Even a Native Speaker Stops Sometimes (CLESOL 2012)

In 2012, I presented for the first time at the CLESOL conference in New Zealand.  My talk was on a series of micro-skills building activities to help students adjust to structural differences in English aural decoding.  Which is all just a fancy way of saying that I put together a set of four very short activities to help students develop the skills necessary to listen to English a little more accurately.

When it comes to listening activities, a lot of classroom time is spent focused on what are usually called ‘top-down’ activities, or exercises that help students activate the knowledge they already have to better understand the listening text (Vandergrift, 2004; p.4).  This usually means:

  • helping students recognise the type of text (is it a speech, a casual conversation, a news report)
  • having students predict what they might hear before they start listening (will the speaker describe a process, will the description include a list of materials used in the process)
  • teaching students to listen for specific pieces of information (on what day is the concert going to take place, what kind of presents would Jim like for his birthday).

These types of ‘top-down’ activities require that a student already be able to decode the language they are listening to at a relatively high level.  Unfortunately, depending on differences in the structure between the L1 and English, many students do not necessarily have the basic skills they need to even hear discrete words.  When students’ listening skills are not developed enough, working on these higher-level ‘top-down’ skills like predicting and listening for the gist often end up distracting lower level learners from listening to sounds and building up meaning at a more basic level.  This is especially problematic when considering that high-level errors in comprehension are often the result of lower level listening errors (Fields, 2003; p. 325) such as segmenting words in the wrong place.

The four micro-skills building activities outlined in this presentation work together to help students develop segmenting skills, or the ability to hear when words start and end in spoken conversation.  The activities take a total of about 10 minutes of class time during each lesson.  In my school, I ran the activities during a five-week period, twelve classes in all, for a total of just under three hours of class time.

Activity 1: Loop Writing

Loop writing is an activity loosely based on some of the ideas found on the Centre for Early Language Literacy web site.  The CELL activities were created for pre-literate first language learners to help them develop the skills they will need for reading and writing.  I highly recommend checking out their web site, as there are quite a few ideas that I think are applicable to second language learners.  In loop writing, the teacher says a sentence at close to regular spoken speed.  While listening, students draw loops for each word they hear.  This is not a comprehension activity, so there is a need to emphasize to students that it does not matter if they understand what is being said.  Instead, they simple draw a loop for each word they think they hear.

Here is a short video of a student doing some loop writing:


In the video, you can see that the student is drawing very neat and even loops.  It is pretty hard to convince learners to draw loops in a particular way, but I would suggest to students that they try to be as free as possible when drawing their loops.  Students only have a limited amount of working memory available while listening to English, and It is really not worth using it up thinking about the size and shape of loops.  In fact, that is one of the underlying ideas of loop writing.  It is a low stress, low cognitive load activity.  Students don’t have to worry about the size and shape of letters, spacing between letters, or spacing between wordsall of which take quite a bit of energy for beginning learners and make traditional dictation activities overly-stressful.  And there is a certain sense of fun that goes along with drawing big loopy-loops on a piece of paper. Here is an image which is a little more in keeping with the loose feeling I was hoping the students would eventually bring to loop writing:



Now to get a taste of how it might feel for a beginning learner to try their hand at loop writing, I’ve prepared a short video of a sentence spoken in Japanese so you can try it at home yourself:



If your experience was anything like that of my students, it was probably pretty difficult. But just what makes it so difficult?  Part of the problem is that Japanese sentences are not usually broken down into words, but into sentence segments. A Japanese sentence segment is a word which can stand on its own or, more typically, is a word in combination with a piece of grammar such as ‘の‘ (pronounced ‘no’) which identifies possession.  In the sentence you just heard, there were nine sentence segments.  So if you managed to hear nine distinct components of the sentence, then you nailed it.  In case you are wondering just what you were listening to, the sentence, translated into English is, “Ishikawa Ryo donated all of his winnings from the 2011 golf tour to the victims of the Great Tohoku Earthquake.” 


If you could not hear nine sentence segments, or were having trouble segmenting out any individual words at all, don’t feel bad.  Here are a few images from my students’ first try at loop writing:



In fact, the mean accuracy for the first set of loop writing sentences my students did in class was 4.8 out of 11 or 43.6%.  The loop writing activity serves as a pretty good–if somewhat rough–indicator of how well your learners can segment out words while listening to spoken English.  During your students’ first encounter with loop writing, I think it is important to explain just what makes it so difficult to hear the words that are being said.  As a general rule, people listen using the skills they are trained to use when listening in their first language and this makes it difficult to accurately hear what is being said in a different language (Rost, p.8).  The idea of Japanese sentence segments is one concrete example of structural differences in the spoken language that, when pointed out, can help students understand why they have difficulty hearing a particular language.  Some common differences between various L1s and English include the tendency in English for stress to regularly fall on a middle or last syllable as well as the prominent role that pitch plays in word recognition (Cutler, 1997, p.6). 


