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TESOL Connections (February 2011)

by User Not Found | 11/08/2011


  • A Free Chapter from TESOL's New Book:

    Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field

  • Language Learners and Anxiety: Breathing Techniques for Self-Calming,

    by Carole Allen Poppleton

    Association News

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  • TRC Featured Resource: English Language Classrooms & Students with Disabilities
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  • This chapter is from Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field

    Edited by Nikki Ashcraft and Anh Tran

    Free Chapter:

    Embracing the Challenges

    of Movie and Television Listening

    By Christopher Stillwell

    download the PDF

    Hoping to bring authentic listening material into the classroom and give students a bit of real-world experience, a teacher plays a video of a famous movie about a pair of adult brothers, one of whom happens to be an autistic savant, getting to know each other for the first time. The teacher was expecting a movie full of reasonably comprehensible discussions between the brothers, but instead finds that the opening scene is a complete mess, utterly impenetrable to native speakers, much less language learners. For the first 3 minutes, the viewer faces an aural assault as three characters sitting in a makeshift office inside a warehouse simultaneously engage in separate phone conversations. The other ends of the conversations are inaudible, so each of these discussions is incomplete. What’s more, one of the conversations is partly carried out in Italian! Such is the opening scene of Rain Man (M. Johnson & Levinson, 1988). Is it teachable?

    A teacher in this situation may consider skipping the scene or seeking a more appropriate film altogether, but in so doing, major opportunities for students’ listening strategy development would be missed. Using the first scene from the movie Rain Man as a point of reference, this chapter explores techniques for addressing such difficult situations.


    The approaches discussed in this chapter were inspired by and adapted to the needs of learners in a variety of contexts, beginning with adult English as a second language (ESL) learners at Cambridge Schools, an intensive English program in New York City, and further developed for workshops at Teachers College Columbia University, and numerous TESOL conferences to address the range of classroom situations of the novice and experienced teacher participants. Most recently these principles were modified to train students of English as a foreign language at various ability levels to use video for self-directed learning at Kanda University of International Studies, in Chiba, Japan.


    Directors of movies and television programs often make careful use of camera angles to give the viewer different perspectives on a scene. Whereas a close-up shot can provide great detail at the micro level, a distant wide-angle shot can offer a sense of the big picture, showing how the action fits into its surrounding context. This chapter shows how use of movie and television material for listening instruction can effectively follow similar patterns, from both the bottom-up approach of decoding individual words and the top-down approach of using prior knowledge to aid comprehension. Classroom use may focus on the story and language in close-up, with the individual details parsed out and analyzed for the sake of understanding virtually every language feature. On the other hand, the wide-angle perspective can be used to encourage students to work toward a broad understanding of gist, developing confidence in their ability to understand and enjoy the material as an entertaining form of listening practice.

    The Wide-Angle Approach

    With the right techniques, even the viewing of potentially frustrating scenes such as the beginning of Rain Man can be turned into satisfying experiences that provide useful listening practice. Although turning on the subtitles may seem to be the obvious solution, doing so might actually be of little use for dealing with the chaos of the introductory scene. Indeed, it will only reveal the disjointedness and incompleteness of the conversations and the disproportionate use of uncommon vocabulary such as fuel emissions and EPA. A more rewarding approach might be to help learners approach the scene for the first time in the same way that native speakers would.

    It is relatively rare for people to spend their money to see a film without first having an informed expectation of what it is about. Trailers, television commercials, and other forms of advertising do their best to raise the profile of specific films, and newspapers and magazines make a business of reviewing the latest movies to help the public make educated decisions about where to invest their time and money. In a sense, it is therefore unrealistic for language learners to be expected to understand a movie from the start without such background knowledge. A movie’s trailer (often included on a DVD’s extras) can be used effectively to provide an introduction to the subject matter, simultaneously offering excellent listening practice on its own merits. The short length of trailers makes them ideal for repeated viewings with different wide-angle listening purposes, such as identifying tone, making inferences, getting the gist, and making predictions. In the process, schema are activated that can scaffold students’ comprehension of the film itself.

    After viewing the trailer, language learners are armed with the background knowledge of a typical moviegoer. They are ready to watch a scene, such as the opening of Rain Man, and speculate about the director’s or writer’s intentions, asking themselves, “Is it critical to understand all the details from this opening cacophony of three simultaneous phone conversations? Or am I only supposed to get a broad sense of the emotions and relationships?” In other words, is it necessary to get a close-up perspective, or is a wide-angle view sufficient?

