JALT Conference Teaching Listening presentation

Teaching Listening Using Bottom-Up Approaches

Andrew Blyth    Room 901, 11 to 11.25am, Saturday 24th Nov

Thanks for your interest in this topic and for coming to my presentation. Here are some resources:

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There have been few options for teachers to really teach listening. There has been no credible evidence in support of listening strategies, and extensive listening is not enough. Recent research from cognitive science and pedagogy indicates that teaching listening with bottom-up approaches is effective, and is easy to do. This workshop will introduce some simple activities you can use on Monday morning to get your students listening better using proven methodology.

How to teach pronunciation: 5 steps

I have been teaching pronunciation to students for about 17 years or more. I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t, especially for East Asian students, and Japanese in particular. Here are five easy steps to teach pronunciation.

Follow a routine

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you’re going to teach English, in English, you must follow a routine that your students can quickly pick up and understand easily. The routine could be a standardised lesson plan, of your own design; but it should be a routine for teaching pronunciation, another routine for teaching vocabulary, and another for teaching grammar, and so on. This way, students can understand what is happening now, what is happening next, and they can see how each step of the lesson is integrated, because they’ve become accustomed to your routines. This makes it easier for students to focus, follow, and participate positively.

The 5 Steps

Your routine for a pronunciation segment of your class would be:

  1. Introduce
  2. Demonstrate
  3. Main activity
  4. Wrap up
  5. Segue to the next activity

Step 1: Introduce

Socrates said that every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. That is, all successful narratives follow this, and it is a structure that humans can easily understand. A simple introduction could be to list some key words on the board (pictured), and elicit some features about them. The key words should be the first few moves of the main activity you will do.

  1. Do a listen and repeat drill of the words, and always, always give students time to…
  2. Rehearse the words with their partner.
Teaching two-syllable pronunciation. The blue is the list of examples, the black is the information elicited from students, and green is the explanation of the parts of the input students get.

Teaching two-syllable pronunciation. The blue is the list of examples, the black is the information elicited from students, and green is the explanation of the parts of the input students get.

Features of the input phase, as can be seen in the image, there are:

  • The first few moves included
  • Information about the pronunciation is elicited from students
  • Extra information so that students can work autonomously (with their smartphones) is included.
  • Examples and anti-examples are included. Anti-examples show what an answer would be unacceptable in the activity.

Step 2: Demonstrate

This is especially important for language learners. All students understand things better when they can see it being done; also they can understand your verbal instructions better. Simply walk through the first three moves of the activity eliciting from the students each move/step (see picture below). If it’s a pair work activity, choose a capable student to partner with you. My preferred option is to elicit the first, second, and third moves from the class, just to get them started on an activity.

Always, always, after giving a set of instructions, always, always say:

  1. “Check with your partner, what did I say?” (give half a minute for them to talk & confirm things with each other)
  2. “Do you understand?”
Example of a pronunciation activity that students would work together on.

Example of a pronunciation activity that students would work together on.

Step 3: Main activity

After eliciting the first few moves, I say, “Now continue with your partner”, and most students usually know what to do with no problems.

I prefer to use paper-based pair work activities. This way, they can see their progress, and you can see where they are going wrong. Also, working with a partner helps students have more confidence in their answers, and the social situation lightens the classroom anyway. Walk around and check to see how they are doing.

Most pronunciation activities can be repeated or reviewed in the next lesson. Simply by having students remind each other what the main point is, and “test each other”. For instance, demonstrate with a dichotomous choice question, giving yes-no, same-different, i-i:, æ-ə type of responses. For instance, “Does it have two syllables that are big-small? ‘really’ – yes, ‘zero’ – yes, ‘again’ –  no; great, now ‘test’ your partner”. This would be your demonstration, and so students can now understand what to do, and can review with each other.

Step 4: Wrap up

Simply follow these steps:

  1. elicit the answers from students / or “test” them if it’s a review
  2. Have them listen and repeat your pronunciation
  3. Give them a minute to review the pronunciation in pairs

Step 5: Segue

Some how make a link between this activity and the next. Or else say, “Next, as usual, is grammar…”. Having a segue creates a cognitive link, and a flow in the lesson. Without segues, lessons seem stop-start, or fragmented. Create some flow or continuity, so things seem smooth.

