From Gibberish to … Wow!

We all agree that students need comprehensible input but how do you make oral input comprehensible? I believe this is a challenge that many teachers prefer to ignore. Being able to understand spoken language is the foundation of all language acquisition, yet it seems to be the one we focus on the least.

Why? You may have found a great video but when you put it on, your students complain that the speakers don’t articulate, they speak too fast and their accents are frightful! It’s gibberish to them. I always tell them that they’re listening too slowly, which gets a laugh, but is the actual truth. Our students are trying to decode what they hear and while they’re figuring out one word, the speaker has uttered twenty more. They have the same problem with native speakers who are not teachers. We teachers of English know that in order to be comprehensible, we need to speak slowly and articulate and use high frequency vocabulary. Few non-teachers know how to make themselves understood and many end up shouting, as if language learners were deaf.

Making oral input comprehensible is the elephant in the CI room. Teachers who try to use Comprehensible Input methods know the importance of reading and of encouraging their students to read. We give them class stories to read. We have developed easy readers for A2 and even A1 levels. Our students can and do read. But what do we do to help them to understand the spoken language?

Well, duh, we speak to them. If TPRS has had the success it’s known since the 1990’s, we must have been doing something right. Actually we have been giving our studets oral comprehensible input throughout the lessons as we co-create a story with them. Even when administrators complained about “too much teacher talk” and “sage on a stage”, we went on talking to our students. And it showed when language started “falling out of their mouths”. By carrying on a genuine conversation with them while doing everything possible to be comprehensible, we help our students to acquire language.

And I think it’s important to note that we speak to them in a particular way. We help our students understand by using the (much abused) technique called Circling. Yes, I know, it is now the fashion to denigrate circling, but I’m afraid some people are throwing the baby out with the bath. True, some teachers never learned to do it correctly and as a result their students were bored and resistant to the technique. Yet, when it is done well, it can be what it has always been in the hands of good teachers, an engaging conversation with students.

Circling is the art of asking more than one question about something that has been established. It’s actually something that we all do all the time, when we want to be sure we’ve understood.

“Trump said what?” “When did Trump say that?” “Where was he?” “Did he really say that?” “Who was he talking to?” “Do you have any idea why he said that?”

That’s circling. Is it boring? It only becomes boring when teachers forget that they are having a conversation with their students and start counting repetitions.

How does Circling make oral input more comprehensible? How does it help students to hear and understand spoken English? By giving them more than one chance to grasp what is being said. Let me say that again. Students get a second, even a third or fourth chance to comprehend. The initial statement that is being circled gets repeated, so students who didn’t get it the first time may get it the next time and be reassured that they have understood correctly. I believe that it is vital that teachers help beginners gain confidence in their ability to comprehend the spoken language by circling tricky new structures. Don’t circle everything. Don’t circle if you’re sure that your students have perfectly understood what is being said. But if you see a glimmer of doubt in their eyes, give them another chance to hear the phrase and to show that they have understood it. Laurie Clarcq compared Circling to sanding a piece of wood. A good workman gently sands the rough spots and moves on. If he stays in one place too long, he’ll create a dent in the surface. I truly believe that skilled circling is one of a teacher’s greatest assets when working with beginners. Of course, teachers who are just starting to use it will need some practice, but it’s not a difficult skill to learn as long as teachers remember that the real conversation is more important than counting repetitions.

Another way of developing beginner students’ ability to hear and understand the target language is Story Listening as it has been developed by Beniko Mason Nanki. It is very effective and is now being used by many CI teachers. I’ve discussed it before on this blog. If you are interested in learning more, go to Dr. Mason’s website at

When students have moved beyond the A2 level, they will need less circling and should be listening to other speakers than their teacher. They need to get used to hearing a variety of competent speakers. Films are a rather inexpensive way to let them hear many different voices and accents. A good film can be very compelling. The question is how to make film dialog comprehensible when our students are hearing “gibberish”.

