Listen Up! (or should it be down…)


February 28, 2016 by gemmalunn

The topic of this month’s Academic Reading Group (ARG) was listening with a focus on bottom up and top down strategies. Top down processing is ‘the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message’ this includes using your current world knowledge and making inferences. Whereas bottom up processing involves ‘using the incoming input as the basis for understanding the message’ (Richards, 2015) i.e. recognising the individual sounds and words.

The article we read was ‘Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies’ by Larry Vandergrift (1999). The article looks at how listening is a ‘complex, active process’ rather than a ‘passive activity’ and highlights the importance of focusing on listening comprehension in the language classroom. The paper explains how listening comprehension can enhance the process of language leaning/acquisition, it presents some strategies to help this process and some ideas on how teachers can help with the development of listening processes. Vandergrift presents an argument for less (or even no) speaking and more listening when students first start learning a language stating that to focus on both causes cognitive overload as items are not yet stored in long term memory. He then moves on to discuss comprehension strategies: Metacognitive, which involves planning, monitoring and evaluating; cognitive, which is the use of a specific learning technique or manipulating the material; and thirdly, socio-affective which covers the interactions with the teacher and classmates and how these assist learning. Vandergrift argues that research on listening strategies, all be it limited, points to the effectiveness of metacognitive strategies in listening comprehension. He suggests the following methods to help students develop listening strategies:

  • Showing students a text in another language (not English or their L1) and then discuss ways they could guess meaning from the text.
  • Use pre and post-listening activities.
  • ‘Teach students to plan for the successful competition of a listening task’ by activating schemata, giving the text a purpose i.e.. listening for specific information.
  • ‘Teach students to monitor their comprehension during a listening task’ for example evaluating whether their predictions were accurate.
  • ‘Teach students to evaluate the approach and outcome of a listening task’ this can be done through reflection and self-evaluation.
  • Use listening comprehension check lists (examples are provided in the appendices of the article).

As well as reading these articles we also shared blog posts (Kevin Stein has useful tips on building listening skills from the bottom up; Sandy Millin on helping students to understand ‘real-world’ English; Rachel Roberts on Helping Students with Connected Speech and Decoding Skills), videos and tools related to listening. Everyone, found the videos by Jo Gacongo particularly useful as she explains the features of and differences between bottom up and top down listening in layman’s terms and gives useful examples of how to practice these strategies. These resources and more can all be found here on the ARG Padlet page


Ears pricked?     Photo from eltpics @VictoriaB52 

Below are the questions and a brief summary of what we discussed ARG2 List Comp Qs.

  1. How much focus do you put on listening in classes?

In summary we said that while we all do listening activities in class they are never a significant part of the class and therefore we could try to put more emphasis on this. Especially for lower levels in light of the research findings which suggest how important listening is at this stage. However, we then realised if you take into account the amount students listen to us talking there is actually quite a lot of listening that goes on in the class. One hurdle that we all agreed on was how hard it is to find decent, authentic material for lower levels and this is often why we don’t so many listening activities with them. But then after some thought we came up with the following as resources for lower levels: songs, Express English videos, cartoons, Podcasts such as the Klubschule ones (more for homework though rather than in class activities. .

  1. Do you ever use extensive listening activities? (longer texts where the aim is to listen for pleasure)

Yes, some examples were Ted talks, clips of TV programmes and radio podcasts.

  1. Do you ever use authentic listening materials? If so what do you use?

See above and also songs and poems.

  1. Do you ever focus on listening strategies as mentioned in the text? – pre/post listening activities, reflection on listening strategies, bottom up / top down listening…….

We all agreed we always do pre and post-listening activities. Pre-listening included prediction of content either from the title of the text or a picture related to the text; brainstorming key words on the topic of the text (these both tick off top-down too); prediction of specific answers. Post include discussing points from the text, looking at the transcript for new words and to analyse why misunderstandings occurred. Reflections generally consist of a brief chat on the difficulty of the text. On bottom up strategies we were more limited to activities such as gap-fills.

  1. Do you think the strategies mentioned in the article would help your students?

We all agreed that the bottom up strategies would benefit our students especially the lower and mid-levels. We also thought some more in-depth reflections might help students improve their comprehension strategies.

The conclusion that most people drew from the article, videos, blog posts and subsequent discussion was that we need to have a better balance between top down and bottom up activities. We should therefore do more bottom up activities in class to try and help students improve their bottom up (and overall) listening strategies. So, my personal aims this month are to –

  • Introduce and help students use bottom up strategies to improve their listening comprehension. I’ll do this by dictating a few sentences every class to highlight features of connected speech and get students used to hearing connected speech. I’ve done this twice with two A2-B1 classes already and it’s gone down well. Students see the rationale and understand the concept of connected speech especially as this is a prominent feature in Swiss German. I emphasised that this activity was to help listening comprehension and thus for passive knowledge so they shouldn’t worry about trying to speak like this yet. Students are keeping a record of the sentences each week so hopefully we’ll see an improvement.
  • Try some more reflection on listening activities, more on the process and strategies rather than just asking ‘was that difficult?’ or ‘how much did you understand?’
  • Use a wider variety of listening activities especially for lower levels in order to do this I’ll need to spend some time trying to source some suitable material.

As stated in the article there is not a wealth of research on L2 listening. However, for further reading this article reviews over 155 studies on listening on comprehension and concludes (surprise, surprise!) that more research in this area is needed – A Review of Second Language Listening Comprehension Research (Rubin, 2011).

As I said before, if anyone wants to join in with the ARG through this blog you can leave your answers to the questions / ideas on listening in the comments below. Also, please feel free to use the Padlet page and add any other useful resources you have.


Richards, J. (2015) Key Issues in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: UK.

Vandergrift, L. (1999) Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal. 53/3.




5 thoughts on “Listen Up! (or should it be down…)

  1. […] Source: Listen Up! (or should it be down…) […]

  2. Marc says:

    Hi Gemma. Good stuff – this sort of overlaps with a research project I’m doing. I’ll tell you when it’s done.

    Here are a couple of posts of mine, and a link to a presentation I did..

    Teaching (as opposed to ‘doing’) Listening: Slides

    I hope this isn’t too spammy as that’s not my intention.



  3. Sandy Millin says:

    HI Gemma,
    This group looks so interesting. Thanks for including a link to my blog. Lizzie Pinard introduced me to Vandergrift through the book he wrote with Goh (can’t remember their first name!) called ‘Teaching Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action’, a book I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants to go further.
    You’ve got a really useful summary here.

    • gemmalunn says:

      Thanks Sandy, yes am really benefitting a lot from the group.

      I’ll definitely check that book out, thanks.


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