Z is for Zero Uncertainty

31 07 2011

Mr Grumpy Blogger

Here is a listening sequence that could be from any current coursebook:

Pre-listening: 1. What do you know about garden gnomes? Have you ever had a garden gnome? Have you ever lost a garden gnome? Etc. Scrum down and talk to your mates. [This is the ‘activating schema’ stage]

2. Here are some words you’d better know: toadstool, abducted, postcard, package tour, gnomic… etc. [= Pre-teach some vocab that may or may not be crucial to an understanding of the text]

3. Here is a picture of a man looking at a postcard showing his garden gnome in St Peter’s Square. Here he is again, being interviewed. What questions is he being asked? What answers is he giving? [= Activating predictive skills so as to make listening to the ensuing interview more or less redundant]


1. Listen to this [pretend] interview with a [pretend] person whose [pretend] garden gnome was nicked, and do this task.

Put the interviewer’s questions in order. (The first one has been done for you).

  1. And how does this story end?
  2. I hear you lost your gnome. Tell me about it. (1)
  3. So what did you do?

[= easy gist listening question – so easy you don’t actually have to listen to the text to do it]

2. Listen again, and say why these words are mentioned: Red Square; front lawn; the Great Pyramid of Cheops. [= deeper level processing – and this is as deep as it gets]


Imagine you are a garden gnome who has been kidnapped and sent abroad. Write a postcard detailing your adventure. [= er, follow-up]

Why do I have problems with this kind of sequence?

Well, apart from the naff content and the scripted nature of the text (why are 90% of all coursebook listenings still scripted?), I really can’t figure out in what way learners are any better off after the process than they were before it.

Can we say, hand on heart, that this very superficial treatment of spoken texts has improved their listening skills one jot? For a start, by activating their top-down processing skills (world knowledge, predictive abilities, etc) and by setting only the easiest of gist checking questions, the learners have been so cushioned against having to engage with the language in the text at anything but the most superficial level that it’s very difficult to see how such a sequence prepares them for real-life listening at all, let alone teaches them anything new about the language.

This is like looking at the target language from 30,000 feet. But that’s where the learners are already. They’re very used to not really understanding texts, so why should they want to not really understand them in the classroom, too?

While it may get students into a text (and compensate for the lack of visual information, in the case of audio-only listening tasks), an over-dependence on top-down processing (i.e. using background knowledge, non-linguistic and contextual clues, etc) may delude both learners and teachers into thinking that linguistic information can safely be ignored. Or that having no more unanswered questions about a text (a state that Frank Smith calls ‘zero uncertainty’) is not a realistic, nor even a desirable, outcome.

As a second language user, I hate having unanswered questions. I hate being in the cinema at an Almodóvar film surrounded by cackling Spaniards, and not getting the joke. I hate missing the plane because I misheard the announcement and went to the wrong gate. I don’t like 50% uncertainty, or even 5% uncertainty. I crave zero uncertainty.

Students transcribing (photo courtesy of Eltpics)

So, how would I improve the sequence? Simply by the addition of further layers and layers of questions that probe and probe and probe at the learners’ emergent understanding, until not a word has been by-passed, not a discourse marker ignored, not a verb ending overlooked, and not a question left unanswered. And the sequence would culminate in a word-by-word transcription task – not of the whole text, necessarily – but of a decent-sized chunk of it.

But, to withstand the weight of so much probing, I would need a text that was of much more intrinsic interest, educational value, and linguistic capital than one about abducted garden gnomes!


Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading (6th edition). Lawrence Erlbaum.



67 responses

31 07 2011

I like the idea that you could do a close reading of a text until you reached a point of “zero uncertainty”, but I you’ve set up this coursebook lesson as a bit of a straw man. This sounds like a boring text, but if we’re just trying to improve their receptive skills, then the issue isn’t the text but the questions. Ordering the interviewers questions are specific info questions, not gist. But there aren’t many and they don’t sound challenging enough. The detailed information questions actually sound good to me and could lead into a number of interesting activities related to rhetoric.

I’m having trouble imaging a text that would be challenging, but not incomprehensible, that you could work on for a prolonged period of time without resorting to materials that draw the learners away from the text. Also, analyzing every element of what would most likely have to be an authentic text might result in a scattershot lesson. Wouldn’t the learner feel that he/she was being bombarded with information? And since there would likely be a number of grammatical and lexical issues to deal with, would you have time to bring any single point to “zero uncertainty”? On the other hand, I think if you don’t extrapolate on individual grammatical and lexical points the learner might find it rewarding just to understand one text completely. What a tough task for a teacher though!

31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, David, for being first to comment. I agree that the topic of the text I chose (garden gnomes) is a little exaggerated in terms of its triviality (I deliberately avoided using a real coursebook example so as not to appear to be singling out any one course for my critique), but the order of the questions – and the limited depth they achieve in terms of the processing of the text – more or less exactly replicates an example from a recently published course (and one that I used in a session on my MA TESOL course last week).

I would challenge your claim that the ‘ordering the interviewer’s questions’ task involves ‘specific info’ listening, since the interviewer’s questions themselves only target the bearest outline of the narrative, i.e. the gist, and require nothing more on the part of the listener than to recognise the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Finally, the point about ‘zero uncertainty’ is that – like coherence – this is in the eye – or rather the ear – of the beholder: the best judges of whether they have ‘understood’ the text are surely the learners themselves. It’s the teacher’s job, therefore, to mediate their understanding up to the point when they, as a group, can say, “Yes, we got it!”. In terms of shedding light, the coursebook tasks are the equivalent of opening the blinds a chink. I suspect most learners would like the windows thrown wide open!

31 07 2011
Anna Matlak

Wouldn’t it be really time-consuming to try and explain every single thing?
Wouldn’t we end up with our students bored?
Finally, wouldn’t making our students write down the exact words they hear be frustrating for them? And for the teacher?

Still, I agree the sequence presented is not going to excite and interest an average student, but I have seen worse ones.

Greetings from Poland, where nobody would get engaged in the story of a garden gnome.

31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Anna, and welcome to the discussion!

I agree that a ‘deeper’ understanding of the text is going to require more time, but, in terms of learner satisfaction, improved listening skills, and potential language uptake, I figure that it is time well spent. Certainly it is time better spent than the ten or fifteen minutes’ very superficial language engagement that my (invented) example sequence represents, where the students are unlikely to be any better off – in any respect – than they were at the outset.

One way of saving classroom time might be to have the learners do the transcription task for homework.

31 07 2011

I absolutely agree Scott. It is surprising how much gist tasks are used when you see how frustrated students are by them (they want to learn new words from the text) and how little listening while reading the script is used (or the other text mining tasks you mention) when you notice how interested students are in that kind of activity. It is also a puzzle that coursebooks relegate most listening scripts to the back of the book in a small print reference section rather than foregrounding them in the unit itself (something which happened in the 70s and early 80s pre Headway with books like Strategies). Even a scripted conversation is a better model for speaking than a written “newspaper article style” text, which contributes very little to developing communicative competence.

31 07 2011

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the post.

You seem fairly dismissive of the “activating schemata” and top-down predictive sub-skills stages because “they make listening to the ensuing interview more or less redundant”. Are you against these per se, or just when they are used in such a way as to undermine the challenge of the actual listening?