I do this in several steps. First I let them watch a short scene, no more than four minutes long, with no subtitles. Most of them will say they don’t understand what’s being said. “They’re talking too fast, etc.” But we can talk about the actions, the setting, the situation, what we think is being said, the characters’ emotions and thoughts.

Then I put on the English subtitles. (I teach English.) I use the pause button and we decode the subtitles, shot by shot. That is, we read and translate them. I let them know that I’m not asking for a literary translation, simply comprehension of what is being said. Once the students have grasped what the actors are saying, I go back and play the scene to them again, without stopping. At this point they are hearing the dialog and they understand what is being said, even though they may be focusing more on what they see written than on the spoken words. Have no fear, the oral comprehensible input is being processed in the back of their brains.

Now, sometimes you may notice that the written subtitles don’t exactly match what you can hear. This is a great opportunity. Point it out to the students and ask them if they can hear what is not written. Don’t tell them what the extra word or words are, or where they occur. Play the bit for them several times until they can hear it too. (You can explain that for technical reasons the subtitles have to fit into a certain number of characters, so the subtitle writers have to shorten the dialog where they can.) Your students will soon be able to pick out the shortcuts with little help from you.

When I have an interesting scene that is mostly discussion I transform it into a Very Narrow Listening exercise. This means typing up the script and putting in blanks every line or two. The words that become blanks are high frequency words that I’m absolutely sure my students have acquired. (There are manuals that use this type of exercise to review new vocabulary. We shouldn’t expect our students to recognize words they have not yet acquired.)

Here is an example of a Very Narrow Listening exercise. It is the opening monologue in The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

Carter : Edward Perriman Cole died in May. It was a Sunday _____________________ and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s difficult to _______________ the sum of a person’s life. Some ____________ will tell you it’s measured by the ones left behind. Some _______________ it can be measured in faith. Some say by ______________. Other folks say __________ has no meaning at all. Me? I believe that you measure ___________ by the people who measured themselves by you. What I can tell you for sure is that, by any _______________, Edward Cole lived more in his last ______________ on Earth than most people manage to wring out of a _____________. I know that when he died, his _________ were closed and his heart was ______________.

When I have prepared my Very Narrow Listening exercise, I show the scene to my students without the subtitles. We talk about what they have understood about the situation. Then I hand out the script and we listen while following the dialog. I insist on them following with a finger. No pens are allowed at this point. If they start trying to write in words while the scene is playing, they won’t be able to hear what is being said.

They have now heard the scene twice. I ask if there are any vocabulary words they don’t understand. They read through the script, identifying words that are unfamiliar and I explain them, letting them write in definitions in the margins. I do not hold them responsible for learning these words. If they are high frequency, they’ll pop up again and again and be acquired. If they are low frequency, why waste time on them?

We then listen to the first few lines of the scene. Again, I do not allow them to hold their pens. They cannot be writing and listening at the same time. At this point I want them to concentrate on what they are hearing. After a line or two, I stop the film and give them an opportunity to write in the missing word. If no one has grasped it, we go back and listen again, as many times as necessary. While I have chosen words that I expect them to be able to hear, often they will have more difficulty than I anticipated. They will ask me to play the bit of dialog again and again. (I feel as smug as Tom Sawyer getting his fence painted. They are asking me to play it again.) We gradually move through the scene until they have filled in all the blanks. This may take most of an hour. It’s an hour of attentive, fully engaged listening to comprehensible input.

When all the blanks have been filled in, I play the entire scene again and they follow with their scripts. Then I ask them to turn over their pages and I play the scene again, so they are hearing it with no written support. This is when they realize that they can now understand most of what is being said. I’ve had students exclaim, “Wow! It’s magic!”

Very Narrow Listening exercises enable students to hear and understand authentic resources which can be challenging even for advanced students. Do them often and your students will be amazed by the progress they make, not only in oral comprehension, but also in reading, speaking and writing. Oral comprehension is the foundation for everything else we do.

