Listening Journals: Promoting Extensive and Intensive Listening Practice

As a language learner, listening has always been the hardest skill for me. Grammar, vocabulary and writing are just a matter of practice. Speaking is just a matter of nerves. But listening? How do you learn to listen? The assumption is you just pick it up through exposure, but the reality is much different. Like the other skills, listening requires practice.

And, like the other skills, this practice can come in the form of extensive or extensive practice. However, why separate them? Extensive listening easily leads into intensive listening, just as extensive reading is benefited by some intensive reading practice.

Last semester, I decided to give my lower-level conversation classes some much needed listening practice. I and my colleagues felt that they were getting a long of speaking practice, and some two-way listening practice – yet their listening skills still needed improvement.

We developed our listening journals along the lines of extensive reading – we encouraged listening to anything they wanted, so long as it wasn’t too difficult. Students chose music, movies, TV shows, TEDTalks, cooking videos, and other random authentic English media items. They were to do their best to understand what they heard, write down any new or interesting language they learned, and then reflect on the whole listening process.

I took this one step further and had students move from extensive to intensive listening with the same media they had been viewing, having them complete specific activities that focused more on bottom-up listening skills. I often demonstrated a tool or activity that could be applied to any media (such as making gap-fills, transcription:, or using the wonderful LyricsTraining website) and then had them try it out for their listening journal entry. Much of this was inspired by Thorn’s (2009) article on teaching listening vs. teaching students how to listen.

Although I was not able to test the direct effects of the listening journals (this will be a future project), student responses were overwhelmingly positive. Most felt they benefited from the listening journals, and many students said they would continue on with them on their own. I was encouraged so much by the results of the listening journal that I am doing a new iteration of it with an advanced listening class. I hope that my current students gain as much as my previous students did.

If this continues to be successful, I plan on turning it into a small action research project to try to empirically verify whether these listening journals have any positive effect on listening skills. Below, I have provided links to the information distributed to students. This information contains specific guidelines and examples of what students needed to complete. I would very much appreciate any comments or feedback!


Research Bites: Knock, Knock. Who’s There? TESOL.


Bell, N. D. (2011). Humor scholarship and TESOL: Applying findings and establishing a research agenda. TESOL Quarterly, 45, 134–159.

Twitter Summary

Bell shows why humor is an important skill that should be analyzed, discussed (and maybe taught) in class.


Have you ever told a knock knock joke in an ESL class? Have you ever taught a class about puns? Have you showed a group of students a hilarious YouTube clip, but you became nervous when they only laughed at physical humor and not the clever jokes you previous identified?

Humor, though universal, is far from simple. Yet, its a consistent trait that students say teachers should have. And, it’s also a linguistic reality for language learners: learning a language involved not only learning about its culture, but also its humor. Continue reading

Language Podcasts

I am a little late to podcasts. I am usually very current on technology and the web, but for whatever reason, I’ve wavered on podcasts (including getting students to make them, which sounds like a swell idea). Many of my friends have talked enthusiastically about podcasts, particularly “This American Life”. However, aside from specific podcasts dedicated to learning a specific language (i.e., I have never really indulged until recently.

About two weeks ago, I got the sudden idea to look for linguistics-based podcasts. I downloaded Pocast Addict and begun my search, I came across a number of interesting podcasts, including “Talk the Talk“, “The World in Words“, “That’s What They Say“, and “SAGE Language and Linguistics“. They are all great, but the one I am enjoying the most is “Talk the Talk”.

“Talk the Talk” has very engaging topics, lively banter, and excellent guests. “Talk the Talk” is hosted in Australia by Aussie Ben Ainslie and American Daniel Midgley, who teaches applied linguistics at several universities in Australia. Linguistics may not be the most energizing subject to listen to on a Monday morning drive, but “Talk the Talk” is very entertaining and engaging. My favorite episodes so far have been a recent one about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where they interviewed linguist John McWhorter, who sort of tore the hypothesis and its supporters a new one; I also enjoyed an episode about the endangered Australian language Kalyakoorl and a musician’s attempt to keep it alive.

Whether you have a passing interest in language or are a professional linguist, I think you’ll find “Talk the Talk” to be worthwhile. Runner up is “The World in Words,” hosted by Patrick Cox, which is another fascinating language podcast with very interesting topics.

What I’d like to see now is a TESOL podcast that is as rambunctious and thought-provoking as the TESOL Twitter PLN. I think a podcast that discusses activities, methods, grades, dogme (conversation-driven learning), edtech, reflection, etc. would be a worthwhile endeavor for anyone with the time and passion. Or, are there already such podcasts that I have somehow missed? What podcasts do you listen to? Please give me some suggestions in the comments!

