Skip to content ↓

August 2023 - Year 25 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Finding the Written in the Spoken

Ready for Advanced (French and Norris, 2014) is a reliable coursebook for teachers looking to prepare their students for the Cambridge C1 Advanced exam. It offers a diverse range of topics, relatively useful grammar explanations, and masses of authentic exam practice – as well as plenty of high quality listening material. It is to that listening material that I turn in this article. There is a problem with listening material in coursebooks, one that good editors will always look out for but that has a tricky habit of slipping through the net. Let me offer an example.

Here is part of a short exchange between an interviewer and their subject. The task is to help students prepare for Part Three of the Listening paper, which is a multiple choice task built around a single long interview, sometimes involving two interview subjects with the interviewer’s questions corresponding to the exam questions. In the present example, there is only one interviewee, the writer of a book about family relationships.

Interviewer: “So where do you see marriage as an institution in, say, 20 years’ time? Do you think it will come to be seen as simply unnecessary?”

Interviewee: “Hardly. You only need look at the number of commercial ventures set up within the wedding industry. People are just as keen to get married as ever; just perhaps not in the way that their grandparents did. It doesn’t have to be in a church, the dress doesn’t have to be white and people no longer want towels and whiteware as gifts. One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that a high percentage of couples go into marriage not anticipating the kind of challenges likely to arise as a result of becoming a ‘unit.’ A lot of married life involves meeting halfway, and if you’re not prepared to do that, then you’re in for trouble. And don’t forget, just because tradition is less important in some western countries, this isn’t the case in others.”

I think you’ll agree that the quality of the writing in this script is high, and that the students who listen to this interview – and who then study the script afterwards – will benefit from the experience, not just in terms of exam preparation but also in terms of their overall understanding of spoken discourse.

My lesson plans for listening skills lessons now follows a reliable pattern. If it’s a non-exam class, I’ll have a nice gist question to get the students into the text; but since this is an exam class, I’ll skip that and get them right into the task. After all, in the exam there won’t be the luxury of listening for gist. If I’m feeling generous, though, I will at least allow a pair-check in the break between the first and second listening.

Were I to follow the suggestions of the Teacher’s Book, though, I would move from the listening task directly on to a spoken reaction task. The coursebook provides a few questions that allow the students to respond to what they have heard – but none of the questions refer directly to the statements given by the interviewee, and, frankly, it would be perfectly feasible to skip the listening and allow the students to respond to the topic in general, rather than specific, terms.

This has always seemed something of a waste to me. The publishers have obviously put much time and effort into making the listening tasks as good as possible, and to move merrily on after only a few minutes spent in their company does the writers and voice actors a disservice.

What I tend to do now is to direct my students’ attention to the recording script in the back of the book. We listen to the recording once more, and as we move from paragraph to paragraph we discuss the good examples of spoken discourse that we find.

There is an abundance of good examples in all the recordings produced by this publisher, and I feel that the same is broadly true in most of the coursebooks out there. For instance, looking back at the example given above, the way the interviewer asks a general question followed by a more specific one that directs the interviewee towards the kind of answer required – that is an excellent example of spoken discourse, and would feel oddly out of place in a written text.

I can use this example in my class, getting my students to craft paired questions instead of standalone ones. So, instead of merely asking, “How was your weekend?” I might require them to produce, “How was your weekend? Was it as good as you’d been hoping?” The interviewee’s response contains a great exemplification of how we use stress to make our utterances more dynamic, as in this snippet:

“It doesn’t have to be in a church, the dress doesn’t have to be white and people no longer want towels and whiteware as gifts.”

The stress placed on the critical nouns, coupled with the way that much of the grammatical language is either minimised or sped through – all of this represents how I want my students to speak. It is not flat in the way that much spoken discourse in Polish is flat. However, and here I return to the central issue in this article – it is sadly not possible to say that every recording is useful in its entirety.

A secondary activity that I have my students perform is to look out for any parts of the script that seem too written. There seems to be one in every recording. Sometimes it is to shoehorn a piece of grammar or lexis into the listening, to be exploited over the next few pages of the coursebook. Sometimes it is to contrive an answer to the multiple choice question – this is C1 after all, and the answers can’t be signposted too clearly or anyone will be able to pass the exam. Look at the recording script again and see if you can find the problematic utterance.

It helps, of course, if you can listen to the recording. The answer soon makes itself apparent – for the speaker can barely get to the end of the sentence without taking an additional breath, or they seem to be tripping over their words. Sometimes the troublesome utterance is prefaced by a gasping intake of breath – these voice actors are professional: they will say what they have been given to say as best they can, but on rehearsal they will notice which parts are the hardest. They will annotate the script, preparing themselves for the hardships they will soon face. Here is the part that doesn’t work:

“One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that a high percentage of couples go into marriage not anticipating the kind of challenges likely to arise as a result of becoming a ‘unit’.” This utterance is only thirty-three words long. I’ve heard people go on for longer than that before, sadly. But they structure their discourse differently if they are stuck in a longer-than-average sentence. They certainly wouldn’t structure their discourse in the way seen above. But there doesn’t look to be anything wrong with the sentence – the clauses are balanced well, and if I saw something similar in a student’s writing I would be quick to praise, not to chastise.

Spoken discourse is different to written discourse, though. It is not so densely layered and should not be constructed in such a formally sophisticated way. A part of me wishes that the publishers were able to excise such shortcomings from their recordings. Then I could let my students loose on every recording script, perhaps even as a homework task, and I could do so without worrying that they’d pick up bad habits.

The other part of me sees the teaching potential inherent in this mistake. Drawing my students’ attention to the clumsiness of this sentence – when spoken – helps to highlight some of the fundamental differences between spoken and written texts. We can do a lot from here – we can try to understand why a sentence that looks so right on paper sounds so wrong when it is performed by a voice actor; we can seek other examples (there is one earlier in the same recording, as it happens); and we can look to translate the clumsy sentence into something more likely to be spoken:

“There’s definitely one thing that hasn’t changed. A lot of couples, probably a high percentage of them, but I’m not sure of the numbers, get married without really knowing what they’re doing. They don’t know how much compromise is involved in becoming a unit…”

It’s still not perfect, but it’s certainly a better example of spoken discourse. The ideas are separated out, there is a bit of hedging (“…probably a high percentage of them…”), and there are sufficient pauses to allow the speaker to get to the end without asphyxiating themselves.

There are many ways to take advantage of the listening tracks and recording scripts that coursebook publishers provide teachers with. I don’t think many other teachers approach their listening tasks in the way that I have outlined here – but I recommend giving it a try. At worst, you’ll spend a few minutes looking at slightly befuddled students who can’t quite understand what you’re going on about. At best, though, you’ll help your students develop not one but two important skills – both listening and speaking.



French, A. and Norris, R. (2014), Ready for Advanced Students’ Book, Macmillan Education


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Lesson Ideas 
  • A Little Bit of Grammar
    Jamie Keddie, Spain

  • A Beheaded Poem
    Nuria Smyth, Switzerland, with Hanna Kryszewska, Poland

  • Finding the Written in the Spoken
    Christopher Walker, Poland

  • Using Stills from a Film
    Jamie Keddie, Spain