How Do We Teach Listening?

Regardless of whether they are NQT’s or have many years of teaching experience behind them, I always like to ask teachers: why do we teach listening?

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The answers have been wide and varied. However, they are usually one of the following: we teach listening because we have to, it’s what our CELTA course taught us to do, it helps the learners to learn connected speech.

Is that really why we teach listening skills?

We deliver listening lessons because of the need for learners to understand spoken words, be that in a dialogue or when watching a video. It is this need to understand others when conversing with friends, interacting with the cashier at the bank and understanding the actors in films that strongly supports the argument to use authentic recordings.

However, even when a teacher uses an authentic recording in class, they often overlook a crucial factor to developing listening skills: how should the learner be listening for the given situation?

In response to this question, many would expect that listening is simply listening and there is no question of ‘how’; some may refer to the concepts of listening for gist and detail. However, what we’re really looking at here are the concepts of top-down and bottom-up listening.

Consider the following two situations and ask yourself how concentrated would you be when listening?:

Situation 1

You meet with a friend in a coffee shop. He recently had a job interview. The meeting centres around this job interview. He tells you all about it.

Situation 2

You have gone to London for the weekend to visit a friend. He lives within walking distance of the train station. You arrive at King’s Cross and you phone him to ask for directions from the station to his place.

In the first situation your role is quite passive: you would probably spend most of your time listening and some of it throwing in interjections to confirm that you are indeed listening, such as ‘oh really?’ ‘yeah, sure’ and ‘did they?’ More than likely you would have to fill in some gaps, as you might miss words due to mumbling, surrounding noises from the cafe you’re in and lapses in concentration, for example when you check your mobile phone for message.

This sort of listening requires you to catch the main details and to use your general knowledge of the topic to fill in the gaps. This sort of listening is called top-down listening and is the form of listening which is most often practised and developed in the ELT classroom.

In the second situation, however, your role might also be quite passive (beyond the point of asking for the directions), yet this time you would be very focused on correctly deciphering every detail, listening carefully to each sound so as not to interpret ‘Brompton Road 50’ as ‘Brampton Road 15’. This sort of listening is called bottom-up listening and it is very often either overlooked or completely neglected by many ELT teachers.

In the defence of teachers, bottom-up listening has been so neglected over the last decades because the industry has placed an unhealthy focus on top-down listening – this is particularly well demonstrated in course books, which very often include almost no bottom-up listening.

So, if the zeitgeist has been to dedicate little class time to bottom-up listening, then why bother at all with it? The answer is: connected speech.

Very often, teachers have minimal interaction with their learners, preferring (and quite righty so) to build an environment in which all the learners talk with each other, as opposed one-on-one with the teacher. That means a learner’s exposure to natural spoken English is limited to: the minimal talking of the classroom teacher, any outside exposure they may get, and listening in class.

While top-down listening will help learners to understand what a recording is about, it’s bottom-up listening which will train them in deciphering the exact sounds of the language.

For example, I recently read out a list of short phrases in class. The class had to write down what I was saying as best as they could. The results were very interesting. Some of the phrases, such as ‘time to go’ were received quite well; however, others were more difficult, such as ‘I’ll ask her’, for which many wrote ‘Alaska’ and ‘made your decision’ for which they got ‘major decision’.

In fact, the English language in its orthographical form and in its spoken form are very different. The use of the schwa sound in ‘I’ll ask her’ /ə’læskə/ does mean this word is in fact pronounced the same as the name of US State of Alaska.

A very simple way to create bottom-up listening materials is to use whatever listening you had planned to use and create a stage where the learners have to get down a sentence or two (bit like a dictation). Or, alternatively, give them the transcript of the listening but blank out words which contain more difficult sounds, such as words containing dropped letters or weakened vowels (schwa).

So, the next time you find a class not understanding a recording which is theoretically at their level, perhaps it’s not their lexical knowledge which is blocking their understanding but the actual sounds of the language. Maybe a little bit of bottom-up listening could be the cure.

*Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski at http://www.flickr.com/photos/53326337@N00/3973878185/in/photolist-74aax8-7tQkq1-deKhQm-88wLkt-dUCJdK-8xaW3K-bpa3KD-8DbZLX-8Df7xY-8DbZxk-8vz5Mw-dKz7jq-an75LP-dvPBz3

3 thoughts on “How Do We Teach Listening?

  1. Great stuff!

    I’d only add that you could just mimic situation 2 in your activities: The phrases in question are precise instructions that are needed to complete a task with an obvious and visible (and thus monitorable) result.

    I say this because while dictation is awesome for this, writing at the same time as listening does add another layer of difficulty from a completely different skill. Avoiding this complication should mean you can stretch their listening skills a little further.

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  2. Really enjoyed this post, when I look back at the course I teach I absolutely agree it is very heavy on the top-down aspect of listening. MY reasoning for that has been that In the KOrean education system their is a large focus on bottom up listening, that is understanding every minute detail. Students then believe that, if they haven’t understood every single word, they can’t understand at all. So it is interesting to hear that the opposite is going on elsewhere.

    I think part of the reason teachers might shy away from using bottom up methods, especially when using authentic materials, is that it can be more difficult both for the students and the teacher (in preparing the activity). The fear of students not being able to do something may put teachers off. (This is just my thought as I read your past, no tangible evidence to back it up at all!)

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    1. Thank you for the comment! It sounds like your students in Korea get a good balance of listening skills: top-down from you and bottom-up from their day schools. This has got me thinking about what kind of listening my learners do in their Polish schools and how I can find out.

      I’m doing DELTA Module 1 at the moment and recently came across some discussion on how to incorporate the two approaches: by doing regular top-down listening and then the follow-up is some bottom-up listening, out of which you build either a grammar or vocabulary point. Not tried it yet but when I do I’ll make another entry about it.

      PS: love your blog, very professional and informative.

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