Isn’t the whole point of the schemata activation and predicative parts of a listening (or reading) lesson to essentially train learners to bring their background knowledge to bear on a piece of language so as to lessen their processing load? After all, research indicates that even though learners may actually do this as a matter of course when listening/reading in their mother tongue, they won’t necessarily transfer these sub-skills across when learning a foreign language – tending instead to over-rely on bottom-up processing.

Moreover, don’t these stages also serve to generate interest in the lesson (the pre-discussion parts are often useful for yielding up emergent language in their own right), give students a reason for dealing the target language, make learning integrative and interactive and provide a sense of overall coherence and structure to a lesson?

As a matter of interest, how would you set up a listening lesson if not in the ‘classical’ way you outline?

Elsewhere, when you say:

“As a second language user, I hate having unanswered questions. I hate being in the cinema at an Almodóvar film surrounded by cackling Spaniards, and not getting the joke. I hate missing the plane because I misheard the announcement and went to the wrong gate. I don’t like 50% uncertainty, or even 5% uncertainty. I crave zero uncertainty.”

I’m with you one hundred percent on that, both as a language learner and a teacher.

31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wes, for your comment. I’m not against ‘activating schemata’ per se, although I think that, in a lesson that is grounded in the learners’ own interests and needs, the schemata should already be activated anyway – charging on all cylinders even! Hence, any attempts to crank up interest would be redundant. The activation of schemata recommendation is really a response to the fact that most coursebook texts are so loopily uninteresting.

Whether or not learners need to be ‘trained’ to activate processes that they would use instinctively if processing a text in their own language is a moot point. The ‘threshold hypothesis’ argues that they won’t transfer these strategies from L1 until they have a ‘critical mass’ of linguistic knowledge (primarily lexis), but this will of course vary from text to text. Where the text is within their linguistic grasp, supposedly they will transfer their top-down processing skills more or less automatically.

This, however, raises a number of questions. Does it mean that we should feed learners only texts that fall below their current level of competence (input minus one, to borrow from Krashen)? In which case, what possible benefit will they get out of them, apart from the sense of reading or listening fluently, even if what they are reading or listening to is ‘baby talk’?

Or should we give them challenging texts, but work on attempting to activate top-down processing skills (which they theoretically won’t transfer automatically) in order to provide them with at least a foot-hold into the text?

I think both approaches have their merits, but with certain caveats. Experiencing reading or listening fluency through exposure to simplified texts is probably good for motivation, but won’t have a great deal of spin-off in terms of increasing the vocabulary that learners so badly need in order to handle more difficult texts.

On the other hand, exposure to difficult texts but only at a superficial, top-down level (as in my gnome example), won’t do them much good either. What I am advocating is the use of challenging texts (preferably those that the learners themselves have chosen), where the top-down tasks are just the way in, but where the texts are then subject to as much scrutiny as they and the learners will tolerate.

Coursebooks tend not to go that extra mile.

31 07 2011

Surely the amount of certainty students want to be left with depends on the type of text they are engaged with? Yes, with an airline announcement they want to be 100% certain which gate to go to, but they might not need to be 100% certain there was a ‘please’ before the ‘go to gate…’

And all those cackling Spaniards surely don’t understand any Almodovar film with zero uncertainty. The most important point I think you’re making is we need to be super clear why we are asking our students to listen to any text in the classroom (and the fact it’s on the next page of the course book is no justification at all) and then try our best to help them understand in a ‘real’ way – i.e. as closely as possible to the way they’d want to understand it in the ‘real’ world. A high percentage of task authenticity is the aim, not zero uncertainty.

So please do improve the listening sequence, but first of all by considering if listening to the gnome interview will motivate the students at all and then by deciding how would they engage with the text authentically. If text transcritpion helps them to develop their ability to do this then all well and good.

31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Neil!

You write: “Surely the amount of certainty students want to be left with depends on the type of text they are engaged with?” Yes, that’s true to a certain extent. But I also think that – in the long run – the amount of certainty that the learners want to be left with should depend on them. If, for example, you and I are listening to the same (global) weather report, and you live in Argentina while I live in Spain, we will each have different needs, and hence different questions that we will want answered. And hence we will be listening more or less intensively to different parts of the text.

In the end, no coursebook task is going to satisfactorily predict the degree of certainty learners will need, nor the degree of uncertainty they will tolerate. It might be better if they didn’t include tasks at all, but just directed the teacher to ‘mediate the text to the extent that seems necessary’.

16 08 2011
Ben Naismith

I would love for a coursebook to direct the teacher to ‘mediate the text to the extent that seems necessary’!
Of course, if that was the case they may as well direct the teacher to choose their own text… And if that’s the case well…

31 07 2011

The appropriateness of the text, while crucial is not nearly so important to the learner as the effects of well developed comprehensible input. While I don’t think any of us would suggest that success is more important than the actual results I agree that the ability to immediately have access to the text is extremely important.

As someone who works with FLES as well as ELT strategies for secondary, the certainty factors in as key for the learners’ own empowerment!

31 07 2011
Luiz Otávio Barros

A while ago some colleagues and I were discussing (over coffee – no big academic motivations there…) the extent to which our (and I say “our”) adult students today are learning better (fluency, precision and accuracy) and faster (rate and ultimate level of achievement) than students in the 90s ever did and the general consensus was a resounding “no”. Some people went as far as to say “on the contrary.” The next logical question was, of course, “why not?” and I ventured an opinion that met with complete silence and one halfhearted nod.

“Because although they’ve never been surrounded by so much input, they don’t know what to do with it and we’re not really helping.”

So, your post (my favorite this year, by the way) on ELT’s over reliance on top down processing makes an awful lot of sense to me.

I think the key word here is “over” and the key variable might well be students in question.

Over the last, say, five years, I think I have taught / observed far more students who did NOT panic when they couldn’t understand a whole text / dialog than students who did. Students who were perfectly comfortable with ambivalence and skim reading / listening for gist. Students who often assumed they had heard / read things that were never said, probably because of hyper-activated schematic knowledge.

This means that, in such cases, advice such as “Don’t worry about what you don’t understand, focus on what you do” or “Read only the first two lines of the text and…” or “Listen to the dialog. Are they happy or sad?” would be innocuous at best and, to some extent, even harmful (in that it would subtly discourage students from processing the input linguistically, noticing things etc). On the other hand, if I were teaching a group of insecure 30-year-olds who relied on bottom up processing to the point of impaired comprehension, then I think the “Don’t worry about what you understand” formula would have a role to play – at least temporarily. But as I said, these are students I’ve been coming across less and less often.

So maybe it’s time bottom up processing was given a little more prominence in ELT again. But you know what – I worry about listening a little more than reading. Good course books do include tasks like “Look at line 36 again. What exactly does he mean by…”, generally stopping short, unfortunately, of grammar disambiguation tasks (like the passive / active voice activity you included in How to Teach Grammar).

For listening, however, I would like to see much more emphasis on things like “Listen to these sentences and write down exactly what you hear” or “Listen and count the number of words” or “Listen to each statement (in isolation, no contextual clues) and choose the best response.”

This means – and maybe I’m being naive / overly optimistic – that the students in question would turn on the TV, tune in to their favorite sitcoms, hear “If I’d told you, you’d’ve gotten mad at me” and be able to understand much more than “bla bla bla told you, bla bla bla gotten mad bla bla me” (with obvious interlanguage restructuring implications here).

