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Communicative Approaches to Teaching Listening

For many of us, listening is a lateral skill that we don’t always prioritize when teaching English. We may see it as a skill that will naturally develop as learner levels improve. As such, it isn’t something we give much emphasis on in classes.

However, there are some institutions that offer listening skill targeted lessons. And their teachers are required to teach listening classes.

In our previous blog on listening, we even showed you an entire website devoted to developing learning listening skills. So, is listening important?

Yes, absolutely! Listening is the first skill learners use when coming into contact with spoken English. Often, it’s in the form of movies or music.

They see an entertaining TV show and decide it’s something they want to understand better. Or, they hear a catchy song and want to be able to sing it and or understand it.

So, how do we manage ESL classes targeting listening skills development? We can do that in at least one of two ways. You can use a bottom-up approach where learners are taught to listen for specifics to gain meaning.

Or you can use a top-down approach where they’re taught to listen for overall meaning based on context. Both have their merits, but they also have demerits.

We’ll be discussing these points in our blog today. So, if you’d like to learn more, read on.

Bottom-Up Approach

When using the term ‘bottom-up,’ the idea is building meaning based on words, sounds, and structures—from the ground up, sometimes without context.

The idea is that if a learner can recognize words, phrases, pronunciation, and or grammar forms, they’ll be better able to understand the intended meaning of the speaker in various settings.

The bottom-up approach emphasizes—somewhat like Morse code—messages, by breaking them into constituent parts. It involves decoding messages into nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc. then reconstructing meaning.

The bottom-up approach is more of a traditional method of teaching listening. This is what you observe in classes where there are missing words in sentences and fill-in-the-blank exercises.

One simple example might be using the sentence, “What did you ___”? The teacher would ask learners to listen for the missing word.

In this case, the missing word is, ‘buy.’ Learners would also need to be able to understand the type of sentence: an interrogative. And, they would need to understand the placement of the question word (what) as well as the auxiliary (did).

They’d need to understand the function of pronouns like ‘you.’ They would need to know the phonetics: what /wuht/ did /dihd/ you /yoo/, and the like.

You might also notice some exercises where words are selected from a list of words. And, depending on the purpose of the class, dictation exercises would also qualify. But is this a good approach? What are its pros and cons?

Read: ESL Pronunciation 101 – Fun Sentence Dictation Activity


A bottom-up approach to teaching listening lessons has its place with lower-level learners. A bottom-up approach can help them be more capable of listening for specific elements or words in statements.

In turn, it can help them break down messages to understand them better. This approach can also be used with higher-level learners to challenge them to pick out keywords when vital information is being conveyed.


The downside of the bottom-up approach is that it is not always practical. When engaged in real-time oral communication, learners may not have the luxury of decoding.

They may only have a matter of seconds or less to understand (comprehend) a message. Therefore, it doesn’t prepare class members for real-world communications.


When we say ‘top-down,’ we mean in essence, that the meaning is caught rather than decoded. Listeners gather the overall meaning of what they hear based on context and respond appropriately.

This can take various forms such as responding to a weather report, answering questions, and appropriate responses to oral communications.

Let’s use our simple example from the bottom-up approach above: “What did you buy?” In this case, there are no missing words. But learners are aware of the context (a woman returning home from a shopping spree talking to her husband).

Students hear something like: /wuht-dihdZuh-bai/. The auxiliary (did) and the pronoun (you) are glided over: /dihdZuh/. But the listener can pick up the overall meaning from what was heard: what … buy within the context.

Compare our TESOL courses to find out which one is best for you!


The top-down approach offers learners the opportunity to listen for meaning. This takes the pressure off of listening for specific words. In that way, it is a more natural way of listening.

Unless we are receiving detailed information or instructions, we won’t always need to worry about specific words. The overall meaning works fine in everyday conversations. It also encourages confidence and less stress when listening to English.

And believe me, in my experience, I’ve met a number of English students who were terrified of listening. Why? Because they had it ingrained in their minds that they had to understand every … single … word.

But when I taught them that in English some non-essential words are glided over, you could see a look of relief on their faces.


The top-down approach does not always work well with lower-level learners. One reason is that they haven’t yet built up a workable vocabulary. My suggestion is not to use it until they’ve gained skill with some form of bottom-up approach.

Top-down can also discourage learners who might get frustrated by their continual inability to ‘nail’ the meaning of what was orally communicated.

Read: TESOL: Lesson Planning Tips for Different ESL Levels


If you teach English specifically targeting listening skills, what’s your approach? Do you feel learners must be able to identify each and every word? Or do you believe listeners should be able to comprehend the overall meaning from the context? Well, to answer that, you have to ask yourself what you think is important during the act of listening.

But we must remember what the purpose of listening is: It’s an active part of the communicative process.

As such, what is our purpose in teaching listening in ESL classes? Is it to help class members develop their ability to accurately receive oral communications and respond accordingly? Which approach and at what point in the learner’s development process does it fit?

In the more popular English language proficiency tests (IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, etc.), there’s a little of both. That’s because we need to be able to catch specific information when listening in order to understand.

But at the same time, do we always need to decode every word in statements to understand the intended message?

Read: Teaching the IELTS Listening Test: Writing and Recording Your Own Listening Scripts

Final Thoughts

We’ve given you two approaches to teaching listening today. It’s up to you to decide which approach you think fits your learners’ needs.

However, at least now you’re more informed to make those choices. In future blogs, we’ll give you Some example lessons you can use for both approaches, so stay tuned for more.

So, which approach do you think is better? Which approach do you use? What types/levels of learners do you use them with? We’d enjoy hearing from you. So please share your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you’d like to learn more about teaching listening, contact us today. We can show you which TESOL course would work best for you.

Related Articles:

Teaching Receptive Skills – Fluency In Reading And Listening

How To Create Listening Lessons Using ELLLO Mixers

Communicative Approaches To Teaching Listening

Teaching Listening: The Basics Of The Bottom-Up Approach

Using The Top-Down Approach In ESL Listening Lessons (Part 1)



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