Monthly Archives: September, 2012

The curse of creativity

In this post I intend to attempt a TEFL exorcism and to remove the curse of creativity that’s affecting our profession! Some of you of a less superstitious nature may doubt – or even refuse to believe – that such a curse exists, so I’d like to begin with three examples of the evils that ensue when people are gripped by the curse.

On a CELTA course I was running some years ago, one of our trainees was down to do a twenty-minute assessed teaching practice. She was following on from a presentation of USED TO and was scheduled to do the speaking practice slot. The coursebook had a perfectly sensible activity, involving students writing down and then talking about things they used to do when they were kids, but this wasn’t deemed sufficiently interesting  by the trainee so instead we were treated to a (possibly Taliban-inspired) twist wherein students were asked to imagine they were in the year 2020 and women’s sports had been banned and then asked to talk about the things they used to do. They struggled through, telling each other they used to play tennis and women’s volleyball before the thing ground to a halt. Lost in all the time travel, obviously! Afterwards, when grilled, the trainee (who, incidentally, does know she’s in this paper and has OK-ed her presence!) said she thought the students would’ve already talked about the things suggested by the book and wanted to give things a new, creative twist. In her defence, she quoted pre-course reading she’d done which advocated an adapt, reject, select (or ARSE as I like to call it!) approach to coursebooks.

The second sinister occurrence happened in a class I observed last year. It was a Friday and the teacher warmed students up by getting them to talk about what they were doing that weekend. One Brazilian guy said ‘I – whistle – Milan’. The teacher said “Oh yes, I like that. I – whistle – Milan’ and much laughter ensued. At the end, I asked why the teacher hadn’t corrected or reformulated this. “Well”, they told me, “I didn’t want to stop his creativity. It’s good to encourage that kind of confidence and fluency”.

The third occurrence happened many years ago at a talk I gave in Cambridge. I was discussing the centrality of collocation and fixed / semi-fixed expressions to fluency and thus to language learning content. At the end, I asked if there were any questions and was harangued by this gem: “How can you justify straight-jacketing your students like this? You’re suffocating their creativity!”

The notion of creativity and being creative is a powerful and seductive one and EFL as a profession is still very much in thrall to a romanticized 1960s notion of creativity. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was founded by those who’d grown up in an era obsessed with the untutored genus of Jimi Hendrix – he couldn’t read music, you know, and so was ‘free’ to take the guitar out into the stratosphere!

Coupled with this was the lingering influence of the Romantic poets like Keats, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley – the 19th century writers who used the gilded wings of poesy to fly off on liberating flights of fancy! That our concepts of what it means to be creative have such romantic roots shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in an age when the self-proclaimed ‘lateral thinker’ Edward De Bono has earned vast sums working as a consultant to Number 10 Downing Street, where he thought ‘outside of the box’ – that truly clichéd tag for a supposedly creative act! This is the same Edward De Bono who once stated that there is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.

Now, this all sounds grand and progressive, but my fear is that language teaching and, as a result, the way we think about language learning has been so suckered by such statements that we’ve skipped the starters and main course altogether and rushed straight for the desserts, forcing untutoredness upon our learners way before they’ve ever even had the chance to engage in a little bit of repetition of the same patterns! And lest we forget, repeating the same patterns – and words and collocations and expressions and idioms – is actually the KEY to progress for language learners, not an obstacle to it. For students to begin to remember lexical items, they need repeated exposure to them over time; for students to get good at having the kinds of conversations they’re going to want to be able to have outside of the classroom, they need to have them time and time again and to get better at the ways of combining lexis and grammar within them.

In the same way, the key to good teaching lies in teachers learning how to do the same things over and over again, but getting better at doing them with time.

As such, I feel we need to seriously reconsider just what we mean by ‘creative’. When we talk about a person being creative, we often mean they paint and draw – and so have learned techniques, perspective, etc. Perhaps they play a musical instrument – and so have learned scales and chords. Maybe they act – and so learn lines. Often none of this means they’re doing anything particularly ‘creative’ in the sense of ‘original’ or different to what’s been done before. Most ‘creative’ people are actually incredibly generic and derivative. And in fact, in Japan – a country that many of the most innovative and creative ideas of the last fifty years have emerged from – this is clearly recognized. The Japanese have a concept called shu-ha-ri, which is the process apprentices go through on the road to mastery. SHU means the precise imitation of a master; HA is the coming to an understanding of why the master acts the way he does by means of testing the limits and by experimenting with the ‘rules’, whilst ‘RI’ is finally breaking away and doing your own thing, but in such a way that every expression embodies the very essence of what you have learned. In Japan, ordinary people who toil for years to master the correct way of doing a tea ceremony or writing beautifully are admired, not ridiculed.

