in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Listening Cherry 33 – Selective reality

We like to think that making listening as real-life as possible is the best way to teach listening. But our use of ‘reality’ in the design of lessons materials is selective. We steer our lessons as close as we dare to real-life listening, and we focus on extracting meaning but we remain in denial about the realities of the sound substance.

We keep the number of listenings as close as possible to one, because – the argument goes –  in real life we only get one chance. We make the learners listen as though they are present and active at the interaction that has been recorded. And we fill their minds with contextual information about the people, the situation, the purpose and predictions about what will be said. We plug learners into a reality role. We plug them in to a mind set and situation. 

The problem is that the more we steer closer to these realities at the level of meaning, the less time there is to focus on the realities of the sound substance of speech – the normal messiness of everyday speech. The urge to mimic reality leads us to forget that the classroom is a place for teaching and learning, and that (pretty much) anything goes as long as learning is effective.

But it’s nobody’s fault. ELT simply does not (yet) have a model of speech which encompasses the messiness and wildness of everyday speech (as I have said frequently in this blog the ‘rules of connected speech’ are wholly inadequate). The only model of speech that exists in ELT is the Careful Speech Model – optimised for clear, intelligible pronunciation.

In the absence of a model of spontaneous speech (optimised for listening), the requirement to mimic reality is convenient for us, because it takes up a lot of time and it enables us to feel we are doing a good job as teachers and materials writers. Because ‘that is the way good teachers teach listening’ – we conform to the expected behaviour. The trouble is we are ignoring the realities of everyday normal speech.

We are in denial about the realities of everyday speech. To adapt the words of a famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoon ‘It’s not denial, we’re just very selective about the reality we accept’.

Image from here.

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Richard can be contacted at

Tel: 07790 629859