In  Selected papers presented at CULI’s third international conference (pp. 147-156).  Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Language Institute, 1995.

Exploiting New Cable Channels for Professional Listening Practice

Johanna E. Katchen



The past few years have witnessed the tremendous growth of cable television across East Asia, resulting in an increase in English language broadcasts.  The Discovery Channel brings us information on a variety of topics in documentary format.  CNN International’s special features present current developments in science, technology, environmental concerns, and other areas.  ABN (Asia Business News) provides economic news, trends, and predictions for the East Asia region.

Many students fear authentic English programs, particularly those without native language subtitles.  Yet for students planning to study abroad or those who will us English in academic or professional pursuits at home, programs from the stations mentioned above can provide good practice in listening for content in addition to worthwhile information.  Therefore, the teacher must intervene to show students how to utilize these programs effectively in class and for self-study to improve their individual listening abilities.  This paper demonstration uses video clips of a documentary, travel show, and interview to illustrate how these information programs can be exploited for both language comprehension and language production activities.


The proliferation of cable television is a boon to foreign language teachers, especially English teachers.  Authentic material--programming made for native speakers--is available every day, even in some students' homes, in a variety of genres.  Some channels are devoted to movies in English with local language subtitles (e.g., HBO, TNT).  Sports events are presented both in English and local languages (e.g., STAR-TV's Prime Sports and ESPN).  Ted Turner's Cartoon Network gives us American cartoons primarily in local languages;  The Disney Channel presents cartoons and family films, some in local languages, some in English.  Other stations, such as STAR-TV's STAR-plus, present a variety of entertainment programs, mostly in English.

Information programs are also widespread; CNN International is virtually everywhere, and the BBC World Service can also be found in some places.  Both of these offer, in addition to the latest news, various documentary type programs about a variety of topics, from computers to fashion, cooking shows to travel shows.  There are interviews with news makers, entertainers, and specialists.  The offerings of The Discovery Channel, while not presenting breaking news, nevertheless provide information primarily in documentary form, though they also include travel and cooking shows.  Asia Business News provides a wide variety of news, mostly in English, from all over Asia, although they focus on economics.  Their main genres are news, interviews, and short documentaries.

In this paper we will not cover the use of news stories because these suggestions appear elsewhere (Katchen, 1994; 1995a).  The main reason we watch both news programs and documentaries is to gain information.  Documentaries are educational, so this is certainly a genre we should encourage students to watch even without considering their value for English learning.  Thus for the most part the ideas and suggestions for using news stories apply also to using docu­mentaries.

The biggest problem with using documentaries in class is length; most of them run thirty minutes to one hour long.  This may even be too long for native speakers to pay full attention because they present a lot of new information in a relatively short period of time in a rather formal, academic style, with many technical terms.  Therefore, the teacher may want to consider breaking up a documentary into a few parts and either using only one part or using each part as a different lesson.  Most documentaries tend to be clearly organized, so they are relatively easy to segment.  With a shorter length, for example ten minutes, we could show the segment more than once for intensive listening, the first time to do an activity such as answering some information questions, the second time to confirm or review.

Travel shows, on the other hand, in addition to giving us some useful information for making serious travel plans, have their main function in providing us with an escape from our daily lives, in offering us a beautiful dream.  Although some shows introducing specific locations run for one hour, these longer programs tend to resemble documentaries in their detailed descriptions of the history, geography, and customs of the region.  The more typical travel show runs for one-half hour and is made up of short visits to three or more locations.  Thus a segment usually runs from five to eight minutes, an ideal length for classroom use. 

In an interview situation we imagine a journalist from the BBC or one of the American networks asking questions of a prominent politician such as Lady Thatcher or President Clinton.  The questions are scripted and the answers are rehearsed in advance, too.  Consider, however, Larry King Live on CNN.  Most often Mr. King interviews one person in the first part of the one hour show, and then in the second part the world audience has the opportunity to phone in and ask questions of the guest.  At other times Mr. King has three or four experts gathered, often in different studios around the world, and he asks them pertinent questions about a particular issue.  The questions are for the most part scripted but the answers are basically unrehearsed.  The result is often discussion among the guest experts and Mr. King; the callers-in add to the more informal, talk show nature of the discussion.

