Shadowing (also called shadow reading / shadow listening) is a technique where language learners try to ‘speak along’ in time with an audio text, much like singing along with a song (though sometimes with the transcript in front of them). Shadowing thus focuses on the sounds, not on the words: indeed, meaning is secondary in shadowing tasks, as learners should imitate the sounds they hear, rather than trying to understand what is being said. The technique, which is said to improve pronunciation and listening skills, has been widely adopted in Asia, in ELT contexts where the relative degree of similarity between English and the learners’ first language is low. Hamada (2015) examines common claims about the benefits of shadowing for improving English learners’ listening skills, namely:
- shadowing enhances learners’ phoneme perception, thus improving listening comprehension skills, and
- shadowing is most effective with lower-proficiency learners.
- Participants were 43 Japanese EFL learners at Japanese national university with different Majors.
- 2x weekly lessons for one month conducted using Reading Explorer 2 EFL textbook.
- In each lesson, ‘normal’ classwork was followed by 20 mins of shadowing practice of audio.
- Learners shadowed one of three stories for about 20 mins, pre-recorded and read at 157 w.p.m. without the transcript.
- Pre- and post-tests used two parts of the Japanese standardized ‘Eiken’ test for English listening (22 questions) and 20-item dictation cloze test focussing on non-lexical words.
- Students divided into low- and intermediate-proficiency groups using the listening pre-test results.
- Results analysed with a mixed-design of two-way ANOVA with ‘proficiency’ as between-participants factor, and ‘time’ as within-participants factor.
Regarding phoneme perception (the 20-item dictation cloze test), both groups showed an improvement to a similar degree: the low-proficiency group mean score increased by 1.12 from 8.36 to 9.48 (out of 20), the intermediate proficiency group mean score increased by 1.78 from 11.50 to 13.28.
Regarding part one of the general listening comprehension test (questions aimed at high-school students), only the low-proficiency group improved their scores significantly, with the mean score increasing from 4.84 to 6.20 (out of ten), compared to a decrease from 7.78 to 7.72 in the intermediate group. Particularly leaners with low pre-test scores of <3.00 showed comparatively large improvements on post-test scores.
Regarding part two of the comprehension test (questions aimed at university students), no statistically significant improvement was observed in either group. Still, the medium effect size of improvements in the low-proficiency group [The mean score increased from 3.40 to 3.68 (out of 12)] might hint at the possibility of low-proficiency learners’ improvements being statistically significant if the study were replicated with a higher number of participants.
Shadowing is intended to enable learners to make better connections between the realistic (as opposed to isolated) phonological realisations of words and their orthographical forms and meanings, especially in cases of weak forms, elision, assimilation, etc. If learners do not know the words in the first place, shadowing will not be effective. It could thus be usefully implemented with learners who have a particular weakness in listening skills, perhaps because their own main language does not follow similar phonological patterns. According to this study, as well as previous work in the area, lower-level learners can use shadowing techniques to help them approach an intermediate level of listening comprehension ability. Further research is needed on the benefits for more advanced learners.
There are different ways of setting up shadowing tasks in class: Learners can be provided with the transcript and asked to read along with the audio, or, like in this study, learners can work with the audio only. Since research has shown that shadowing a phrase around 5 times is most beneficial for learning, class time remains to do other work with the text before or after the shadowing to ensure understanding and familiarity with the topic. Indeed, the author states that “[o]nce their bottom-up listening process improves to a certain level, learners should work on the top-down process as well.” Students could also be asked to predict pauses, intonation, weak forms, etc. following a text they have shadowed. Where the technology is available, learners could also record their shadowing to compare to the original, or make a competitive event of ‘shadowing karaoke’.
Nonetheless, other training and exposure to the target language probably also contribute to learners’ improvements in listening skills; and listening is not the only area language learners need to master. Therefore, it seems wise to advocate shadowing training as one of many tools that teachers, at least at lower levels, can employ as part of an informed, eclectic repertoire.
Hamada, Y. (2015), ‘Shadowing: Who benefits and how? Uncovering a booming EFL teaching technique for listening comprehension’, Language Teaching Research, Vol 20 / 1, pp. 35 – 52. (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1362168815597504)