Lexical Notebooks

Few would argue that vocabulary acquisition is one of the most important skills when learning a second language. The adage goes that you can say more with a lot of words and a little grammar than a lot of grammar a few words. Some important concepts that I have recently learned about vocabulary include:

  • learning vocabulary from a list is perfectly fine
  • learning vocabulary from contextual clue (i.e. guessing its meaning) is awfully hard and requires that you know at least 95% of the surrounding vocabulary
  • learning vocabulary through translation is worthwhile, though the simpler the vocabulary the better it is learnt with pictures
  • learning vocabulary in thematic (green, frog, green beans, grass, trees) rather than semantic sets (green, red, blue, yellow) is more effective

There are numerous vocabulary acquisition strategies and techniques, the most popular being flashcards. Vocabulary journals are also a popular choice, but this is a rather vague term that is open to interpretation by teachers and students alike. Last semester, I came across a specific type of vocabulary journal called a “lexical notebook”.

A lexical notebook is a lot like a vocabulary journal, only it is more lexical. Instead of endless lists of words with part of speech, pronunciation, and original sentences all laid out in a spreadsheet-like paper, lexical notebook are more about quality, not quantity. A lexical notebook may have only two words on a page, but these will contain not only part of speech or original sentences, but information about collocations, colligation (its regular patterns of grammar), useful phrases, related vocabulary, etc. The point of a lexical journal is the write about only a few words, but to include a lot of information about that word. At the bottom of this post, I will include some useful links to reading more about lexical notebook, but to summarize some of its principles:

  • words should be student-selected and of high interest
  • they should be thematically organized if possible (e.g. money, shopping, politics)
  • they should not be written chronologically, and adding words to previously created pages/themes should be encouraged
  • there should be a lot of white space
  • quality not quantity
  • a table of contents may be useful to organize this notebook
  • there could be completely separate sections for collocations with specific verbs, adjective + noun, phrasal verbs, etc.

There is actually a lot of information out there on lexical notebooks, but very few actual students examples. Last semester, I explained the advantages of lexical notebooks, gave examples of what I could find, and made up the rest. I told students that they could include as little or as much information as they wanted, and I told them they should consult my two favorite corpus tools, Word and Phrase and StringNet. The lexical notebooks were optional, but, mid-semester I asked students to show me what they had been doing (if they had been keeping them at all). While some did not keep a journal, and others did a half-hearted job, I was blown away by some students and their effort. I took some pictures but I have only been able to located four examples. Although these may not be the best examples, I would like to share with you now some of my students’ lexical notebooks, followed by a brief explanation of what they did.

Example 1

2014-05-02 15.42.24


Here, the student focused a lot on the grammar that was being taught in the class. She organized it by theme (yellow highlights: habits, preposition phrases), and used red to highlight important grammatical examples.  She used blue underlines to indicate vocabulary and used a blue circle to indicate a preposition. She also used a lot of Korean to explain grammatical points or provide important translations. The blue post-it note provides additional grammar info. For an example like this, my advice would be to skip a few pages between themes so that more can be added.

Example 2

2014-05-02 15.42.35This is a simple example of words, their Korean translation, and an example sentence.

Example 3

2014-05-02 15.43.22


This is probably my favorite example. Here, the words are on the left and include a phonetic transcription. The part of speech and an English definition are included on the right. A Korean definition is also included. Synonyms are written in purple. An example sentence is included in black. There is plenty of white space and room to write more. It is also organized by theme.

Example 4

2014-05-02 15.43.15This is actually the same student as above, just another theme and another page.

So, as you can see, there are numerous ways to organize a lexical notebook, but the principles outlined above are likely to make them more useful and effective. The challenge is to not only convince students to keep them but to also convince them to review them and keep adding to them even after your course has ended.

Do you keep lexical notebooks or vocabulary notebooks? Can you provide any student examples? I’d love to see them! Let me know in the comments.


Blogging will resume shortly…

My international journey, which included hauling two children, 1 wife, 1 stroller, 2 car seats, 8 checked suitcases, and 3 carry on bags from South Korea to Knoxville, Tennessee, is finally complete. And it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the end, only one bag was missing, and I got it the next day. That’s the best I could have hoped for.

So, we have been in Knoxville for about three weeks, and still experience stages of homesickness for Korea and reverse culture shock. But, now that I have begun working (though not teaching yet for another two weeks), I have more focus and am now enjoying my time here more.

Continue reading

Student Video Projects – Spring 2014

The final project for this semester’s High-Intermediate English Conversaton classes was to make a video based on the themes of work, time travel, or movies. Students had to use a number of grammar, vocabulary, and other language points they learned throughout the semester and combine them in a creative and interesting short film. The results were very good! Please enjoy! Feel free to comment.