So while I agree that having students plod through a passage and squeeze it dry is often synonymous with disastrous lessons, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the language-acquisition potential of enhanced comprehension should always be the overriding concern.

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Luiz. You conclude by saying that “we can’t lose sight of the fact that the language-acquisition potential of enhanced comprehension should always be the overriding concern”. Perhaps the overriding concern is two-fold: 1. enhancing comprehension, on the one hand, by using all the tricks in the book; 2. exploiting the language acquisition potential of the comprehension that results. This, I think, is Jack Richards’ point, in the article that I reference below (but I’ll reference it again, for good measure).

Click to access second-thoughts-on-teaching-listening.pdf

31 07 2011

Thanks, Scott, for replying so soon. I appreciate it a lot.

Given that you think that texts ought to be “subject to as much scrutiny as they and the learners will tolerate”, I’m curious to know what you do to “probe and probe and probe at the learners’ emergent understanding, until not a word has been by-passed, not a discourse marker ignored, not a verb ending overlooked, and not a question left unanswered”, as you say.

Who directs this probing of the text? Presumably the students? Isn’t there then a danger that such scrutiny could quickly escalate into a messy, confusing affair for students, where their questions/queries lead to all kinds of cans of worms being opened? Wouldn’t you be a little worried about information overload and corresponding demotivation?

I’d be really interested to know how you go about setting up and dealing with a listening/reading text. Any general tips?

Thanks again,


31 07 2011

Hi Scott, another interesting discussion has begun. Thank you to everyone who’s contributed so far. It’s not easy to posit a hypothetical lesson for critique and debate, is it? Doing so does raise interesting issues and ideas, however, and I hope I can continue the thread in that vein.

Teachers, especially beginning ones, might be uneasy with instructions that read ‘mediate the text to the extent that seems necessary’ although I believe such flexibility and room for creativity is exactly what could be missing in teacher training programs. Initially, it feels much safer and more comfortable to follow a beaten path, but if we had more permission and trial experiences, perhaps this wouldn’t be the case.

And so it goes with learners, who’ve typically been trained to follow in the footsteps of textbook-based learning as described above in Scott’s gnome lesson (throw in some plastic fruit for good measure?).

To me, someone who tends to seek zero uncertainty in language but has come to appreciate uncertainty in other aspects of life anyway, some learners express a hunger for text transcription and sorting out every detail while others aren’t as concerned, even in their L1. Is it a personality thing? If so, we’d need to set tasks that allowed each learner to locate and explore texts to the extent them deem interesting and necessary while we stand by to mediate according to their wishes and our professional assessment of what they need to stay challenged, interested, and motivated.

Quick example: With a partner, or a group, or on your own, find an audio text you like to listen to in English. Here are some examples of texts I like to listen to (NPR podcast, a song I heard yesterday and found the lyrics to, a stand up comedian’s routine). Bring the text to class tomorrow as a recording and in written form.

(Next day) Together with your partner(s), or on your own, listen to your text and:
*design set of questions that will determine if someone else might like to hear your text;
*design a set of questions to determine if you might like to hear a classmate’s text.

Students mingle, asking things like:

Do you like soccer? Are you interested in politics? Do you have a boyfriend?

Or, Is your text about sports (because I hate sports)? Is your text really long (that bored me)? Is your text too difficult for me (I know what’s right for me)?

Based on their answers, students exchange texts, maybe using digital technology, then listen to the texts at home for the next class.

This is just a quick idea, and I’ll rely on you to find the faults in it, but it seems better than rosy-nosed garden gnomes and schemata frittata to me.



31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Rob, not only for your insights into a more learner-driven pedagogy for receptive skills work, but – by so doing – for helping answer Wes’s question above.

As a footnote, and prompted by your comment that “some learners express a hunger for text transcription and sorting out every detail while others aren’t as concerned” I have a friend who is brushing up his Turkish by using the Skype app, Pamela, to record the one-hour conversations he has with his Turkish ‘teacher’ on Skype, which he then transcribes painstakingly in preparation for the next lesson. This, he says, works for him.

From an SLA point of view, it would seem to fulfil the need for a focus on form within the context of communicative interaction. From a dogme point of view, of course, it is totally learner driven. And, from an edtech point of view, it uses free and readily available technology for simple, effective, and pedagogically sound ends.

31 07 2011

Scott, synchronicity strikes again?! Your example came to mind as I was rushing through my lesson idea. I didn’t know there was an app (Pamela) for that – you tech savvy fellow! 🙂

Glad to know it wasn’t just me who thought that’d be a good way to learn another language. It seems similar to Stevick’s “way” of telling a story and having it told back to us, then repeating it after hearing the ‘more expert’ user of the L2 tell it. I used to transcribe the lyrics of a famous German pop singer when I started to learn German. Only later did I learn I’d chose the German equivalent of Michael Stipe (lead singer of REM), a man who sort of mumbles the lines. Oh well, I was motivated, but not everyone is so tenacious. So I think something like the lesson I brainstormed or Open Space Technology might leave room for people who are less inclined to transcribe or analyze in depth. Or should we find alternate techniques to afford these learners the same opportunities to notice and grammar (used as a verb there)?


31 07 2011
Simon Greenall

Hi Scott
You know I’m a huge admirer of this blog. It take what you’re saying about zero uncertainty, BUT …

You can’t create some fatuous content as an example, then generalize that it >> could be from any current coursebook<>(… why are 90% of all coursebook listenings still scripted?). The reason s that this is what many teachers ask for and expect. It’s not a conspiracy among publishers, and it’s not necessarily what textbook writers or editors want to do. Authentic material can be excellent, but is hard to collect in acoustically clear conditions demanded – rightfully – by teachers sometimes working in noisy classrooms with technical equipment of dubious quality. I would also suggest that, in my experience, authentic material runs the risk of compromising the content, which is exactly one of the issues you’re raising.

I agree that some scripted material is dire, but I wouldn’t agree that authentic material is better. It’s possible to do semi-scripted material in studio conditions, with actors working from prompts and obtaining what Widdowson (I need to find the reference) refers to as typical English (not authentic – spoken for non ELT listeners, or scripted – written specially for ELT listeners and without the spontaneous features of natural spoken English). Personally, I wish there was more of this semi-scripted/typical listening material available.

But I think you’re weakening your otherwise informative argument by saying your ‘Gnome content’ is typical of textbook material, when it’s your own invention of an exaggerated example. Some people work extremely hard on a daily basis to avoid exactly the kind of issues you raise, and I think it’s only fair to challenge you.


31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Simon, first of all, I hear your indignation loud and clear, and I accept that – as always – market forces are largely to blame for any perceived weaknesses of coursebooks: just as voters get the governments they deserve, so too do teachers (and their long-suffering students!) get the coursebooks they deserve. Nevertheless, that sad fact shouldn’t preclude (informed) criticism of said choices.

As to the argument that my ‘garden gnome’ example is wilfully UNinformed, I admit that the example was deliberately facetious. But it was prompted by a frustration at being unable to find anything to show my trainee teachers that seemed representative of coursebook listening texts and that I could be sure wouldn’t raise either a snicker or a sneer. Admittedly, I only had publishers’ sites on the internet to draw on, but you’d think that the publishers would put up their best stuff there.