    Another way of activating schema and helping learners listen for general information is to raise awareness of the support given by the visuals. Muting the sound during repeated viewings can often be a great way of boiling a scene down to its essence. Silently viewing the first scene of Rain Man reveals ample information about who the characters are, how they are related to one another, and what sort of day they are having. By removing distracting and potentially overwhelming aspects of the aural input, students may find it easier to intuit the broad brushstrokes of the scene, and they may also feel greater freedom to take chances and make guesses about the story, because they have less input to potentially contradict. From a classroom and time management perspective, this technique can be a good way of helping students feel satisfied that they have understood enough to be able to proceed with watching the movie, rather than getting bogged down looking for answers to countless questions that may ultimately prove irrelevant. Even if many of the details remain inscrutable, the students will understand enough and still have plenty of energy left to invest in other scenes more worthy of their efforts. It can be helpful to remind learners that,

    listening in their native language, people never hear all the information in a message, and they do not need to; proficiency in comprehension is the ability to fill in the gaps and to create an understanding that meets one’s purpose for listening. (Peterson, 2001, p. 88)

    The Close-Up Approach

    Naturally, detailed analysis of movies and television programs can also reveal memorable examples of everyday vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, giving language learners valuable experience with English as it is typically spoken. In a cacophonous scene like the one in question, a strategy of “divide and conquer” can be used to break the listening task into distinct parts, providing learners with opportunities to interact and help one another come to a better understanding of the material. Students can form groups of three that are assigned to focus on listening to a specific one of the three characters. These individual listening tasks can be focused further through the provision of corresponding cloze activities or lists of specific things to listen for, such as particular grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation items of interest. After the viewing, the group members should have time to compare notes and reach consensus on the best responses to the questions that target their particular focus. Then new three-member groups can come together in jigsaw fashion to share their distinct insights, all with the aim of generating accurate responses to a new set of questions about the bigger picture.

    An approach like this can also be used to help students become critical viewers of film and television, especially if the students in groups can be assigned to pay attention to such elements as the tone, rhythms, and intensity of the score, while others watch for lighting and color, others look out for interesting props and scenery, and so on. Sensitizing students to the various artistic choices that are made in a film can be an aid to listening comprehension insofar as it can help raise awareness of common cues that can scaffold understanding. Yet another variation on this task would be to allow each group to see one distinct segment of the scene, then have members of the groups mix into new groups to share what they caught in order to collaboratively reconstruct the story. Such an approach could be quite effective at getting learners invested in working together, establishing a sort of positive role interdependence that is a proven method for promoting high-quality learning (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1994).

    When video material is to be used not only for its entertainment value but also for the sake of getting detailed information about story and language, it makes sense to support the listening tasks with subtitles. Of course, to ensure that listening rather than reading skills are practiced, it is probably best to begin by watching the scene without subtitles so that learners can have experience working out the meaning primarily on the basis of what they hear. Meara (2005) suggests then using subtitles in a principled fashion—first watching the scene in English with the native-language subtitles on, so as to understand what is happening, and then viewing the scene once more in English with the English subtitles on in order to catch precisely what is being said. Meara (2007) suggests finally watching the scenes with native-language dubbing and target-language captions in order to learn new ways of saying things they already know. The enhanced understanding that will come from these three steps will surely go a long way toward scaffolding students’ understanding as they proceed with the rest of the movie. In addition, listening to the scene one more time with no subtitles and with target-language audio can be an important and motivating means of monitoring progress.

    A final point about detailed analysis of challenging scenes in filmed entertainment: A close look at misunderstandings that occur between characters can often provide students with memorable examples of important distinctions among language forms. For example, in the television program Friends (Crane, Kauffmann, Chase, & Bright, 1997), dim-witted Joey is often confused by his misapprehension of things he hears. In the episode “The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line,” Joey’s friend Chandler advises him that it’s time to settle down with one of the girls he’s dating. “It’s time to . . . pick a lane,” Chandler says. Joey’s response reveals a great deal about connected speech and the multiple meanings that can be mapped onto such output; he asks, “Who’s Elaine?” In a similar case from the beginning of Rain Man, analysis of a seemingly small misunderstanding

    between Charlie and his employee Lenny can lead to valuable insight about the

    distinctions between various verb tenses. Charlie instructs Lenny to tell a nervous

    investor that the cars they are importing passed inspection, but when Lenny picks

    up the phone and feigns confidence and cool, he says the cars are passing inspection. Upon hearing this modification, Charlie violently kicks Lenny’s desk, and

    Lenny corrects himself by choosing a third verb tense: he says the cars have passed

    inspection. By noticing these language choices, students can get a better sense of

    the differences between simple past, past progressive, and present perfect than any

    textbook could offer.


