About Very Narrow Listening, Stephen Krashen, Michael Jordan and Jackie Chan

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(At the TESOL Colloquium 2016 in Paris I presented Very Narrow Listening to a large group of friendly English teachers who seemed quite interested in the concept. I promised to post my presentation on my TPRS Witch blog, but returned home to discover that our entire neighborhood had no internet connection and it took Orange five days to repair the lines. My sincere apologies to those who have been looking for this article for the last week.)

Good morning. Today I want to talk about a problem all language teachers have: our A1 – B2 students who find it impossible to understand native speakers either face to face or in authentic resources. When we know that listening is a fundamental skill, perhaps the most important of all skills, how can we help them? How can we make our oral input comprehensible to them?
When I ask students to listen to a scene from a film, typically they blame their difficulties on the actors. “They have an awful accent. They don’t articulate, they swallow half the words!” When they say the actors are speaking too quickly, I reply that they are listening too slowly. This gets a smile, but it actually is the cause of their inability to understand spoken English. They are taking too long to decode what they are hearing.

The importance of listening was illustrated by Dr. Ashley Hastings’ 1995 study on Focal Skills. A group of English learners was tested to determine which of the four skills, Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing, was their weakest. Then the students worked exclusively on that one skill during an intensive course that lasted four weeks. Those whose lowest score was in Listening spent four weeks working on that one skill.

In tests given after completion of the course, Dr. Hastings demonstrated that not only did the Listeners progress five times faster in their ability to understand spoken English than the control group that had worked on all four skills, they also matched or did better than the other groups that had concentrated on reading, writing or speaking skills. In short, the best way to improve in all four skills is to concentrate on Listening.

Although Listening is such a vital and fundamental skill, the typical textbook offers very little to help students improve their ability to comprehend spoken English. Most “listening exercises” are simply recorded conversations with comprehension questions. Some manuals try to help students pick up clues so that they can better guess at the content but such exercises are basically exam practice. Michael Jordan said that if you practice something wrong, you get very good at doing it wrong. Stephen Krashen said that “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it any fatter.”

Knowing that acquisition comes through comprehensible input, how do we make oral input comprehensible to our students? As teachers we can shelter vocabulary, speak slowly and check frequently for comprehension, but these are professional skills that our students won’t often find in their conversational partners out in the great wide world.

Many many years ago I started trying something with films. I wanted my students to be able to enjoy the treasures that come from Hollywood and are available everywhere in the world. It seemed to work, the students enjoyed it and when I was teaching in a large French lycée it kept classes of 35 boys quiet and focused for an hour. One student told me years later that the only pages from the lycée that she had kept were the ones I gave out to accompany The Lord of the Ring.

At that time I knew nothing about Stephen Krashen and Comprehensible Input. When I did learn about the Acquisition hypothesis, it helped me to understand why what I was doing with films was effective. With Dr. Krashen’s permission, I call the exercise Very Narrow Listening. He has described Narrow Listening as an ideal way to acquire language by listening repeatedly to short recordings about a topic that the learner finds compelling. Since all the recordings focus on the same topic, vocabulary will be sheltered.

For Very Narrow Listening I begin with a short, two to three minute scene of dialog from a film my students find compelling. I prepare a transcript and blank out a certain number of words, usually one word every line or every other line. I will explain further on how I choose the words to blank out.

The first time I show the scene to my students I may choose to mute the sound entirely, so we discuss the characters who are present, what we know about them and their actions. This helps students to have an idea about the context and they may guess at what is being said. I think a video is much better than a recording because the visual context helps to make the spoken dialog comprehensible.

Then I play the scene with the sound and ask what students have understood. Usually they have only caught a word here and there. This is when they tell me that the actors are speaking too fast and don’t articulate.

I then hand out the script I have prepared and ask them to listen to the scene again. They are not allowed to have pens in hand at this point and no one should write anything in the blanks. I ask them to simply follow the dialog with a finger, to show that they are able to follow what is being said. Many of them will find this simple task quite difficult.

Of course the scene will most likely contain vocabulary that they don’t know. I let them ask for definitions of unknown words, which I write on the board and explain. They will focus on this new vocabulary, but in reality I’m not interested in their learning the words on the board. This is not a vocabulary exercise. Words that are repeated several times and are important to the context may be acquired, or they may not.