And you misunderstand me: I’m not calling for authentic material at all – for all the reasons you point out. I am calling for unscripted material, recorded in studio conditions, of the type you mention, but not using actors. In the school I worked at in Barcelona there was a healthy tradition of teachers recording other teachers (‘Hey you got a minute: tell me about an unusual job you once had – it’s for my lower intermediate class’). Teachers have a happy knack of knowing how to grade their language yet retain the prosodic features – including performance ‘slips’ – of natural speech. (In my experience working with actors in studios, they are fairly hopeless at this, tending to sound like they’re auditioning for a play by Harold Pinter). Moreover, because the students might even know the teachers concerned, there is a tiny bit of added interest in these easily assembled listening texts.

When I went on to work at the Netlanguages project, most of our recorded texts were produced in this unscripted fashion, and many of the tasks required learners to transcribe sections of them word for word. Publishers, convince your market that this is the way to go!

31 07 2011

I cannot count the amount of wasted time I’ve spent doing coursebook listenings just because they were needed for the rest of the unit.

In England I remember doing listening lab classes which were really useful for all levels. Most gist tasks were pretty pointless as they were frequently too easy but students enjoyed doing more and more difficult subsequent tasks similar to your ideas of ‘uncovering’ language but from a listening. Lower levels loved it and even CAE/CPE ones as found that actually they didn’t understand everything. Those could could transcriptions or rerecord their own versions or summaries of what they’d heard.

I completely agree that artificial listenings are silly. At one time I used to record them for various schools and the scripts were just daft. This highlights a systematic problem which still exists in EFL. Shouldn’t our class be as close to the real world as possible with real texts and listenings? It reminds me of my old Chinese book where we learned “hello comrade” which when I said it in China I was laughed at as it now means something completely different.

31 07 2011
Simon Ensor

1 Chuck out course book. Sell course book. Exchange course book.

2 Establish personal dialogue with learners.

3 Let learners (teacher included) organise activities (including listening), resources, calendar, and grouping according to objectives and interests. If necessary/desirable retrieve one or two documents from course book before doing step 1.

4 Do nothing rather than something which has no intrinsic meaning for learner.

5 Provide scaffolding when required by learners to achieve what they want to achieve. Scaffolding
option 1 Explanation by more skilled other(s)
option 2 Subtitles in language chosen by learner
option 3 Graphical/textual documents which aid comprehension
option 4 Refer to diverse reference resources – dictionary etc.

6 Listen to same, similar or different real language examples until scaffolding reduced to minimum.

7 Monitor progress and renegotiate activities.

31 07 2011
Declan Cooley

As far as text choice is concerned, I thought it might be interesting to report how a colleague of mine ran an entire course based on Youtube clips; students chose the clips and then created lesson materials for them’; afterwards, they ran the lessons themselves with great levels of intrinsic interest (it was a practical english course in a teacher training college) [sidenote: in some ways it turned into a practicum as they commented on each other’s lessons electronically on a learning platform]. Nowadays, with things like Jamie Keddie’s http://lessonstream.org/browse-lessons/ there are probably fewer and fewer reasons to confine oneself to coursebook texts. Even then, I notice that in more recent books such as English Unlimited, CUP there are wonderful video clips of non-native speakers talking [http://tinyurl.com/38z6kwc] with an option of having the tapescript right up there on the IWB alongside the clip (and so we have chosen to use it as the first book our trainees use on our CELTA courses).

When it comes to text type, I feel there is a lack of normal everyday dialogue as a text type – too often it seems we get a radio program with its long turns and written-text-read-aloud feel. Even when there is subsequent exploration of the dialogues – they do not seem to focus on features of spoken English (turn-taking and the like) nor look at suprasegmentals – a sensitivity to which can really accelerate a students’ ability to tune in. [ Again, there are exceptions, the book Natural English OUP had some very nice post-listening language focuses as does English Unlimited]. And every text ought to be mined for collocational chunks.

Task design is a clear issue with the gnome lesson above – it almost seems designed to not offend anyone by being in any way challenging ! However, I agree with Rob that “Teachers, especially beginning ones, might be uneasy with instructions that read ‘mediate the text to the extent that seems necessary’”. When mediating the planning of a listening lesson with a novice teacher it is quite easy to move tasks round, create better schema-activating stages, pick actually needed vocab to preteach and/or have the teacher re-write the tasks or extend them so as to be more challenging and get to the heart of what the text is really about – and this is one skill which I feel HAS to be part of an initial teacher training course – especially with the variability among students of learning style (ambiguity tolerance being a major one) as well as general comfort with and previous exposure to natural spoken English as Luiz mentions.

On a broader point, I suppose only religious texts (pored over and learnt by heart) and literature (probed for hidden meaning) are usually subject to such minute perusal so perhaps this is a call to return to the use of literature and other intrinsically attractive texts in the classroom ?

31 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Declan. On my MA TESOL course, as an alternative to coursebook texts, I showed the students a short clip of Javier Bardem answering an (unseen) interviewer’s (unheard) questions, from the NY Times site. It’s here: http://tinyurl.com/3csu9lu
(There are many such interviews)

Not only is it unscripted, audible, and I think, intrinsically interesting (assuming some interest in movies), but it is a non-native speaker speaking fluid, idiomatic, but Spanish-accented English – an excellent role model for (particularly Spanish-speaking) students. Not only that, there is a natural gist task: what were the interviewer’s questions?

With material like this, who needs coursebooks?

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Declan, I didn’t pick up on your suggestion that literature might provide the kinds of texts that ‘bear the weight’ of the kind of exegesis a more bottom-up approach implies, and I think you are right – literature tends to be underexploited in coursebooks, although Lindsay Clandfield’s Global series is breaking new ground in this direction.

I’m sort of experiencing the challenge and excitement of a close reading of a literary text at the moment, as I painstakingly work my way through Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in preparation for seeing a production of it tomorrow night. Even with the help of the generous end-notes in the New Penguin Shakespeare edition, I am still a long long way from zero uncertainty! But I’m enjoying the journey.

1 08 2011
Declan Cooley

Hopefully, the production’s skilled rendering of its “prosodic features, essential for decoding meaning” will get you closer to the zero point 😉

31 07 2011
Simon Greenall

As always, thanks for your moderate and thoughtful reply. I hope mine will be equal to yours.

Indignation, hm. One of our friends and colleagues once asked for permission to use an extract from one of my textbooks in their teacher training manual. It was a double page spread of reading and listening material, which was then reproduced as a single page reading lesson in the TT manual, and criticized as lacking listening (integrated skills) material. Sometimes (informed) criticism criticism smells like a stitch up.

I’m OK with the facetious example, but you didn’t say that it was facetious. You implied it was typical.

I understand the unscripted material you’re suggesting. It sounds great, and I’m sure it was well received. Well, forgive me for saying the unthinkable but you’re talking about a situation which is only available to rich western teachers and students, who have access to native/near native speakers who understand why you want to record them talking about an unusual job you once had. But most staffrooms around the world don’t have these resources or the training to exploit them if available. Not even publishers or textbook writers can access them even If they agreed with you and thought it was the best way forward.

We all need your cutting edge insights into methodology. But I think you have a responsibility towards a pragmatic understanding of different contexts. Because if you don’t, you end up creating a second class citizenship of teachers, especially in the non-western world, who understand the points you make, but consider themselves to be excluded because of their own particular circumstances. And they don’t know how many other teachers share that sense of exclusion.

Don’t know what you’re watching tonight, but I have Barbra Streisand on FR TV. Hope you’re enjoying yourself as much as I am.