    To establish learners’ “successfulness” with the listening task, it is only natural for comprehension checks to follow classroom viewings of movie scenes. When determining the sorts of questions to ask, teachers should consider how their approach to these listening tasks will affect the way learners perceive their own ability to make use of authentic and challenging material independently. Reliance on detail-oriented close-up questions such as “What is Charlie’s problem with the EPA?” can create the impression that it is necessary to understand every word of the film, thus setting unrealistic expectations for the learners. On the other hand, wide-angle questions such as “Who is the boss?” and “How could you describe the emotions in this scene?” can help make the viewing of scenes such as the opening of Rain Man empowering experiences, showing learners that they have sufficient ability to enjoy such material.

    As an illustration of a key principle in the use of challenging video for listening skill development, let’s consider a true story about one observer’s experience visiting a low-beginner ESL classroom. To the observer’s amazement (and mild concern), the teacher told the students to put away their textbooks and then distributed several copies of The New York Times to the students in pairs. What possible good could come from the use of such material for these learners? Clearly, The New York Timeswould be far too challenging for this audience, unless it had been significantly revised and simplified, but these newspapers hadn’t been modified in any way. Asking learners to engage with material so far outside their ability was sure to cause great confusion, frustration, and loss of motivation.

    “Remember today’s grammar? Simple past?” the teacher asked. “Look at the front page of the newspaper, and see how many examples of simple past you can find.”

    The students dove into the task, and before long each pair had identified numerous examples of the target grammar, to their great satisfaction. By simplifying the task rather than simplifying the text, the activity had the opposite of the effect expected by the observer. Rather than frustrating the students, it empowered them, showing that they could handle the seemingly impossible task of looking at a high-level newspaper and understanding something. As Field (2002) puts it, “in general, students are not daunted or discouraged by authentic materials—provided they are told in advance not to expect to understand everything. Indeed, they find it motivating to discover that they can extract information from an ungraded passage” (p. 244). Therefore, it is probably best for teachers and learners to focus primarily on understanding the main idea of challenging listening passages in movies and television, going into greater depth only when natural curiosity or specific purposes lead the way.

    Christopher Stillwell has worked with authentic video as an ESOL language learning tool for 16 years in such varied contexts as intensive English programs in Spain and the United States, international conferences and Teachers College Columbia University workshops, and self-access learner training at Kanda University of International Studies, in Chiba, Japan.

    To purchase this book, Teaching Listening: Voices From the Field,

    go to the TESOL Bookstore.


    Language Learners and Anxiety:

    Breathing Techniques for Self-Calmings

    by Carole Allen Poppleton

    download the PDF

    For many students the idea of taking a test, especially one as demanding as the TOEFL, can cause waves of panic and fear. These fears manifest themselves both psychologically and physically and negatively impact the student’s experience and thus results. Though students can try various concrete activities to alleviate some test-taking anxieties, the most simple and readily available to them at all times is a basic understanding of yogic breathing techniques.


    In summer 2009 I was tutoring an adult ESL learner who had lived in America for 4 years. She was originally from Egypt, her native tongue being Arabic, and she desperately wanted to improve her English language skills in order to pass a test to be licensed as a pharmacist in America. She already held advanced degrees in her country and was successfully completing a master’s program in business; obviously her English language skills were quite high and she was very capable of success. However, when we worked on TOEFL preparation, as we did in our weekly tutorials, I witnessed a mental and physical shift in this otherwise confident and self-possessed woman.

    The idea of a grueling, 4-hour standardized test was enough to tip this student into panic mode and cause a wave of anxiety to course through her, setting off a ripple effect that impacted her learning and her ability to comprehend and produce language. In general conversation, this student could respond to questions and speak with almost native fluency, yet when I gave a TOEFL exam prompt, set a timer, and recorded her replies, she became flustered, searched for words, and answered in faltering phrases that in no way illustrated her actual ability. I could see the shift in her physical body—the drop in her confidence and general demeanor—when we began to role-play actual test scenarios.