In this paper we look at the three genres just mentioned--the documentary, travel show, and interview--as representative of the genres (excluding news) typically represented in TV information channels.  We examine the kind of language used, some considerations involved in choosing an appropriate topic/program, and types of classroom activities that can be developed, both for language comprehension and language production.


In documentary programs, almost all the speech we hear is the clear and standard speech of educated individuals.  This is certainly the case for the narrator and most of the professionals who may be interviewed during the course of the program.  Moreover, many travel shows about English speaking destinations are presented by native speakers, although we may still have to choose among American, British (also including Scottish and Irish), and Australian English.  Generally, there is a correspondence between the English of the presenter and the location (e.g., a person with an Irish accent introducing a place in Ireland).

More and more often in both documentaries and interviews, we encounter experts who are nonnative speakers of English using English in a professional, academic style.  Students should learn to understand these speakers, too, as they may take courses taught in English by visiting foreign professors from different parts of the world.  In the real world students will have to interact with other nonnative speakers with other accents speaking English, so television can present an opportunity for practice.  Travel shows may also be presented by nonnative speakers in English.  This is realistic.  If our students travel to Hungary, for example, they will join a tour group in English led by a Hungarian with a good command of English but who speaks it with a Hungarian accent.  Thus watching a travel show about Hungary presented by a Hungarian with a Hungarian accent in English is perfectly natural and provides good language preparation for actual travel.

Like academic lectures, documentaries present us with much more new informa­tion than we need to process in ordinary conver­sation.  This information overload necessitates the use of repetition and alternative ways of presenting the same or similar material for the reinforcement of learning.  The good documentary is a good teacher; students hear it, they see it, and they may be given an example or two to help remember it.  Like school lessons, documentaries have beginnings, middles, ends, and clear transition points.  Lessons tend to be about specialized topics, so special vocabulary is introduced, defined, and used.  When the topic concerns the more abstract or theoretical, the passive voice is likely to be employed.  A greater use of participial constructions and other complex sentence types typical of more formal speech are found.  Visuals, which reinforce and expand our under­standing of the spoken words, are utilized even more creatively than in the classroom because the special medium of video permits the combining of all sorts of graphics.

One of the most obvious linguistic features of travel shows is the introduc­tion of new place names for the various destinations.  Additionally, students are given the names of various activities which they can also most likely see at the same time (scuba diving, parasailing).  Specialized vocabulary for various artifacts and forms of architecture can also be seen; for example, when visiting European cathedrals, terms such as altar, nave, gargoyle, reliquary and crypt may be used, and such visual definitions are far superior to any dictionary definition alone.

With regard to grammar, the conditional occurs quite frequently:  If you would like to escape from the cares and worries of modern life, then a trip to Tahiti is just what the doctor ordered.  The imperative also occurs in the manner of giving advice:  Now be careful when changing money in Romania because ....  The reasons why the advice is given are also often stated in forms such as Morocco is a Moslem country, so women should dress modestly at all times and always cover their shoulders. or Because the sun in Australia can be quite intense, you should always wear sunscreen on the beach.

A major advantage of using interviews is that their special features aid comprehen­sion.  The faces of the speakers are shown as talking heads.  The questions are scripted and given to the guest in advance.  The result is extremely smooth-sounding speech which is for the most part grammatically correct, spoken in a relatively standard social and regional variety of English, and is enunciated clearly.  Rehearsed speech does not have as many hesitation phenomena (hm, uh) nor repetitions and false starts as spontaneous speech.  The experienced rehearsed speaker usually does not use the fast speech of the more nervous and inexperienced speaker.  In fact, most people who become the subjects of formal interviews, such as politicians, actors, famous musicians and other experts, are usually quite experienced in speaking before audiences and cameras.

While the language of interviews is usually relatively formal, we still hear the occasional hesitation phenomena (well, I mean) and other performance errors (or linguistic features) of educated speakers.  This is similar to the kinds of language students may hear from English-speaking professors or what they may hear on educational videos.  Thus, even though the speech of interviews is not what one finds in ordinary street conversation, it is natural for its register and reflects a type of language that students at more advanced levels are likely to encounter.  Interviews can provide good practice for students in getting information and opinions from individual educated and professional speakers.

