Month: November 2019

Story Listening? Oh yea!

Dr Beniko Mason.

This post encourages you to try Story Listening, and responds to objections to it.

Story Listening— SL— is a comprehensible input teaching technique developed by Beniko Mason, who taught English to Japanese Uni students, many of whom had failed first-year Uni English. Mason’s students— the “bad” ones— consistently outperformed their traditionally-taught peers, in many cases acquiring twice as quickly as other students.

SL is very simple. The teacher tells a story (ideally, a folktale or something from literature) in the target language and illustrates it on the board by drawing pictures, writing key words, using arrows etc. The teacher can translate and answer any student questions. When this is done, students read the story. Some teachers have students write an summary of the story in their L1. The SL program is supplemented with as much free-choice reading as students have time for. There is no “accountability piece”: the work is done in class, there are few or no quizzes, and students’ homework— should they choose to do it—- is just…reading!

SL does not involve homework, output, grammar (or other) “practice,” grammar instruction (other than the teacher answering student questions). The instructional sequence moves from shorter, simpler stories to longer and more complex ones.

SL is a “pure input” technique, and it works. Read the research here.

Story Listening has many advantages over textbook instruction, and it’s a wonderful complement o TPRS-style stories, etc:

  • In my experience, it’s effective, easy and fun, and I regularly use it.
  • It’s also low-prep, and you can use the stories on the website for free (you need an email to sign up). This is the least expensive SL method there is.
  • It’s low prep.
  • It generally avoids controversy, because it focuses on folktales and literature, rather than news or teachers’ experiences. People whose students have religious parents will very much appreciate this
  • It is a way for teachers to maintain their target-language skills. SL uses actual real folktales, or abbreviated literary works, so teachers are being exposed to non-learner-focused language.

Here in North America, lots of us want to use SL in our classes. But there are some biiig differences between Mason’s teaching and research context, and those of eg most North American teachers. These differences (in my experience— your mileage may vary) may pose challenges. The differences between Japan and North America— and objections to SL— include

  • Mason’s research does not look at pure beginners.
  • Mason’s students tend to be 19 and up.
  • The Japanese school system is very big on “sit, listen and learn.” In Canada and the US, uh, not so much 😜
  • English is a fairly phonetic language (unlike say Chinese).
  • Neither Mason nor her students have to be “accountable” to anything stupid, such as a set of textbook exercises, or a set of dumb and scheduled exams, etc. They get one big comprehension & writing test at the end of the course.

There have also been other comments. Here are some.

Today’s question: how do we deal with these problems and objections? Answers follow.

1. SL hasn’t been studied/tried with pure beginners. Sure. So, I don’t start with story listening until kids have had about 40 hrs of L2 input. This is enough time for them to implicitly understand sweet 16 verbs, basic sentence & question structure, and some high-freq vocab. This is the platform onto which SL builds a bigger language stack.

The idea is that a basic gut feel for the language will make adding new words easier by reducing the processing load. To illustrate processing load challenges, here are two German sentences:

1. Mark hat einen Fisch.

2. Mark ist gestern nach Hamburg mit seinem Kumpel gegangen.

You could probably figure that the first sentence means Mark has a fish. The only really new word is einen. So it’s 25% unfamiliar.

In the second— which has the two obvious words Mark and Hamburg— you have 6 totally new words, and you might have guessed that ist means “is.” So this is 66% unfamiliar words. We also have some weird word order. That sentence literally translates as “Mark is yesterday to Hamburg with his buddy gone.” Sooo…when the new-word ratio is low, we have much easier processing

There are teachers who start SL with beginners. You can talk to them (and to Beniko Mason) on Facebook here. Kathrin Schechtman is doing her PhD dissertation on SL: she began German in Sept 2019 with a class of pure beginners (elementary kids) and tracked their progress until Covid-189 hit in March. You can watch her videos here.

2. Mason’s students are older, and have been trained to sit, listen and be quiet. Sure! So, we do a few shorter stories instead of one long one in a class. Or, we do SL for part of a class only. We have brain breaks! We do some PQA when a story is done (point to board, and ask basic questions). We can add PQA to the story. No, these modifications of Mason’s method are not ideal, but we do what works in our context.

Mason has correctly commented that anything other than C.I. isn’t helping acquisition nearly as much as does pure C.I. However, our objectives may well include generating output (for admin/observation & teacher eval purposes), and they will certainly include classroom management. So we might well have to mix other things in to SL.

3. English is fairly phonetic, so SL won’t work for non-phonetic languages. True. For F.P.I.G.S. teachers, SL works (in part) because literate L1 learners can read (and there are cognates). SL will not work for eg English L1s acquiring say Chinese. You can’t read a Chinese character, sound it out, and map that sound onto your understanding of spoken Chinese, at least not until you are at a very advanced level.

If you taught eg Thai, Hebrew or Hindi— non-Roman alphabetic languages— to English L1s, you would want to ensure a massive amount of vocab-limited input (aural and written) before you started SL, and people would have to be able to read. If ppl cannot read the board, they have problems, because the word-sound-meaning matches we need for acquisition aren’t there.

4. There is no “visible accountability”— i.e. there’s no evidence the students are “doing anything” with the language— in a SL class. This is a problem for teachers being observed/tied to a specific curriculum.

If you are tied to a stupid textbook sequence, and/or have dumb grammar-focused exams, SL is not going to work that well.

If you are being observed, and your observer doesn’t understand SLA, I would do something other than SL (unless observer has an open mind 🤣🤣). If they do understand SLA, we tell them this is CI delivery, followed up with reading, and we could— during the reading phase— ask some questions to keep kids visibly focused.

If you must occasionally have kids show output, I would do some TPRS-style stories, and make (and write up) OWI stories. Especially in Levels 1 and 2, these will give kids the simple language chunks they need to throw down some stories or descriptions.

5. There is “no assessment of any kind.” This is not true. Although Mason, with her college students, can avoid tests etc until the final, we can easily do tests to assess comprehension. You can do a dictation to assess listening. You can also have students either summarise or translate the written version of the story. This can generate two marks/week.

My experience with Story Listening was at a demo with Mason herself, who told a very short story in Japanese to us. She wrote the Japanese words with Roman letters. None of us knew any Japanese. I was lost within two minutes, because I saw pictures, and heard and read words, but they didn’t go together. I got the gist of the story but found the language hard to follow.

When she was done, I counted about 25 words. I could follow the story via pictures and I learned a couple of words— ojo (princess) and shinrin (forest)— but I would not have been able to read a Roman-alphabet version of the story. Japanese has weird word-order and question “rules” and few cognates.

From this I concluded that SL would work best if students had some base knowledge. This would focus mental energy on new stuff, rather than having to focus on everything new all at once, and it is why I start SL with my Spanish classes after the kids have had 40 or so hours of input.

Anyway, overall, Story Listening is fun, effective, low-prep, and low-cost, and is therefore well worth learning and using. 😁😁