1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Simon (and thanks for sending me the text so I could restore the bits that were deleted by some rogue code).

I’m not really suggesting that teachers should record one another if they don’t have the wherewithal (although mobile phones and free software like Audacity make the wherewithal more accessible than ever). Rather, I’m asking why publishers still insist on scripting dialogues that could be recorded easily using skilled teachers, rather than actors, and would thereby retain many of the prosodic features of naturally occurring speech – not because these prosodic features are a ‘nice addition’, but because they are essential for decoding meaning. We would make the students’ job a lot easier if they could hear – for example – the way that high key is used to introduce new topics, something that a person reading aloud from a script is unlikely to do because – if they’ve already read the script through beforehand – no topic is new to them.

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote on the subject of unscripted audio texts, this website is just brilliant – a ton of short, unscripted listening files, with transcripts, ina variety of accents (NS and NNS): http://www.elllo.org/

1 08 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Just a quick point about the website ELLLO that you point out in your following comment, Scott: the texts and recordings can be very good but some of the tasks attached to them can be problematic (not that there is such a thing as the perfect set of materials, either…)

1 08 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Hello Simon, I think considering the technical/financial affordances of teachers is important, but do you think that situations where recording texts is unfeasible, that there is actually the wherewithal to play purchased published material, or even to have access to coursebooks?

This is not a rhetorical question: having no first hand experience teaching outside of what I know are relatively privileged contexts, I would like some input on this, as it seems to me (perhaps naively) that it is less problematic in low-resource areas to record colleagues than ensure the supply of costly published materials.

1 08 2011

Isn’t the biggest problem with course books not that they adhere to market forces, but that they don’t. Most content is so uninspiring.

This is because people who write coursebooks sit from nine to five in offices writing to hypothetical audiences. They don’t get out and speak to, never mind teach, esl learners.

How creative and interesting can you expect to be if you are stuck in a non-descript office all day looking at a computer and writing to deadlines while earning a flat salary from a corporation?

1 08 2011
Declan Cooley

I feel your pain, Luan. Often, when flicking page by page through a coursebook to assign materials to a new teacher, my thoughts-per-page are “no, er no, meh, pffff, oh OK, no, meh, hmm maybe” and I sometimes despair internally at having a novice teacher doing something interesting with these materials when I myself would have to do somersaults to raise it to the level of engagement necessary to keep students coming back.

Where this thin gruel stems from has been much debated (as if it were as mysterious as the causes of crop circles) but beyond the “bland-offends-no-one-nor-interests-many” theory, I would put forward the hypothesis that there must also be an issue with the feedback publishers are getting, including from both the piloting process of new materials by schools as well as the overgenerous reviews (by people who perhaps hope to become writers themselves) in teacher-targetted journals.

I’m not sure to what extent your depiction of coursebook writers is very accurate – from what I know, far from being the out-of-touch cubicle-bound corporate serfs you imagine, many are indeed long-in-the-tooth teachers who do still “keep their hand in” with teaching – but often they write to a specific brief which may constrain them.

Still, “it gets better” – recent publications have started to up their game – I really like the look of Speakout, Pearson/Longman – http://www.pearsonlongman.com/speakout/index.html

1 08 2011
Declan Cooley

This is a more accurate view of coursebook-writing from a writer’s point of view: http://www.pearsonlongman.com/speakout/author_steve.html

1 08 2011

Luan writes:

“Most [coursebook] content is so uninspiring.”

Okay, but are all coursebooks equally uninspiring? And who finds them uninspiring exactly? Clearly you do, but does every single one of your students find them uninspiring too?

Luan further comments:

“This is because people who write coursebooks sit from nine to five in offices writing to hypothetical audiences.”

Surely you might well say the same thing about every novel that has ever been written, every film that has been directed – all of which were/are created with a “hypothetical” audience in mind. Isn’t it simply impossible to pre-select and grade every piece of material we use to fit the “real” needs and preferences of each and every one of the students in the class? Scott refers us to the Javier Bardem interview, which to all intents and purposes looks like a nice bit of material for a lesson indeed, but not every single student in the class is going to be interested in him and his answers or find his language profitable for their own learning (my partner can’t stand him for some reason!). Yes, it behoves us as teachers to make the conditions for learning maximally effective and this entails responding to students’ own requirements – absolutely – but it doesn’t follow that all coursebooks ought to be trashed without regard.

As Simon Greenall says, there is plenty of dire stuff to be found in coursebooks, but there are coursebooks out there that provide superlative material too, which a good teacher will tease out and exploit for students. There is certainly a place for alternative materials and dogme style approaches, no question, but there is yet a place for good coursebooks. Let’s not forget that plenty of students enjoy coursebooks (or at least particular material found within) and often say so. If that’s is the case, we shouldn’t be too quick to rush off and all become coursebook iconoclasts, no matter how fashionable it is.

1 08 2011

Have you heard of Sturgeon’s Law? It rings extremely true in coursebook land…

1 08 2011
Anthony Gaughan

At least in terms of ESP coursebooks, I would take issue with this blanket criticism. But I also have to declare an interest (albeit a sporting one).

I’ve been involved in the recent past with pre publication reviewing of some material for the business English market. I found all of the reading and listening texts at least interesting and the majority was highly stimulating. I was familiar with the brief from the authors for their target readership and I think they had selected texts that would be inherently interesting for them.

And the texts were a mix of authentic and “semi-authentic” – the readings tended to be raw authentic; the listenings were either specially arranged interviews under studio conditions but with real people responding as real people would, or excerpts from corpus data of conversations etc. All in all, a refreshingly different diet from the one I am used to from published materials. And the tasks were often (though not always) more original and more useful than those you parody, Scott.

So at the risk of losing my Unplugged membership card, I think there is hope for the harried coursebook, and publishers and authors perhaps need some more credit for what they are doing right – otherwise, how will they know to keep doing it? 😉

And no, I can’t tell you what material I was reviewing – Official Secrets Act and all that (I’ll probably be “disappeared” simply for posting this com…)

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Anthony, and the gentle reminder that not all published course materials are as flawed as I paint them. It doesn’t surprise me that ESP materials are leading the way with respect to the quality of their listening texts (although see Evan Frendo’s latest blog post for a less sanguine take on ESP coursebooks). ESP has the enormous advantage of having – by definition – a specific purpose, whereas general English courses tend to fill the vacuum that is created by their having no purposeful content, with pap. Or if not pap, at least with wholesome, but ultimately, fairly unappetising roughage.

But the point of my original post was not so much to critique the content of listening texts (and the choice of the gnome theme was perhaps unfortunate – some of my best friends are gnomes). It was really to critique the somewhat superficial way such texts are dealt with.

2 08 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Very good point about ESP having a natural advantage 🙂

My comment was less directed at your original post than at some of the subsequent comments, though. The image of thelonely and isolated coursebook writer in their garret (or perhaps visualized in their luxury penthouse garret, purchased with their seedily gained royalties), unaware or uninterested in what actually moves the world, is one that I can’t say concords with my (admittedly limited) experience of them.

But as I say, this wasn’t your line of criticism; I agree that there is an over reliance on top down procedures that are overly geared to smoothing the road to comprehension when we all know the real world often doesn’t play ball like that.