The clearer speech of interviews may be easier for our students to understand, but the vocabulary may be specialized.  The vocabulary will, of course, depend on who the person being interviewed is; specialized and technical terms can be overcome with a little preparation, such as providing a short vocabulary list or a related reading in which the terms are used.

Ordinary people, both guests and audience, on the other hand, may be nervous and therefore speak more rapidly than normal.  In ordinary conversa­tion, we tend to speak in partial sentences, repeat, use pause fillers, slur our words together, use slang, and start talking before the other person has finished.  Additionally, a studio audience may include speakers of different regional and social dialects.  All these factors make questions from the audience more difficult to understand and render call-in questions, with the added unique voice quality of the telephone and our inability to see neither the speaker's face nor her gestures, exceeding­ly diffi­cult for our students to understand.

On the positive end, much of the speech we hear on talk shows (e.g., interactions among experts, guests, callers-in, and Larry King) is like the everyday conversa­tion we would hear out on the street and is exactly the kind of talk our students will need to understand if they are ever to interact with groups of native speakers.  If they go abroad for advanced study, they will constant­ly hear this kind of joking and light argument and be expected to participate in it.  Thus the talk show is probably the genre where the most naturally occur­ring English can be found.     

Choosing an Appropriate Topic

Documentaries are made to be educational, not entertaining.  Their academic style, combined with their length, added to students' incomplete comprehension of English makes them potentially boring for the classroom.  Even with effective pre-teaching strategies, we should still try to avoid those programs that are too technical or abstract.  Our classroom experience has shown that many students (in this case English majors) quickly tune out when the topic concerns abstract or theoretical concepts (for example, medicine, economics, even politics).  Students are much more comfortable dealing with the here and now, with concrete objects more or less familiar.  When they choose to watch documentaries on their own time, the top choices are those about animals; programs about objects (airplanes, bridges) and places (castles, deserts) are also selected (Katchen, 1995b). 

For an advanced listening course, we tried using some less serious material that might interest students when we used one episode of the BBC produced series Cats; students seemed to be quite satisfied with this topic, perhaps because cats are so familiar that we do not feel threatened (unless we have a special fear of cats) by the topic the way we might if the topic under discussion were something too small to be seen (e.g., a particle in physics), too far away to be seen, or too abstract to be comprehended by non-specialists.  But all of us have had very ordinary experiences with the physical presence of cats.  A short selection (from Invention) that both females and males in the class enjoyed was a piece on the invention and development of the bra.  Not only was the subject of discussion concrete, but the fact that we were looking at an article of female underwear (tastefully shown) made the topic slightly naughty and therefore exciting.

Besides relaxation, another reason for watching travel shows is to learn something, but this topic is not dull like school­work.  We watch to learn about something pleasant and pleasurable; for example, we learn what joys we could experience if we had enough money to afford such a vacation.  We see beautiful or exciting places and imagine we are there.  This general audience appeal can help us motivate our students to work with the genre in the class­room.

As English teachers, one consideration in using a travel show might be to teach aspects of the target culture or to introduce students to representative places or typical tourist destinations in the USA, Britain, or other English-speaking areas.  Seeing a place on video is certainly more exciting than just reading about it in a book.  We may choose places about which the students already have some knowledge.  For example, most students will have seen photos of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London, so listening to the presenter talk about them in a standard British English may enable students to blend their previous knowledge with some new knowledge.  The destination may even be related to something else the students are learning about; for example, students studying Shakespeare can make a video visit to Stratford-on-Avon.

In our modern world, where everyday life in most developed countries is relatively the same (traffic jams, crowded shops, noisy sidewalks), we are fascinated when we see how some people still live in the jungles in Borneo or how Eskimos survive the long, hard winter.  We may want to broaden students' horizons by exposing them to places they have never heard of before.  Moreover, we may also want them to acquire new information about places they already know a little about.  For example, after the communist powers were eclipsed in Central and Eastern Europe in late 1989, Taiwan's people were interested in finding out more about these cultures which were previously off-limits.  As always, when the topic is more distant from the students' experience and background knowledge, we teachers need to spend more time on our pre-teaching activities to prepare students to meet the relatively new topic.