And for the vast majority of students – and, perhaps, teachers – getting to the HA stage of the process is an achievement in itself! Interestingly, too, many of those with real claims to being truly creative recognize the debt that they owe to mimicry and the fixed. Bruce Lee, for example, claimed that the essence of his own creativity lay in the ability to “observe what IS what undivided attention”, whilst the jazz great Charlie Mingus believed that making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creative.

What I want to do next is to explore the alarming degree to which we’ve developed a tendency to make the simple complicated – and to suggest some ways in which we can reverse this and start to make things simple again!

So, let’s return to my CELTA trainee and her attempts to get all creative! Let’s face it, it’s a place many of us have been to. How many of you could honestly say you’ve never done something similar? For me, my first brush with the notion of creativity came on my CTEFLA course back in 1992. One of the older trainees, an ex-designer, made an elaborate twenty-six-page cartoon-based presentation of the past simple and past continuous which involved endless flipchart drawings of UFOs and the like. The lesson was praised to the skies by the trainer and we were all told how important it was to keep our creative spark in front off the class. Having been in a band and done an English Literature degree before all this, this was like music to my ears, so my first two or three years of teaching consisted of basically doing stupid things with varying degrees of competence: I’d chop up texts and get students to reassemble them; I’d do TPR-oriented practices of prepositions where I’d lead my bemused classes of Indonesian businessmen UNDER the tables and THROUGH the doors, ALONG the corridor and ONTO some desks! I’d invent deranged fictions to do PPP lessons on various structures and would bring bags full of oranges, onions and dead hedgehogs for students to feel and tell me WELL, IT FEELS LIKE . . . In subsequent classes, they’d get to tell me that soy sauce TASTED LIKE soy sauce and that pepper made them sneeze! And I won’t even mention what the teenage boys’ class thought various ink splodges and blots LOOKED LIKE.

From my perspective now, it seems to me we waste a lot of time and – as trainers – potential by bothering with these kinds of activities. I now believe that teacher training and development courses should focus NOT on getting teachers to do bad things well, but rather on doing good things BADLY – to begin with! Rather than go down the path I’ve been through myself, where I moved from doing daft things badly to doing daft things well and then – and only then – onto doing sensible things not very well, before coming good on these, I’d much rather see more inexperienced teachers simply bypass the first two steps and go straight into the core components of teaching.

Being able to explain new language well, to give examples of how this new language is generally used and to use the class to add to these examples or to personalise them are fundamental skills and ones we need to spend more time looking at. Developing linguistic awareness takes time and needs support and peers also willing to talk about how they think words and structures are used. I fear that perhaps we spend so much time talking about recipes and survival techniques that on far to many occasions we forget our actual job description – LANGUAGE teachers!

Being able to set tasks clearly and simply is equally central, as is the ability to listen when students are talking – either in pairs or simply in front of the class – and to reformulate their utterances into better – but still intelligible – English.

So much for creative teaching, then! John Updike, the novelist, once said that: “Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity . . . any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better”. I think we need to work far more towards this kind of definition of creativity and concentrate less on reinventing the wheel and more on caring about doing regular activities as well as we possibly can!

A further area in which the curse of creativity is much in evidence is in coursebooks. Of course, coursebook writers generally tend to be good, competent teachers who’ve had a lucky break or two, but often who’ve also bought into the whole construct of creativity as it currently stands. As a result, blurbs on the back of new books boast of the new and creative contexts in which they will present and ask students to practise grammar. Part of the problem is the fact that the vast majority of coursebooks have a very similar atomistic grammar syllabus at their core – the one we all know like the back of our hands – Present Simple in Unit 1, Present Simple AND Continuous in Unit 2, the Present Perfect Simple in Unit 5 or 6 and then in Unit 14 perhaps the Passive or a Conditional. If you follow this syllabus, then what can you do to make your product distinctive? Well, there are texts – which I’ll come to later – and there’s grammar. One well-known global coursebook recently had an initial presentation and practice of Can you . . . ? questions in its Elementary book which involved students having to ask each other things like Can you . . . do the splits? Touch your nose with your tongue? Walk backwards in a straight line? And so on. Creative? Most certainly! Fun to do in the class? I’d imagine so. Useful? Likely to ever be said or heard by the students again? Recycled within the series of coursebooks? Most probably not. And of course, whilst students are busy learning these examples, where do they get hold of the things they might actually want to say – or might hear? Things like Can you play the tape again? Can you close the door? Can you say it again? Well, to be honest, they DON’T! And this is the real problem with creative grammar contexts – not only do they misrepresent the way the grammar is actually used, but they also mean students are far less likely to see TYPICAL examples. Of course, the same is true every time we do a fancy self-made PPP lesson too!

A further area in which coursebooks writers have traditionally tried to make their products distinctive is in the texts they sometimes choose. Units that aren’t structured around a particular piece of grammar are invariably structured around a text. The text controls the language that is to be looked at within the unit and often this means a shocking disregard for any concept of grading. I had the misfortune last year of watching a CELTA trainee teach a text from a well-known Intermediate book and have to explain what ‘stripy curtains more or less in shreds’, ‘the green darkness’, ‘a deliciously cool but dusty house’, ‘depressing inspections of grim flats’, ‘antiquated equipment’, ‘peeling shutters’ and ‘an open fireplace that hinted at open fires’ meant!