The Professor’s Office
A “The Office” parody which follows a strange professor and his assistants.

Watching Modern Family
Students reenact a scene from Modern Family and then talk about the episode. Very funny!

Movie Talk
Students talk about “Dead Poet’s Society” and parody a scene. Great parody!

Back to the Future
Students parody “Back to the Future” and film a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Weird People at Baskin Robbins
Strange customers and a harsh interview – the world of Baskin Robbins is interesting.

Time Travel
A student gets zapped to the future and sees what its like.

Job Interview
Students go in for a job interview and are not happy with the results.


Research Bites: Skill Acquisition Theory and Language Learning


DeKeyser, R. M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Twitter Summary

DeKeyser suggests a cognitive sequence for explicitly learning and implicitly acquiring certain language skills. #researchbites

Note 1: This article presents a number of concepts, which I will try to distill below in bullet point format. Although this is a “research bite,” the article was quite in depth, so the write up will be longer than usual.

Note 2: Focus on form does not mean a focus on structures to the exclusion of meaning. In fact, focus on form is brought to attention after meaning is established. All work with forms keeps meaning central. Continue reading

Am I Really Helping Students Become More Autonomous?

Note: this post was written as an entry for the 41st ELT Blog Carnival on “Helping Learners Become More Autonomous”.

I talk about flashcards and corpus tools a lot to my students, but are they really listening? I show students the benefits of vocabulary journals, but do they really do it? I suggest sitcoms and movies for exposure to both language and culture, but do they take the time to watch it? These are some examples of how I show students the ways in which they can be autonomous language learners. However, promoting autonomy is not the same as influencing autonomy. For this blog post, and as my first entry into an ELT blog carnival, I’m exploring this question by looking at how students responded to a survey I gave them about my efforts to promote autonomy. But before that, I want to briefly discuss my conception of autonomy and give more details on what I do to promote it in the classroom.

What is autonomy?

Most people claim that you can’t learn a language in the classroom. If this were true, it would mean thousands of students, teachers, and researchers are wasting their time, falsifying their results and experiences in the name of some global educational-industrial complex conspiracy. I don’t think this is the case.

No, you definitely can learn a language in the classroom. But the thing is, you can’t learn it only in the classroom. This “only” presents a major difference between the former claim and the latter statement. The classroom can provide a conducive environment for explicit and intensive language study and even meaningful effective language practice. In fact, the classroom might provide the only opportunity for language usage in some contexts. All this being said, you do have to put in some effort outside of the classroom. This forms the basis of student autonomy – the idea that students interact with the language on their own intrinsically motivated accord. Autonomy, at least to me, is a rather broad concept that includes a spectrum of activities from grammar and vocabulary study to seeking out authentic interactional situations with native or target language speakers.

How I Promote Autonomy

The classroom and autonomy are not mutually exclusive spheres of language learning. In fact, as teachers, one of our responsibilities is to promote and influence student autonomy. Therefore, classroom experiences can feed directly into students autonomous language learning experiences. I don’t know how much I actually promote autonomy, and I don’t know if I do it as well as some, but I do promote it, mostly by recommending tools that students can use to study they language better. Upon thinking about it, I have two strategies for promoting autonomy.

First, I there are certain tools that I frequently use and demonstrate in the classroom, showing how students can use these tools on their own to study English. Lately, these have included StringNet, Word and Phrase, Learner’s Dictionary,, Lyrics Training, and Quizlet. Regarding the first two tools (which are corpus or data-driven learning tools), I bring these up a lot and students can see I am passionate about them. I also convert all our vocabulary into Quizlet sets in the hopes that students use them. I also demonstrated the purpose and methods of keeping a lexical / vocabulary journal.

The second strategy is to require usage of certain tools in order to get students “hooked” on using them themselves. For instance, I often require students to do homework using corpus tools at least a few times during the semester. And this semester, I regret not requiring lexical journals as a major project for assessment. I demonstrated lexical journals, but did not require it and therefore not everyone created one. I also didn’t do as many quizzes as planned from the Quizlet sets, which means students may not have been studying them as much as they could have. Despite all this, I do think requiring students to use certain tools is a good first step to autonomy. Students reluctance to use certain things is often based on their unfamiliarity with them. Requiring their usage is akin to a training period. If they found the tools useful and successful after being required to use them, they they would adopt their autonomous usage.

I also tend to suggest English media, and I find this to be another form of promoting autonomy. By taking the effort to watch, listen, and read authentic English media, students are exposing themselves to language, content, and culture. To understand what they are exposing themselves to requires students to practice and apply both linguistic skills (listening, reading, comprehension) and analytic skills (relating what they are seeing to prior knowledge about the culture, comparing to their own lives and cultures, etc). Because of this, I see exploration of English media as another form of autonomy.