But as you suggest in your critique, it’s more the tasks than the texts at issue, so a way for those teachers whom Simon is concerned for to make better use of available coursebook texts might be occasionally use them as if the class had just tuned into them while spinning the dial on the radio (oh, showing my age here…) the class could try to “tune” in to the topic as quickly as possible and then discuss the bottom up details that they used as a way into the text.

Bowen & Marks Learning Teaching and John Field have good ideas in this direction too, I think.

2 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Nice idea – spinning the dial. Sort of John Cage-y approach

It occurs to me that it’s odd that no one has mentioned in this discussion so far the benefits of ‘live listening’ – as an alternative to listening to audio recordings or even live broadcasts. By ‘live listening’ I mean simply listening to the teacher (or a guest), e.g. telling an anecdote, explaining a process etc. This has all the advantages that audio recordings lack: unscriptedness, authenticity, visual support, intrinsic interest, plus the ability, on the part of the students, to interact with the speaker, and, on the part of the teacher, to monitor understanding directly, and to calibrate the level of difficulty accordingly.

In fact it was a core dogme ‘dogma’ that the only listening that should be done in the classroom is that which takes place between the people in the room.

So why does it seem so out of favour?

Critics of live listening are always quick to point out that listening solely to their teacher doesn’t give students exposure to a wide range of voices and accents. This is relatively easily dealt with, nowadays, by homework tasks using websites like elllo. And it would seem that the benefits of engaging directly and intensively with just one speaker would outweigh the disadvantages of limited accent exposure, especially if the alternative is the kind of superficial exposure to scripted recordings that I have been criticising.

Another disadvantage, supposedly, is that live listenings are ephemeral – you can’t go back and re-visit parts of them, for example.But this is easily remedied by simply recording yourself as you talk – I’ve seen some very effective lessons done using this technique.

Finally, live listenings tend to be monologic, so that students don’t get opportunities to hear interactive talk. But if they are encouraged to interact with the teacher ‘in flight’, then not only are they getting exposure to other people’s interactions, they are getting direct practice at interacting themselves.

2 08 2011
Anthony Gaughan

“Live listening out of favour?” Not in my neck of the woods! 😉
I see a lot of it these days on our courses and the interest generated by these lessons is palpable. It’s the human thing, the fact that the teachers are sharing something real and personal (which is not to say intimate) with their learners, who are instantly engaged by it without any need for artificial “warmers” etc. When learners lose the plot, they interrupt and ask (as you would) and a “negotiation for meaning” (Long et al) could be said to take place. As for re-playing the text, teachers have done various things: re-read a script, replayed a short part of the original, run an abridged version, etc. Lots of options.

Of course, they can pitch it wrong, or they can ham it up too much, or they can mistrust its inherent interest and kill it through deadpan delivery, but this is actually fairly rare, and even when it happens, the learners step up to the plate in a way that is, in my view, more difficult when your interlocutor is a loudspeaker 😉

1 08 2011
Lao The Younger

From all accounts, Simon is one of the most pleasant people in this industry, so I hope I don’t cause any offence. The comments are most certainly not directed at him (or indeed at any jobbing writers). Scott suggests that we get the governments we deserve, just as teachers get the books they want. I’m not sure that I’m in agreement. People get one of the governments that they are offered, assuming that they live in a “demo”cracy, and they are usually obliged to make a completely uninformed choice. Teachers are obliged to get the books that they are told to use and only then, from the books that are on offer. I don’t buy into the myth that publishers are just innocent bystanders, trying to meet a demand. They shape the demand. I do think it is a bit bombasti to imply that any criticism of coursebooks is akin to keeping the natives stupid or attacking the hard work of the working class. It’s a bit like appealing to middle class angst in the hope that somebody will back down from their stance. Well, as far as I can see, the only people who are keeping the natives in a state of ignorance are the publishing houses, and I draw a distinction between the people who write the books and the books themselves. I am sure that it is the result of a lot of hard work and that they approached the whole affair with rigour and determination to make a difference. But I have yet to find an author who is 100% happy with the book that the publisher put on the market.

But enough already. Far be it from me to spoil the state of nirvana induced by Ms Streisland. Back to listening. Years ago I read an article by Tony Lynch where he extolled the virtues of transcription. His students, he claimed, loved it. I found it hard to believe, but he was adamant so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

I got some students to go to the BBC’s video nation online archive and choose any topic that they fancied. They were told that they would have to transcribe every single word, hesitation, filler, grunt etc. They were told to choose no text that lasted any longer than 1 minute 30 seconds. And they seemed to love it. That is, they remained on task for a whole hour and did none of the usual surreptitious email checking or chatting. It was a first for me and the only thing that has caused me to abandon the practice is the woeful internet connection at my place of work. These days, as Scott says, they do it for homework.

But then again, I don’t know if I agree with the need for 100% comprehension. I settle for 80%+ (as if I could really quantify this!), but am obliged at times to settle for 50% or less. This is when I feel most uncomfortable and threatened. When I first saw Amores Perros, I had to abandon all hopes of enjoying the film and settle for just trying to get a grip on what was going on. My experience with films from Colombia, Cuba, and other such places is similar. If I am at hope, I pop the subtitles on and luxuriate in the 100% certainty that they give me. But when I am in a plaza or in the street, 80% does it for me. And I ask questions. I request repetition. I check understanding and employ a lot of other coping strategies that are utterly redundant in the language classroom.

And yet, it is these language strategies (urgh…a clumsy bit of sentence construction there) which I also think are fundamental to becoming a better listerener (and speaker). Like Rob, I spent much of my time transcribing songs (both in English as a child) and in Spanish as an adult. When I lived in Greece, I transcribed Eleftheria Arvanitaki’s To Kokkino Foustani without even speaking Greek. I have recently managed to do the same with the himno de Athletic Club de Bilbao without speaking Basque (and it features words such as euskalherriaren irakusgaria). This also drew my attention to the way that Michael Stipe pronounced his words (or didn’t bother to) so that when I sang along with him, I would essentially be mimicking him. Sometimes, of course, I created better lyrics (compare my “At the bedside of cu chulainn, where nihilists say a prayer’ to Shane Magowan’s “we’ll kneel and say a prayer” and tell me who would have gone on to pop stardom…?)

All of these finer points of listening are wasted in the classroom and using the coursebook apporach to listening and this is why I would never use a coursebook listening nor any activity connected to a coursebook listening. They are as inauthentic and annoying as are the Spanish women who dub the voices of children in foreign films or on TV. Give me Streisand any day!

1 08 2011

There’s probably a few businessy reasons for the blandness or them being out-of-date.

1. The publishers probably want the biggest target market possible which is why so many books say they are self-study and for class use.

2. Market research, planning, writing etc takes a long time so things will be out-of-date when the final work comes out.

3. Some of us live in places where you can be sued for anything so publishers probably don’t want to take the risk of being too controversial.

4. I think the kid teen market is still pretty big so books may have to be written with that in mind.

But this is where the net comes in. You can get a lesson based on today’s news from countless sites and some with mature topics.

Also the harder books try to look modern to quicker they don’t after a year. Think about how many class textbooks or resources you still use from your staff room which probably cover almost ‘eternal’ topics.

I don’t think you can blame writers as Declan said they are fulfilling a brief from a company who has done research (hopefully) and found that X book would sell. In fact, we should praise them as they are often trying to balance the publisher’s demands with creativity and their own view of what is actually possible.

