations
Authentic materials and situations prepare students for the types of listening they will need to do when using the language outside the classroom.
One-Way Communication
• Radio and television programs
• Public address announcements (airports, train/bus stations, stores)
• Speeches and lectures
• Telephone customer service recordings
• Help students identify the listening goal: to obtain specific information; to decide whether to continue listening; to understand most or all of the message
• Help students outline predictable sequences in which information may be presented: who-what-when-where (news stories); who-flight number-arriving/departing-gate number (airport announcements); "for [function], press [number]" (telephone recordings)
• Help students identify key words/phrases to listen for
Two-Way Communication
In authentic two-way communication, the listener focuses on the speaker's meaning rather than the speaker's language. The focus shifts to language only when meaning is not clear. Note the difference between the teacher as teacher and the teacher as authentic listener in the dialogues in the popup screens.
Strategies for Developing Listening Skills
Language learning depends on listening. Listening provides the aural input that serves as the basis for language acquisition and enables learners to interact in spoken communication.
Effective language instructors show students how they can adjust their listening behavior to deal with a variety of situations, types of input, and listening purposes. They help students develop a set of listening strategies and match appropriate strategies to each listening situation.
Listening Strategies
Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input. Listening strategies can be classified by how the listener processes the input.
Top-down strategies are listener based; the listener taps into background knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener to interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next. Top-down strategies include
• listening for the main idea
• predicting
• drawing inferences
• summarizing
Bottom-up strategies are text based; the listener relies on the language in the message, that is, the combination of sounds, words, and grammar that creates meaning. Bottom-up strategies include
• listening for specific details
• recognizing cognates
• recognizing word-order patterns
Strategic listeners also use metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate their listening.
• They plan by deciding which listening strategies will serve best in a particular situation.
• They monitor their comprehension and the effectiveness of the selected strategies.
• They evaluate by determining whether they have achieved their listening comprehension goals and whether the combination of listening strategies selected was an effective one.
Listening for Meaning
To extract meaning from a listening text, students need to follow four basic steps:
• Figure out the purpose for listening. Activate background knowledge of the topic in order to predict or anticipate content and identify appropriate listening strategies.
• Attend to the parts of the listening input that are relevant to the identified purpose and ignore the rest. This selectivity enables students to focus on specific items in the input and reduces the amount of information they have to hold in short-term memory in order to recognize it.
• Select top-down and bottom-up strategies that are appropriate to the listening task and use them flexibly and interactively. Students' comprehension improves and their confidence increases when they use top-down and bottom-up strategies simultaneously to construct meaning.
• Check comprehension while listening and when the listening task is over. Monitoring comprehension helps students detect inconsistencies and comprehension failures, directing them to use alternate strategies.

Developing Listening Activities
As you design listening tasks, keep in mind that complete recall of all the information in an aural text is an unrealistic expectation to which even native speakers are not usually held. Listening exercises that are meant to train should be success-oriented and build up students' confidence in their listening ability.
Construct the listening activity around a contextualized task.
Contextualized listening activities approximate real-life tasks and give the listener an idea of the type of information to expect and what to do with it in advance of the actual listening. A beginning level task would be locating places on a map (one way) or exchanging name and address information (two way). At an intermediate level students could follow directions for assembling something (one way) or work in pairs to create a story to tell to the rest of the class (two way).
Define the activity's instructional goal and type of response.
Each activity should have as its goal the improvement of one or more specific listening skills. A listening activity may have more than one goal or outcome, but be careful not to overburden the attention of beginning or intermediate listeners.
Recognizing the goal(s) of listening comprehension in each listening situation will help students select appropriate listening strategies.
• Identification: Recognizing or discriminating specific aspects of the message, such as sounds, categories of words, morphological distinctions
• Orientation: Determining the major facts about a message, such as topic, text type, setting
• Main idea comprehension: Identifying the higher-order ideas
• Detail comprehension: Identifying supporting details
• Replication: Reproducing the message orally or in writing
Check the level of difficulty of the listening text.
The factors listed below can help you judge the relative ease or difficulty of a listening text for a particular purpose and a particular group of students.
How is the information organized? Does the story line, narrative, or instruction conform to familiar expectations? Texts in which the events are presented in natural chronological order, which have an informative title, and which present the information following an obvious organization (main ideas first, details and examples second) are easier to follow.
How familiar are the students with the topic? Remember that misapplication of background knowledge due to cultural differences can create major comprehension difficulties.
Does the text contain redundancy? At the lower levels of proficiency, listeners may find short, simple messages easier to process, but students with higher proficiency benefit from the natural redundancy of the language.
Does the text involve multiple individuals and objects? Are they clearly differentiated? It is easier to understand a text with a doctor and a patient than one with two doctors, and it is even easier if they are of the opposite sex. In other words, the more marked the differences, the easier the comprehension.
Does the text offer visual support to aid in the interpretation of what the listeners hear? Visual aids such as maps, diagrams, pictures, or the images in a video help contextualize the listening input and provide clues to meaning.
Use pre-listening activities to prepare students for what they are going to hear or view.
The activities chosen during pre-listening may serve as preparation for listening in several ways. During pre-listening the teacher may
• assess students' background knowledge of the topic and linguistic content of the text
• provide students with the background knowledge necessary for their comprehension of the listening passage or activate the existing knowledge that the students possess
• clarify any cultural information which may be necessary to comprehend the passage
• make students aware of the type of text they will be listening to, the role they will play, and the purpose(s) for which they will be listening
• provide opportunities for group or collaborative work and for background reading or class discussion activities
Sample pre-listening activities:
• looking at pictures, maps, diagrams, or graphs
• reviewing vocabulary or grammatical structures
• reading something relevant
• constructing semantic webs (a graphic arrangement of concepts or words showing how they are related)
• predicting the content of the listening text
• going over the directions or instructions for the activity
• doing guided practice
Match while-listening activities to the instructional goal, the listening purpose, and students' proficiency level.
While-listening activities relate directly to the text, and students do them do during or immediately after the time they are listening. Keep these points in mind when planning while-listening activities:
If students are to complete a written task during or immediately after listening, allow them to read through it before listening. Students need to devote all their attention to the listening task. Be sure they understand the instructions for the written task before listening begins so that they are not distracted by the need to figure out what to do.
Keep writing to a minimum during listening. Remember that the primary goal is comprehension, not production. Having to write while listening may distract students from this primary goal. If a written response is to be given after listening, the task can be more demanding.
Organize activities so that they guide listeners through the text. Combine global activities such as getting the main idea, topic, and setting with selective listening activities that focus on details of content and form.
Use questions to focus students' attention on the elements of the text crucial to comprehension of the whole. Before the listening activity begins, have students review questions they will answer orally or in writing after listening. Listening for the answers will help students recognize the crucial parts of the message.
Use predicting to encourage students to monitor their comprehension as they listen. Do a predicting activity before listening, and remind students to review what they are hearing to see if it makes sense in the context of their prior knowledge and what they already know of the topic or events of the passage.
Give immediate feedback whenever possible. Encourage students to examine how or why their responses were incorrect.
Sample while-listening activities
• listening with visuals
• filling in graphs and charts
• following a route on a map
• checking off items in a list
• listening for the gist
• searching for specific clues to meaning
• completing cloze (fill-in) exercises
• distinguishing between formal and informal registers