Now I play the first lines of the scene for the third time and stop. I don’t want the students trying to write words in while the scene plays, because they will soon be lost. It’s not possible to write and follow the conversation at the same time. After almost every blank I stop to give them time to write and we check to see if they have found the right word. If they haven’t heard it, I replay the bit as often as they request it. This is not a test, but a learning exercise. So we listen again and again and again. We stop to fill in what they have understood. We go through the scene phrase by phrase. When all the blanks are filled in, we listen to the scene again while they follow with the transcript. Then I ask them to turn their pages over so that they are not reading and we listen to the scene one last time. And I ask them, “How much do you understand now?”

In general they will understand most of what they are hearing, the very words which sounded like gobbledy-gook at the beginning. I’ve had students say, “It’s magic!”
Why does it work? Krashen says that Narrow Listening is effective when the recordings are compelling, short and the context is limited and familiar. I think Very Narrow Listening works because:
1) Filling in the blanks feels like a familiar activity, not particularly difficult, lowering the affective filter.
2) The activity is enjoyable because students feel successful. As a matter of fact, weak students often shine, seeming to have a better ear than some of their more academic comrades.
3) Identifying the words in the blanks is team work, the result of collaboration, promoting group spirit and again lowering the affective filter.
4) The films are chosen because students find them compelling. We discuss the situation so that the context is familiar and sheltered, helping students find the missing words.

Students who do Very Narrow Listening frequently progress in their listening skills, but also in reading, writing and speaking. Why?

We all know that magic tricks work because of the magician’s ability to focus our attention elsewhere. My students are focused on filling in the blanks, but actually my goal is to get them to listen to Comprehensible Input attentively and repeatedly. Do you remember the scene in Karate Kid, where Jackie Chan makes the boy take off his jacket, throw it on the floor, pick it up, hang it up, take it off the hook, put it on, take it off, throw it on the floor, over and over and over again? The boy thinks he’s being disciplined, but the day that he has to fight his enemy, he realizes he has acquired the spontaneous moves and gestures that he needs to be victorious. While my students focus on the blanks, actually they are in the process of acquiring the language of the scene, the vocabulary and grammatical structures as well as the pronunciation. Their speaking skills will improve because they will find it easier to say words that they can now actually hear. Their reading skills will improve because they have been reading the transcript repeatedly and automatically their writing will improve because of the progress in reading.

How do I choose the words for the blanks? This is really the secret of the exercise, what makes it effective. The words I choose are words that I’m certain my students have ALREADY acquired. The EASY words. I usually pick common nouns and high frequency verbs. I want my students to be able to recognize them, so I make it as easy as possible. Please, don’t try to trip them up, testing if they remember a particular grammatical structure. Set them up for success. You will find that it’s never as easy as you thought. After all, you can hear all those words, while your students hear mostly noise. You will often realize that you need to change some blanks, that they were not as obvious as you thought.

I hope you will try Very Narrow Listening and see for yourself how effective it is and how engaged your students will be. Let me know what films you used and how it went for you. Let me know if your students also say, “It’s magic!”

P.S. At my presentation at the TESOL Colloquium 2016 in Paris, someone suggested creating a site that would have transcripts that could be shared. I have nothing against the idea and would gladly share the ones I have, but I suspect that each teacher knows the interests and level of her students best. I constantly adapt scenes and create new ones to match my students’ needs. I wonder if maintaining such a site might not be more work than creating new transcripts as needed.

The Video is out!

Mathieu MAXIME filmed the workshop last July and has finished preparing a video. Here is the short version. There is a longer version which includes the speeches of Dr. Krashen and Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki. I want to thank Mathieu for his excellent work. Watching this short film brings back great memories for all of us, when teachers from around the world met in Agen and shared their ideas and enthusiasm. Here is the link so that you can see the film on Youtube.

Shutting the barn door after the horse has run off

This article discusses something that Krashen has been saying for decades. Is the general public finally going to wake up and realize that traditional grammar lessons are not only ineffective, but also harmful, that by focusing on form instead of content teachers are stifling the creative energies of generations of students. How unsurprising is the study that showed that the only difference between three groups, students taught grammar with traditional methods, students taught grammar with innovative methods and students that were not taught grammar at all (but encouraged to read and write) was …. are you ready? …. the first two groups hated literature and writing.

Who is Sabrina Sebban-Janczak?



I first heard of Sabrina Sebban-Janczak through Ben Slavic. In 2014 he posted this about her:

“I have decided not to teach the morning classes at iFLT. I want to concentrate my energies on the afternoon (and hopefully evening) sessions with the War Room group. So I have asked Sabrina to do the morning teaching and luckily for us she has responded yes. Watching Sabrina teach this summer for those coming to Denver is going to be a real treat. No one has her style, especially her unmatched kindness and patience. She is a master of SLOW and of smiling, and she is genuine. The way she reacts to things the kids suggest is the gold standard and we should all try to emulate what she does as she interacts with her kids. It’s real. She gets all of this work – she gets all the technique and strategies then she adds frosting to them.”