Now obviously, this particular text was an extract from a novel – an example of a creative piece of writing, but it’s not only novels that get space in our coursebooks. Poems sneak in too and again, Intermediate learners have to deal with such lexical gems as ‘start bare-footed earlier in the spring’, ‘play hooky’, ‘pick daisies’ and ‘live prophylactically’. In case you were wondering, this last item is glossed . . . as ‘live carefully’!

One final way in which the notion of creativity being important casts a long and malevolent shadow over EFL materials is in the continuing use of songs in coursebooks – and I say this not just out a deep personal dislike of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Chris DeBurgh’s Lady in Red! To contextualise my dislike of songs for language teaching purposes, let me introduce Thorsten, a German guitarist I met way back when I used to be in a band. Thorsten learned a lot of his English from rote-learning Beatles songs and was genuinely incredulous when we laughed as he told us he’d had a hard day’s night or that he had been working eight days a week. “But John Lennon sang this”, he countered.  Lest we forget, he also sang “I am the eggman, I am the walrus. Goo Goo Ga-Joob!” and “Yellow matter custard crawling up the Eiffel Tower!”

Songs are generally BAD examples of language quite simply because they are where we go to get away from the rules – and they work on this level because WE – unlike our students – know the rules they bend and break! How many of us have inflicted Suzanne Vega’s twisting of the present continuous on our learners? “I am sitting in the morning in a café by the station. I am drinking up my coffee and waiting for my train”. English for the self-narrating and mad! And how many of us have puzzled long and hard over the immortal Carly Simon lines ‘Your hat strategically dipped below one eye / Your scarf it was apricot / You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte’ – a dance so obscure it was only chosen because it rhymes with apricot, which isn’t a word I often use to describe colours personally, anyway?  Too many, I fear!

The backwash effect of many such texts are varied, but include:

– students generally becoming obsessed with accumulating ever more obscure decontextualised single words. One of the more depressing notebooks I’ve encountered recently was a Pre-Intermediate student who had the following noted down and translated: tact, taciturn, tactical and tacky.

– an over-intellectualisation of content, especially when it comes to speaking activities around texts. We seem unable to grasp the fact that a high level of spoken English does not always mean a high IQ and that many Advanced students have no interest in discussing semantics, stylistics, the moral agenda of Oscar Wilde or the reasons for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe! Why oh why are we forced by coursebooks to ask our students such ‘deep and meaningful’ questions as ‘What are brands for?’, ‘What makes a good story-teller?’, ‘Has TV numbed our curiosity about the world?’ and my all-time favourite – ‘In what ways is life like a jigsaw?’.

Tasks that require too much creativity on the parts of our learners are bad tests of learning. Creative tasks depend on learners being ‘creative’ people! Many of the tasks we are asked to tell students to do we couldn’t do ourselves in our own L1, let alone in a foreign language. When we play guessing games with language – make assumptions about your partner using five different future forms, for example – or when we ask students to write ghost stories or to discuss what aspects of a writer’s style contribute to a sense of tension in a text, we are falling into the trap of punishing quite possibly fairly competent language users for not being able to in English what they’d never dream of doing in their own first language!

I know the main argument in favour of songs and poems and bits of novels has always been that students find them motivating. Well, all I have to say about that old saw is that if this is the best way we can think of to motivate, we’re in big trouble! Motivation and fun should come from our everyday interaction in the classroom and from stories and anecdotes and jokes and banter that emerges and is exploited as we try to pin the language we’re teaching onto the worlds of our students. It should come as standard, not be an add-on extra bonus only reserved for slow Friday afternoons! It’s a sad world where we’re told when to laugh and kick back and where the rest of the time is by definition, deadly dull!

Some of you may know Guy Cook’s book of a few years ago – Language Learning, Language Play – where he argued very entertaingly in support of MORE language play in the language learning process on the grounds that it’s a natural part of language use. Well, natural it may be, but pretty infrequent too, I’d venture. For most of us, language play forms only a tiny percentage of our language using time and as I’ve already suggested, we often only recognize it as play because it contrasts so strongly with the codes and rules we otherwise operate under. As such, if we really want our students to ever have much chance of truly playing, we’d better make damn sure we expose them to as much of what’s normal and fixed as we can!

The more astute amongst you by now have started thinking there’s a glaring contradiction in my argument – surely, I hear you mutter, if you don’t like coursebooks, you have to believe we need to use them creatively! Well, to twist a fixed expression (something I’ll come to in more detail later, by the way) – If it’s broke, don’t waste time trying to fix it. Get a new, improved version!

