Receptive phonological competence

Well, this is quite a mouthful of a name, so as this blog is always about pronunciation, let’s just refer to receptive competence, which is the listener’s ability to make sense of whatever it is that the other person is saying, or, to put it technically, to decode the incoming acoustic signal. Receptive competence, as its name suggests, goes hand in hand with productive competence, the speaker’s ability to produce speech that is intelligible to his/her listeners. The two competences are evidently closely related, but they’re not the same, particularly when your learner’s goal is international intelligibility.

Until now pronunciation teaching has not really contemplated the possibility of differences between what a learner can understand and what they can do. Why should it have? If we all aim at the same accent and this accent is intelligible, then we’ll all be intelligible to each other once we’ve acquired the accent in question. Simple really. End of post.

Except that it’s not that simple, so this post has to go on for a bit longer.

First of all, even if learners were to all aim for the same accent (and that’s never going to happen for obvious reasons), most of them wouldn’t perfect it, with multiple imperfections stemming from their efforts being dragged one way because of what they’re aiming at, and another because of their L1 pronunciation. Secondly, almost without noticing, we’ve defaulted once again into assuming that NS accents are per se intelligible, which they’re not, as research has been demonstrating since as far back as the late 1970s (see Smith 1992, for example).

The upshot of all of this is that a major competence of learners today, is their ability to deal with all sorts of different accents. Many of these will be NNS accents influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the speaker’s other language(s). Others will be non-standard (regional) NS accents which in many cases will not be at all like the accents on the coursebook materials used throughout ELT. Thus, while what our learners need to be able to do, i.e. their productive competence, is limited to a fairly small number of features of pronunciation (for details see Derwing and Munro, 2005 for EFL/ESL, or Jenkins 2000 for EIL/ELF), what they need to be able to deal with, that is to say their receptive competence, can seem as boundless as the oceans themselves.

But all is not lost. Valuable help comes from a careful reading of the Common European Framework of Reference 2018 Companion Volume and its updated descriptors for language competence. With respect to overall listening comprehension (CEFR 2018:55), for example, it suggests that at different levels, a listener:

  • A2 Can understand phrases and expressions related to areas of most immediate priority (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment), provided speech is clearly and slowly articulated.
  • B1 Can understand straightforward factual information about common everyday or job-related topics […] provided speech is clearly articulated in a generally familiar accent.
  • C2 Can understand with ease virtually any kind of spoken language, whether live or broadcast, delivered at fast natural speed.

The italics are mine, and they are there because I think they help us to see more clearly what we can expect in terms of our learners’ receptive competence as they progress to higher and higher levels of English, and as they move from speech that is clearly and slowly articulated in a familiar accent, through to speech delivered at considerable speed in unfamiliar accents.

How would this work out in terms of more specific teaching goals? Well it could look something like this:

(Basic user)
CEFR B1-B2; (Independent user)CEFR C1-C2; (Proficient user)
Can understand English spoken with a small range of familiar NS or NNS accents provided it is delivered slowly and carefully, and is characterised
by the absence connected speech features of casual NS speech, or the highly non-standard forms typical of poorly pronounced NNS English accents.
Can understand carefully spoken NNS and NS English delivered in a range of reasonably familiar accents. Can understand NS English delivered at moderate speed with reasonable care, and characterised by a certain use of weak forms, reduced vowels, and other related connected speech features.Can understand a wide range of NNS and regional NS accents even though these are unfamiliar or include multiple, non-standard pronunciations.
Can understand fast, casual NS speech even when this includes extensive use of weak forms, reduced vowels, assimilations, coalescences, etc.

How would these broad goals play out in terms of classroom listening activities oriented towards increasing a learners’ receptive competence? Well, if we just focus on the B1–B2 column and our intermediate learners, classroom activities could include:

  • Practice in understanding clearly articulated, continuous NNS and NS speech at intermediate speeds (i.e. of up to around 300 syllables per minute).
  • Guided exposure to the vowel reductions, schwa, weak forms, and other connected speech features typical of fluent speech in English.
  • Guided exposure to common features of non-standard NNS pronunciations (e.g. variations of /θ/ and /ð/, variations of /r/, deletion of consonants in clusters, poor vowel length, etc.).
  • Guided exposure to a range of standard Inner Circle accents, major regional NS accents and commonly encountered NNS accents. 

