in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

A Syllabus for listening: Decoding

A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding is scheduled for publication in the Spring of 2018. It is for experienced teachers, course designers and textbook authors. It focuses on the information and skills required for the teaching learners how to decode the sound substance of speech.
It is for people who are dissatisfied with current approaches to teaching listening – people who are fed up with:

  • ‘Oh look English is stress-timed’
  • ‘Prediction makes the words go slower’
  • ‘Just lie back and listen to lots’
  • ‘Don’t worry about a thing’
  • ‘I can’t teach you, you just have to learn it’

Three decades of work on spontaneous speech has convinced me that we there is something of substance to teach in the listening classroom – the sound substance. The sound substance is the acoustic blur of the multiple sound shapes that all words have, and the rhythmic patterns that give form to these sound shapes: it is the acoustic equivalent of teaching spelling, except there are many more variations in the sound shapes of words than there are in their spelling.

There are other reasons why A Syllabus for Listening: Decoding is necessary.

  • Listening is poorly taught and learned
  • Listening methodology is dominated by testing
  • There is almost no work on teaching decoding
  • Textbook recordings are under-exploited
  • ELT avoids direct encounters with the realities of everyday speech
  • There is an over-reliance on strategies
  • ELT often behaves as if there is nothing to teach – there is only practice, exposure
  • Even advanced learners (great at reading, writing and pronunciation) struggle with perceiving and understanding everyday speech.
  • Textbooks increasingly feature real-world recordings of speech, but the realities of the sound substance of these recordings are ignored or …
  • the textbook repeats standard  untruths about speech (stress-timing, nuclear stress rules, question intonation, etc) in defiance of the evidence of the recordings.

In the absence of adequate knowledge and skills, and in the belief that there is nothing to teach about the sound substance, the listening classroom is filled with ‘other stuff’: contextualisation, schema activation, prediction, strategies (cognitive, metacognitive, socio-affective, etc). And being able to manage this ‘other stuff’ is regarded as the hallmark of being a good teacher of listening. (I should emphasise that this ‘other stuff’ is useful, but it dominates classroom time, and it should be subservient to teaching decoding.)

There is something to teach. THERE IS SOMETHING TO TEACH. There follow some principles, and some examples.


  • All words have multiple sound shapes, flavours and colours
  • Words occur in clusters (word clusters) rhythmic groups
  • Each component of the cluster or group influences the sound shapes of its neighbours
  • The prime determiner of the sound shapes of words are the choices of rhythm and emphasis made by the speaker
  • All textbooks rules about speech are untrue of everyday speech


In a television commentary before a rugby sevens game in the Rio Olympics, one of the commentators (Sir Clive Woodward) said ‘It’s going to be a very physical encounter’. Except, he didn’t say that, he said:

|| sgunna be a VEry fizzle enCOUNter ||

notice that ‘it’s’ has been reduced to |s| and ‘going to’ has been reduced to ‘gunna’ and that ‘physical’ has been reduced to ‘fizzle’.

Syllabus for Listening will explain why such reductions happen, and will provide activities to make learners familiar and comfortable with these features of the stream of speech – which happen all the time.