Of course, the swathe of creatively focused language and exercises and texts in coursebooks wreak havoc on what often happens in the classroom. One area in which it has a particularly damaging influence is in the way we think about correction. Now, part of this is due to the fact that so often students get asked to do ‘creative writing’. How, for instance, does one go about ‘correcting’ a poem? It almost seems a contradiction in terms. It’s actually much harder than correcting a conversation between two old friends who’ve bumped into each other in the street. So task is one issue, but a think a further problem lies simply in the fact that some teachers actually revel in the kind of interlanguage students come up with in much the same way as some parents endlessly retell the (supposedly) hilarious things their kids come up with! In two different classes I’ve seen recently, teachers let things go that to me were screaming out to be reworked, reformulated into better English and my gut-feeling is that much this reluctance when it comes to correcting off-the-cuff spoken utterances comes from a well-meaning but misguided desire not to impinge on the learners’ attempts to be creative.

In one class, a Spanish student said she liked animals TOO MUCH – an idea which sounded distinctly dubious to me! – whilst in another a Colombian student, talking about his boss, waved his hand up and down and said ‘Oh! My boss is HEAVY, REALLY heavy!’ Neither of these utterances – made to the teacher in front of the whole class – were corrected at all. Now, of course, you could argue that these students made their meanings clear, they were very ‘communicative’! Fair enough, but where in the midst of all this garbled ‘communication’ is the language teacher teaching language?

I wrote an email to an Indonesian friend of mine recently in my OK but not particularly fluent Indonesian and got a reply informing me that I sounded ‘cute’ in Indonesian! This annoyed me no end as cuteness had not been a goal of my writing! I think most students most often feel a similar frustration. Whether we like it or not, they are generally NOT trying to be creative. They are trying to sound normal. They want to say things like ‘I really like animals’ or ‘I find my boss a bit dull, to be honest.’ Most students just want the most normal, typical way we can think of of saying what they want to say and their ‘creativity’ and ‘fluency’ is a by-product of their not having learned these things yet!

As I’ve already mentioned, I think we’ve also been conned into believing that repetition and rote-learning are somehow anti-fluency and anti-creative. This is particularly bizarre as in the outside world, repetition is part-and-parcel of our everyday lives. We all repeat conversations and anecdotes and comments and questions endlessly and I’d like to think that we get better and better at telling things the more we do it. Repetition leads to fluency, we embellish and layer as we do things again and students need the chance not only to have repeated exposure to lexis over different levels and in different ways, but also to practise having similar conversations again and to get better at them.

My CELTA trainee who baulked at the idea of getting students to talk yet again about what they used to do when they were young missed the point. It’s who we’re talking to and what they tell us that keeps things interesting. We get the chance to tell our stories better second time around. The teacher gets the chance to feed in useful language to help us do so after the first time we practise and the fact of talking to different people and hearing different stories keeps us motivated and keen. As such, surely it makes more sense for Advanced level books to contain more repetition of topics and layering of conversations already encountered than to skip endlessly from the new to the newer, the intellectual to the philosophical.

In the same way, rote-learning is a major part of fluency outside of English language learning. Musicians rote-learn chords and scales and whole songs; actors can only really start to bring their own personalities to their roles once they’ve rote-learned a whole play! And in the same way, students who rote-learn large numbers of chunks and fixed expressions have at their disposal a far broader linguistic palate than those who are forced to put everything together from scratch every time they speak!

The idea that creativity can only ever come from the bottom-up is perhaps at the root of all of the problems I’ve been ranting about thus far! And this notion is rooted very much in the old Chomskyan concept of grammar + words allowing unbridled creativity and talk. The notion of giving students these supposed basic building blocks and then leaving them free to say absolutely anything they may wish to still runs deep and yet the idea that creativity can only ever come from bottom-up processing is mad! Have you ever seen any of those twists on the Mona Lisa? The one where she has a moustache or is smiling more broadly or is a bloke in drag? There are dozens of them and all examples of top-down creativity. Artists take a whole and play around with it, reference it, ironically rewrite it, quote it.

Language learners too are always taking chunks and breaking them down, then putting them together in other ways, testing the limits of where they can take things. In an Intermediate class I taught a while ago, we did a bit of work on asking and responding to Do you fancy doing something later-type questions. Students got the meaning – Do you want to? – and noticed the grammatical differences. They then wrote invitation questions of their own and walked around asking each other them. One student asked ‘Do you fancy going to see LORD OF THE RINGS?’, to which another replied ‘Oh yes. It’s a long time I want to see that’. During the round-up, I reformulated this onto the board as ‘Oh yes. I’ve been wanting to see that for ages’. Almost immediately, a student asked ‘So can I say ‘I’ve been fancying seeing that for ages?’ as well?’