The reference to speed of speech in the first bullet point isn’t plucked out of the air. Professor David Crystal (in Jenkins 2000: 72) has indicated that connected speech features such as linking or assimilation presuppose a certain minimum speed of speech, which he estimates to be above 350 syllables per minute, and closer to 450 syllables per minute in everyday NS conversation. But NS and fluent NNS users of English shouldn’t be speaking at such speeds with less competent interlocutors. They should, instead, be taking on their share of the communicative burden (Lippi-Green, 1997), speaking slowly and articulating clearly, as indicated above by the CEFR updated descriptors. This is important because as fluent speakers slow down to help a less-competent listener, the connected speech features that typify fluent spoken English, automatically drop out of their pronunciation.

Summary time again.

  • we can’t continue to assume that what learners need to be able to do to be intelligible (i.e. their productive phonological competence) is the same as what they need to be able to do in order to understand others (i.e. their receptive phonological competence).
  • a learner’s productive phonological competence has been well described for different ELT settings by experts such as Derwing & Munro (EFL/ESL) or Jenkins (EIL/ELF).
  • the CEFR 2018 Companion Volume gives us valuable guidance as to our broad goals in terms of our leaners’ receptive phonological competence.
  • we need to guide our learners through a carefully constructed programme of English delivered at gradually increasing speeds, and characterised by increasing degrees of deviation from clearly articulated pronunciation in familiar accents.

This last! Wow! It’s quite a programme to write!

Yes, I know. Because that’s what Oxford University Press commissioned me to do in 2018. They wanted a pronunciation teaching syllabus to give to their authors and editors so that just as there is consistency as to the grammar taught at a given level in an OUP English language course book, the pronunciation to be taught at any level would also be consistent. An important and novel part of the syllabus I handed over was the section on the learner’s receptive competence.

Obviously I can’t reproduce the work I did for OUP here, but I hope I have made an argument for the need for a syllabus for receptive phonological competence, and that you can now see your way to constructing one for your own learners. If I have achieved that, then this post will have been totally worthwhile. Would love to hear from you if I have.



Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (2005). Second. Language Accent and Pronunciation Teaching: A Research-Based Approach. TESOL-Quarterly. 39/3: 379–397.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p150)

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. E. (1992).  ‘Spread of English and issues of intelligibility’ in B. B. Kachru (ed.) 1992.


5 thoughts on “Receptive phonological competence

  1. Hi Robin, Just love this post – thank you! I’m designing and writing Listening tests for Pre-sessional English at Chester Uni, and my latest model is one which assesses competences – both meaning and decoding 50/50. My decoding items are M/C in nature (no choice) and essentially test receptive phonological competence in context @B1 / B2 level. So far, I’ve been working on a hunch regarding phonological areas. The tests will be trialed in the coming weeks, and I’m looking forward to seeing how students and teachers respond, and what washback might materialise. Your post here has given explicit meaning to what I think I’m doing regarding listening tests – and has made me very happy!!! PS. Hope all is well in Asturias and you’re both keeping healthy, safe and sane. Bye for now. Annie


  2. Hi Annie. Thanks for his feedback. Coming from you it means a lot to me, especialy as I seem to have been able to help solve a practical probelms with the post’s essentially theoretical considerations. But there’s another reason why this feedback from you is special. Way back in 2000 you came up to me in Madrid at a BC/IATEFL SIG symposium and asked me to repeat my talk the following year at TESOL–SPAIN in Sevilla. The rest is history but you got the ball rolling for me, and I’ll be for ever grateful to you for that.


    • Hi Marc
      Thanks for the feedback, Marc. Sorry if I’ve given you a bit of ‘mental indigestion’ re listening courses at your uni, but your students will benefit from your reflections, there’s no doubt about that.

      For more on listening, you might want to keep an eye on Annie MacDonald (comment above). She and Mark Hancock know a lot about listening (and pronunciation) and can be followed via their web at


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