Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Listening from the Bottom Up

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In a previous posting, Learning to Listen, I shared some important lessons I had learned from a presentation I attended at TESOL 2013. One of my biggest takeaways from that presentation was that I needed to do a much better job of incorporating bottom-up listening skill building in my ESL classes. According to research conducted by Goh (2000) the vast majority of students’ difficulties with listening were related to bottom-up skills. Moreover, Tsui and Fullilove (1998) found that less skilled listeners rely on bottom-up strategies to such a degree that their listening comprehension suffers. Therefore, all our students, but especially those who struggle with listening comprehension, benefit from more practice that develops their bottom-up listening skills.

So, what are bottom-up listening, or decoding, skills? Well, it means “using the information we have about sounds, word meanings, and discourse markers, like first, then and after that, to assemble our understanding of what we read or hear one step at a time.” (Brown, 2011, page 19) According to experts like Goh (2000), Field (2008), and Vandergrift and Goh (2012), some of the biggest problems students have with listening include the inability to segment speech into manageable chunks, to recognize individual words, even ones they easily recognize in print, in streams of speech, and to comprehend English spoken at a natural rate.

Something I found especially interesting is that when L2 listeners hear something they don’t understand, they often grasp to make sense of it, often arriving at a misunderstanding. Moreover, learners are reluctant to release this misunderstanding even in the face of evidence to the contrary (Field, 2008).

Over the past two years, I’ve done a lot of research and attended several other presentations in order to amass a collection of theoretically sound activities that focus on students’ bottom-up listening skills. Here are several of my favorites:

Anticipation (Sheppard, 2015)

Purpose: to increase awareness of collocations and to help students develop anticipation skills.

  1. Choose a level-appropriate text. For less skilled listeners, this might be a shorter text that contains vocabulary that students will know.
  2. Read it aloud. As you are reading, pause and ask students what word(s) they think will come next using sentence syntax or semantic meaning.
  3.  Have individual students write their guesses or have small groups discuss.
  4.  Reveal the answer, then reflect.

Language Spotting (Sheppard, 2015)

Purpose: to identify phonemes, word stress and focus words.

  1. Choose a level-appropriate text. For less skilled listeners, this might be a shorter text that contains vocabulary the students will know.
  2. Read it aloud at a regular speed with natural delivery.
  3. As you are reading, have students indicate when they have heard a target structure by raising their hands, stomping their feet, or writing it down.

Counting Words (Siegel and Siegel, 2013)

Purpose: to segment words in a stream of speech.

  1. Prepare a short list of level appropriate sentences.
  2. Read from the source text aloud at a natural speed.
  3. Have students listen and count the number of words they hear.
  4. Repeat the text again more slowly and count the number of words for your students.

Identifying Lexical Differences (Siegel and Siegel, 2013)

Purpose: to reinforce / review a target structure.

  1. Prepare a short list of level appropriate sentences.
  2. Print every sentence two times and make a variation to one of the sentences. (e.g., (A) “The wind was blowing hard.” (B) “The wind was hardly blowing.”)
  3. Have students report on the differences they hear.

Student-Centered Gapped Dictation (Brown, 2011)

Purpose: to notice features of pronunciation such as weak forms, linking and elision.

  1. Prepare a short listening text. This is a great activity to do with one of the listening activities that accompanies many integrated skills or conversation texts we use in our classes.
  2. Copy the transcript and give one copy to each student.
  3. Have the students black ten (or more, or fewer) words out of the text with a big marker.
  4. Take in the transcripts, shuffle them and hand them out to the students again so that each student gets a different paper.
  5. Play the recording and have students fill in the blanks on their papers.
  6. Project the entire text and have students check their answers.

So, how do you practice bottom-up listening skills in your classrooms?


Brown, S. (2011). Listening Myths. Michigan: Michigan University Press.
Goh, C. (2000). A cognitive perspective on language learners’ listening comprehension problems. System, 28, pages 55-75.
Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Siegel, J. and Siegel, A. (2013). Empirical and attitudinal effects of bottom-up listening activities the L2 classroom. ELTWorldOnline.com. Retrieved July 2015 from http://blog.nus.edu.sg/eltwo/2013/06/26/empirical-and-attitudinal-effects-of-bottom-up-listening-activities-in-the-l2-classroom/.
Sheppard, B. (2015). Balanced Listening Instruction. Paper presented at the TESOL International Convention and English Language Expo, Toronto, Canada.
Tsui, A.B. and Fullilove, J. (1998). Bottom-up or top-down processing as a discriminator of L2 listening performance. Applied Linguistics, 19(4), pages 432-451.
Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening. New York and London: Routledge.

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