Let us continue the Top-Down Approach in ESL. In part one of our two-parter, we covered only half of the ideas. Today, we’ll close it out with more. But for those who haven’t read part one, a short review is in order.
Previously, we covered the practicality of the top-down approach in listening to lessons. We discussed how it’s often more practical to approach listening from the top-down.
That means, if learners are going to understand what they hear, they need context.
Most ideas presented in our last blog had to do with activating learner schema. That is, before listening, when prior knowledge is available, class members have better ideas of what they’re going to be listening to.
We looked at the importance of providing context in aiding ESL learners. That’s because when they’re more aware of the context, they’re more apt to match words and phrases with their understanding of similar situations.
Context equips students to decode the overall meaning of the communication.
Pre-listening exercises such as predicting, ordering pictures, sequencing events, and identifying locations and or contexts can be used to facilitate top-down comprehension.
At the end of the day, you’re teaching class members strategies they can use outside the classroom. These help them better understand situations where listening will be taking place.
But in today’s blog, we’re going to show you how to check listening comprehension with top-down activities.
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. For OPIc test-takers, they need to listen to recorded prompts and respond accordingly.
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.
Similar to the comprehension questions, a discussion is another way to check comprehension from a top-down perspective. Students listen to a recording or watch a video then discuss the meat of 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.
Then again, a group of marketplace learners may enjoy listening to how to improve their resumes. Whatever you decide, ensure it’s something interesting and meaningful for your class members. After that, let the discussion begin.
You can ask key comprehension questions. But you can also ask 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.
Again, this top-down activity is something that prepares learners for life—being able to discern and discuss what they hear.
Act on It
Listening for comprehension and discussion are two similar ideas. Asking students to act on what they heard is another.
Appropriate responses to listening activities demonstrate understanding. And the following ideas can help you discover if that’s happening with your class members.
Play a weather report from a news channel (no video for this one). Then ask students how they’d prepare for the weather they just heard about. For example, the reporter says it will be cloudy with sunny skies, bring your umbrella in case.
But if a learner says he would wear a t-shirt and shorts and go to the beach, there may have been a misunderstanding somewhere. This gives you an opportunity to work with students and discover where they may have gone off course.
It could be vocabulary, structure, or simply the pronunciation and intonation of the speaker. Either way, it helps you pinpoint areas where your learners are weaker. After that, you can provide lessons addressing each point.
Another activity can be something where you ask learners to follow, say, cooking instructions. They might listen to a short cooking audio file or even a podcast. Then, they demonstrate how to prepare a meal.
In this case, they might need to take notes. So, this is where a pre-listening activity would come in handy. If you’re teaching a classroom of adults who like to cook, for example (always look for common interests), they might be familiar with the difference between baking and cooking dinner.
That being the case, you could ensure this is clear in a pre-listening activity. If I’m cooking dinner, I might use a wok, a pot, cooking oil, a spatula, and so on. While with baking, I might be using measuring cups, a mixer, select-sized bowls, work with eggs and flour, etc.
You get the idea. You don’t necessarily need a kitchen to do this task. You can use images as well.
Another activity to check comprehension from the top-down could be asking students to follow directions. Perhaps they might be driving to a particular city or tourist spot from their current location or another, less familiar one.
Of course, driving might be out of the question, but you could challenge them with maps. Copy maps that show the place of origin and the destination and have them trace the directions they hear.
For a twist, you could ask them to give you an alternate route based on their own experience traveling in the local area. You could use an audio file that explains the long way and ask them to tell you the mistakes in the directions.
Either way, you handle it, learners are demonstrating comprehension of the material from the top down. As they’re successful in these exercises, they will likely increase in confidence with the language.
Benefits of Top-Down Exercises for Demonstrating Comprehension
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 for those times.
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.
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.
And it 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 locale. 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. This is something you’ll need to be wise about.
Remember, try to be deliberate when selecting the listening approach you want to use in class. Generally speaking, you can use a bottom-up approach with lower-level learners.
This helps teach structure and build more confidence. On the other hand, the top-down approach is excellent for higher-level learners.
And that concludes our mini-series on the top-down approach in ESL. It also ends our multi-blog discussion of how you can teach listening. If you missed anything, please go back and read for more information.
Our previous blogs on listening can be a great help for those times when you may not be sure how to approach a listening lesson.
If after reading through our materials, you have the itch to know more, contact us. We’ll be glad to discuss our courses with you and help you decide which might be best for your needs.
Finally, we’d love to hear from you about today’s blog. So, feel free to share your comments or experiences below.