Great question! And surely only one that’s possible because the student has taken one chunk – Do you fancy going to see a movie tonight?– broken it down and tried to reconstruct it. Of course, in this particular instance, the student hit a dead-end for the answer is NO! A similar testing of boundaries often occurs with kids who FIRST learn the fixed chunk – We went there the other day – then start noticing a lot of other verbs about the other day have an -ed ending and so opt for We wented there. When this fails to win parental approval, they often take a detour via We goed there before ending up back at the fixed, non-generated-by-grammar chunk that they started with!

In fact, much of what is most creative in day-to-day language use comes directly from this knowledge of fixed-ness and the formulaic and the subsequent ability to play around within these limits. How can anyone understand what the following mean if not for a comprehensive knowledge of the fixed?

– You wouldn’t want to be around when the sticky brown stuff hits the ventilation system.

– He possesses an unenviable gift of cutting short stories very long indeed.

– I had my Indian summer in Pakistan.

– Super Cally Go Ballistic ‘cos Celtic are atrocious!

– Go ahead. Mac my day!

– You’re treading dangerous water there.

– I’ve got 3 words for you: pot, kettle, black!

To appreciate and ‘get’ any of these we need to know the norms against which they’re kicking. What corpora linguistics has done over the last twenty years is to insist on the fixed, the predictable, the routine and to thus increase teachers’ awareness of the importance of fixed blocks of language, be they collocations, sentence frames, idioms or whatever. And it is just such language that students need repeated exposure to if we ever want them to stand a chance of being creative. I should also add that actually a lot of this kind of ‘creativity’ is generally the preserve of tabloid headline writers and ad men, rather than English language students (or even teachers)!

The reality is that the stickle-brick concept of how languages are learned, work, stored and developed is looking ever more unlikely. Michael Hoey – in one of the few EFL books you’ll hear me rave about from the last few years – has put forward a rater seductive alternative that he calls Lexical Priming. In short, this means that we acquire lexical items AND our internal construct of grammar through our repeated encounters with words and the other words they keep company with and that each encounter with an item adds to – or occasionally detracts from – the degree to which we come to expect certain collocations, grammatical patterns, semantic associations and so on to attach themselves to said item. Hoey claims that whole clauses are frequently made up of interlocking collocations to such a degree that the sentences themselves can be said to be reproductions – with variations on occasion – of earlier sentences. This is the degree to which we remember and re-use wholes!

Hoey also makes the rather damning point that if as a kid, you have a word primed to function in a particular way and are then told that it’s incorrectly primed outside of home, the result can well bee long-term linguistic uncertainty! Given this, I think we really need to spend much more thinking about just what kind of primings we are creating in our students and to what degree these primings match the kind of primings educated fluent speakers come to conversations and letters with! Failure to take this issue seriously leads to our learners living in a kind of semi-permanent linguistic limbo!

Hoey suggests that fluency comes from conformity to the socially-normal primings, whilst creativity comes from switching them off (a metaphor which assumes we know where they are in the first place!). A twist on this same theme is made in a novel by the great American writer Anne Tyler. Describing the linguistic life of an elderly character, we learn that: sometimes he catches himself saying ‘This tastes ridiculous’ or ‘Why don’t you sit and rest while I put the dishes in the computer’. He wonders, she writes, “if his mind was going – every old person’s nightmare. Or maybe it was just that he had said those identical sentences so many hundreds and thousands of times, his tongue had begun rebelling against the sheer monotony’. A woman who makes her living as a creative writer is basically telling us that acute deviation from normal primings isn’t big or clever – it’s the onset of senility!

To try to counter all of this, as a writer and as a teacher I’ve very consciously tried to reclaim some of the less creative areas of our profession and put them to good use. In material such as OUTCOMES that I’ve co-authored, for instance, we sometimes get students to read aloud – it helps them develop their ability to chunk blocks of lexis, which in turn helps their listening; we encourage rote-learning and provide students with a Vocabulary Builder in each book where they can translate and then memorise key expressions from each and every unit of the book; we encourage whole chunk translation and the judicious use of L1; we place great stress on teaching typical replies to common questions and giving students standard primings for common words; we encourage the repetition of tasks within books and the recycling of conversations and topics across levels.

And yet ironically, it is out of all of this emphasis on teaching what is typically said that much of the most creative and funniest moments in class emerge. When asking questions to explore the limits of collocations, students frequently respond humorously. In an Elementary class recently, I’d taught I broke my arm and was asking what else you could break. My leg, students shouted out. A bone in my hand. A cup. A window. So far, so good. Finally, my Turkmenistani student, a guy in his mid-50s and usually wearing a perpetually exhausted look on his face, shouted out ‘My brain’!”

In an Intermediate class a couple of years ago, a very glam, very rich Taiwanese student was boasting one day that she loved shopping in Harrods. One student said ‘I don’t surprise that’ and I reformulated this on the board as ‘You DO surprise me’! and drilled it. From that moment on, this became a class catchphrase. In the same way, last week one of my students – a Japanese doctor – revealed after a question about what comedy meant that she found Mr. Bean attractive! Much disbelief followed and we ended up with this on the board:

Mr. Bean’s really good-looking, don’t you think?

