Why use CDs in Class?

By Peter Viney

So how do you spend your breaks between lessons? Most teachers race into the teachers’ office and start fumbling for the cassette for the next lesson:

    I’m desperate for a coffee. Will there be time? Find a power outlet for the cassette player - put the cassette in - oh, no! wrong side up again. Spin over. Play. Listen. Unit 43 - but I want unit 32. Take the cassette out. Look at the label again. Side B. Units 29 - 47. OK. How far back is that? Rewind. This thing goes really slowly. Play.

    “… and two pens. OK, There you go. That’s …”

    Which unit was that? Can’t remember. Is it worth looking in the book? No. Rewind. Play.

    “ …but the strawberries were cold. So Benjamin …”

    Which unit was that! Rewind. Play. Ah - that music. I can’t stand that music. Still, I recognize it. It’s unit 30. Fast forward … I’ll never get that coffee.

    “ … eight and a half. How many do …”

    That’s it. That’s unit 32. Near the end. So, rewind over the heads. SCREECH … SCREECH … SCREECH… At last backwards music. That’s the start. Stop the player. Now, for that coffee. Oh, no! That’s the bell. And I still don’t have the flashcards … and I have homework to return …

Does that scenario sound familiar? It needn’t be like that. The English language teaching CD has arrived. Try this.

    I’m desperate for a coffee. What’s next lesson? Unit 32. Right. No problem. Where’s that coffee cup?

Yes, that’s all there is to it. Wander in to the next class. Stick the CD in the machine. Key in the appropriate track number. There you go.

The compact disc restores the teacher’s breathing space between lessons. It gives you instant access whenever you want it. I started teaching when you had to thread open reel tape onto a spool. The cassette brought convenience (as well as poorer sound quality and greater difficulty in finding a place - even with a ‘search’ function). The CD is so much more convenient that the cassette, but nevertheless it’s taken ten years to cross from being a musical carrier to being a classroom tool. So, why use CD and what are the things to watch out for?

Track selection

Track selection is the foremost advantage of CD. You can find what you want very quickly and very accurately. The maximum number of tracks available is 99. My first published CD was Main Street 1 which is a twenty unit course. For the CD, the material was divided into 99 sections so as to maximize the facilities of the medium. There is an index on the CD booklet, e.g. 

14 Unit 3 Conversation 1
15 Conversation 2
16 Unit 4 Conversation 1
17 Exercise A, part 1

Press 15, and you’re right there with Conversation 2 beginning. It’s tempting with (say) a forty unit course to assign the relevant track numbers to units. Unit 32 is track 32. However, you’re wasting potential accessibility whenever you use fewer than the 99 possible tracks.

Choosing a player

Any CD player will be more effective than cassette. However, some machines simply have NEXT and PREVIOUS track selection buttons - for example the Philips machine in my office. You have to press NEXT twenty eight times to hit track 28. This may seem a lot, but believe me, I’ve just tested it and it took less than 5 seconds. Other machines (the more modern ones) have a keypad. You just press TWO … EIGHT and you’re in place. On my last Japan tour we used a portable CD player which not only had a keypad, but had it on a remote control. This feature is becoming very frequent, partly for convenience, and partly in the interest of less-cluttered design of the actual players - at one time they seemed to be a forest of gleaming buttons! If you’re buying CD equipment for the classroom, seek out one with a keypad for track selection - and as any video user knows - a remote control is a major asset in the classroom. By the way, almost every portable CD player on the market also has a cassette deck, so you still have cassette playback facilities for use with older materials. You can also connect a CD personal stereo into most cassette players, which gives another method of playing CDs. It’s what I’ve used when demonstrating CDs in Europe.


Many CD players have an accurate repeat facility. There are almost as many names for this as there are CD manufacturers. The name I like best is FROM … TO which is at least clear. You press FROM at the beginning of a sentence, TO at the end. Then you just press REPEAT and you get the sentence again … and again every time you press repeat. It’s almost instant. You can also use the SEARCH facility to find a particular word or sentence. Like a cassette player or video using CUE, you can hear the recording at high speed.


OK, the CD makers have made all the claims. You can drop them from a (reasonable) height. They don’t de-magnetise when left on a speaker or near a radiator. You can scratch them (very slightly). You cannot gouge at them with a knife or stub cigarettes out on them. You cannot smother them with oil from your hands. The sound quality doesn’t deteriorate with repeated plays - unless you are really careless and scratch them. DO keep them in the case, DON’T touch the playing surface with greasy fingers, DO hold them at the edge. Maybe they aren’t as durable as Sony and Philips claimed in 1982, but they’re pretty sturdy. I’m still playing CDs that came out the day CD was launched, and none of them show any sign of wear.