1 08 2011

Lindsay Clandfield (material writing genius) gave an interesting talk about what”s popular in coursebook writing . Very interesting.


Scroll down.

1 08 2011
Paraskevi Andreopoul

In Greece, where I work , the coursebook material scripted is targeted at students’ passing exams with full marks; therefore, they the material itself tends to be abstract and indifferent to Ss’ real needs, and as such, they tend to become disgruntled and struggle through every single utterance and inferences just for the sake of passing CAMBRIDGE ESOL Examinations.

Fortunately, that does not happen with my older students who want to learn Modern Greek as a second language; THEY tend to direct ME to teach THEM REAL WORLD MATERIAL VITALLY IMPORTANT TO THEIR NEEDS!!!

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote to my original post, I should add that Jack Richards had ‘second thoughts’ about classroom listening several years ago, and writes about it in a much less cantankerous way than I do:

Click to access second-thoughts-on-teaching-listening.pdf

1 08 2011

I like the warning about the ‘repetitive’ and ‘tiresome’ result on students. This is a tricky one. I have a lot of students wonder why they should listen again to something as they get the gist and some of the detail the first time around. They may see having to listen twice as a sign that they didn’t understand it and lose face. The transcription idea mentioned above removes the possible failure of not knowing an answer as there is no question.

I also love the idea of teaching with listening and then doing related speaking work. Some of the A-Z discussion type books and Business cases use listenings to help create scenarios or teach. Many books still seem to look like they focus more on the readings and grammar. Adding a compulsory speaking activity then wouldn’t be as good as if it followed a listening as they’d have better models or at least be in the mood of listening which is part of conversation.


1 08 2011
Martin Sketchley

A very interesting listening activity, in the sense that it is incredibly inappropriate, in my personal opinion, for language learners. I dislike the predictable method of listening: discuss about topic, listening questions and then finally discussion.

I would rather do it completely differently to ensure learners’ activate the schema whilst doing the listening:

1. Play the ‘scripted’ listening
2. Ask learners to write down any words that they heard during the listening activity: garden, postcard, etc
3. Let students guess the topic of the listening from the vocabulary that would have been transcribed onto the classroom board
4. Play the recording again to check that the vocabulary that was elicited from students is actually on the whiteboard
5. Provide the scripted listening questions (or get students to write up their own listening questions at the end of class – proponents of a learner-centred classroom)
6. Possibly play a short video clip of “Amelie” about her father’s gnome going on a world-trip and sending post-cards/photos – elicit from students which countries the gnome visited.
7. Get students to write up conversational questions about “Seeing the world” and places in the world that they would like to visit: “Describe a country you would like to or not like to visit.”, “Have you ever seen one of the seven wonders of the world? Can you name each one?”, etc.

This would be more beneficial and would perhaps offer more opportunity for conversational areas than the dry ‘top-down’ listening within the coursebook. Hopefully, the lesson suggested above should provide a ‘bottom-up’ approach to listening. Again, my approach to listening may not suit every student with some students preferring to led compared to other learners.

A useful “Amelie” link for video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuUM4z9l0M

Of course, there can be incredibly important situations when it is imperative for learners to fully understand with what they are listening such as the examples that you provided Scott. However, through these negative experiences, I firmly believe that learning develops upon reflection of listening mistakes. Hopefully, learners will become more aware that they will not make the same mistake again and that it motivates learners to improve their language skills. Yet, I could be wrong.

An interesting post about the unsuitability of coursebook listening for students requiring something different.

1 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Martin, for that detailed alternative approach. I’m with you up to point 5 in your sequence – in that I like the deep-end approach, which exploits the recognition of lexical items as a hook on which to hang their overall understanding of the gist, and as a lead-in to having them design their own questions – a cycle which could work through several iterations,

It’s not clear, though, from your description, that, having devised their questions they are given further exposures to the text, in order to answer them. Personally, I would withhold the ‘Amelie’ clip until the above cycle has been repeated enough times to assure me that they had no more questions that they needed answering. (The video clip would invite a whole further set of – topic-related but text-specific – questions).

1 08 2011
Martin Sketchley

Scott, thank you for your reply. I suppose the video clip (in hindsight), can be a complementary lesson (possibly a totally different lesson). With further reflection, I agree with your sentiments and as teachers we need to squeeze the best out of a lesson with limited resources or over-reliance with materials. One method could be a dictogloss-related activity for the lesson whereby students recreate their own transcript and then formulate their own listening questions for other classes/learners.

Last week, I was in a similar position when teaching the Past-Perfect Continuous/Progressive form to students. I decided to literally throw the book out the classroom and develop my own material. I ended up doing a dictogloss activity which offered many opportunities to focus on different forms of the Past-Perfect, Past Continuous as well as the Past-Perfect Continuous (when students rewrote what they thought they heard). Fortunately, students were able to re-write sentences on the aim of the grammar and we extracted and analysed this form. Finally, students were given the opportunity to reformulate prompts to re-write the target language. I suppose the objective for many teachers is not knowing your grammar but knowing how to extract grammar in a suitable context which encourages learners to ‘notice’ forms. This is also applicable for other skill areas, such as listening.

1 08 2011

This is a principle I am in complete agreement with – the need to do more with less in the language classroom. I often feel that we are so busy trying to cover everything that we don’t do enough with the things we do use. If the material is interesting, and students are engaged, then stay on it and wring it dry. If not, move onto something that is.
The complete transcription idea is ‘new’ to me, but given experiences with dictogloss etc in the class it shouldn’t surprise me. Students want exact copies, and frequently complain when they don’t get em. Why not give them the lot and let them decide what they want out of it? It also strikes me as what I like to do when learning language. Record n write out – all of it!

2 08 2011

Hello everyone!
The live listening part of the conversation reminded me of a technique Paul Seligson suggested at a TESOL-Spain presentation a couple of years ago. He proposed that the teacher could stop speaking in the middle of an utterance. Students would then have to think of an appropriate way to complete the… (sentence / utterance –this is an example) and then whisper it to their partner (so that everyone is involved). This is a way we can turn our talking into a listening activity. He also suggested using shorter texts (this would allow for an in-depth exploration without taking up too much time)

3 08 2011

I’d like to share this pdf of a short book By Frank Smith, to whom Scott has attributed the term ‘zero uncertainty’. Although the book is primarily about children’s learning, the word ‘uncertainty’ (but never preceded by ‘zero’) appears well over 50 times. The text gives one a sense of Smith’s ideas around comprehension and learning as applies to educational psychology. From there, it’s not too big a leap to imagine a state of ‘zero uncertainty’.

Click to access franksmith3.pdf

I hope some of you find time to read at least a chapter or two if this interests you.


3 08 2011

Sorry, I should also have mentioned that portions of Smith’s book, Understanding Reading, which Scott cites in the blog post, are available here: http://books.google.com/books?id=O64gAEzhDZ0C&source=gbs_atb

3 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for those references, Rob. You are right — Smith doesn’t use the term ‘zero uncertainty’ itself. But, on page 18 of Understanding Reading, with reference to prediction, he says “We predict to reduce any uncertainty we might have, and therefore to reduce the amount of external information we require. Our theory of the world tells us the most probable occurrences and we decide among those remaining alternatives until uncertainty is reduced to zero.”