So in 2014 when I needed another French teacher for the Agen Workshop, I immediately contacted Sabrina about coming and she accepted. With so much talent available, we also organized a special immersion course the week before for non-native teachers of French. Sabrina gave them Comprehensible Input lessons in the morning and during the afternoons we visited a horse farm, a bee keeper, a hat shop and organized a treasure hunt in the streets of Agen. There were many memorable moments as Sabrina and her students learned about their hosts’ passions. Sabrina has continued to organize these pre-workshop immersion classes and everyone who has participated has been delighted.

Through the years I’ve come to know Sabrina better. I appreciate her gentle, happy disposition. I’ve learned not to ask too much of her, because she will never say no. I respect her professional competence and her intellectual honesty. Year after year the teachers who come to the Agen Workshop rave about her skill with students, her ability to inspire and motivate both students and observers. But I think what everyone remembers best is the laughter and the fun.

When I ask for feedback here is what a few participants have said:
This course is an amazing opportunity for non-native French teachers who want to brush up on their French, meet some cool French people and observe the teaching skills of an amazing teacher! Carly Edelman, New York

Sabrina’s course was wonderful! One of the great advantages is just getting to hang out with Sabrina. She models what it means to care about students and the patience required to teach. Her humor shines through her interactions and makes for a fun and educational experience. Don Read, California

Sabrina, I really appreciated the opportunity to be in your immersion course and in your French language labs in the conference. It was a powerful combination. Jolyn Sawatzky, Canada

Robert Harrell considers Sabrina “a master TPRS teacher” and did both her immersion course and her Workshop lab course the following week.

In conclusion, Sabrina has become an important element of our Agen Workshop both as a teacher and as a model for other teachers.

Martin Anders reports on the Agen Workshop 2016



Christine Brechmier from France, Dustin Williamson from Maine and Martin Anders from Germany observe Sabrina’s French class.

Martin Anders teaches French in a Waldorf School in Kaltenkirchen, near Hamburg. He has attended every Agen Workshop since 2013, so his feedback is very important to me. Here is what he wrote about this year’s edition. My comments are in italics.

I was very satisfied with the variety of morning classes you were able to offer this year. Perfect.
(There was a French class with Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, a A2 English class with Tamara Galvan, a B2 English class with Judith Dubois, a Spanish class for beginners with Margarita Perez Garcia and a Breton class with Daniel Dubois.)

The choice of the afternoon workshops was excellent, too. It would indeed help if the workshops were longer and offered more practical training (David called it learner based activities). We almost always ran out of time. (I haven’t figured out how to make the afternoons longer. I guess running out of time means that it was a good workshop.)

On a second thought I would not extend the lunch break, finishing at six o’clock is ideal. Ben’s war rooms could not possibly start any later than 8.00/8.30 in the evening.

Some personal after-thoughts I wrote down in my notebook on the plane:

Our schools are sick. As a teacher, I have to ask myself: What do I want? Teach the language or math or physics to the minds of my students? Or do I want to reach out to them as individuals, create a safe place, rely on their strengths and not on their deficits, and help to develop their individual personalities?
It is not only the students who have to learn to show up as human beings. In the first hand it is us, the teachers who have to do this and eventually learn this. We must learn to be more than a big brain on two tiny legs. We must learn to be really present in front of our students, learn to open up to them, to feel where the energy goes in the room.

But how can we show up as human beings when we are not even able to do this in our own private lives, in our relations to others who are important to us? We cannot reach the heart of our students when our own hearts are heavy with fear or anger or arrogance.

What makes Agen so special to me? Because there will always be old friends as well as new people I may communicate with from heart to heart. I will never be able to thank Judy and Teri enough for giving birth to this safe place.

At the heart of the conference are the language classes where experienced teachers demonstrate how to do a week of Comprehensible Input and invite the participants to stand up and get coached afterwards. Not easy to be the first and take over the teaching for some time. But nervosity disappears in front of a group of open-minded students eager to acquire and get to know another teacher daring to stand in front of them not only as a language expert, but also as a human being opening up to them and inviting them to do the same.