Key points

At the appropriate times, always ask these questions:

  • Do you understand?
  • Check with your partner, “what did I say?” / Summarise what I said with your partner
  • Practice together
  • Any questions?

The example above came from my own book, however, the procedure still holds well if you use a great book called Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock.

How does a teacher spend his holidays?

A lot of people think that teaching is a great job. You work for a while, and then you get long holidays. In fact, the opposite is true. In Japan, the academic year runs from April to January the following year, which means the holidays is but a week away now. During semester, most teachers work nearly seven days a week during semester. We spend our free time marking student work, planning, preparing, and getting ahead on tasks. Actually, for the first few weeks of each semester I struggle to keep my head above water with all the tasks that need to be done. So, what about holidays?

Person holding coffee cup. CC0 PicJumbo.com, https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-white-ceramic-teacup-in-front-of-a-macbook-pro-210658/

Person holding coffee cup. CC0 PicJumbo.com, https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-white-ceramic-teacup-in-front-of-a-macbook-pro-210658/

The holiday time is a busy time for me. A point lost on a lot of people. They work Monday to Friday, from nine to five, and when they leave work, they completely stop thinking about work. In contrast, I have research to do. I have syllabuses to prepare. I have exams to mark and submit. I have reading to do (reading about the latest educational psychology theories), and so forth. However, most importantly, I have write my thesis and try to get published. Consequently, when the holidays come, it’s not a relief for me, it’s a chance to catch up on the things I need to do.

Workshop: Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening


Due to sudden family emergency, I had to return home, and cannot give this presentation. However, I am eager to give this workshop to your group, office, chapter, etc if requested.

I will be presenting a workshop titled “Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening” at the annual Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) conference in November this year. I encourage you to come along, or ask questions online (via Twitter is best). Official details:

Conference: Japan Association of Langauge Teachers (JALT) 2016 conference, http://jalt.org/conference.

  • Event: 42nd Annual International Conference on Language Teaching and Learning & Educational Materials Exhibition
  • Where: Aichi Industry & Labor Center – WINC Aichi, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
  • When: 25 – 28 November 2016
  • Theme: Transformation in Language Education

Day: Sunday, November 27th. CANCELLED (see above)
Time: 1:05 PM – 1:30 PM  (25 minutes).
Room: 904.

Presentation ID #: 619
Presentation Title: Using Bottom-Up Approaches to Teach Listening
Format: Practice-Oriented Short Workshop
Content Area: Listening (LIS)
Context: College & University Education

Handouts / resources:

(to be added later)


Long abstract:

Often teachers teach listening by playing a CD and providing students with comprehension questions; though this is not teaching listening but testing it (Sheerin, 1987). Also, recent academic discussion has criticised the inadequacy of listening strategies (see Blyth, 2012; and Chang and Millet, 2014). Consequently, new methodologies were developed by the presenter to actually teach listening using bottom-up approaches based on cognitive science theory by Cutler (2012) and Field (2008). This practice oriented workshop introduces these new teaching methodologies which are the outcomes of a large scale mixed methods research project. This project worked with teachers in central Japan to develop and trial methodologies for bottom-up listening approaches that are suitable for their context (considering teaching preferences, class types, and students). Data collection included pre and post listening tests, as well as interviews with teachers and students. A key result is that bottom-up listening approaches, or teaching pronunciation, is an effective means to improve student listening abilities. This workshop will provide only a brief introduction to pertinent listening theory followed by demonstrations of simple activities that teachers can use from Monday morning. The workshop will include demonstrations, audience participation, and a short Q&A. Handouts will include web links to class handouts, audio samples, demonstration videos, and other related materials.

Clean slates for students

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is not to stereotype, make assumptions of, or pidgeon-hole people, especially students. I go as far as not needing to know what faculty my EFL students are from, so that I avoid making assumptions about them as a group. There are teachers who say things like “Engineering students always hate talking”, or “Law students are so dumb”, but these are horrible assumptions to make of a whole group of individuals. Of course, if you have these expectations, the group will respond to you in this way. Consequently, I’ve found it so, so, so much better to allow students to create their own reputations, afresh, with you.

This story on Edutopia is about exactly that; no stereotyping, assumption-making, or pidgeon-holing of students.