As mentioned previously, travel shows can help us introduce aspects of the target culture.  We can learn about famous historical sites or see people engaged in typical activities or rituals.  One of the episodes we have used was centered around ghostly travel destina­tions, and in eight minutes we saw Poe's burial site in Baltimore, visited a haunted house in the American South, joined the Edinburgh Witching Tours, saw the room in Warwick Castle where a previous owner was murdered, and toured a part of the supposedly haunted ship The Queen Mary.  These ghost stories were perfect for use around the American holiday Halloween, so we used comprehension questions, vocabu­lary study by guessing multiple choice meanings, listening for specific words, and a modified cloze with the various short segments.  Another episode of Travel Plus we used showed Pennsylvania Christmas celebrations or related activities from the historic section of Philadelphia, the famous chocolate factory at Hershey, and the early Moravian settle­ment at Bethlehem.

Many of the interviews broadcast on television are adjuncts to news programs; the most often interviewed people are politicians.  Perhaps a few politically minded students might want to hear those interviews, but others may prefer to hear familiar pop or sports stars.  While ABN tends to present shorter interviews centering around economics and politics,  CNN's Larry King Live interviews a broad range of people from many fields, some for up to one hour.  What­ever our students' preferenc­es, they are more likely to pay attention to and participate in a lesson based on a topic that interests them.


Preteaching.  As for most classes, pre-teaching activities are used to build student motivation to perform the activities we then require of students.  Documentaries are perceived as a hard genre even in our native language because they teach rather than entertain, so students need even more motivation than with other genres.  A documentary can form one part of a unit on a particular topic such as global population growth or other global issues.  In this case students may already have developed some interest in the topic from previous activities.

Because documentaries tend to be organized like academic lectures and to have a similar formal style, they have been used successfully in teaching university academic skills, particularly when combined with reading and writing (Koenig & Lindner, 1993).  Such an approach requires intensive preparation on the part of the teacher; she should be just as familiar with the word-by-word content of the video as she would be of a related reading.  It is just as important to develop previewing, comprehension, and follow-up activi­ties for a video as it is for a reading.      

In order to get students interested in learning more about the destination of a travel show segment, we can begin by asking them a few questions.  The following questions were used to introduce an eight-minute segment on Bulgaria. 

Have you ever been to Bulgaria?   Do you know where it is?  
What's the name of the country in your language?
If you went there on vacation, what do you think you could do there?

As students seemed to know very little about the country, they were asked to brainstorm in groups, to discuss with their partners all they knew about the country and to write it down.  (Bragoli, 1990, recommends a similar activity with documentaries.)  Under teacher guidance, the informa­tion was then shared and any misconceptions clarified.  A map was used to help pinpoint the location of Bulgaria, and new place names that came up (the capital Sofia and the names of some neighboring countries and the Black Sea) were written on the board for correct spelling and also pronounced by the teacher and repeated by the students.  As part of our pre-teaching activities for travel shows, we may also want to present students with any critical items of vocabulary, particularly the name of the destination.  Other vocabulary can be taught as it is encoun­tered; we should give students the opportunity to guess first.

With interviews and talk shows, a good way to motivate students to watch the video is to start with the topic that will be presented or discussed.  For example, if President Clinton were being interviewed and the segment we planned to use in class had to do with his childhood and student days, we might ask the class what they knew about Mr. Clinton.  As they probably would know very little about his early life, we could then ask them what kind of child­hood they think he might have had.  Another possibility would be, after introducing the subject of the interview, to ask students to imagine if they could interview Miss X and ask her (three or four) questions, what questions would they ask. 

Predicting the Answers.  In Terry Wogan's interview with the rock star Madonna (1991, BBC), motivation was no problem.  Neverthe­less, it seemed reasonable to prepare students somewhat for the content of what they were going to hear, to give them a task, a purpose for watching.  Therefore, stu­dents were given 13 multiple choice ques­tions based on informa­tion from the interview.  In some cases, students had to predict how they thought Madonna would answer specific questions posed by Mr. Wogan.  Some of the options were a bit bizarre, but then Madonna is bizarre, and such choices added humor to the class.  Students were to discuss the questions with the students around them and try to guess the answers.  Two of these questions are included below.