The Survey

I didn’t want to find out how autonomous students were. Instead, I wanted to find out if they had been doing anything I had suggested. In other words, I wanted to know if I had any effect on their autonomy as language learners. I created a simple survey (through Google Forms) and sent the link to all my current students (56). I asked these 4 questions:

  1. Do you often use any websites or tools that I introduced to you?
  2. Have you watched any TV shows or movies, listened to any music, or read anything I have recommended?
  3. Have I motivated you to use English outside the classroom at all?
  4. Finally, in what ways (if any) have I helped you become a more autonomous English learner?

Only 14 students replied. It was an optional survey, and it is close to finals, but that’s still a disappointing number. Nevertheless, I think it gave me enough insight to say that I have been successful at influencing some students’ autonomy. If all students had responded, I may have had a clearer picture, but I will work with what I got:

  • 6 students responded that they use StringNet often, especially to find collocations.
  • 2 students mentioned using Quizlet
  • 9 students have watched or have been watching things I have introduced in class, including TEDTalks, Modern Family, Community, and Shaun of the Dead.
  • 9 students felt I had motivated them to use English outside the classroom, finding the expressions I have been teaching them quite useful.

So, there you have it. It’s not much, but it does show me that I do have an effect on students. My constant yammering about StringNet seems to have influenced them, but for some reason not Word and Phrase. I have to admit that I did not demonstrate Quizlet enough in class, so maybe that can account for the low usage. I’d say student’s beginning to explore English media is a win in terms of autonomy and extensive listening. And finally, I was happy to see that my students have found my teaching useful outside the classroom. They left some pretty touching remarks for the final question. (I have included a screenshot of all their responses at the bottom of this post.)

Helping Learners Become More Autonomous

What does this tell me about how to help learners become more autonomous? If students see that their teacher is passionate about some tool, book, or show, then they are more likely to try it themselves. This actually makes a lot of sense because, as teachers, we serve as a of model (whether we like it or not) of language learning and language usage. Students strive to emulate us or our abilities and therefore may adopt what we consider useful. Another reason why this makes sense is that being passionate about something in the classroom is directly related to having high teacher plausibility - active and enaging teaching based on the “personal conceptualisation of how their teaching leads to desired learning”. Teachers with high levels of plausibility are very effective teachers because what they do in the classroom is not mechanical or routinized but dynamic and real. By extending this plausibility beyond classroom teaching to promoting student autonomy, it can be argued that this also influences how the effect on students. Or, put simply, one’s passion for language learning is infectious!


Click to enlarge.


Research Bites: Making Language Noticeable


Seong, M. (2009). Strategies making language features noticeable in English language teaching. Journal of Pan-Pacific Association of Applied Linguistics, 13(1), 113-126. [link]

Thanks to Dayle Major for suggesting the article.

Twitter Summary

Seong (’09) shows that repetition and restatement (among others) may be best strats to promote noticing in classroom.


  • Most researchers in second language acquisition and applied linguistics believe that noticing is a prerequisite to language acquisition, though the exact mechanism that leads from noticing something to acquiring or internalizing something is not exactly known.
  • According to a number of researchers, noticing occurs when learners pay attention to certain aspects of input. Noticing also occurs when students compare their interlanguage to that of the expected target language. Therefore both noticing through input and output promote acquisition.
  • Classrooms that are entirely meaning based may be missing out on this important aspect. However, a focus on meaning is fine so long as learners attention is drawn to certain linguistic features and errors.

Study and Results

Seong conducted survey research on 113 Korean university students to ascertain which teaching strategies students believed promoted noticing the best. She also looked at if these preferences differed by level. On the survey, she asked students to rate each strategy as very important, important, mediocre, hardly important, not important at all. Below is a table I made of the results.

noticing strategies

Note, H = high level, I = intermediate level, and L = low level.



Although this research gives us some insight into what some students think are effective noticing strategies, I see two major issues with this study. First, most of these strategies are poorly defined, if defined at all. For example, what does “previewing,” “imitation,” or “expansion” really mean? There is no indication in this article and it is not exactly obvious from the terminology. Second, this research only looks at students perceptions, not what was actually effective for making them notice linguistic features. Perceptions are important, of course, but without a more rigorous empirical investigation of noticing strategies, we can’t say for sure which truly are useful and why.


The results of this article are useful for starting a discussion about effective noticing strategies, what strategies are useful for what levels, and timing (i.e. at what point or in what activities should we draw students attention to language features).

Related Readings