Monthly Archives: September 2013

Mini interview: Sheila Thorn about Real Lives, Real Listening 

Sheila Thorn is the author of  Real Lives, Real Listening. Read the interview below to find out how Real Lives, Real Listening helps students to boost their listening skills.

To find out more about the Real Lives, Real Listening series, and to download teaching notes, sample units and sample audio, please just click on the cover images below. 


Sheila Thorn is an experienced teacher and materials writer with a particular interest in authentic listening. She is the founder of The Listening Business.

What is Real Lives, Real Listening?

Real Lives, Real Listening is an innovative series of ELT books which helps students at all levels from Elementary to Advanced to get to grips with informal spoken English. The series also helps students learn the grammar, phonology and lexis of unscripted speech. 

Unlike the scripted and simplified recordings found in many ELT books which are ‘performed’ at an artificially slow pace by actors, the Real Lives, Real Listening books contain 100% unscripted recordings with native and non-native English speakers from all walks of life. 

In addition to pre-listening activities and intensive listening comprehension practice, each unit contains listening exercises which train students to listen more effectively to the varieties of spoken English they will encounter outside the ELT classroom.  These training exercises focus on those features of informal spoken English which students find most challenging, such as weak forms, elision and assimilation.

Another innovative feature is an Interesting Language Points section where I examine the grammar and phonology of each listening text.

Each unit also includes a section where the grammatical structures and lexis found in the text are recycled and extended, thus enabling students to learn new language. 

Finally, each unit contains a full transcript together with a glossary of key lexical items, making these books ideal for classroom use by both native and non-native English teachers, as well as self-access.

Most ELT students find listening the most challenging of the four skills. This series motivates students by using authentic recordings of real people. It also increases their confidence in their listening ability by providing achievable and worthwhile exercises.

What’s the difference between your approach to teaching listening skills and the traditional ELT approach?

The traditional ELT approach to listening is to provide students with listening comprehension exercises. Following some pre-listening activities, students typically listen to a passage twice and answer questions on it to check their understanding. They either get the answers right or wrong and, if they are lucky, the teacher explains to the students with the incorrect answers where they went wrong.

In this respect listening comprehension exercises are more like a test of a student’s ability to listen at a point in time. But testing doesn’t equate to teaching. The traditional listening comprehension approach does nothing to help students listen more effectively the next time round. Nor is it particularly motivating for students, interesting for teachers or easy to teach.

With my approach the focus is far more on listening training. In effect I concentrate more on how things were said (i.e. the listening process) rather than what was said (i.e. the product of listening). This is why each unit contains exercises which focus explicitly on how the speaker(s) said the things that they did.

I guarantee that teachers using these books rather than traditional listening comprehensions will see a huge improvement in the listening ability of their students in a very short space of time.

How does Real Lives, Real Listening help students?

The Real Lives, Real Listening series helps students by making them aware that they can understand authentic spoken English.  The exercises are carefully crafted to boost their confidence in their listening skills and to train them to listen more effectively to the informal spoken English they will encounter outside the ELT classroom. 

We all know from our own experience that when we are feeling anxious, for example when a consultant talks to us about an illness, our anxiety impedes our ability to take in the message. These books are designed to help students overcome their anxiety when listening to spoken English and therefore listen more effectively.

Why did you write the Real Lives, Real Listening series?

Back in 2003 I gave a conference session to ESOL teachers on how to write listening exercises to accompany authentic recordings. I ended by bemoaning the lack of published authentic listening practice materials available at the time.  At this point one of the teachers in my session said ‘Why don’t you write an authentic listening book?’ and all the other teachers in the audience applauded. This gave me the idea to create the best authentic listening books I could, based on the latest theories on L2 listening and language acquisition. Following a lengthy period of research and discussions with practising teachers, I began conducting a huge number of interviews and started to write the series in 2004.

What language level do students need to have to use Real Lives, Real Listening?

The series is aimed at students from Elementary to Advanced levels. The topics of the recordings (A Typical Day, My Family and A Place I Know Well) were deliberately chosen because they are topics which appear in all coursebooks and will be familiar to any student who has studied English.

Praise for the Real Lives, Real Listening series:

Unlike much so-called ‘listening’ material, it focuses systematically on the problems that really prevent learners from understanding natural speech, and does so through interesting and motivating activities. 

Michael Swan


An outstanding resource for teachers and students alike.

Professor Ron Carter, University of Nottingham


An innovative series that offers a fresh and practical approach to developing listening skills by means of authentic texts.

Dr John Field, Universities of Bedfordshire and Cambridge