    This student confided in me that when she sat the TOEFL 3 years prior she almost didn’t make it. While preparing, she became violently ill. The night before the Saturday morning test, she experienced heart palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, and feelings of extreme anxiety. Her physical symptoms were so severe that her husband took her to the emergency room where she was given oxygen; doctors also ran a battery of tests to rule out any serious cardiac problems. In the end, nothing was really wrong with her and she was diagnosed as experiencing a panic attack. After hearing about her horrible pretest experience, I begin to talk with her about yoga, the connection of mind and body, and to discuss methods, such as variable breathing exercises, positive mantras, and visualization techniques, she could employ to control her breath and to calm herself in stressful situations. Working with this student raised some compelling issues for me, and I began to think more seriously about how the mind affects the body and how stress and anxiety can impact us in very real and debilitating ways.

    I felt for this woman who had worked so hard to learn English, to alter her life, and to strive toward her goals. I felt somewhat frustrated by a system of standardized testing that can open doors or shut them completely for students. Being a poor test-taker myself, I truly empathized with this student’s plight and began to think about ways to help her—and hopefully others—begin to alleviate their fears and to calm themselves when faced with anxiety-producing situations.

    At the same time I was tutoring this person, I was also teaching a small intensive English program at my college. I decided to take an informal poll of this diverse group of students about their experiences with the TOEFL exam or other such comprehensive tests. As expected, the students grimaced and groaned when I asked about their test-taking history. Though some had fared quite well on standardized tests, usually as a result of some kind of specialized preparation, all stated that they felt some nervousness and anxiety when faced with the challenge of test-taking.

    In order to dig deeper, I asked students to write out their “techniques” for reducing nervousness on test day. Most admitted to having no technique. One student wrote, “I feels [sic] stress for a week before a big test.” In order to counter it, he exercised and did not drink coffee. Another young woman stated that she felt “extremely excited” to take the TOEFL exam because she had prepped for so long at a special school; however, when she was before the computer she “was very distracted by the time limit . . . and was very nervous.” A few other students commented on how they prepared for a test via rote memorization and doing practice problems. One even noted that when she was answering questions, she would “close her eyes and rethink of what [she had] studied for the test.” This kind of visualization can be very helpful in recall but it does little to calm anxiety. I was intrigued by all of these answers and even more intrigued that no one spoke of the most basic calming mechanism available to us at all times: our breath.

    When faced with a challenge some nervousness is welcome. The kind of excitement we feel when we are about to perform, be it on a sports field, on a stage, or in a classroom, is a good kind of energy that can stimulate and motivate us. A small amount of adrenaline is healthy. However, if one’s body senses real fear, then this adrenaline can kick into “overdrive,” signaling danger, preparing the body for fight or flight. When this occurs, a person naturally begins to breathe in short, fast gulps of air, which decreases the amount of oxygen getting to the brain. This is where a panic attack originates; this is where a student faced with extreme test-taking anxiety can begin to work to alleviate unwanted symptoms.

    By alerting students to the “naturalness” of anxiety and sharing with them some of the chemical and neurological reactions occurring within them when something triggers “fear,” we arm them with valuable information and can help them manage their minds and bodies more effectively. The next step after understanding the body’s natural reaction to fear is to learn how to control it through breathing. Clinical studies support that yoga postures, meditation, and controlled breathing practices can alleviate stress and anxiety (Brown & Gerbag, 2005). In a test-taking situation, control over one’s own breath is the most feasible and direct method to begin to reduce nervousness.

    The following simple breathing exercises, gleaned from yogic practices thousands of years old, offer agitated students concrete steps to begin self-calming, which will help them to settle down and refocus their energy to the appropriate task. With each breath, we exhale carbon dioxide and take in fresh oxygen to feed our brain and organs; we also slow the heart rate and relax the senses (Mayo Clinic, 2010). The goal of yogic breathing, or pranayama, is to train the mind to focus on the breath, not the stressful situation, and by practicing these techniques daily, a person can learn how to better regulate his or her bodily reaction to anxiety (Devi, 2000).

    Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing

    One of the most basic yet necessary breaths to remember is deep diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing), which is the most basic calming breath. When under stress, most people’s breath tends to be fast and shallow, causing hyperventilation. The goal here is to deepen and slow down the breath, to focus solely on it. To practice deep breathing, sit in a comfortable position; inhale through the nose and allow the belly to fill and rise. This action allows the diaphragm muscle to descend and the lungs to expand. Exhale through the nose, allowing the belly to relax and move inward. Some people prefer to rest a hand on the abdomen and another on the heart. The chest cavity should remain still, with only the diaphragm rising and falling. Repeat slowly, even counting out the inhalations and exhalations if desired, until calmer.

