Last time, we shared some ideas for the bottom-up approach to ESL listening lessons. Today, we’re going to approach things from the opposite end. We’ll share ideas for the top-down approach.

However, it’s going to have to be a two-parter this time because there’s a lot that can be said for the top-down approach. But first, a short review.

The top-down approach involves activating schema to make sense of what we hear. The object is not to understand what is communicated from a contextual standpoint. The following ideas can be used when approaching a listening lesson from the top down.

Activating Schema

Schema is simply what we know about something. It can also be referred to as prior knowledge. The value of activating schema is giving listeners an edge to understanding what they’re hearing.

Think about it. Have you ever come upon two people talking and had no idea what they were talking about? You heard and understood the words, pronunciation, and grammar (much like the bottom-up approach), but didn’t really know what the topic of conversation was.

That’s because you had no context associated with the words, pronunciation, and or grammar. How did you feel? Confused? But, when you gained a better understanding of the context, light bulbs began to flash in your mind.

Read: Communicative Approaches to Teaching Listening


It’s similar for English language learners. Without context, they won’t be able to really tell us what’s being said. They won’t know how to respond. They won’t know what to do. That’s why activating prior knowledge is so important for listening to lessons.

Again, consider that when you listen to the news, you know what you’ll be hearing. Often the commentator gives you a preview of the news program.

When you listen to a talk show, you’re likely to know the topic right away. When you attend a conference on data security, you know what will be discussed, and so on.

It should be fairly obvious to teachers how important schema activation is for our ESL listening lessons. Schema activating exercises can be in the form of pre-listening activities.

Pre-Listening Activities

We can use prior knowledge to help class members understand the context of what they’ll be listening to. Activities can be anything from predicting to ordering pictures, sequencing events, or identifying locations or contexts of conversations.


Predicting simply means sharing what you expect to hear. This could be saying what you expect to hear from a family at a dinner table, expressing expectations about a 25th class reunion between classmates, a business report on the feasibility of opening a new branch in a particular location, etc.

By doing this, students will be much more prepared to listen. And, although they may not be able to identify every word, they have a better shot at comprehending what’s being communicated.

Ordering Pictures

Ordering images of a listening clip can help business-English class members, for example, be better prepared for what they’ll listen to. They can be given five images of a business person receiving a client in their office.

Then they’ll order them in the order they expect the situation to play out. This will help class members follow the dialogue and prepare them for what they’re about to hear.

Sequencing Events

Using the example of receiving a client in an office, business students are asked to either write or order, let’s say, five events that should take place within this context. As a result, even if they get an item or two wrong, they’ll still be much more alert to what they’re listening to.

The result: improved comprehension of the listening clip.

Identifying Locations or Contexts

Another strategy for activating prior knowledge is asking class members to identify locations or contexts for listening clips. You can do this, for example, by playing background noises such as airplane sounds, dishes clanking in the background, car horns beeping, etc.

You can even do something as simple as telling them what background sounds they will hear. This of course challenges them to understand the environment of the listening clip. As a result, they’ll be more alert to certain words and phrases related to such scenes.

In other words, the words and phrases will make more sense within the context they’re spoken.

And remember, listening does not usually occur in a vacuum. There are typically contexts associated with what we hear. Therefore, we should also give learners the same opportunities for preparing for what they hear.

Our Ultimate Goal

That is not to say that we should give them the dialogues. No, that would compromise the activity, defeating the purpose of the training. And what is the goal here? We’re preparing them for listening outside the boundaries of the classroom.

We’re equipping them with strategies that can help learners negotiate English language environments better. What we’re sharing here is a way for you to prepare them for that. A way for you to give them a foundation for listening.

More to Come

In a future blog, we’ll look at specific pre-, while-, and post-listening activities that you can use to give class members a fair shake at understanding what they will listen to from beginning to end. They can be used to guide class members into knowing if what they’ve heard so far is accurate. And, they will give learners opportunities to check their understanding after listening. So, more to come on that!

Learn the most comprehensive approaches to teaching ESL!

Closing Thoughts

We’ve reached the end of part one of our two-part series. We’ve shared some ideas for using the top-down approach in ESL listening lessons. Specifically, you’ve seen some pre-listening activities designed to stimulate prior knowledge. Another way of saying that is activating schema in class members.

By helping learners prepare their minds for what they’ll hear, we can give them a fair chance at understanding English on the outside. Perhaps, many times, learners are leveled lower than they really are simply for this reason. They just did not understand the context of what they were listening to.

A lot of that may have to do with differences in culture as well. But we’ll talk more about that in our next blog—Ideas for Using the Top-Down Approach in ESL Listening Lessons (Part 2).

But you don’t have to wait for the next blog. You can get quality TESOL training and an internationally recognized TESOL certificate from—OnTESOL.

Contact us today to learn more about how you can get the best TESOL training for a career in teaching the English language.

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Recommended Reading:

How to Create Listening Lessons Using ELLLO Mixers

Teaching Receptive Skills – Fluency In Reading And Listening

TESOL: How to Teach Listening Skills

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