Without wanting to offend any other of the great people who found their way to Agen this year but whom I had not the opportunity to talk to, I would like to give my special thanks to Ben, Laurie, Angela, Petra, David, Kathrin, Sabrina, Robert and, last but not least, Imara, Meika’s wonderful daughter participating in the French class, for helping me to be a little bit more myself.

Thank you, Martin, for your kind words and thoughtful reflections.

Report on the Agen Workshop 2016



It has been a while. ​To me, ​Agen ​was an oasis in personally hectic times. It ​almost seems like a dream​ now​.
How I enjoyed being there. Most of all, I loved being with so many wonderful people, all inspired and inspiring each other, driven by this inner force we all recognize in each other. I heard people say: ‘We’re almost like a cult.’ Let us be our own guru then and regognize the guru in each other.

​Because of my health in general,)​ I chose to start a bit later every morning, so the language labs were half language labs for me. Also I decided to experience different styles of teaching, as we all do it ‘our way’, rather than sticking to one class as a student.
It was a thrill to be able to understand and even speak a tiny bit of Breton, plunging into Daniel’s class after the morning break. He involved newcomers immediately and made me feel part of the group, even after being there for just a few minutes. The word ‘differentiating’ comes to mind now, as other people present knew already more. We could all take part on our own level and have a good laugh.



How important is this, having a good laugh. Because this way of learning a language is so much fun, there are so many reasons to laugh, and we all want to know what will happen next, I think we all do, but I’ll speak for myself: I’m completely in the moment, there and then, NOW. Sounds come in without analysing them. They just come in and appear to have a meaning and somehow I start understanding this meaning. Amazing! I was just absorbing.

Next mornings I chose labs – half labs – in languages I knew a bit and the effect of absorbing and digesting new sounds was less. I was more into observing then. It was wonderful to see all these different teachers with their own styles and skills. I remember thinking: I want to be more consistent using gestures. This sticks to mind the most. But how great to experience the teachings of Sabrina and Margarita and the teachers you invited in your own English 2 Language Lab, Judy.
I didn’t see you teach yourself, I guess this happened before the break.

Not being an early bird, I did enjoy breakfast in the Stim’Otel with Ben Slavic and Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason Nanki though. Being late sometimes has its advantages.

How I loved Stephen Krashen’s lectures. I was at all three of them. My collegue/friend and I suggested we would take him home, but when I told him, he said he was going to see his grandchildren, jumping into the air saying this and then giving me a real Krashen hug.

I’ll get into working with fragments of movies like you did using Lord of the Ring. It was so nice to hear the lady I talked with the last morning say she and her daughter lost all fear and resistance they felt before, thinking of learning a foreign language, in this case English.

I have been working with embedded reading before in my own way, but will definitely learn more from Laurie in this respect.

I think it will all have to sink in a bit.
My oasis has this dreamlike quality now, and I guess the effects of being there will work in mysterious ways, not the rational, analytic ones although of course these will be helpfull this coming year, but more on a subconscious level.
I tend to lean on that more and more anyway, trusting my intuition and teaching from the heart.

I am glad I had the opportunity to be at Robert’s ‘Other Methods of Revisiting the Text’ on Saturday morning and want to read more about that too.

Of course we had Diane in Mandarin at the square, one evening. And some other evenings I was present at Ben’s coaching sessions. That was fun. A bit of Hungarian, and Zulu, and Gaelic…
Not all evenings though.

Agen is too nice. We sat outside with groups of people we met during the day, sharing meals and drinks, talking about our passion, working with TPRS, laughing, and sometimes getting very personal because these are people you can get close to.

So Agen was my oasis and it has been healing.
Next year of course my circumstances will be different, but I really want to be there again: to absorb, share, get inspired, exchange, have fun, enjoy good company and this lovely little town Agen is.

See you next year, and in the meantime we’ll have Facebook and your blogs, so somehow we’ll be connected.

Love, Annemieke

Language as a living organism

A friend of ours in Cameroon was a Dutch botanist working for a German museum. He spent all day every day in the forest looking for plants that had been collected and classified for the museum before World War I, when Cameroon was a German colony. After two world wars many of their samples from Cameroon had been lost, destroyed or damaged. His job was to find the original plants and send new samples to the museum.

One day he found the plant that every botanist dreams of. An uncollected plant, a lovely white, night blooming flower that had never been identified before. Very excited, he dug up a complete sample with roots and all, took it home and then, since we were eating with him and our car was in the garage, came to pick us up. He was very excited and told us all about his wonderful find, how, as its discoverer, he would be allowed to give the new plant his own name.