The story on Edutopia is about organising class seating alphabetically, so to be egalitarian, and allow students to escape their past reputations. Additionally, I always have students either randomly mixing, semi-randomly mixing, and at times choosing their own partners.

HackNY Spring 2013 Student Hackathon. CC Matylda Czarnecka 2013. https://flic.kr/p/edufZT

HackNY Spring 2013 Student Hackathon. CC Matylda Czarnecka 2013. https://flic.kr/p/edufZT

If a student appears to be a potential “handful”, he or she becomes my best friend. This creates a positive rapport with them, and the class. Sometimes I’ll move that “handful” to the front to be close to my desk (though I’m actually rarely at my desk, it’s just symbolism). It’s less stress for everyone, and the “handful student” will gradually want to show you their best side, and, in time, won’t want to let you down.

In any case, my point is to give all students an in-prejudiced classroom experience. Let them create and maintain a new reputation. Finally, treat all with respect and dignity.

Would you like to form an ELT Listening Group?

I’ve contacted some teacher-researchers here in Japan before about the possibility of forming a teaching-research group on listening. Such a group would probably focus on the how to teach, how and what to research, and the connection of applying the theory to the classroom. If you’re interested, I’ll be at JALT this weekend on Saturday evening. We should meet up and briefly discuss the feasibility, and a possible first symposium to get us started.

Presentation. CC Tobius Toft, 2009. https://flic.kr/p/5TB5QS

Presentation. CC Tobius Toft, 2009. https://flic.kr/p/5TB5QS

New ways of teaching listening at Nagoya JALT

I’ll be presenting New ways of teaching listening at Nagoya JALT (http://jaltnagoya.homestead.com/) on Sunday the 15th June at the Nagoya International Centre, from 1.30pm to 4pm. See my resource page on the day to get a copy of the slides for your own reference, Winjeel.Com/Research/Teaching_Listening.

Winjeel.Com ScreenShot

Winjeel.Com ScreenShot

5 Things every new teacher needs to know

Unless you’ve just emerged from the cave, or live in other parts of the internet, you’ll know that Buzzfeed loves numbered lists. There are social marketers on the internet who do research on what attracts our attention, and weirdly, people love numbered lists. Of course, new teachers need to know more than just five things, so other than knowing how to unjam a photocopier is and learning where the toilets are, here is a short list. I’ll do more in the future.

1. Be flexible

Life happens, and nobody is a robot. We don’t live in Toyota production lines, and nothing important in life happens according to a schedule. Just go with the flow. If your boss says to you, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, there’s a free-talking class and there are eight students. You’ll use this textbook, and it begins in ten minutes”, don’t freak out. Bosses are people who are busy, they have many things going on around them, and they have to deal with a lot of things to deal with. Be tolerant and get on with the job you’re paid to do. I’ve found that some of my favourite ideas occurred when I just had to wing it. I’m not saying my best teaching ideas always came spontaneously in class, but when under pressure, you discover new things. For instance, many, many years ago I discovered that students can just talk. No book, papers, whiteboard, twitter, or topic required. Put them in pairs, demo a small talk situation, and get them to get on with it. Change partners after a few minutes, and repeat. If they finish early, tell them “What?! Do you have such short conversations with your friends at lunch?!!! You must be the boring friend. Ask more questions!” Encourage them to really communicate, beyond what the textbook has trained into them.


2. Smile

A smile goes a long way in smoothing over difficulties. It shows you have patience, and that in the greater scheme of things, it’s not a dire situation; nobody’s going to die. It’s truly the best way of dealing with unexpected things. Also, be nice to the school admin; they’re the ones who build and defend your reputation behind your back. They’re usually under pressure and have a difficult job of it, too. So just be nice to your fellow humans.

