Cubic Listening
By Timothy Kiggell

CUBIC LISTENING is a picture-based supplementary listening series that aims to provide regular, enjoyable and success-oriented listening practice. The goal is motivated students who enjoy their listening classes and are confident of understanding English in the real world.


    “Tasks should be success-oriented… Listening exercises are meant to train not to test; and the best practice is obtained by having learners do the activity more or less successfully, not by having them fail.”


So writes Penny Ur in her book Teaching Listening Comprehension. We had this advice strongly in mind when we sat down to create the CUBIC LISTENING series. We wanted listening materials that are fun to use, improve students’ listening skills and are success-oriented.

You may be surprised to learn that our inspiration came from the TOEIC ® Test – certainly not the most fun or success-oriented listening material that students can practice on.

That said, the section of the TOEIC that test-takers most enjoy is Part 1: Pictures. This section is wonderfully simple: look at the pictures, listen to the statements and choose the statement that most accurately describes the picture. With no questions to read, students are able to focus all of their attention on the CD. Best of all, by looking at the picture, listeners can have a good guess as to what is probably going to be said.

Using the simple model of TOEIC Part 1, the CUBIC LISTENING series incorporates picture-based tasks whenever possible. Rather than read long — and often complicated — questions, listeners are asked to complete a picture-based task.


Example 1: listen and select the correct pictures (e.g. Aesop’s Fables, unit 4: Where was the other dog? – Picture a) in the water or Picture b) in the fields?);

Example 2: listen and mark on a map how much money the speaker spends in each location, (Out and About, unit 20);

Example 3: listen and actively trace the speaker’s route (e.g. Puzzle It Out, unit 11).


     Moreover, not only do pictures act as the ‘task’, they may also act as a ‘listening support’ by directing listeners towards key information in the text. In this way, the illustrations act as visual signposts that guide the listener through the text. For example, in Surprise, Surprise, unit 14, by looking at the 6 pictures, students can find out – before listening — that the unit is about the history of the submarine and that centuries ago a royal person traveled underwater in a submarine.

In other words the students’ content schemata is activated in advance of the listening. This is important for all students – but especially so for weaker students who need more support when listening to English.

CUBIC LISTENING is not designed to be a test.   The aim is to have all students do well – not just some of them. The 12 books in the series are carefully graded to make sure that all the tasks are within the ability of students at that level.

The aim of CUBIC LISTENING is not to catch students out, but rather to encourage them to succeed in their listening. If the listening material is difficult or unfamiliar, then more support is given to the listener. To this end, tasks are designed to support the student: tables, charts, and pictures guide the students towards the key information in the listening.

Other ways of providing support include having the speakers repeat key facts; reducing the amount of idiomatic, colloquial or technical language; reducing the length of sentences; reducing the number of speakers; increasing the number of sound effects, etc.

Another way to boost success is for students to hear the main text a second time – albeit with different questions. Students greatly value the opportunity to listen to the text again and it builds their confidence to do so.

While it stands to reason that the more you listen to a foreign language, the better your listening will become, this is particularly true for learners of English who must cope with the unusual systems of stress, intonation and rhythm that often interfere with the understanding of spoken English. (For example, in normal speech it takes roughly the same amount of time to say, ‘the MAN is INterested in PURchasing the CAR’ as it does to say ‘LARGE CARS WASTE GAS. To achieve this, some of the syllables in the first and ‘longer’ sentence are lightened making it harder for listeners to keep up.)

Another problem facing listeners of English is that in some cases, entire words may disappear completely. It is quite common for ‘Where are you going?’ to be pronounced as ‘Where you going?’ In order to become accustomed to the quirkiness of naturally spoken English, students need plenty of exposure to listening material.

This is where CUBIC LISTENING, as a supplementary listening course, can play an important part.  Each of the units takes about 10 minutes if played straight through. Teachers can give regular listening practice either at the beginning or at the end of a lesson.