Then we arrived at his home for dinner. His wife had made a nice meal and the maid had set the table with a pretty cloth and flowers decorating each place. Horror and catastrophe! The unlucky girl had found the plant her employer had brought back from the forest and had taken all the flowers from it to decorate the table, scattering bits of greenery and blossoms between the plates from one end to the other.

Our friend, normally a very mild man, began to shout in fury. His great scientific discovery had been reduced to little bits of stems and flowers. His wife, pitying the maid, suggested that they could reassemble all the parts and still send the plant to the museum. He was even more outraged, saying that no respectable scientist would accept a plant that had been pieced back together. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to locate the place where he had found it again and he might never again have an opportunity to name a flower.

Language is the lovely, wild flower growing in the forest. It has no need of names or explanations. With its stems and blossoms and roots and leaves it is an organic whole. When teachers present language as comprehensible input, in context, rooted in the earth with all its parts working together to produce meaning, we keep the language whole and our students are able to see it as a living organism. As we use the whole language to interact with them, to communicate, they see it breathe and grow before their eyes. And thus it takes root and grows in their brain, reproducing itself as it becomes their thing, their personal tool that they can use to express their own ideas and thoughts. As teachers we must be as careful as botanists to maintain the integrity of the language, to keep it whole rather than breaking it down into “parts of speech.”

Teachers who spend precious class time talking about the language, although they are doing what their own teachers did before them, although they are well-meaning and find beauty in the bits and pieces of their lessons, are like our friend’s maid, using a very precious and unique plant to make a pretty dinner table. The end result is a dead organism reduced to broken parts of the whole that our students are unable to put back together.

As Cato the Elder said, “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” Simply put, to learn to speak a language all you need is someone to talk to and something to talk about. Comprehensible Input teachers talk to their students about things that interest them. TPRS uses stories to keep their interest, but the stories are preceded by PQA, Personalized Questions and Answers, and nothing is more compelling than talking about ourselves. Throughout the lesson, the language is whole and organic. We don’t clip off the “difficult” bits like the subjunctive or the past perfect or future conditional. We use whatever is needed while we focus on meaning, on being comprehensible. When our students grasp the subject, they find the words they need.

I showed my students the first scene of The Lord of the Rings, the Prologue. “Three rings were given to the elves…. Seven rings were given to the dwarf-lords … and nine rings were given to the kings of men … but another ring was made … they were all of them deceived.” We discussed it and I questioned them. How many rings were given to the dwarfs? To the elves? Where was the master ring made? Weeks later, discussing a later scene in the movie, I asked, “Who made the master ring?” One of my students answered, “The ring was made by Sauron.”

Did he know that he was using the passive voice? No. Could he tell you what the passive voice construction is? No. Did he need a schema to help him find the correct auxiliary? No. Was he using it correctly and appropriately? Yes.

So let us be gardeners that cultivate beautiful plants, plants that live and grow in our students’ minds as an organic whole. We know that acquiring another language opens up worlds, letting us communicate with marvelous people from distant lands, many of whom have no idea what the passive voice construction is, though they use it every day.

Diane Neubauer describes the Agen Workshop 2016



Thoughts about Agen conference:

My overwhelming sense is of gratitude that I got to be there. It was wonderful to see European TPRS teachers, who were usually alone in their school or sometimes even country, find other like-minded teachers. Hearing from internationally-known professionals (Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason Nanki, in addition to several well-known language teacher-trainers) in a setting in which participants could really interact directly with them was a rare opportunity. I also got to meet several people I have known for years online!

I chose to participate in a language class all week, so I missed the chance to watch other teachers in their classrooms. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a student. Many of my greatest take-aways from the conference relate to being a language student: ways in which to make language meaning clear, engaging all students, using student jobs, and personalizing content. I also was able to speak in understandable sentences in French for the first time. That was wonderful.

Sessions in the afternoons were a nice mix of theoretical and practical. I heard some of each kind of presentation, and gave some of my own presentations that varied between theoretical overview & practical strategies. I also enjoyed sitting in on coaching sessions in which other teachers tried out new approaches or worked on familiar approaches.

The charm of being in Agen, with its beautiful, walkable downtown, wonderful restaurants, and old buildings, was wonderful. I’d never been in France before, so I was experiencing firsthand some of what I’ve heard people rave about: great food, beautiful surroundings, and warm social interaction. I really enjoyed spending time with colleagues from around the world over meals. Connecting in person, then staying in contact through the school year, can help us a lot.

~ Diane Neubauer