Using recorded speech in the classroom

Vivian Cook 
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Zeilsprache Englisch, 1, 1977, 1-2


An increasing number of textbooks make use of tape-recordings of spontaneous speech. Some of the reasons for this are that recorded speech

      allows the student to observe a real act of communication, complete with the interactional features that a scripted dialogue excludes;

      gives the student a true picture of real spontaneous speech with its hesitations, false starts, and "mistakes";

      can present a greater range of regional and social class forms than is usually possible with actors;

      permits the learner to fill in the gaps in the grammatical coverage of even the best of contemporary textbooks;

      is easier for the student to follow than unrecorded speech since he can go over the same piece time and again;

      has great interest and positive motivation for the student because it shows him real people talking about subjects that interest them.

Let us look at a brief example and see how it may be used:

Husband:          Didn't we reckon we were going to get some Premium Bonds?

Wife:                Mmm.

Husband:          Do you want them?

Wife:                Yes. Premium Bonds for you, darling? (to baby)

Baby:                Hmmm.

Husband:          What happens if she wins it? We can't claim the money, can we?

Baby:                Coo coo coo coo.

Five techniques can be used in teaching this extract:

1.  The teacher explains the background of the extract: he explains what a Premium Bond is and gives the relationship between the speakers. This background can be presented through a reading text providing factual or language information or through the teacher questioning the students. The teacher decides whether to let the students encounter the extract without explanation and to try and make something of it as they would have to do in a real-life situation, or to anticipate the problems by explaining in advance.

2.  The teacher plays the extract itself. The length of the extract varies according to the level of the student; probably a minute or so is as much as most students can manage. Then the teacher asks questions. Usually he starts with basic comprehension questions, playing the tape at least once more before he can be certain that the students have understood it. The form of the questions should be as simple as possible since many students find listening to spontaneous speech is in itself highly demanding; multiple-choice questions and true/false choices are preferable since they do not require the student to produce a sentence of his own. If the aim is to teach the comprehension of ordinary conversation, the questions should not concentrate on one narrow aspect, say, vocabulary, but should range over all the aspects involved in understanding real conversation: grammar, intonation, pronunciation ...

3.  The teacher uses the extract as a lead-in to discussion. He can ask the students what equivalents they have in their native country: is there something similar to Premium Bonds? He can ask what they think of the people: does the wife really want any bonds? He can widen the discussion into personal reminiscence: have you ever won a big prize? Or into moral and political argument: should gambling be supported by the State? This technique develops the student's interest and motivation and allows him to communicate something through English.

4.  The teacher exploits the extract for other follow-up activities. He practices the grammatical points that have come up, such as the questions in this extract; he can try freer activities such as role-playing. The extract provides a convenient opening for whatever teaching techniques the teacher favours, whether drills, compositions, or anything else.

5.  The teacher uses the written transcript of the recording. With most classes this is the final part of the teaching cycle; the student sees the written text only after he has heard the extract and done the follow-up work. With advanced classes the transcript can be used without the tape - as comprehension material, as a basis for reported speech or summary, or as the data for grammatical analysis. With all classes the transcripts must be used cautiously, simply because spoken English looks so strange written down that there is an initial period of disbelief before students accept that it accurately reflects how real English people speak.

These five techniques do not differ radically from those employed with scripted dialogues except by emphasising the student's active participation. For this reason the technique commonly used with scripted dialogues, namely repetition, sentence by sen­tence or phrase by phrase, is not recommended. Also recordings of spontaneous speech are hard to use in this way because real speakers seldom pause at the points where the language teacher would like them to.


It may be helpful to give some notes on courses that use recordings of spontaneous speech.

L. Dickinson and R. Mackin, Varieties of Spoken English, Cornelsen & Oxford University Press, 1969.
Based on 14 recordings, mostly of conversation. Different types of comprehension questions,
grammatical exercises, explanatory notes, and a transcript.

M. Underwood, Listen to This, Cornelsen & Oxford University Press, Second edition 1974.
20 recorded interviews with factual explanation, multiple choice and free answer questions,
and transcripts in the teacher's book only.

R. O'Neill and R. Scott, Viewpoints, Langenscheidt-Longman, 1974.
15 interviews, each unit having a factual and language introduction, free answer questions,
grammatical exercises, a supplement reading passage, and a transcript.


V. J. Cook, English Topics, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Part of each unit consists of recorded spontaneous speech with true/false comprehension
questions and two transcripts, one edited, one unedited.