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.

Would you like to get feedback on your teaching?

Do you teach English to adults online and feel that you would benefit from talking to someone about what happens in your classes? If you are looking for a practical way to develop as a teacher, I’d like to offer you an opportunity to have your lessons observed and receive feedback on your teaching.

Would you like to get feedback on your teaching?

What is this all about?
I recently became a freelancer with the idea of getting involved in new projects. In addition to my work for International House and my own private classes, I’d like to dedicate a couple of hours per week to something else. I love talking to ELT professionals, and that’s why I decided to offer my services to English teachers from around the world.

Why is feedback on teaching important?
I believe that it is crucial to keep developing as a teacher if you wish to make progress in your ELT career. Doing so by yourself isn’t easy, though. It’s quite tricky to self-evaluate your performance while you are teaching a lesson, so asking someone to observe you can be very useful. As your observer, I will give you personalised advice and help you address your weaknesses.

Why should you choose me?
Since getting my CELTA at the beginning of my TEFL career, I have shown a lot of interest in professional development. I finished my Delta last year, and I also hold the Cambridge Train the Trainer certificate. I have received feedback on my teaching from experienced teacher trainers and I think I have picked up a few useful ideas along the way. You are welcome to read my posts on this blog to find out what my views on teaching are.

Who is this for?
There are two main groups of teachers this offer is aimed at:

● newly-qualified teachers with little experience
● those with a couple of years’ experience who would like to take their teaching to a higher level

CELTA and CertTESOL holders are more than welcome to participate.

Who is not a suitable candidate?
Teachers with a Delta, DipTESOL, and other advanced qualifications. It would be more beneficial for you to be observed by a more experienced teacher trainer.

Does your location matter?
Not really. I’ll be happy to work with teachers from any part of the world. Just bear in mind that I live in the Bogotá time zone (UTC−05:00), so we’ll need to plan the online meeting for a time that suits both of us.

How does it work?
The whole process comprises four stages:

  1. Short Zoom meeting to get to know each other and talk about your expectations.
  2. Pre-lesson Zoom meeting to discuss your lesson plan.
  3. Lesson observation, which can be done live (I join your online meeting) or you can record the meeting and send me the video.
  4. Post-lesson Zoom meeting to talk about the lesson. You are also going to receive written feedback.

What about in-person lessons?
I’d prefer to observe online lessons at the moment. However, if you have the means to make a high-quality recording of your in-class lessons, then we can talk about that as well.

What else has to be done?
It is necessary that all your students give you permission to record the meeting or allow me to join the live session. You can always rely on my professionalism and confidentiality; you won’t see me post any screenshots from Zoom meetings on social media.

What if you teach children?
I’d like to keep it simple and observe only classes involving adults. Your students may be fine with being observed and recorded, but their parents may see things differently, so you would need to get their permission as well.

How much does it cost?
I don’t plan to get rich out of this. In fact, I’ll probably have time for just one or two observations per week. The fee is different for each teacher and depends on your location and the length of the observed lesson, and I hope that you will find my proposal reasonable. The funds received from these observations will help me cover the running costs of this website (domain + WordPress site plan).

How can you arrange an observation with me?
You can get in touch through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or this contact form. Please tell me about your motivation for being observed and attach your CV or another document showing your qualifications and experience. I will then get back to you with further information.