Audio Diaries for Improved Spoken Proficiency

Note: This post is a modified version of the presentation I gave at SETESOL 2015 in New Orleans and GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta.

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Accuracy and Fluency

I’ve met a lot of students who are fluent. English just flows out of them. They can express their thoughts clearly and succinctly with minimal communication problems. These are the end results most of our students strive for. I’ve also met a lot of students who were fluent at English, but what they think they are expressing as clear and succinct comes out is more of a word salad or garbled mess which takes time to piece together into resembling meaning. There are still others who can speak fluently, that is with ease of flow and at a decent pace, but with such simplicity in their spoken linguistic structures that find yourself comparing them to the way Native American speech have been represented in the media.

I’ve met these kinds of students all around the world. There is nothing wrong with them. They have just achieved fluency before accuracy. Some would argue this is a good thing. However, I think other conclusions can be drawn from this phenomenon:

  • Fluency is easier to obtain than accuracy.
  • Fluency is likely learned incidentally through our classroom activities and natural communication settings.
  • We might be focusing too much on fluency at the expense of accuracy.

Oral Corrective Feedback

So, like any good teacher, about a year or two ago I did some research on the subject. My research led me to Roy Lyster and his (and his co-authors’) research on oral corrective feedback as one pathway to improving accuracy. Feedback made such logical sense to me that I consumed the research with fervor. I was intrigued by feedback because it made me realize how I not only needed but craved feedback when I studied martial arts. I needed to hear from instructors and other students what was right and what needed to be adjustment. Correct, feedback-laden practice would hopefully lead to automaticity. Oral corrective feedback contains the same ideas.

I have already written about feedback here, but to summarize:

  • There are many different types of feedback.
  • Prompt-based feedback (elicitation, clarification, explicit correction, metalinguistic cues) as well as recasts seems to have a moderate to large effect on students language.
  • Feedback is useful for grammar, lexis, and pronunciation, with the latter two possibly having the larger improvements.
  • Feedback has an important counterpart: update – what students do with feedback, such as repairing their utterances or ignoring the mistake.
  • Uptake is extremely important in the feedback cycle.
  • There are numerous ways to deliver feedback: face to face, written, computer-mediated, and delayed. There is not much research about delayed feedback, but according to Quinn (2014), it seems just as effective.

Feedback is important. There is no doubt about that. The problem is time. It is very rare to be able to deliver enough effective and principled feedback to students in a classroom, especially when class sizes dip into double digits. Feedback is great, but difficult to deliver.

Extensive Speaking

Around the same time I was reading Lyster, I attended an interesting workshop at the 2014 National KOTESOL conference. The workshop was by Sarah Gu and it was on “Extensive Speaking“. Extensive speaking is based on principles behind extensive reading. Gu did simple but rather interesting research to test her ideas on extensive speaking. Here is a simple breakdown of the study:

  • Korean university students split into two groups:
    • Extensive Speaking group
      • 1-3 minute daily recorded monologues every school day for 6 weeks
      • non-linguistic “general” feedback given
    • Control group
      • no recorded monologues
  • Initial and final monologues were recorded of all students (control and extensive speaking)
  • Recordings were analyzed for proficiency based on the OPI rubric
  • Results: Extensive speaking group’s OPI scores had significant increases compared to control

Audio Diaries

My research on corrective feedback and my attendance at this workshop occurred around the same time and coalesced into an idea that I call Audio Diaries. The concept of Audio Diaries is actually quite simple. Students record something (on or off topic, with or without using target vocabulary or language structures). Students are then given feedback on their grammatical, lexical, and phonological errors. Finally, students re-record the same exact monologue, but this time, they must address their errors. In this way, students are getting delayed corrective feedback and forced uptake of feedback, in addition to raising their noticing and metacognitive skills. They are also getting individual attention, targeted practice in their “weak” areas, and more opportunities for speaking without the pressures of speaking in class.

Aside form typical complaints about too much homework, students seem to enjoy Audio Diaries. They enjoy the feedback and being able to have another chance to express their thoughts in a clearer way. In addition, by listening more closely to individuals I am better able to pinpoint and help them with their weaknesses in and out of class. Likewise, I am better able to notice persistent and common patterns and address them in class.

Several terms ago, I did a small experiment. I transcribed all initial and final recordings of my students (about 10) and analyzed the transcripts to for errors in grammar, lexis, and pronunciation. I also measured sentence complexity. In my small pseudo-experiment, the data showed some small increases to all areas. This was only after 8 weeks of class and 5 or 6 Audio Diary cycles. While not empirical evidence, this does suggest that I am heading in the right direction.

How to Do Audio Diaries

To complete Audio Diaries, I have my students use SoundCloud (see here for a SoundCloud / Audio Diary tutorial). SoundCloud is a social music site that offers the unique feature of allowing users to leave comments on audio files. The files appear both on the track’s wave form and in the track’s comment area. It is perfect for quickly and easily accessing and giving feedback.