Sound quality

Yes, they sound better. You don’t get tape hiss. You don’t get the alternative - which is muffled sound from a cheapish player with noise reduction. Don’t forget the computer maxim though - garbage in - garbage out. You won’t improve on badly recorded stuff. Though you may recapture the full quality of the master tape, you will also recapture its defects. You will get consistency - CDs of a particular program will always be the same in quality. You get good cassettes (recorded after the dubbing machine has been cleaned) and poor cassettes (recorded just before it was cleaned). As well as picking up dirt and therefore noise as they are used, cassettes stretch and slightly distort the sound with use. OK, cassettes vary greatly in quality, but no spoken voice cassettes are recorded on metal tape, or chrome tape - not even on high grade tape in most cases. Convenience is the main reason for using CD, sound quality is an added bonus. Main Street was always intended for CD, and extra care was taken over the master tape quality.


Obviously stereo can be found on cassettes (e.g. Grapevine) as well as on CD (Main Street). It seems natural to use it on CD. For one reason or another, English teaching programs were always recorded in mono. One reason was that most classroom playback machines were mono. I noticed years ago that most schools were replacing their dedicated classroom mono players with stereo machines. They weren’t seeking stereo, it was just that 99% of sufficiently loud players happened to be stereo anyway. Grapevine was probably the first stereo English course, and there were sound pedagogic reasons for this. The more you can separate parts of a message, the easier it is to understand. You can distinguish who is speaking more easily when people are spatially separated. Sound effects and music can be kept apart from the main signal too. When you mix a tape in stereo, you think of five positions which are shown on the diagram below. If the signal is equally on both channels, the sound appears to come from between the speakers. If it’s only on the left channel it appears to come from the left speaker. If more of the sound is on the left than on the right it will appear to come somewhere between the left speaker and the centre. You can have the actor walk around the studio and follow the voice in space. There are two approaches to stereo recording. Most British producers will keep the voices mainly in the three centre positions, while putting music and effects at the extremes (Grapevine). This gives a fairly subtle spatial separation between the different voices, and a fairly wide distinction between the voices and incidental music and effects. Britain has a long tradition of radio drama in stereo and has a whole station in stereo dedicated to spoken voice material.

Stereo Diagram

American producers tend to use stereo in a more extreme way (Main Street), giving greater spatial separation. The British call this ping-pong stereo, i.e. it bounces from side to side and the listeners swivel their heads as if trying to watch a tennis match. It is even easier to distinguish who is speaking, and though the ‘ping pong’ would be tiring (and possibly tiresome) over a long dialogue, it does not cause problems with relatively short English teaching tapes. You do have to make sure that the spatial position agrees with any illustrations though! Whichever method is used, the result is greater clarity and the removal of a purely technical barrier to comprehension.


I’ve often been asked why ELT cassettes cost as much as the latest smash from Oasis. The reason is simply the length of the production run. Publishers have to cover production costs, and we use well-known actors. I seem to have met half of the cast of BBC Radio 2’s The Archers on sessions, let alone BBC1’s Casualty. Music manufacturers made CD a premium price product, an anomaly that has persisted to this day. However, with a long production run, the cost of CD manufacture is actually slightly lower than that of cassette. Increased use would bring costs down. There is one other factor. Cassette has a potential length on reasonably thick tape of 90 minutes. New cassette case design is stretching this to 100 minutes. 120 minute cassettes employ tape that is too thin for safety. CD has a maximum length in 1997 of 76 to 77 minutes. Therefore a 90 minute programme would fit on one cassette, but require two CDs. When this happens costs are equalised by employing two cassettes as well. This is a pity, but otherwise CDs could not compete.


Teachers of American English will find a greater range of CDs available, because the penetration of CD players into the classroom in Japan and Korea is greater than in Europe. For example, all my recent American English publications are on CD - New American Streamline and Main Street from OUP, Survival English and Basic Survival from Heinemann. At primary level, OUP has Let’s Go on CD. Also Tactics for Listening, Listen For It, New Person to Person. In British EnglishNew Headway is on CD. Heinemann has Communicate, On Line, Move Up. Going Places. Longman has been much more tentative, but adds a Blueprint Speechwork CD this year. Prentice-Hall has Side by Side. CUP seems to go for self-study only. Activate Your English is on CD this year (though only the self-study Workbook CD, not the class cassette). True to Life has a Personal Study CD (though as with Activate the class cassettes are not in a CD version), Getting Ahead has a home study CD.


I was taken to task by a reviewer of one of my video sessions several years ago for pointing out that copying videotape is illegal. For some reason he thought it was a God-given right. I’ll cause him further annoyance by pointing out that copying audio cassettes is illegal also. Of course, better sound quality means that you can make better illegal cassette copies from CDs. I don’t mind mentioning this in the slightest, because the cassette copy will lack all the convenience of CD. You won’t want a cassette copy ever again once you’ve used CD in the classroom.

Peter Viney


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