Activity 2: Sense Group Identification


Sense groups, also referred to as syntactic groupings, are those portions on a sentence that naturally hang together and are often separated by a slight pause in spoken language.  In the sense group identification micro-activity, I write up the number of words in a sentence as a series of numbers on the white board, one number for each word. Students write the numbers beneath their loop writing.  Then I say the sentence aloud.  While listening, students simply put a slash between the appropriate numbers when they hear a pause in my speech.  In English, natural pauses occur once about every 12 syllables (Field, 2003, p. 327) and fall almost exclusively between sense groups.  If students are actively listening for these pauses between sense groups, they are usually good at hearing them.  Even during their first attempt, students in my class had a mean accuracy rate of about 75%.  As opposed to developing a new skill or focusing on a new way to listen to English, this activity serves as a confidence booster by helping students to recognize that they already have an important skill they can apply when listening to English.  If you look at the above image, it becomes clear that sense group recognition practice also helps students to see that what sounded like a continuous stream of speech, is in fact broken up into smaller chunks.  By comparing the number of loops they drew with the numbers and slashes between the numbers below the loops, students can see that they are indeed able to segment out these chunks of language without too much difficulty.


This is a video of sense group identification from a student during the second week of training:



You can see that the student has a lot of confidence when it comes to identifying sense groups.  I especially love that little pencil flick at the end.  As a side note, I would not hesitate to slightly extend the amount of time you give to your pauses.  While it might seem unnatural, in actuality extended pauses, as well as including a few more pauses than usual between sense groups, is an extremely useful aid in comprehension (Rost, p. 10) and a form of foreigner speech that our students will most likely encounter often during English interactions with higher level speakers.  Still, as learners adjust to the aural structure of English, both the number and length of pauses between sense groups can be diminished until they approach the short pauses found naturally between every twelve or so syllables.


Activity 3: Listening for Stress


While structural differences between the L1 and L2 make lexical segmentation, or recognizing words as words, difficult in English, there is some good news.  In spoken English, 90% of words are likely to start with a stressed syllable.  Put a different way, “We hear six times as many lexical items beginning with strong syllables as with weak syllables. (Cutler, 1987, 1988. P. 114)”  And experimental evidence shows strong support that native English speakers do in fact segment spoken English based almost entirely on recognition of stress (Cutler, 1988, 1997).  John Fields has even gone so far as to state that through training students can become sensitive to, “the value of inserting word boundaries before stressed syllables. (2003, p. 329)”


But how can we help students pay more attention to stress?  At first I think it is a question of just helping them recognize where stress falls within a sentence.  After students have completed the sense group activity, I put one dot for each syllable in a word under the number representing the word.  Students then copy the dots into their notebooks.  Before saying the sentence again, I instruct the students to circle the stressed syllables in red as they listen.  This is what it looks like at the end of the exercises:


Here is a video of a student during a second read of a sentence:


The student was only able to identify a few stressed syllables during the first listening.  Even a second listening did not significantly alter her ability to identify stressed words or syllables.  But while the level of accuracy at the beginning was quite low, over the course of the five weeks students were engaged in this listening practice, they did show significant improvement.  Perhaps more importantly, their attention levels remained high regardless of the difficulty of the task.  In fact, the number of non-participating students in this part of the activity was only one out of twenty-two, which is an excellent participation rate for any activity at my school, let alone an activity which is extremely challenging.  In addition, even small improvements in stress recognition will potentially lead to big gains in understanding. 


As you might have noticed in the video, I do overly exaggerate stress during the first few times I run this activity.  While slightly unnatural, this over-stressing is in keeping with many of exercises found in Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations around prosody (2005).  The point of the listening for stress activity, at least in the beginning, is not to train students to hear subtle levels of stress within a sentence, but simply to get them to recognize stress at all.  As students become familiar with the rhythm and stress timed nature of English, you can tone down the over-stressing and speak in a more natural manner.


 Activity 4: Stressed word and syllable dictation


When I started running these micro-activities, I simply wrote the sentence on the board underneath the word/syllable dots and had students copy the words from the board.  As students become more comfortable writing in English and their skills developed, I decided to include a partial dictation component as a final step in the process.  On the whiteboard, I wrote the letters of the unstressed syllables beneath the corresponding numbers in black and directed the students to fill in the missing stressed syllables or words in red.

After the exercise is complete, the black and red writing is like a stress map and a good visual aid if you want to work with your students on suprasegmentals.  That is usually how I would wrap up this series of micro-activities during class.  Students would say the sentences to each other while focusing on stressing the appropriate words or syllables.  Sometimes, to make it a little more interesting, I would ask the students to try and stress only the words or syllables written in black, the usually unstressed portions of the sentence.  This proved to be nearly impossible and led to a whole lot of laughter.  While this post is focused on listening skills building, I think it is pretty hard to completely separate out listening from pronunciation work.  One naturally leads to the other.  In this case, a silly activity which gives students just a little bit of time to practice speaking with the right stress patterns can be highly beneficial.  Appropriate use of stress has a major impact on word recognition (Field, 2005) and training in prosodic features (Derwing and Rossiter, 2003) has a major impact on students English comprehensibility.