> NO! You must be blind! You’re sick in the head!

At which point another student shouted out ‘That’s why become a doctor! Need help herself!’. This is where the real motivation, fun and creativity of language teaching surely lies! In the ad-libbing around the mundane.

The attempts to mess with the mundane sadly remind me all too often of American attempts to make ‘soccer’ more exciting by awarding three goals for a goal scored outside the area! Sheer madness that’ll never catch on! Many of the most powerful, wonderful things in life – football, cooking, eating, chatting and so on – never ever get that boring and attempts to make them more creative usually reek of desperation and end in tears! Let’s add teaching and learning to this list and – to give the final word to an old TEFL guru who has come to renounce many of his earlier ideas on creativity – take to heart Noam Chomsky’s observation that ‘creativity is the ability to be puzzled by the simplest of things’.

To return to a favourite phrase – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

You’re not listening! I didn’t hear!!

Having watched a fair few classes over the summer – both trainees finishing off an introductory course we’ve been running part-time for the last year and also teachers working on our summer school at University of Westminster, one thing I’ve realised with ever greater clarity is just how hard it is to actually help students get better at listening. Just running listenings in coursebooks well is an incredibly tricky – and very under-discussed, I feel – area of teaching, and one I’m going to return to in a follow-up post. What I’d like to blog about here, though, is much more to do with the fundamentals of what it is we think we’re doing in class when we DO listening. Here goes . . .

Many years ago, I went to watch a colleague of mine teach. He had been at the university quite a long time and had managed to claim the large 1960s-styled language lab as his own private domain! In the lesson I saw, students worked on their own and listened to some sentences on a tape (which I think came from MEANINGS INTO WORDS). They had to write each sentence down 100% correctly before they were allowed to move on to the next. One poor student must have listened to his first sentence about 30 times and was clearly really struggling. The teacher pointed out that his transcription was wrong and kept telling him to listen harder. So he played the sentence yet again – and again – and again! I put the headphones on myself so I could hear what he was trying to write down. On a word, muffled tape, a voice repeated over and over again:

Tie a knot in your handkerchief in case you forget.

No context, no glossary, no explanation, just that one isolated sentence.
In the end, the student called the teacher over again and asked “What does tyre notting mean?” to which the teacher replied “You’re not listening!” – again.
At this point, the student snapped and screamed out: “I AM listening! I just can’t hear!”

Now, this experience got me thinking about what kind of problems students have when they listen in English – and I have come to the conclusion that the problems are usually much more to do with HEARING (and KNOWING the language they hear) than they are with LISTENING. Our students, to give them their due, generally do actually listen and pay attention to CDs / cassettes in class as best they can, but fail for a number of reasons:
1  They can’t hear words simply because they don’t know them!
2  They can’t hear the correct words because they can’t distinguish sounds.
3  They can hear words, but often only individual ones – and can’t (always) group them appropriately.
4  They can hear words – even chunks and expressions – but can’t process the meaning of what they are hearing quickly enough.

So there are serious issues to do with being able to process the ‘acoustic blur’ of speech as students listen to it. And yet what actually happens in classrooms when we think we’re helping students get better at listening?

I once had a teacher on a teacher training course who already had quite a lot of experience, but who was still struggling a bit. She said it would be all sorted the next day – she was going to “do a listening”. When I pushed her and asked what the aim of the lesson – or what the language focus – would be, she looked at me like I was mad and stated that the aim would obviously be to do a listening! I think that all too often we DO listenings – and our students endure them – because this is what is to be done, because they’re in the coursebook and because, well, we have the idea we should do them, but perhaps we don’t always think why we do them. What are they actually for, from a pedagogical point of view?

There are, of course, those who would say that when we do listenings, we are teaching listening skills. But what are these skills and how do we teach them?

Believers in the concept of ‘skills’ might point to the following, taken from the Common European Framework:

The CEFR claims that learners at a certain level should be able to demonstrate ability of the following ‘sub-skills’:
• listening for gist
• listening for specific information
• listening for detailed understanding
• listening for implications
• listening as a member of a live audience
• listening to audio media

But what actually are these ‘skills’? How do we do them? How do we improve our ability to do them? How do we teach them? Is doing a gist task or doing a task where students listen for specific information enough? Do they somehow learn transferable skills of ‘listening for gist’ or ‘listening for specific information’ through the process of doing listenings in class – and can they take these skills away and thus deal with other listenings better in future?

