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.

Review: The Owl Factor

I enjoy reading ELT blogs because it’s really interesting to find out what those working in different teaching contexts think, and one of the websites I find thought-provoking is EDCrocks. Its author André Hedlund deals with topics such as neuromyths and questionable marketing strategies, which is great to see; I think it’s very important to draw attention to such issues in the industry. When this prolific blogger announced his first book, I knew that it would be worth reading, so I decided to get the ebook version from Amazon.

Review: The Owl Factor

The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is not your typical ELT book. Hedlund goes beyond this area and writes about education in general, so I believe that even those who don’t teach English at all may find it relevant. I’ve read quite a few books in the past few years as part of my professional development and it wasn’t always an entertaining experience, but I’m happy to say that this one was enjoyable to read thanks to the fact that it doesn’t focus on just one specialised area.

The author makes a strong start in the prologue when he demonstrates how the book was influenced by Greek philosophy. I have a soft spot for Greece, a country in which I lived for four years, and reading about it brought back some nice memories. He also invites the reader to imagine Anthony Hopkins playing Socrates, which would undoubtedly be a great casting decision. More importantly, the prologues stresses the importance of dialogue and emphasises that progress can be achieved without expensive gadgets. When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the Dogme approach, and it was nice to see it mentioned in one of the subsequent chapters.

Even though The Owl Factor includes a lot of references to philosophy, it’s not necessary to be an expert in this field because everything is presented in an accessible way. There are a lot of ideas related to the nature of teaching and learning, and I’d like to comment on a few key points that caught my attention.

I completely agree with the author when he talks about the role of knowledge. Common sense dictates that English teachers should be proficient English users who know how to teach. Unfortunately, some schools are happy to employ unqualified teachers who comply only with the first requirement. Of course, everybody has to start somewhere and it is perfectly normal not to feel confident in your first teaching role even after obtaining a relevant foundation-level qualification. What I really like is that Hedlund warns against getting stuck at that stage and not progressing beyond the initial training, which is a pitfall that new teachers need to be aware of. He recommends that teachers should continue learning instead of just relying on intuition.

A lot has been written on teaching methods, and I was happy to note that The Owl Factor doesn’t promote a particular way of teaching. Something that works in one teaching context may completely fail in another one. The author highlights a few advantages of student-centred approaches and at the same time says that teachers should be more than entertainers whose main goal is to make sure that their students have fun in the classroom.

Hedlund keeps referring to science and includes a lot of examples; my favourite one is this amazing experiment testing Galileo Galilei’s theory related to gravity. I absolutely love watching TV shows featuring Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir David Attenborough, and other presenters who try to popularise science. Again, it’s not necessary to have an expert knowledge of natural sciences when teaching English, but being aware of the most prominent theories about the universe may certainly help you prepare engaging lessons and participate in conversations on topics that may come up.

In addition, The Owl Factor includes a few fables used to support the author’s ideas. He is a very good storyteller and his book is easy to read. There were just a few issues with the tables accompanying the text; some of them were a bit confusing due to their formatting. I have no idea how converting books to the digital format works, and I’m sure everything looks perfectly fine in the physical book, but I used Amazon’s web-based Kindle Cloud Reader with its default settings and found some of the tables a little untidy.

When it comes to content, I feel that Carol Dweck receives too much space in the last section of the book. There is nothing wrong with mentioning her work, but I thought the author chose a one-sided approach. He talks about negative consequences of Socrates’ work and the idea that he might not have been a real person, and even points out that owls may not be as wise as we think, but Dweck’s growth mindset is accepted uncritically. Angela Lee Duckworth’s ideas are promoted in The Owl Factor as well.

To be honest, I prefer to err on the side of caution and at the moment I’m not ready to introduce terms such as fixed mindset or grit to my teaching practice. Even though they appeared in successful books and TED talks, there are some serious doubts about their classroom application. I hold a more sceptical position than the author, but I’m open to changing my mind once more relevant evidence emerges.

It’s important to emphasise that The Owl Factor isn’t a run-of-the-mill academic text full of hedging and passive voice constructions. The author explicitly expresses his thoughts, and there are a lot of personal anecdotes and references to pop culture. I find that refreshing because the book provides insight into his beliefs on education, which in turn makes the readers think about their own teaching philosophy. It provides plenty of food for thought, and that’s exactly what one expects from this kind of book.

As much as I like ELT literature, I have no problem admitting that I decided to read most of it mainly because I wanted to get my Delta. The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is a title that can be read for pleasure, and educators interested in philosophy and science will most likely enjoy reading it. I think that self-publishing a book is a pretty cool move, so if you like André Hedlund’s blog and other activities, this is a nice opportunity to support his work.