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/


3. Inspire

Honestly, I hate textbooks. I’ll admit I used them like a crutch when I began teaching, but they are soooooo dry. Textbooks are designed to look great, they have wonderful pictures and great page layout designs, but the actual content isn’t so hot. The topics avoid offending anyone from any culture, and so taboo topics, and other non-mainstream topics are avoided. So, issues like race, human rights, sexual orientations, love, death, and others are never addressed, including key vocabulary and language students might need to deal with related issues. For instance, Japanese students looooooove food. It’s like it’s legally mandated that all Japanese TV channels show 23 hours of people eating food. Yet, when I ask my students what food they like, they reply with “I like お好み焼き”. Who outside of Japan would have a clue what this is? Students should not be trained into an insular belief I see affecting so many. Students and teachers don’t believe they need English, and think that words like shnkansen, kyoumuka, takoyaki, genki, and others can legitimately be used in “English”. Students need to see what real English looks like, and that there is a plethora of ideas out there, that doesn’t exist here in Japan. I’ll admit this is a very Japan-centric post, but I haven’t seen such a mentality when I was in Korea or Taiwan. So, use the internet, and show your students that there’s a huge, huge repository of information and ideas in English, on the internet. There really is much, much more information on the internet in English, than in Japanese. So, inspire them to take full advantage of being bilingual by spending maybe just five to ten minutes a lesson on inspirational things you or they find on the net. Get them to guess what inspirational quotes mean, they’ll use their dictionaries, and learn a new way of thinking about life. You also get to explain some culture specific background that textbooks completely avoid, too. There’s thousands of these pictures being shared on Google+ and Twitter.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.


 4. Give your students time to think and talk

Some teachers forget that they just need to let go. I’ve seen teachers talk to each student one at a time. If there are nine students, eight students are bored out of their brains waiting for their turn, and the speaking to listening ratio is 10% and 90%. If you have students working in pairs, then the speaking & listening ratio in the lesson is something like 45% & 55% (including 5% is you giving instructions and demos). It’s important to set up a talking or conversation activity, and say, “off you go”. Students will be quiet for a moment. In that time they’re thinking about what they need to do and their first words, and they’ll get started. If not, perhaps you didn’t demonstrate or set up the activity well enough, the level of the activity is too high, or some other problem. The other thing to consider is is that if the room is deathly silent, no one will want to be the first to break that silence. You could consider having the window open to allow the white noise of the traffic to provide some masking noise for the first speakers, or have some classical music playing quietly in the room.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions, especially for conversation, communication, and free talking classes. To achieve this, have your students talk to each other in pairs.


5. Why not play music in class?

Depending on the class, I’ll play classical music or jazz with no lyrics in a class. Music is beneficial for many reasons. For most people, playing music while studying organises their thoughts and allows them to focus. It also provides a masking noise, so for shy classes, it is easier for the first person to start speaking, and the rest of the class will follow. Depends on the students, it can become an impetus to talking about music and related topics, which is perfect for conversation / communication classes.

Play music in the background of your classes.

Play music in the background of your classes. Not all classes, it depends on the group. Creative Commons license Vasta, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/vasta/357532726/sizes/l/

If you could add a few more things to the list, what would they be?

Teaching listening: An intro

It’s interesting what different teachers think of when you ask them “How do you teach listening?”. This question was asked of some teachers who were kind enough to lend their time to me for the 2011 article I published in the KOTESOL proceedings (details). However, since then I’ve been able to ask more people, both formally and informally about this.

For both teachers and students, ‘teaching listening’ almost invariably means a set predetermined time in a lesson, often dictated by the textbook, and an audio cd that accompanies the textbook. So, listening might take up, possibly, just ten minutes of the lesson. Furthermore, often (thankfully not always), teaching listening means playing a CD and checking the accompanying comprehension questions afterwards. This is not actually teaching listening, but testing listening.

To teach something, the usual procedure is to provide instructional input first, provide scaffolded practice, and then test its acquisition (often at the end of semester). Why have we skipped the first two steps, when we have elaborate, well honed techniques for teaching grammar, for instance?

John Field (in his 2008 book), tells us that early listening pedagogy was adopted from reading pedagogy. In the late 1960’s early 1970’s expensive audio labs were installed in schools, and managers expected that we would make good use of them, but how? Of course busy teachers would just adapt techniques that were already within their pedagogical repertoire. As a consequence, many of our listening textbooks are structured like this, still.

So, how should we teach listening? Well, there are many things we can do. However, I’d rather make efficient use of class time, so I’d like to avoid the activities and techniques that are not effective, or worse still, damaging (there is some evidence that some listening activities has some negative consequence, more on that later).

So, what works? So far, in my research teaching pronunciation seems to be it. Or, using pronunciation as a vehicle for instructing listening. So this is the starting point of many articles on this topic that will follow on this blog. So, more to come.