“…Active listening is something I have always brought to my learners’ awareness. It requires that I highlight the sounds and their connected relevance in a phrase or sentence (and such aspects as catenation, elision, intrusion, assimilation) – this is something I really believe in: This awareness is a necessity for both for learner and teacher, and my students are usually appreciative and relieved to follow such a path. But I am still in an apprentice stage. I really want to have a more constructive, consolidated and informed approach to the way I work it in the classroom. From Daniel Foster da Silva, studying for the Trinity TESOL diploma

Thanks Daniel. This really is a crucial question, and this is where I think we can offer learners a breakthrough experience.  I believe we can do much more in a 15 minute session than course books and training courses usually expect, and leave a real trace that affects all other learning.  Here is an illustration of what I try to do, and you can see if this is any help to you.

Jazz improvisation and my teaching

I cannot separate jazz improv from my development as a teacher. In 1980s I was getting into jazz, which is complex, creative, rule based, yet improvisational – just like language.  I did not read music, so my inspiration and learning came from studying phrases and passages from great jazz players through intensive listening to their recordings, using a certain technique, the way most jazz musicians learn. Once I had done this ‘double’ to myself through studying improvisation, I began to find that I could do the same thing with my Sts learning English.

So in my own practice, I would listen to a favourite jazz musician, select a short passage I wanted to learn, listen repeatedly to one phrase, one note at a time, and gradually work out the sequence of notes, the phrasing and timing. Then I would replicate that bit of melody with my voice, and then play it on the guitar. Then once I could play the right notes in the right order I could practise them for speed, fluency and articulation. It is really about getting the right energy distribution across a phrase. Just like language. So within a few minutes I could go from not even being able to hear the individual notes, to working out the notes in detail, to assembling the whole phrase with the best fluency my technique would allow. In other words I had the experience of leaping from my initial incomprehension to a feeling of fluency within a few minutes. I am talking about one or two phrases, not a whole solo. Of course with the next phrase I was back to square one … but not quite, because I’d raised my own bar, and had the taste…This was exhilarating for me as a musician, and I found this same ‘leap’ could be done with phrases and short sentences of authentic English with my learners.

So I might go about it like this

The context may be a short extensive listening (eg the day’s BBC news headlines are a good starting place) out of which I have chosen about 20 words for intensive attention. The words and grammar are already given and the the challenge is essentially about connected up fluency, which means 1) Identifying the bits, 2) Connecting words into phrases – chunks or sense groups, 3) Identifying stress, and especially unstress – mostly schwa, so requiring minimal energy, minimal articulation, and minimal time, 4) Noting the sounds that get changed, or omitted 5) Joining it all up into one ‘gesture’ or ‘flourish’.

I do not resort to the ‘ploddy, repeat after me’ type of pron work – I almost never ask Sts to repeat after me – but to a more holistic approach which unhooks both the mouth muscles and the ear’s neurology from the mother tongue habits, and suddenly new things become possible, which they discover and do for themselves, under my guidance. So here is how my jazz experience might transfer to my English class. All we need is the recording of the authentic piece and the facility to replay very precise, small amounts ( a word, a phrase) deftly and repeatedly. Here are some typical steps:

1.. Listen:  Play the sentence or phrase a few times. Offer board pens and invite Sts to . write on the board any sounds, or words they can hear. Let them put the words, sounds, syllables, or alphabet letters anywhere on the board for the moment, so it is just a pool of items, not a sequence.  Leave errors without correcting for the moment. Alphabet letters do no need to be correct until actual words are recognised.

2,, Repeat this step as much as needed, guiding Sts to listen in certain places and discover, focusing their attention, guiding their awareness.  When enough clear stressed words, syllables are recognized rewrite them in sequence on the board, put in the unstressed bits between, leaving the gaps for things still missing. Get them to say the recognized bits at speed with the recording. This will help them to hear the rest, by speeding up their hearing

3.. Move on to unstressed bits. If they identify bits as unrecognizable, give each one a temporary sign or mark of its own until it is recognized.  If they are ok with phonemic symbols use them, but there is no need.

4.. Don’t tell them anything they might work out for themselves, but give what they cannot do for themselves. Keep repeating this until a chunk becomes recognizable, and then examine how it would sound if said very slowly and clearly, and how it is reduced in this context. Get Sts to practise the full and the reduced forms. Pay special attention to the energized (and louder) stressed syllable and to the reduced and hardly audible syllables.

5.. Practise saying the stressed syllables only, in time with the recording

6.. Then add the unstressed syllables in a whisper, and then voice the whole thing. Note word connections, pauses (usually between chunks or sense groups), stress and unstress, and the frequency of schwa (+ or – 50% of all the vowels)

7.. Rehearse until Sts can do the completed phrase along with the recording, and at the same speed, even if that requires them to fluff it a little.

8.. Do the same for the rest of the utterance, as time permits.

A confidence enhancing conjuring trick

This kind of ‘conjuring trick’ helps learners attain a much higher quality of connected speech pronunciation, than they thought possible, or than conventional methods expect. Learners don’t necessarily need to speak fast, but just practising this starts to unlock the operating system of fast listening…

It offers the direct experience of listening and speaking like a fluent speaker – just for that one phrase or sentence. Furthermore it offers the transferable expectation that this is potentially attainable for any other utterance they make. This visceral experience of excellence impacts morale and self esteem. And this kind of working faith in the unlimited capacity of learners, coupled with a close up way of facilitating learners to do it themselves (though they couldn’t have done it without me), plus not depending on them mimicking me, was the beginning of what later on Jim Scrivener and I came to nickname ‘Demand High’.

Many of you probably do similar things. and it will be interesting to hear from you….