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Teaching Listening: The Basics of the Bottom-Up Approach

In a previous blog, we addressed the differences between a bottom-up approach to ESL listening lessons and a top-down approach. We also looked at the pros and cons of each one.

Today, we’re going to focus on the bottom-up approach and some ideas of how you can use it in listening lessons. Have a look below to know more.

Fill in the Missing Words

This is probably the most basic exercise for a traditional bottom-up approach to listening. When I first started teaching ESL in the early 2000s, this is what was happening in many listening classes. Learners would have books or handouts assigned to them.

They would listen to cassette tapes. The teacher would play either sentence being spoken or conversations. Then students were required to fill in the blanks with the missing words.

That is not to say this method is obsolete or unnecessary. No, for lower-level learners, it can be quite helpful. And there are two possible ways to do this: naturally or non-naturally.

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Natural or Non-Natural

If it’s done naturally, learners will hear recordings of conversations between people, lectures, or even entertainment at normal, natural levels of intonation.

Done unnaturally, learners will hear sentences spoken at reduced levels of intonation and spoken with greater clarity. Be sure to choose the right method for your learners.

Higher-level beginners benefit from the naturally spoken discourse. Whereas lower-level beginners probably benefit more from slowed and clearly articulated speech.

At the end of the class, both groups of learners will likely have a sense of accomplishment knowing they were able to fill in the blanks.

Additional Tip

To aid learners, try to provide a context such as talking about the weather, at a restaurant, on an airplane, at the mall, etc. You can also provide them with the possible vocabulary they might hear.

This will help build a more solid schema when they approach the bottom-up listening activity instead of coming into it cold and blind—that is, not warmed up with unknown material.

Read: How to Create Listening Lessons Using ELLLO Mixers


Identification Exercises

Identification exercises can help learners grasp individual elements of statements. Of course, pre-listening, while-listening, and post-listening activities can be incorporated into these lessons.

But they should not give away the exact wording class members will hear. This permits schema activation in learners before to help provide greater clarity to the listened-to situation. In other words, they have context for the statements.

Identifying Divisions

One of the more difficult parts of listening for lower-level learners is the inability to distinguish blurred boundaries.

What that means is sometimes non-essential words such as articles and prepositions are joined with other words. When this happens, they sound like a single word.

An example of this can be found in the statement: ‘Let’s grab a bite to eat.’ When spoken naturally, it sounds something like this: /lehts-graebuh-bai-t-eet/. For English language learners, this can be quite confusing.

So, they need to be shown and taught that not everything they hear is a blur. These exercises can teach them how to distinguish words, not just what the words are.

Read: Teaching Receptive Skills – Fluency In Reading And Listening

Word Count Exercises

That leads to another blur-reducing activity—word-count exercises. Here, the teacher will recite a short sentence clearly, play a video clip, or a short .mp3 file. Students will identify the number of words present in each statement.

They don’t necessarily need to identify the words at this point. But they should be able to identify how many words. Again, we’re training them to distinguish words better.


Another form of identifying exercise is dictation. Teachers can dictate messages to students who are required to take notes of the complete statement. Then, they proceed with the next level of activity below—identifying specific elements of the statements.

Identify Nouns

You can ask them to identify the nouns they hear. Most of these will be emphasized rather than glided over.

Identify Actions

The same thing with action words—they will likely be clearer than articles or prepositions in sentences.

Identify Descriptors

You can also challenge learners to pick out the descriptors. For example, was it a beautiful frontier, a bountiful frontier, or a bounded frontier?

By challenging class members to distinguish between word functions, you can train them to identify patterns in speech (e.g. S-V-O, adverbs before or after verbs, adjectives before nouns, etc.).

They will learn that certain words are clearer while others are not as clear. As such, they can develop more confidence when listening.

Learn to write effective listening lesson plans all from the comfort of your home!

Naturalize It

After identifying word numbers and structural words, teachers can speed things up. By slowly increasing the natural intonation in stages, teachers can show students what it sounds like at full natural speaking rates.

It reminds me a little of an old Star Trek episode where an alien female gave Captain Kirk a chemical to make him move many times faster than his crew members.

So, they couldn’t see him even though he was right there because he was moving so fast. Meanwhile, they were moving at normal speeds but to Captain Kirk, it was as if they weren’t moving at all.

We can relate the concept here, but in reverse (I know, sorry, that’s how my mind works): speed things up to normal speech but start from a slowed condition.

Let class members hear every single word and identify each function at first. They need to be able to understand what they’re hearing first.

Then gradually increase the speed so they are still able to understand the entire statement. Finally, run it at normal, natural speeds and intonation, training learner ears and minds to catch what they would not have caught without this training.

The Benefits of Bottom-Up Listening Lessons

Bottom-up lessons may be viewed as basic and old-fashioned by some teachers. They might even be viewed as outdated in modern times. But, sadly, with all the bells and whistles integrated into today’s teaching methods, the basics seem to get lost.

Helping lower-level English language learners develop (a) their listening skills, and (b) their understanding of how English is spoken, can have a great impact on their confidence.

In time, with enough exposure, and enough feedback, they’ll be able to get into more top-down activities. How? Because they’ll have been able to understand that not everything they hear is unintelligible.

They will understand that there are glides and speech chunks in play. They’ll understand that conventionally speaking, nouns are subjects and objects found at the beginning middle, and end of sentences.

They’ll realize that certain essential words will be clearer than non-essential words. An example of this can be found in my intonation speech series on YouTube.

And, as they gain more confidence, they’ll be more able to respond appropriately to spoken communications. That’s going to lead us into our next blog on ideas for top-down listening lessons. So, be sure to follow us for more.

Final Thoughts

Now you have a better idea of how a bottom-up listening lesson can work and what you can do in one. You can use fill-in-the-blank exercises or identification exercises. Of course, there are multiple ways to roll them out.

However, these are several basic concepts to maximize your listening lessons. It’s up to you how you get these ideas to work for your particular classes and learners. But you’re more able to explain your choices as well if needed. Give them a try and tell us what happened. We’d love to hear from you.

You can learn a lot more about teaching English as a language in our TESOL courses. So, please reach out.

Related Articles:

How To Use While-Listening Activities In The ESL Classroom

Using The Top-Down Approach In ESL Listening Lessons (Part 2)

Communicative Approaches To Teaching Listening

How To Create Listening Lessons Using ELLLO Mixers

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