  Mr. Wogan asks Madonna if she thinks she frightens men.  What do you think she will answer?  

            a. Men shouldn't be afraid of me.  

            b. If they are, they shouldn't come near me.  

            c. It's women that I frighten, not men.  

            d. What's there to be afraid of?

How does Madonna feel about people who disapprove of what she does?       

a. She laughs                          

b. She cries                 

c. She gets angry                                 

d. She doesn't care

Students seem to enjoy these kinds of questions.  For predictions about Madonna's feelings, they end up analyz­ing the woman's character and guess she might laugh or not care about people who disap­prove of her.  By discussing some of the possible answers, students have some idea of what is coming, what to look for.  We have focused their attention on some of the points that will be dis­cussed.  Therefore, they will pay more atten­tion in general while listening for the specific.

Writing the Narration.  An activity involving both speaking and writing (and later listening) is to have students watch a segment of a travel show silently, take notes on what they see, and then with a partner try to write what they think the presenter is saying (Prime, 1992).  During the course of their discussion, students often have questions on how to say some of the things they saw; if more than one groups has the same questions, this is a good time to write the terms on the board.  Later these and other terms will be shared with the whole class.  After some of the students read their narrations, we of course then watch with sound to confirm guesses and learn more details. 

Comprehension Questions.  When we think of checking listening comprehension, we probably think first of comprehension questions.  These can be in various forms, from matching to multiple choice, true/false, completion, or open-ended.  For a short documentary on the invention and subsequent development of the bra, students were given a handout containing eight questions, given a few minutes to go over the questions, then told they were to listen to the documentary and find the answers to the questions.  As it was not to be a test, they were told we would all share our answers after viewing.  This procedure lets students anticipate what they are going to see and hear and also allows them to perhaps become more interested in hearing it.  Some of these questions are given below. 

  In what way(s) were the first bras different from the previous corsets?
Why did the bra become so successful during World War I?
What change(s) in the bra came about in the 1940s and 1950s?

Now, how are modern bras designed?  Why?

 Adjective Study.  When travel show writers give advice, they are essentially making judg­ments.  They tell us, according to their criteria, whether the accommodations are adequate, the food mouth-watering, the wine cheap, the local transportation convenient.  That is, travel shows are full of descriptive adjectives.  Students can be asked to listen for and to write down the various specific adjectives used to describe the geography, beaches, hotels, and so on.  Thus while in their own narrations students may have used the word delicious to describe the food the presenter was eating and obviously enjoying, they may now learn a new term, mouth-watering.

Visual Vocabulary.  Travel programs show people enjoying themselves as they participate in various activities offered at the destination.  These activities have names (bungee jumping), some of which might be new to the students.  In order to describe other activities we need verbs (he is putting on suntan lotion; he is getting a suntan; she is going for a swim).  After they view the clip, we can ask students what vacationers can do there.  This would be a good time to teach these new terms if students have not asked for them before.  Similarly, terms for various objects (roulette wheel, pomegranate, icon) can be taught as they are seen.  We can also listen for these terms as they are spoken (not all objects seen are mentioned).

Vocabulary.  Because documentaries teach, usually new terms are involved.  The teacher can prepare a list of important new terms in advance.  A better strategy would be for the students to get most of the critical vocabulary first from a related reading; that way the students could do most of the hard work themselves.  Many of the terms essential to understanding the documentary will be defined in English during the course of that documentary, so there is no need to prepare an extensive English--native language word list.  Another technique would be to ask students, after they hear the term defined in English, what it would be in the native language.  Or, as long as we give them the proper spelling of the new term, they can look up the word themselves.  When our students chose to watch documentaries on their own time as part of their listening journal assignments, they reported that although they did not understand some new words, they could see, for example, the term was the name of the animal they were being told about, and not knowing the name really did not detract from their understand­ing of the program (Katchen, 1995b).