This term, a typical Audio Diary cycle looks like this:

  • Monday – assign topic (always related to the unit, sometimes including new vocabulary). Students must record for 2-3 minutes. The first recording of the cycle is called “Audio Diary 1.1”. This means week one, attempt one. Students usually record using their smartphones, but they can also record through the SoundCloud website.
  • Tuesday-Thursday – I access their tracks through a private playlist they have shared. Students always upload to this playlist, so I only need to be emailed once to share the initial playlist. No further emails are necessary. Somewhere between Tuesday and Thursday, I listen to their recordings and leave feedback. My feedback may be explicit corrections, metalinguistic clues, or other types of corrective feedback. My pronunciation corrections always link to
  • Friday – students look at my comments, listen to their track, practice the corrections, and then re-record. This track is named “Audio Diary 1.2” – week one, attempt 2.

Using SoundCloud is my own preference, but there is a small learning curve for students. However, after an cycle, most students have no problems using SoundCloud. Most problems occur because students forget their passwords. SoundCloud is not the only option. Classic email can be used, with the recordings being attached and the feedback being given in the body of the email. If this is done, it would be very important to include the time (in seconds or minutes) that the error occurred). This could also be done through BlackBoard, Google Classroom, Moodle, or any other LMS. The medium is not important. What is important is the record-feedback-re-record cycle.

Audio Diary Adaptation and Assessment

And Audio Diaries need not be once per week. That is just how the schedule worked out this term. They could also be done daily (which requires a bit more work on the part of the teacher) or semi-weekly. Students can record about any topic they wish (more inline with extensive speaking and reading) or the topic can be related to the unit. I also had students extend classroom discussions into Audio Diaries by summarizing and discussing the ideas they talked about in class. They can be recorded for any length of time: one minute for low-level students or five minutes for advanced students. You could also use this format to practice natural speech, reading aloud (for pronunciation, thought groups, intonation) or even presentation practice. There are many ways Audio Diaries can be changed to suit any context.

Another adaptation I have done was to have students keep an error diary of their mistakes and changes. I found this useful as it forced students to catalog their errors and not only orally produce correct utterances but do so in written form two. This could lead to increased noticing and uptake. For higher-level students, the first time I did Audio Diaries, I had students record themselves on Monday (1.1), then listen to themselves and try to find their own mistakes, re-recording on Wednesday (1.2) for me to comment on, leading to a final re-recording on Friday (1.3). Even for higher-level students, finding their own errors was difficult but the process of listening to themselves talk was very enlightening. Students became more aware of their speech, voice, fluency, and grammar.

In terms of assessment, I currently asses audio diaries on two dimensions: completion and effort. For completion, each Audio Diary is worth several points, part of a much larger point scheme. For improvement, I choose three audio diaries randomly and check both the x.1 and x.2 version to see how well they incorporated my feedback. You could also assess students on improvement by scoring each Audio Diary on a rubric, or you could do a sort of pre-test/post-test speaking assessment to measure the number of errors and look at overall improvement.


In summary, Audio Diaries is a small project that aims to give more feedback and attention to individual students in the hopes of improving their overall accuracy and proficiency. Audio Diaries consist of a simple cycle of students recording themselves speaking naturally for a short period of time, the teacher giving specific feedback on errors, and then the students re-recording themselves following the teacher’s feedback. Audio Diaries can be adapted to suit any level, goal, and almost any level of technology as well.

It is my hope that Audio Diaries gives teachers another method through which they can help their students best reach their English language goals.


Gu, S. & Reynolds, E.D. (2013). Imagining extensive speaking for Korean EFL. Modern English Education 14(4). 81-108. Retrieved from

Li, S. (2010). The Effectiveness of Corrective Feedback in SLA: A Meta‐Analysis. Language Learning60(2), 309-365.

Lyster, R. (2013). Roles for Corrective Feedback in Second Language Instruction. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.

Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake. Studies in second language acquisition19(01), 37-66. Retrieved from

Lyster, R., & Saito, K. (2010). Oral feedback in classroom SLA. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 265-302. Retrieve from

Lyster, R., Saito, K., & Sato, M. (2013). Oral corrective feedback in second language classrooms. Language Teaching46(01), 1-40. Retrieved from

Quinn, P. (2014). Delayed Versus Immediate Corrective Feedback on Orally Produced Passive Errors in English (Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto). Retrieved from

Sheen, Y. (2010). Differential effects of oral and written corrective feedback in the ESL classroom. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 203-234.

Yang, Y., & Lyster, R. (2010). Effects of form-focused practice and feedback on Chinese EFL learners’acquisition of regular and irregular past tense forms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition32(02), 235-263. Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “Audio Diaries for Improved Spoken Proficiency

  1. gemmalunn says:

    This is a great odea, thanks for sharing. I used video journals over the summer with students for them to reflect on their learning but like the idea of giving specific feedback on their speech in the audio diary, especially love the error diary idea. Thanks!


    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      I’m sure you could find a way to give video feedback like I presented audio feedback.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. HL says:

    I love this. Students in my school find it so hard to see tangible progress on courses which are ever-shorter (or ever more intensive) and this is provides clear and concrete evidence with awareness-raising error correction. Brilliant!

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for the comment!
      One great thing about Audio Diaries is that it creates a portfolio for students and gives them the ability to do exactly what you said.

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