‘Discovery Listening’ revisited (again) – a joint post with Arun Warszawski

Last May – almost a year ago! – Rachael Roberts posted here and here about an approach to ‘teaching listening’ that Magnus Wilson named ‘Discovery Listening’. It inspired a very skeletal post from me, which I’m now finally getting around to following up, thanks to the lively #AusELT chat we had on the topic two weeks ago.

I started teaching in 2001 and spent my first couple of years following what John Field refers to as the ‘Comprehension Approach’ to ‘teaching listening’ (thanks Rachael Roberts for the link). I became increasingly aware that students found listening to authentic spoken English very challenging and also felt it was an important marco-skill to develop; yet, the coursebook listening activities never seemed to hit the mark. Getting students motivated to listen to the recordings more than once or focus on the transcript was bafflingly difficult. Then in Semester 1 of my MEd (TESOL) in 2007, I had an opportunity to delve into the topic properly and came across Wilson’s ‘Discovery Listening’ article and, in the same issue of the ELT Journal, an article by John Field which complemented Wilson’s article and provided more of the theoretical underpinning.

The light finally came on for me when I read these articles and I immediately put into practice a variation of Wilson’s Discovery Listening. What Wilson describes is essentially dictogloss, albeit an extension of it which encourages greater learner and teacher reflection on the actual listening process(es) itself, as opposed to simply the product. I had already been integrating authentic listening materials into my lessons, having recently come across StoryCorps, so I combined them with Wilson’s ideas and the simple step of giving students control over the recording itself, generally while working in small groups. This is what I’ve started referring to as the ‘Discovery Approach’ – a sort of homage to Wilson and Field.

At this point, I’ll hand over to my very talented friend and colleague Arun Warszawski (see his bio at the bottom of this post) to explain the ‘Discovery Approach’ (or ‘listening dictation’ as Arun calls it) in more detail:

Arun and I first started discussing this about 4 years ago and have had many more chats about further refinements to it since. We’ve also both had a lot of success with this approach with a large number and wide variety of classes/students. I’ve also run ‘Discovery Approach’ workshops in different locations and have received (as far as I can tell!) very positive responses from teachers each time.

One of these workshops was at the English Australia PD Fest in 2011. Here are the slides:

After slide 7, I distributed the following ‘Discovery Approach’ lesson plan:

The comments on slides 8-10 are from a class of Advanced-level GE students (some of whom had just successfully completed a CAE exam preparation course) who applied the ‘Discovery Approach’ to ‘decoding’ this StoryCorps recording. I think they reflect closely the student responses both Arun and I have had following the many ‘Discovery Listening’ sessions we’ve run.  I’ve included expanded comments here:

Slides 13-16 show ‘decoding’ errors of various types I observed in two separate classes – one Intermediate and one Upper-Intermediate/Advanced – when attempting to ‘decode’ this classic StoryCorps recording. (Apologies for the arrows getting jolted slightly out of place!)

The most recent workshop was at the end of January this year and I’ve been struck by the particularly strong impact it’s had this time:

  • A number of teachers immediately adopted the approach and have been using it regularly since the session three weeks ago.
  • Teachers have been sharing the enthusiastic feedback they’ve received from students with their colleagues in the staffroom.
  • Teachers have been talking about how the students were highly engaged in ‘decoding’ the authentic texts they were provided with.
  • One teacher reported that the students were still working in their groups during break time, engrossed in ‘decoding’ the text.
  • Teachers of classes ranging from Elementary GE to FCE have reported success.

It’s personally very rewarding to see such a significant and immediate impact but I think it reflects a couple of things:

  1. Many students and teachers (at all different stages of their careers) struggle to make the dominant, Comprehension, approach to teaching listening work for them.
  2. The ‘Discovery Approach’ is an effective alternative to the Comprehension Approach because it is simple: by giving students a challenging text and some autonomy in the classroom, you create an environment in which they can support each other in the ‘discovery’ of new/problematic features of spoken English and their abilities to decipher it.

I’d also like to think that it’s an example of a Demand-High approach to teaching listening 🙂

After completing his CELTA at International House in 2008, Arun Warszawski spent the next four years teaching General English, IELTS and BEC-Vantage courses in Brisbane, Australia. He now resides in Montreal, Canada, where he has continued to teach.


3 thoughts on “‘Discovery Listening’ revisited (again) – a joint post with Arun Warszawski”

  1. Hi Kyle,
    Just wanted to write what an interesting language acquisition blog you have (found it via Twitter by accident). Great to see you’re still teaching & making music.

  2. Nice blog post and I’m particularly grateful for the link to the storycorps. The BBC has a similar thing called the listening project http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/the-listening-project, but the storycorps is slightly shorter and more focused. Both are great for higher level learners. I think you could be even more focused, by recording your own stories or getting teachers to record stories through something like vocaroo. I’d also recommend http://www.speechinaction.org/ which has similar principles to the activity you have here.

    1. Hi Andrew.

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve seen the BBC Listening Project but not Speech In Action – I’ll have a look at it, sounds interesting.

      I like your idea of either recording your own story or getting other teachers to do it. Whatever the origin of the recording, however, I think it is important to expose learners to accents and dialects that are relevant to their immediate learning needs. In my case, that generally means Australian accents, rather than the narrow range of accents that you find in many coursebooks.

      The authenticity of the recording is important to me – in my experience, learners just aren’t exposed to challenging features of spoken English. I wonder if, when generating the recordings yourself, it might not be better to get a non-teacher to ensure they’re not grading their language at all?

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