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Teaching listening to teenage learners #1

Using top down strategies

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

Shadows - by @eltpics

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). Continue reading