in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Listening Cherry 32 – The black box

We still behave, as a profession, as if the secrets of learning to listen are hidden inside a black box whose mechanisms are unknowable and unteachable. Two things inside the black box seem particularly unknowable and un-teachable: (a) the messy, unruly sound substance of normal everyday speech and (b) knowledge of what our students make of this sound substance. Because we ‘don’t know’ what goes on in this black box we focus almost all our efforts on what happens before and after the black box. We focus on the input and the output.

We strive very hard to make the input authentic, useful and appropriate – matching topics, vocabulary, context, and characters in a way that will motivate learners and facilitate transition to work on other parts of the syllabus.

We also strive hard to make the output appropriate: making the tasks that the students have to do while/after listening valid acts of meaning and communication.

We put extraordinary focus on the input and output, relying on the power of contextual meaning and contextual appropriacy to skip over the problems and challenges of the black box processes. We seem content to let the black box continue to be impenetrable and intractable.

But hang on, is that fair? Don’t we give students strategies to take with them while they are engaged inside the black box? Indeed we do. Before they enter the black box, we get them into a good learner frame of mind (focussed on the task, feeling good about themselves as learners) and we exhort them to apply good behaviours (don’t strive to hear every word, listen for the stresses, build meanings, re-evaluate and reconsider). We then exhort them to apply these behaviours when they go through the black box. And after they have been through the black box we focus on their performance of these good behaviours.

But this is still about input and output – it’s like giving people warm clothes and motivating talks before they go for a walk through an unlit mine – they have to navigate without a light, at speed, and afterwards report what they sensed in the mine (they couldn’t see anything, remember). And they have to report on the state of their clothes, whether they stayed warm, and whether they still felt good about themselves after the walk. So the preparation before and the report after are more concerned with the mine walkers self-management strategies, rather than on the nature of the mine. So it is with listening classes. We are expert at the before and after, but largely inexpert in our knowledge of the sound substance of speech. We do the before and afters very well – but we avoid the sound substance, with our focus on the peripheral (worthy, useful, but still peripheral) rather than on the central issues.

This idea of listening as a black box comes from Michael Rost, writing fifteen years ago, who wrote:

Listening is still often considered a mysterious “black box” for which the best approach seems to be ‘more practice’. Much work needs to be done to modernise the teaching of listening. (Rost, 2001: 13)

Personally, I am wholly against the idea that the best approach to listening is the ‘more practice’. If you are interested in modernising the teaching of listening, keep following this blog. You can also attend a workshop I am giving in April 2017 in London at the London Language Lab here. You can buy my Phonology for Listening: Teaching the Stream of Speech here, or wait for my Syllabus for Listening: Bottom-up approach – due late 2017.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Richard can be contacted at

Tel: 07790 629859