He adds, “The very notion that comprehension is relative, that it depends on the questions that an individual happens to ask, is not one that all educators find it easy to accept. Some want to argue that you may not have understood a book even if you have no unanswered questions at the end. They will ask, “But did you understand that the spy’s failure to steal the secret plans was really a symbol of humanity’s ineluctable hopelessness in the face of manifest destiny?” And if you say “No, I just thought it was a jolly good story,” they will tell you that you didn’t really comprehend what the story was about. But basically what they are saying is that you were not asking the kinds of questions they think you should have asked” (p. 19).

3 08 2011

Whether Smith uses the term ‘zero uncertainty’ as such is, as you imply, Scott, not as significant as the concept itself. Thanks for posting those snippets. That second paragraph is very relevant to many education settings, I think. So often learners are asked to sort of guess what’s on the teacher’s mind.regarding the subject matter at hand. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself as a teacher. That takes us back to listening more, often between the lines, to understand where people are coming from.

4 08 2011

I generally use a text to do gist and specific info tasks and then as the context for a productive task. I did a class last night with a group of pre-intermediates with a number of stages designed to get close to a point of zero uncertainty. The text was interesting (it was about compensation culture in the U.S., people suing for petty grievances and focused on the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling coffee on herself). After a gist stage that had both easy (which I still think is essential to make sure that some of the weaker students understand the context and aren’t lost the whole time) and more challenging questions, I did a gap fill with missing collocations and expressions. The early finishers boarded the answers and then with their partners they thought of different ways to say the same things the expressions were saying. They then went through the text underlining any other collocations of common phrases that I didn’t highlight and circling any words they didn’t understand and we went over what was left. Then they did a gap-fill with some of the phrases before we moved away from the text onto a productive activity. I asked my students afterwards if they like spending this much time on a text and if they want to understand 100% of what they read or if it’s OK to move on before they’ve gotten it all. They were nearly unanimous in saying they wanted to understand 90-100% and they like the activity a lot. This will change a lot of the way I go about planning my lessons, I think! Thanks for the great discussion Scott!

4 08 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, David, for this great (and fresh!) example of a text being used thoroughly, and for different purposes.

This reminds me of a distinction that I found very helpful when training on the DELTA, and one that i first read about in a (wonderful) little article in ELT Journal in 1986 (!), by Ray Williams, called ‘”Top ten” principles for teaching reading’ (ELT Journal, 40/1), in which he alluded to a distinction – first made in an even earlier article, by Johns & Davies (1983) – between what they call TALO (text as linguistic object) and TAVI (text as vehicle for information).

Traditionally, texts were used as linguistic objects, i.e. as contexts for teaching grammar and vocabulary. Then, with the advent of the communicative approach, there was a shift to using them as ‘vehicles of information’ (TAVI). Perhaps now we need to restore the balance a little, and use texts both for their TAVI and their TALO potential.

Incidentally, in the same article, Williams makes the point that “In the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible.” Discuss!

4 08 2011

David, I know this is off-topic for this thread, but you might like to keep an eye out for this documentary. It turns out that politically conservative corporate interests have created a myth around the lawsuit you mention. It was not a petty grievance as tort reformist would like us to believe:

You can learn more here: http://tinyurl.com/42ftyrj

Might make for an interesting follow-up discussion.

Glad the lesson worked well for you and your students.


4 08 2011

Completely true, but since we’re often constrained by a syllabus (although this can become an excuse not to seek out better materials/texts) or time constraints, I think some of the less interesting texts have use for either comprehension (TAVI roughly) or acquisition (TALO roughly). I got mine from a book called Taboos and Issues by Richard MacAndrew and Ron Martinez. There are a lot of interesting texts and activities in it. I don’t think we need to use an interesting text every time (it’s unrealistic to expect us to find one that will satisfy whatever grammar we need to be teaching) but, as with everything, moderation is key.

4 08 2011
Anna Pires

Hi Scott!

I’m on holiday, so limited access to net. Just stopped by to share a link to an interesting TED talk on listening http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better.html

Will come back to leave a proper comment when I can access net for longer than 5mins.


21 09 2011
Richard Cauldwell (@richcauld)

Hi Scott,

I enjoyed your rant on listening. Totally agree that there should be a focus on the linguistic aspects of a recording. Listening methodology has evolved in such a way that we avoid detailed encounters with the recording, and we overindulge in worthy-but-peripheral matters such as the top down stuff and compensatory strategies. We need to get people engaging with the sound-substance of speech. I last ranted on 30th May 2011 on my blog at http://streamingspeech.blogspot.com/

23 09 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Richard for your comment (what, me rant?!) and reminding me that listening texts can provide rich material for – as you put it – ‘engaging with the sound-substance of speech’. Thanks for the link!

7 10 2011

Dear Scott,

I have read a lot of your published works and I admire your passion for teaching and learning and your willingness to question orthodox practices and beliefs in our field.

As for your obsession with SLA, I agree that it is crucial for teachers to have a solid understanding of the theory underlying approaches to language teaching. This knowledge is vital for helping teachers develop their own personal theory of practice, fundamental for forging their own beliefs and principles about teaching and learning languages.

In light of this, I wonder if you have any recommendations for websites or current readings on SLA–preferably resources available online. I am living in Asia without access to a lending library nor a budget for buying new books.

Any help/advice would be appreciated.

7 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Derek for your kind words. Good question about websites on SLA. Here’s one I have bookmarked, but I am sure there must be lots more. It’s Dr Vivian Cook’s and includes a wide range of stuff he has written:

9 10 2011

Thanks for the link.

22 10 2011
Rachel Williams

Hi Scott,

Your blog was my first port of call before starting my skills essay for my Delta -which I may now have to totally rethink/change from ‘Listening to authentic material for Global Understanding’ to ‘Understanding more than just the gist of authentic material by using both top down and bottom up processing’.

It has certainly given me food for thought, although with my own language learning I feel that I’d often be happy at the French speaking dinner table if I could only just follow the gist enough to realise when the topic had changed it would be a far more pleasanter experience.

I hope my lesson doesn’t come too close to your ‘gnome’ one, although the script seems very similar to a hand out we received on ‘What a receptive skills lesson should look like.’

This is one idea that would match the requirements of both types of learners – (and I do have a few who want to know every word that they hear, which is perfectly within their rights, as I don’t feel it’s my place to tell students what they need.)- Global understanding with achievable, easy, gnome like, tasks to get the whole picture, followed by taking, maybe 15/30 seconds of a particularly interesting, vocabulary rich piece of dialogue from the original piece and transcribing, analysing, inferring from that as the follow up task. That way it might be achievable in a single lesson and not be too messy.

Another idea that a colleague used recently was to give the students control of the listening in groups, allowing them to negotiate with each other when to stop, rewind and play, so they could listen in as much detail as they wanted. Far less teacher centred.

Anyway, I’m off to follow your links. Thank you for making me think as always.

28 05 2018
Herman Schulz Barrenechea

Interesting way to gather information from different posts.I can see professor Thombury who wrote this blog Z is for Zero uncertainty, clearly sets pre- while and post listening activities, which is something I always do when teaching reading in my classes.
Professor Thombury uses top-down processing (background knowledge, non-linguistic and contextual clues) and other strategies when teaching listening to his students, and I agree with him, that having no unanswered questions about a text is not realistic, eventhough, we teachers, prefer zero uncertainty.
I would say that listening is one of the most challenging and difficult language skill for our students to learn in class. Therefore, different kind of strategies and techniques are necessary to facilitate the process of learning..

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