John Field: Listening in the Language Classroom (2008)

When I get asked for book recommendations, there are a few names that always spring to my mind in relation to specific areas. Teachers interested in teaching listening skills usually receive a quick one-word answer: Field. That’s basically all you need to know from me because reading this author’s book Listening in the Language Classroom is likely to change the way you deal with listening in your classes. John Field is a respected figure in ELT, but he doesn’t seem to be active on social media, so his work doesn’t get that much attention on the internet. Well, let me give you a few reasons why every English teacher should read this book.

John Field: Listening in the Language Classroom

First of all, listening seems to be kind of a neglected area. Coursebooks usually promote using the traditional lesson format with three stages that all teachers are probably familiar with. We typically ask our students a few comprehension questions to check if they have understood the text, but the problem with this approach is that there isn’t much actual teaching taking place in that type of lesson. Of course, there is time and place for testing comprehension, for example in proficiency exams. The main theme of Field’s book is that we should do much more than that in our lessons.

The listening comprehension approach is based on activities used in testing reading even though the nature of listening isn’t the same. Written texts allow you to read some passages again to double check your answers; listening is more challenging in this respect. Listening to English speakers is also quite difficult due to the language’s peculiar relationship between spelling and pronunciation, which may cause beginners to feel completely lost. You may have seen this short film showing how English sounds to those who don’t speak the language:

Field suggests that we focus on processes that are employed when listeners try to understand a text. He describes why students struggle with decoding what they hear, and since I’m a curious person, I like conducting my own experiments. The procedure is quite simple: Find an authentic text, let’s say a 10-second segment from a TV series, ideally with a few contractions and modal verbs, and ask your students to transcribe exactly what they hear. Even when the utterances are quite simple and the learners are familiar with the lexis and grammar structures, you may encounter some completely unexpected words in their transcripts. Connected speech is a common source of confusion, even for high-level English learners.

Listeners often use the context and co-text to fill those gaps in understanding, which is perfectly normal. In fact, I had a lot fun with my Delta LSA based on top-down processing. You obviously can’t rely on the context and background knowledge all the time, so what can be done to improve the students’ ability to decode rapid speech? Listening in the Language Classroom contains plenty of useful tips to help you with that. Listening is inextricably linked with pronunciation, so it may be necessary to address some key differences between English and the learners’ mother tongue. My favourite example is the word chocolate, which has four syllables in Spanish but only two in English; this simple distinction can be used to make the students aware of the importance of stress and the role of the schwa (/ə/).

Connected speech isn’t composed of completely random features, but it actually makes logical sense when you consider the rhythm of English and analyse how phonemes are produced. There is a complete list of weak forms, so why couldn’t they be taught? Field suggests targeted practice in recognising function words in connected speech, which I find extremely helpful in my own teaching practice. I believe that the students should know that Tell him is often pronounced /telɪm/ and Where does he live? may sound like /weədəzɪlɪv/ because it will help them understand spoken English a little bit better.

I understand that the idea of teaching listening and pronunciation may seem daunting, especially to new teachers, because we usually don’t think about what happens in our mouth when we speak. I think it’s worth studying all the places and manners of articulation that are described in Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations. Having that knowledge probably won’t help you impress people at a party, but you can use it to help your students improve their listening skills. Why is the World Cup pronounced /wɜ:lkʌp/? Why do some people say /fʊpbɔ:l/ instead of /fʊtbɔ:l/? What on earth is going on when English speakers say /wʊʤʊlaɪk/? These questions don’t keep many people up at night, yet there are pretty good reasons for addressing them in the classroom. Such lessons can be a lot of fun as well, which is a pleasant bonus.

Teaching listening is more complex than just focusing on connected speech, so I recommend that you read the whole book. Field encourages teachers to go beyond asking the students to eavesdrop on coursebook conversations that don’t even sound like real-life speech. If you feel that your listening lessons could lead to better results, you should consider using the procedures mentioned in Listening in the Language Classroom in your own classes.

In fact, this book recommendation is based on my own experience. Working as a freelancer has given me an opportunity to experiment with new kinds of classes, and for the past few months I’ve been running courses for students who wish to improve their listening skills. Field’s book keeps providing me with ideas for designing materials and activities that help the students develop their listening skills. I find literature that challenges traditional approaches to teaching extremely important, and this title will definitely motivate the reader to explore a less-travelled path when it comes to teaching listening.

Finally, I’d like to hear from those who have read Listening in the Language Classroom. Do you agree with Field’s criticism of the comprehension approach? Have you used any of his recommendations in your classes? Feel free to leave a comment here or on my social media profiles.

TEFL career advice

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TEFL career advice

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How can you arrange a consultation with me?
You can get in touch through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or this contact form. Please remember to attach your CV and tell me what you’d like to achieve. I will then get back to you with further instructions.