The dominant way of thinking about all of this has long been SCHEMA THEORY, which stresses what’s called top-down processing. This emphasises students’ prior knowledge and predictions / expectations about what will be said. Often this means that before we ‘do’ our listening in class, we get students to predict content from pictures, context, etc. Now, this is all well and good, but read deeper in the literature on the field and problems soon start emerging, as the following quote makes clear:

“For complex social and psychological reasons, [learners] are less sure they have grasped the topic being spoken of, the opinion being expressed about it, and the reasons for the speaker wanting to talk about it. They are less sure of the relevance of their own experience in helping them to arrive at an interpretation. On top of all that they are less sure of the forms of the language… for all these reasons learners are less able to bring to bear top down processing in forming an interpretation and hence are more reliant on bottom up processing.”
(Brown quoted in Jenkins, 2001 OUP)

What Brown focuses on is the idea of BOTTOM-UP PROCESSING. In short, this says that what is important is HEARING individual sounds, decoding words, decoding chunks, decoding sentences and so on, and that it is through the process of doing this that learners build up a mental picture of what is being discussed.
If you accept this – and I do – there would seem to be some profound implications for teaching listening:

Firstly, simply getting students to predict or use their previous knowledge – so-called ‘activating schemata’ – isn’t necessary. There might be masses of information we have previous knowledge of when we sit and listen to a conversation and yet there may not be anything at all which comes up that we have predicted or which relates to our ‘schema’. Classroom listenings are obviously designed to include more predictability, but in the real world, language in use can be very unpredictable indeed – and the only way to deal with this is to listen to it all and understand it all.

Another point to make here is that students often hear words even when they don’t make sense to them. Failure may occur when they don’t know the words they’re hearing (or, as I’ve said, when they simply can’t can’t hear the words to begin with). On top of all this, words which students may know will often get bunched up in the stream of speech, making them harder to hear. This, in turn, can lead to difficulties for students hearing new words, because they can’t distinguish them from the general mass of sound around them.

So let’s go back to the ‘sub-skills’ outlined by the CEFR earlier. What is really happening when we do these things? Well, firstly, when we perform any of these skills in the real world, we’re paying attention. It’s not that we don’t hear things we’re not listening for. Imagine that your plane is delayed and you have to listen to a long announcement to find out what’s going on. You process and understand everything that precedes the information that is relevant to you, but then afterwards you just choose to forget it. In the same way, after watching a film, you report the gist to friends – not the detail. This is NOT because you weren’t paying attention to or enjoying all the detail. It’s much more to do with what we are able to – or choose to – remember after the event.

Given this, task is of vital importance in the classroom. If you want students to remember specific details, you have to make this crystal clear to them before playing the audio. Listening involves a lot of processing: students have to hear all the words, remember what the words mean and then decide whether or not they will need to remember them. This is a big ask! Clear tasks make this process a little bit easier.

In addition, as well as doing listenings in class, we also need to think more about how to teach what Mike McCarthy has called LISTENERSHIP. One point to bear in mind about listening in class is that in several crucial ways it’s easier than listening outside of the class. For one thing, it’s often better graded and is usually recorded clearly without too much background noise. Most importantly, though, outside class, listening is often connected to conversation, which means learners have to listen, process AND think of what to say themselves. In class, they don’t have this pressure. Listenings in class therefore leave more time and space for students to react as they don’t need to participate and add. As such, it’s easier to learn language from listenings in class. It also means that if students are to cope outside of class, they need language to engage in listenership, which means teaching lots of predictable, typical chunks of language, all of which will both help them process what they hear quicker, as well as also becoming more able to control the conversations they find themselves in. This means learning expressions / chunks to help them manage their discourse. On a basic level, it means things like:

Sorry. Can you say that again?

Sorry, Can you speak slower?

whilst at a higher level, it means things like:

So going back to what you were saying earlier . . .

So what? Are you saying that you think that . . . ?

and so on.

To start to fully appreciate the importance of using listenings in class as a vehicle for bringing useful language to students,  look at what it is that good listeners actually do.

Good listeners:

– know nearly all – if not all – of the words that they hear.

– hear the words when they listen to them.

– process sound in chunks.

– understand words / chunks automatically due to repeated OVER-LEARNING in class.

So from this perspective, how can we help students get better at listening?

Well, firstly, I think we have a duty to simply teach as much typical language as we can – both as part of listening-based lessons and also at as many other times as we can. Secondly, we need to ensure we always teach language – both vocabulary AND grammar – in natural contexts and we need to say / model the things that we’re teaching, so our students get used to hearing them in context and can recognise them when they hear them again. We need to mark on the board the main stresseses of the words that we teach, and to show linking between words. We also need to do lots and lots of drilling.

Generally, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to pronunciation in class – especially pronunciation related to connected speech (elision, assimilation, weak forms, linking sounds, etc.) We maybe need to accept that while it’s nice if our efforts to improve our students’ pronunciation work, the REAL goal of these slots in class is an improved ability to HEAR natural spoken language. As such, we need to help students with problem sounds. Teach the sounds and how to say them, repeat new words with the sounds in them, and then show how these words say within sentences, so students get to hear – and get to practise saying – the way the words change how they sound once they’re within sentences. For instance, with low levels, you may well often work from sound to work to sentence. Last month with a Chinese group, they had problems saying the word WEIRD, so I drilled like this:







and so on.

