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Teaching listening to teenage learners #1

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Using top down strategies

The more you can predict, the easier it becomes to understand” (Lingzhu, 2003).

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Much of my teaching has been with Italian teenage elementary learners (CEFR A1-A2) in quite large classes (around 30 pupils). Because of the number of students the situation has not always been simple for listening activities and most of my learners often complain about how frustrating listening can be. One of them has recently made the following comment: “ When I listen to a story in Italian I’m able to understand everything before the end, when I listen to it in English I feel I don’t understand anything!”. I then asked him: “How do you listen in Italian?” All the class reacted with a choral “I don’t know!”. Younger teenage elementary learners often completely avoid the role of context and co-text in L2 even if they unconsciously use them in L1. This was the principle motivation behind my choice to investigate how to train elementary learners to predict in listening class. This is the first of a series of articles about the analysis of top down/bottom up strategies when listening, the issues for learners, and some suggestions for teaching.

Top-down and Bottom-up processing

According to Richards (2008) two different kinds of processes are involved in understanding spoken discourse. These are often referred to as bottom-up and top-down processing. Both processing are applicable to reading and listening.

Bottom-up processing (BUP) refers to the use of the listener’s linguistic competence. Therefore, the direction of bottom-up processing is from language to meaning.

Top-down processing (TDP), on the other hand, refers to “the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message” (Richards, 2008:7). Background knowledge refers to the knowledge of the world that the listener has developed in his/her life. It may be previous knowledge about the topic, situational knowledge, or knowledge stored in long-term memory about the events and the links between them (Richards, 1990). Richards refers to this background knowledge as schemata and scripts that a listener activates to understand a text. Top-down processing consequently goes from meaning to language.

In order to have successful comprehension both bottom-up and top-down processing are needed. According to Richards (1990) bottom-up processing alone is often not sufficient for comprehension, so the listener should be able to make proper use of top-down processing.

I will now focus on some approaches to the teaching of top-down processing and predicting content in particular, therefore bottom-up processing will not be further discussed.

Top-down processing: subskills

As stated above, in using prior knowledge about people and events comprehension proceeds from the top down. Examples of top-down processing subskills include:

  • assigning places, persons, or things to categories;
  • inferring cause-and-effect relationships;
  • anticipating outcomes
  • inferring the topic of a discourse
  • inferring the sequence between events

(Richards, 1990:52)

A good strategic listener is usually able to select and plan which subskills will activate in a particular situation. I have noticed that in second language learning top-down processing ability in listening is not very well developed. In this respect I believe the ability to predict content plays a key role.

Predicting content: context and co-text 

According to Goh (1998), predicting enables the listener to anticipate the next part of a text, such as a word, a phrase or an idea. Therefore, the process of prediction involves listeners in selecting useful information from their own general experience and knowledge in order to identify text content (Lingzhu, 2003).

Brown and Yule (1983) also remark that each learner constructs expectations on the basis of his/her knowledge. In order to understand this process I discuss how prediction/inference can be used by native speakers to deal with a range of comprehension problems in terms of context and co-text.

Predicting the context may vary depending on various aspects. These are:

> Speaker: The listener usually makes predictions based on his/her experience of previous speakers who have been similar to this speaker (politician, journalist or pleased/kind etc.  etc.). (Brown and Yule: 61).

> Listener: In many circumstances the speaker addresses the listener using a particular language (Brown and Yule, 1983). Listeners build up expectations of the way in which the speaker will address them.  E.g. two colleagues at a formal meeting.

> Place: Place is a determinant of the situation. Listeners are expecting to hear different language in different situations. e.g. classroom (Brown and Yule, 1983)

Sometimes it can be difficult to understand what the situation is, for example when coming into a listening situation in the middle of a text – e.g. you turn the radio on. The listener does not know what they are talking about but he/she can infer the topic by listening to key words. Eg  “We were half way down the motorway when we had a flat tyre and had to change it.” The knowledge of the world tells the listener that they are talking about a fairly long car journey.

> Time: When L1 speakers listen to stories, jokes etc., they create relations among the parts of discourse and are able to predict what can come next. Expressions like a year ago, after that etc. help the listener to understand the time of speaking and to create a context.

> Genre: The listener will derive expectations from his/her knowledge of how the language is used for (Brown and Yule, 1983). E.g. anecdotes, news stories etc.

> Topic: Brown and Yule (1983) argue that it is the topic which determines the vocabulary that is selected. If the topic is going on holiday, then the vocabulary will include things that have to do with holidays (e.g. hotels, beach etc.).

> Signal: sometimes the listener has to deal with an inadequate signal – e.g. because of background noise or features of connected speech which mean that individual words cannot be analysed. E.g. a native speaker or proficient speaker who hears I went into the XXX and ordered a drink in a British context has no problem identifying the unheard word as pub. Here the listener uses his/her knowledge of the world. But it might also be knowledge of the language. However much the words are obscured by elision, assimilation, catenation etc proficient language users can use their knowledge of the language to “fill in the gaps”. So if they hear He might XXX gone out their knowledge of the language tells them that the missing word must have been have.

In listening comprehension we usually refer to co-text as what has been said in a particular event (Brown and Yule, 1983). This will generate expectation in the listener about what the speaker will be talking about. If a speaker is talking about how boring it is to study, the listener will expect to hear an anecdote/story/joke related to it. The listener tries to make a variety of predictions from every incoming sentence, which in turn provides him/her with more new information.

It could happen that the listener deals with unknown words : e.g. if he/she hears The cormorants are nesting on the beach again. He/She can work out that cormorants are seabirds from the co-text and his/her knowledge of the world: birds make nests; the type of bird which nests on the beach is a seabird.


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  • Brown, S. (2006). Teaching listening. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Barker, C. and Mitchell, L. (2008). Dynamic 2. 1st ed. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
  • Goh, C.M.C. (1998), How ESL with Different Listening Abilities use Comprehension Strategies and tactics, Language Teaching Research. 2 (2)
  • Kelly, P. and Chiodini, G. (2010). That’s it. 1st ed. Edizioni LANG, Pearson Italia.
  • Lingzhu, J. (2003). Training the University English learners to Predict in Listening Class. Seen March 2011 at http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/ERICWebPortal
  • McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Richards, J.C. (1990). The language teaching matrix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rots, M. (2006). Areas of research that influence L2 listening instruction in Current trends in the Development and Teaching of the Four Language Skills. Studies on Language Acquisition 29.
  • Sadegh, K. (2007). The Key for Successful Reader-writer Interaction: Factors Affecting Reading Comprehension in L2 Revisited. Asian EFL Journal 9 (3): 198-215
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  • Thornbury, S. (2006). How to teach speaking. Harlow: Longman.
  • Thornbury, S. and Slide, D. (2006). Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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