8 thoughts on “From Gibberish to … Wow!”

  1. Good ideas! Thank you! I just happened to run across this list of websites with movie scripts:
    It could be helpful in saving time when typing up the transcript.

    I also love this part of what you wrote:
    “That’s circling. Is it boring? It only becomes boring when teachers forget that they are having a conversation with their students and start counting repetitions.”
    So true!

  2. Thank you, Allison. Actually, I’ve tried using the movie scripts found on-line, but often spend more time editing them than it would take to make my own for the short scene I’m using. There are often a lot of mistakes in them. Sometimes they are transcripts made by fans and have errors, or original scripts that got modified during filming.

  3. I’m planning to do as you have outlined in my class this week using an episode of a sitcom. There are natural breaks between scenes I plan to start with the first scene which runs between 1 and 2 minutes. I expect my students will want more, so I could “wash, rinse, repeat” with each scene, but I wonder if this would be too tedious. (Total run time is 25 minutes) I’m wondering how much narrow listening per class is good and how much would be too much. I teach 2x/week for 3 hours per class. So it would be possible to complete the episode in 1-2 class sessions but I worry this might be quite exhausting. Your opinion is appreciated.

  4. I certainly agree with you that doing an entire 25 minute episode using VNL would be both tedious and exhausting. Actually, you may find that you need a whole hour to do just a 2 minute scene . It depends on the difficulty and how much dialog there is. It’s very intensive work. In general, as you say, there are natural breaks between scenes. I adapt the activity to the scene. Not every scene will work well with VNL. Sometimes we just watch the action and comment, Sometimes I put on the subtitles in my target language, English, and we read them aloud. I explain vocabulary and we discuss the implications in the story line. I ask “Why did he say that?” “Is he being honest? Is that what he really thinks?” Sometimes I give them sentences taken from the scene that I have mixed up and they must listen and put them in order. Or I take sentences and change one word and they must listen and correct them. When there is a close up on a character who says nothing, I ask the class, “What is he thinking?” In the articles I’ve posted about The Mighty, I discuss other ways of exploiting a film. When you try it, you’ve find that VNL is too intensive to use all the time. A scene that is a good fit is usually a discussion between two characters that lasts no more than three minutes.

  5. Anthony Green

    Very interesting, and very much in line with what I have been doing here in Italy. What is the narrowest Very Narrow Listening exercise you find works. That is to say, what is the least number of words you give them (and conversely therefore the highest number of words you ask them to come up with)?

    1. I don’t count words or blanks. The shortest VNL I have used is half a page. I will edit the post and give an example. The longest is a page and a half. A page is about right. I double space, by the way, and use a large font so it’s easy to read and my students have room to write in the blanks and in the margins. As I was able to explain to Dr. Stephen Krashen, who used the term Narrow Listening, the whole exercise is a kind of magician’s trick. While the students are focused on the missing words, they are hearing, over and over and over again, words that they know and understand. And they are asking for the repetitions. How often does that happen? 🙂

  6. Sorry Judith I didn’t really ask the right question. What I meant was whether you vary the proportion of given text and blanks, and if so what criteria do you use?
    I gave your text to some students of mine to play with without the listening element, and I was interested to see just how much they were able to complete without doing any listening, using top-down strategies based on their understanding of syntax, lexis and discourse. They of course came up with a variety of possibilities for several blanks, which in itself raises a lot of interesting issues!

    1. I just now saw you comment which I see is a couple of months old. I think asking students to fill in the blanks (in pencil) before they hear the audio is an excellent exercise and something I often do, especially if the exercise is a bit difficult. We often “hear” what we expect to hear, so giving them a chance to imagine more than one possibility is good preparation. If they then listen to the scene, they will be able to verify their guesses. The whole purpose of Very Narrow Listening is to develop their listening skills, the most neglected of the four language skills. So II would always follow up the “fill in the blank” exercise which you did with your students with the audio.

Leave a Reply to Judith Dubois Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top