At the end of the 4 activities and 10 minutes of class time, here is what the whiteboard looks like:





When I first ran these micro-activities, the students had a word recognition rate of 43.6% during the loop writing activity.  During the last day when I ran the activities, the recognition rate had jumped to 96%.  But I think the numbers only tell a small part of the story.  Because as students confidence began to build, students general classroom behavior also began to change.  Instead of ignoring instructions given in English, which was often the case before the listening training, students began to pay more attention.  Sometimes I would even notice a student’s head bobbing up and down each time they noticed a stressed word or syllable.  I think it was this change in attitude, more than any specific gains in ability, which made running these activities worthwhile for both my students and me.  Because knowing how to listen is the first step towards a classroom in which each and every student is willing to put forth the effort necessary to hear what is truly being said.


Some incidental observations and points raised during the presentation:


– As I ran the activity, I once used a sentence composed of eighteen words. Almost every student in the class gave up at around the fifteen-word mark.  Some of them actually set their pencils down on their desk.  Perhaps there is an upper word limit for these micro-activities with beginner-level students.  I would recommend watching carefully and adjusting the number of words or syllables used in the sentences so that the students, at least at the start of the training, can meet with a relatively high level of success.


– You might have noticed that the sentences I used during these activities were relatively difficult.  The sentences actually come from the required course book for the English 1 class at my school.  The coursebook and grammar heavy structural syllabus are both approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education.  The students are also tested monthly on the course book material.  The students must memorize large portions of the text in order to pass the tests.  While I try to avoid teaching to the test, I do want to give my students a chance to pass.  These micro-activities, by exposing the students to sentences from the coursebook multiple times, also helped provide students with another way to interact with and memorize the material they would need in order to pass the monthly exams. 


– During the third lesson, I was feeling bad about giving the students all of these difficult sentences to listen to.  So for a change, I used some more basic sentences with easier vocabulary.  Oddly enough, students looping ability did not improve with the simplified sentences.  If fact, while the sense group results were nearly perfect, and the stress recognition level was also higher than expected, the basic looping activity was a bit lower than the previous lessons, average 62% vs. 64% accuracy, even though the language was easier.  Which makes me think that there might be a very real benefit to using words that are slightly above a student’s level when doing this kind of work.  It has been shown that having students work with pronunciation in nonsense words or words they don’t know (Hammerly, 1982) can help students avoid interference and lead to a quicker uptake of the correct pronunciation.  In a similar way, perhaps working with stress patterns in sentences in which a threshold number of words are known draws too much attention to the meaning of the sentence.  Students get drawn into attempting to understand what is being said and loose focus on the surface or form which is being studied.  On the other hand, my advisor John Fanselow, suggested that spending a few minutes to clearly explain the meaning of the sentence before the listening activities might be another way of keeping the students focus on the structure. 


Survey Results:


Over the course of the five weeks during which I ran these activities with my students, I conducted a number of surveys to gauge student interest.  Below are a sampling of the students responses translated from the Japanese.

Survey 1, question 1: How did you feel about loop writing practice?

“I can’t listen in time.”

“I can’t understand why I am doing this.”

“It was very difficult”

“It was a huge pain in the ass.”


Final survey, question 1: How did you feel about loop writing practice?

“I could follow along.”

“It felt great.  I could hear every word.”

“I got better, bit by bit.”

“It was a small pain in the ass.”


Final survey, question 2: How did you feel about sense group recognition practice?

“It’s like a game.” 

“It’s fun.”

“It makes it easier for me to speak, because I know I can stop talking and take a break.”


Final survey, question 3: How did you feel about listening for stress?

“I still have no confidence around marking accents.”

“It’s the most difficult step.”

“It helps me understand conversations sometimes when I watch an American Drama.”

“It helps me to hear the words in my head when I am reading.”

“It has really improved my pronunciation.”




Center for Early Literacy Learning. 2010. Center for Early Literacy Learning. 3 July, 2012: http://www.earlyliteracylearning.org/index.php>

Cutler, A. & Carter, D. (1987). The predominance of strong initial syllables in the English vocabulary.  Computer Speech and Language, 2: 133-142.

Cutler, A. & Norris, D. (1988) The role of strong syllables in segmentation for lexical access. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 14 (1): 113-121.

Cutler, A (1997), “The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing.” Speech Communication, 21: 3-15

Derwing, T. & Rossiter, M. (2003). “The effects of pronunciation instruction on the accuracy, fluency, and complexity of L2 accented speech.” Applied Language Learning 13 (1): 1-17.

Field, J. (2003).  Promoting perception: lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57 (4): 325-333.

Field, J. (2004). An insight into listeners’ problems: too much bottom-up or too much top-down? System, 32 (1): 363-377

Field, J. (2005). Intelligibility and the listener: the role of lexical stress. TESOL Quarterly, 39 (2): 399-423

Nation, I.S.P. & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. Routledge: New York.

Rost, M. (2001) “Listening.” In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 7-13).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press  

Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations. Oxford: Macmillan.

Vandergrift, L. (2004) “Listening to Learn or Learning to Listen?” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24 pp. 3-25


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