Easy listening: getting started with audio in the language classroom

GareSudLanguage teachers generally need to work with audio in the language classroom. We often want to play recordings of people speaking the target language, perhaps to allow learners to hear samples of native speaker performances, or alternatively to listen to their own target language production.

Over time, language teachers have moved from gramophone records, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs (and CD- and DVD-roms) to digital files on computers and other devices. Each form has its advantages and drawbacks. With digital files the advantage is ease of copying and transporting, while the problem is usually file format compatibility and interoperability, that is, files that cannot be copied, edited or read by one programme, application, device or another.

There is no straightforward solution to suit all contexts, but we can imagine

1. using a fixed classroom computer (usually with internet)
2. using your own laptop computer, tablet or other mobile device (with or without internet).

And we would like to be able to

1. play audio files
2. make and/or edit audio recordings
3. share our files.

Audio playback

For playing all kinds of audio and video files, perhaps the best solution is VLC.

It’s a small programme which you can download and install quickly and easily, with no plug-ins or set-up required. It actually has a wide range of functions and features, but you can use it to play any CD, DVD or digital audio file by using only the simplest of these (open, play).

You can install VLC on your laptop computer. If you’re using the class computer you will probably need administrator rights, or you’ll have to persuade the administrator to install it for you.

Audio recording and editing

Teachers often want to make changes to an audio recording before using it in class. Perhaps you need only a small portion of a long recordings, want to cut out a difficult section which might discourage your learners, or string together a series of very short snippets of speech.

And of course you might want to make your own recording, or to record your learners.

A good free solution here is Audacity

Like VLC, Audacity is a complex application with powerful functions, but again language teachers can use only the simplest editing tools to select, highlight, delete and save portions of files.

Setting up Audacity is slightly more complicated than VLC because its native format (= the type of file Audacity produces by default) can only be read by Audacity itself. You will want to make files in other formats that can be shared more easily, such as mp3.

To save an Audacity file in mp3 format, you need to install an extra piece of software called a LAME encoder. Here is a link to download the LAME encoder with instructions for installation. Fortunately you only need to do this once.

Again, you can install Audacity on your own computer or the class computer if you have administrator rights.

These solutions assume that you can either install programmes on the class computer ahead of time, or that you bring them on your own machine. The advantage of your own computer is obviously that you have control over what is there at all times; the downside may be connecting the the internet in class. The class computer ought to be connected, but you won’t have such good access before lessons and may not be able to negotiate the installation of the programmes you need.

A third solution is to use web-based tools and platforms which can be accessed from any device. This has the advantage of being accessible from the class computer online without the need to install any programmes (though it’s always worth checking that the sites you need will load and work correctly on a particular computer).

Online audio

You can use SoundCloud to make audio recordings and share them online.

You can upload recordings that you have made elsewhere, for example using Audacity on your computer, or on your smartphone or voice recorder.  You can also record directly on SoundCloud.  Files can be played back on SoundCloud, and the SoundCloud player can also be embedded on other sites, such as your class blog, for example.  And SoundCloud also has a comment feature which allows you or your learners to add text to an audio file (e.g., answer comprehension questions, give feedback).

And finally, a few places to look for ideas to exploit these tools for teaching and learning English:

Going further with audio tools and resources

Digital tools

Richard Byrne Creating and sharing audio recordings
Russell Stannard Audio tools for language teachers

Accents of English

Dialects archive http://www.dialectsarchive.com/france-11
VOICE http://www.univie.ac.at/voice/

Teaching listening and pronunciation

How speakers use emphasis to convey meaning: http://www.speechinaction.org/teacher-education/evidence/
Micro-listening (Mura Nava) http://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/easy-micro-listenings/
Transition listening (Sandy Millin) http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/iatefl2014/
English as a lingua franca listening ELF pronunciation

Listening resources

Students’ choice http://sco.lt/98svL7
More places to listen http://www.scoop.it/t/learning-technologies-for-efl?tag=listening


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