Other good things to do include doing a listening once for gist, then letting students compare answers / ideas; round up their ideas and see what the class as a whole have; then set a more language-focused task and play the listening again; let students compare ideas again, before rounding up. Finally, play the listening a third tie, but this time let students read the audioscript. This way, they – and you – can see which parts they couldn’t hear because of HEARING problems and which parts were down to LANGUAGE problems. If they read the whole audioscript and understand everything, but didn’t get it when they listened, that’s a hearing problem and the real issue is that they need to read and listen more and get more used to the blur of sound that is spoken language. However, if they read and STILL don’t understand things, that’s a language problem and means you need to teach that new language. Reading and listening at the same time helps bridge the gap between the nice, tidy way language looks written down and the messy, fast way it sounds spoken.

It’s also good to ask students to read conversations they’ve listened to aloud – especially if the conversations are full of useful, everyday language. Let them read in pairs and go round whilst they’re reading aloud and correct and re-model pronunciation for them..

It’s great if you can do gap-filed listenings, where the first listening is for gist; then the students listen again and try to fill in the gaps in an audioscript. They compare their ideas in pairs and you play the listening a third time, pausing after each gap and eliciting the missing words. This works best if the gaps are more than one word. When you elicit the answers, write them up on the board and drill them with the whole group and some individual students.

Here’s a conversation from INNOVATIONS Pre-Intermediate that works like this:


A   You are going to listen to a conversation between Martin and Alex.

They meet while they are abroad.

As you listen, cover the tapescript below and decide:

1.           Why are they abroad?

2.           How long are they going to stay?

B   Listen again and fill in the gaps.

Martin:  What do you do back home?

Alex:      Well, I was working in a car factory, but it (1) . . . . . . . . . That’s why I’m here, really. I got some money when I lost my job and I decided to go travelling (2) . . . . . . . .  to think about what to do next.

Martin:  And what are you going to do?

Alex:      I still haven’t decided. The economy’s in (3) . . . . . . . . at the moment. There’s a lot of unemployment and people aren’t spending much money, so it’s going to be difficult to find a new job. I might try to re-train and do (4) . . . . . . . . .

Martin:  Have you got any idea what you want to do?

Alex:      Not really. Maybe something with computers. I might try to find a job abroad for a while, before I do that. What about your country? Is it easy to find work there?

Martin:  Yes. A few years ago it was quite bad, but the economy’s (5) . . . . . . . . at the moment. I think unemployment is about four per cent, so finding a job isn’t really a problem. The problem is (6) . . . . . . . . . Prices have gone up a lot over the last few years. Everything is more expensive, so the money you earn goes really quickly.

Alex:      Right.

Martin:  Sometimes I think I should move to somewhere like here. I’m sure people don’t get paid very much, but the cost of living is so low, and there’s a better (7) . . . . . . . . . People don’t work as hard; life is more relaxed; the food’s great; the weather’s great; it’s just very nice.

Alex:    Yes, maybe, but don’t forget that you are on holiday. Maybe it’s (8) . . . . . . . . for the people who live here.

Martin:  No, maybe not.

Alex:      So anyway, how long are you going to stay here?

Martin:  Just till Friday. I have to get back to work. What about you? How long are you staying?

Alex:      Till I get bored or I (9) . . . . . . . . money. I don’t have any plans.


As I’m eliciting the answers fro the group and writing things like (9) run out of on the board, I’ll draw the links between RUN and OUT and OF and drill RU-NOW-TOV with the group.

Dictations are also good, especially at lower levels when learners are still developing their ear. Here’s one we built into OUTCOMES Elementary.

A         Listen. Write the questions you hear.

B          Listen again and repeat what you hear.

C          Work in pairs. Ask and answer the questions.


1          What are you studying?

2          What year are you in?

3          Are you enjoying it?

4          How are you?

5          Are you hungry?

6          Are you good at English?

7          Where are you from?

8          Where are you staying?

One other kind of exercises that focus explicitly on HEARING is this, from OUTCOMES Intermediate:

B          Decide which words you heard. Then listen and check.

1          I’m involved in/on designing what you see on the screen.

2          How did you getting/get into that?

3          Vodafone were recruiting people so I applied/replied and I got a job.

4          It’s like any job. It has its boring moments/minutes.

5          It depends if we have a deadline to complete/meet.

6          I do something/anything like fifty or sixty hours a week.

7          That must be stressed/stressful.

8          I sometimes work better under/in pressure.

9          They said I would get a permanent/payment contract, but then it never happened.

Finally, I think, we just need to ensure that we recycle words, chunks, exchanges and conversations over different classes and across different levels, thus ensuring not only language development, but also massively increased opportunities for hearing.

That’s all for now. In my next post on teaching listening, I’ll go into more detail about some of the problems I think we often bring upon ourselves when doing listening in class, and we might begin to rectify things. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.