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Top-Down Approach to Teaching Listening Skills

In the world outside the classroom, students will be asked to do things. They’ll need to go from point A to point B. They’ll need to follow instructions. They’ll need to listen to weather reports. They’ll need to know where it’s safe to go or avoid certain areas. They’ll also need to be able to discuss topics after hearing about them. The world is full of activities that will challenge ESL learners’ listening comprehension. The best thing we can do is prepare them. This is why English language classrooms do not need to be overly academic. We are preparing learners for life outside the confines of the classroom. One of the best ways to do this is by using top-down listening exercises to check comprehension.

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Activating Schema

The top-down approach involves activating schema to make sense of what we hear. Schema is simply what we know about something; our 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? Without context, ESL students 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.

Pre-Listening Activities to Activate Schema

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

Ordering images of a listening clip can help English students be better prepared for what they’ll listen to. They can be given five images of a situation. Then students will order them in the order they expect the situation to play out to prepare them for what they’re about to hear.

Comprehension Questions

Listening to recordings and answering questions is a common activity. This is similar to what we see in English language proficiency tests.

For example, in the IELTS, test takers are asked to listen to conversations, monologues, and speeches on an academic subject. In the TOEFL, test takers are tasked with listening to conversations and lectures designed to check basic and pragmatic comprehension. In the TOEIC, test takers may hear news or other messages, then they are required to express purpose, identify who’s speaking, who’s targeted, and so on.

You can tailor your listening activities to reflect such English proficiency tests. This not only serves to prepare learners for these tests (if the need arises) but also for life— which is what these tests are designed to certify.


Discussion-top-down approach

A discussion is another way to check comprehension from a top-down perspective. Students listen to a recording or watch a video then discuss what they heard.

Ideally, the audio file they’re listening to is some topic of interest for them. For example, a group of university students might be keen on listening to short audio on how to improve their study habits. Or, a group of children might want to listen to a dialogue between two Avengers. Whatever you decide, ensure it’s something interesting and meaningful for your class members. After listening to the recording, let the discussion begin.

You can ask key comprehension questions or strategic questions that will get learners using the language they heard in the audio. This will give them an opportunity to check their own comprehension and give you the occasion to grade their skills.

Consider Culture

The top-down approach in ESL involves making sense of what we hear based on the context and what we know. This often requires understanding the culture where the listening takes place. This is why certain television shows, in my opinion, are very difficult for learners to follow. They just do not know the culture!

A good example of this is the old TV show, Friends. It’s still popular for many ESL learners. However, the innuendo and idiom used combined with the cultural actions don’t always jibe with listeners. Therefore, as needed, you may need to explain a little about the culture of their intended English target. Conversely, you can ensure you use materials that reflect the culture of class members. This helps level the playing field. But you must make an educated choice which to use. Exercising with materials that reflect local culture may not be best for preparing learners to use English outside of their own culture.

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