    Dirgha Breathing

    Dirgha is also a form of deep breathing but in this version the person learns to fill the belly and the lungs. It is often called “three-part” breath. Sit up straight in a chair and take in a deep breath, filling the belly as in diaphragmatic breathing. However, instead of keeping the chest still, in dirgha pranayama you want to fill the lower and upper chambers of the lungs, thus producing a rise and fall of the belly, chest, and clavicles. Breathe deeply and slowly, moving the breath through all three chambers to reduce anxiety and gain clarity.

    Ujjayi Breathing

    This style of breathing is deeper, slower, and a bit more noisy (although it can be done softly). Because of the sound being made in the back of the throat, some practitioners call this “Darth Vader Breath” or compare Ujjayi breath to the sounds of the ocean waves. While breathing, gently constrict the opening of the throat, creating slight resistance to the passage of air. Practice pulling the breath in and pushing the breath out. By slightly constricting the throat and breathing with sound, a person is encouraged to focus more intently and thus becomes calmer and more attentive to the moment.

    Nadi Shodhana

    Nadi Shodhana, the “sweet breath” or alternate nostril breathing, is very soothing. Sit up straight in a chair and block your right nostril using your right thumb. Inhale fully through your left nostril only. With your right index finger, close the left nostril and gently hold the breath for as long as is comfortable. Next, release just the right nostril and exhale fully. Let go of your nose and hold the breath out for as long as is comfortable. Then block the left nostril with your index finger and inhale fully through the right nostril. Again, close the nose and hold the breath in. Release the left nostril, exhale fully, and hold the breath out. Continue alternating sides.


    The four exercises outlined above are not exhaustive of the breathing techniques available, of course. They are simply a start to increased bodily awareness and can be a useful tool for self-calming for anyone faced with a stressful situation, including language learners who are being limited by socioaffective principles (language ego, willingness to communicate, language-cultural connection) that are deeply tied to emotional involvement with how they feel about themselves, using the target language within a community of learners, and their relationship with language and their own culture or worldview (Brown, 2007).

    The beauty of these techniques is that they are readily available to everyone, every minute of every day. For students, especially second-language learners who are often in situations that produce anxiety (in-class tests, standardized exams such as the TOEFL or SAT, oral presentations, social conversations), knowing these basic yoga breaths can be the difference between success and failure. For a nervous student, or anyone who knows too well how anxiety manifests itself in the body and mind, the knowledge that something as simple as breathing differently can produce a different physical and mental response is quite powerful. To know how to use the strength of our own breath to calm and regulate anxiety is valuable information and something to consider when we work with students who exhibit test-taking or language-related anxiety.

    Working with the Egyptian student mentioned above, I saw first-hand how debilitating stress and anxiety can be on one’s ability to recall information or to perform tasks that normally would be simple. Luckily, this student was open to exploring her test anxiety and to doing the hard mental and physical work to prepare for the TOEFL. We spent 3 months meeting, going over practice tests, and focusing on reducing the panic she felt when she thought about this test and all it represented to her. I am happy to report that after nine attempts at the TOEFL in the past 18 months, she has met her goal. She called me one day, ecstatic, as she had just received the latest test results from ETS. She had passed in all four categories, and her scores were high enough to move her to the next stage of her career. “I cannot believe it,” she said. “I am so happy and it’s just like I pictured it would be.” I could believe it, as I knew her intelligence and her level of language proficiency. Once we could quiet her mind and calm her anxiety, her strong voice and deep command of the English language were able to be expressed.


    Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language

    pedagogy (3rd ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.

    Brown, R., & Gerbarg, P. (2005). “Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of

    stress, anxiety and depression” [Electronic version]. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, II(4): 711–717.

    Devi, J. (2000). The healing path of yoga. New York: Three Rivers Press.

    Mayo Clinic. (2010). Tap into the many health benefits of yoga. Retrieved from

    Carole Allen Poppleton has taught language arts and ESOL at Maryland Institute College of Art since 1996. She is a visual artist, writer, and avid traveler who especially enjoys adding stamps to her passport. Her interests include Asian cultures, world literature, and learning more about the connections between mind and body.