Yet another way to present words that is a bit more work for the teacher but fun for the students is to make the mean­ings multiple choice; students have to take some time to study the words and guess.  We should use no more then ten items; more would make the activity too much like a boring test, and it is hard work thinking up plausible wrong answers.  Below are some examples from a travel segment on the burial place of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe.  The answers are a. (rather tricky); b. (rather easy); and a. b. c. (to introduce the more unfamiliar meaning along with the familiar). 


  a. scary             

b. walking quietly          

c. walking on arms and legs


a. combs for cats' hair   

b. under­ground burial chambers  

c. grave­yards 


a. stomach      

b. gastrointestinal tract       

c. willingness to take a risk 

Interviews and talk shows often contain technical terms, idiomatic expres­sions, and slang with which our students may be unfamiliar.  Of particular impor­tance are terms not usually found in ordinary dictionaries (e.g., Father Time for a very old person) and includ­ing also familiar words used with a lesser known meaning (e.g., guts meaning willingness to take a risk).  In Terry Wogan's interview with Madonna, the pop star used a lot of Ameri­can slang terms which students probably would not under­stand.  In this case, students were given a vocabulary list to look up as home­work before we started the unit.  As expected, many of the terms were hard to or impos­sible to find, so we had to review them in class before viewing.  For example, most dictio­naries do not contain terms such as glitterati (actors and actresses) or tinsel town (Hollywood).

Cloze.  For any text, once we have transcribed it, which may in itself be a difficult task for nonnative teachers, we can turn it into a cloze.  Preferably this should be done as a group effort on the part of the students not as a test.  Variations can include, in interviews, giving students the answers and having them fill in the questions, or giving them the questions and having them fill in selected words (easier) or phrases (harder) in the answers.

Follow-up Activities.  Documentaries can give us materials for teaching about global concerns.  The spread of AIDS, the depletion of the ozone layer, the continued contamination of our water supply by man-made pollutants--these and many other global issues are often subjects of documentaries and are also discussed in newspapers and magazines, so it should not be too difficult to find related readings.  There is ample scope for speaking and writing activities--from discussions to debates, from letters to the newspaper to persuasive essays.  As an alternative, we can pose the controversial question raised on the video and have students write a defense of their position for homework, then have the discussion in the next class.  Such a discussion will be more fruitful after students have thought through the issues carefully in order to complete their homework assignment.

As a follow-up to a travel show, we could ask students whether they would like to visit the destination we presented and, if they travelled there, what they would like to do.  This discussion could be supplemented by a related reading.  We could also ask groups to discuss and plan their ideal vacation or ask students to do a written assignment telling where in the world they would most want to go, why they want to go there, and what they would do there.

If we can find a relatively short but interesting article about the person being inter­viewed or the topic under discussion, we might consider using it in class as a follow-up or even as a lead-in to the video.  These may add new information or present the arguments on various sides of an issue in a more organized manner; a related reading might also help students review specialized vocabulary.

For any material we use in class, we recommend, wherever possible, to permit students to have access to these materials for their own review outside of class; ideally this would be in a student self-access language laboratory with facilities for individual video viewing.

Concluding Remarks

Here we have presented only a few of the kinds of activities that can be used with video clips of various genres.  Other activities can be found in video handbooks.  With all the English programming now available over the airwaves, there is ample material for today's English teachers to experiment with using authentic video to supplement their syllabi and increase student motivation.



Bragoli, C. J.  (1990).  "Endangered African elephants": Exploiting authentic videos.  The Language Teacher, 14(11), 37-38.


Katchen, J. E.  (1994).  Tips for using satellite news stories.  Thai TESOL Bulletin, 7(1), 31-33.


Katchen, J. E.  (1995a).  Using authentic video in English language teaching:  Tips for Taiwan's teachers.  Taipei (Taiwan): Crane Publishing Co., Ltd.


Katchen, J. E.  (1995b).  Self-directed listening:  What student journals reveal.  Paper presented at the 29th Annual IATEFL Conference, April 9 - 12, 1995, York, England.


Koenig, J. & Lindner, J.  (1993).  Capitalizing on public broadcasting to teach academic listening.  Paper presented at the 27th Annual TESOL Conference, April 13 - 17, 1993, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


Prime, B.  (1992).  Using off-air video clips for speaking and listening activities.  Paper presented at the 26th Annual IATEFL Conference, October 23 - 26, 1992, Lille, France.


Stempleski, S. & Arcario, P. (Eds.).  (1993).  Video in second language teaching:  Using, selecting, and producing video for the classroom.  Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

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