Developing listening skills through listening strategies

It is not uncommon that language learning depends on listening. Listening is the language skill that is used most often in everyday communication. O’Malley informs us that “we listen twice as much as we speak, four times as much as we read, and five times as much as we write” [3, 16]. Furthermore, listening comprehension is the foundation upon which the other language skills are acquired.

Listening provides the aural input that serves as the basis for language acquisition and enables learners to interact in spoken communication.

Thus, listening comprehension not only plays a crucial role in first language communication, but it is also “at the heart of second language learning” [3, 20]. Teacher’s task is to inform and show students how they can adjust their listening behavior to deal with a variety of situations, types of input, and listening purposes. They help students develop a set of listening strategies and match appropriate strategies to every listening situation.

Unfortunately, this essential language skill has often been neglected in the language classroom. Teachers sometimes assume that students are developing their listening skills just because they are listening to the teachers use the target language. Yet listening is a complex process that requires phonological, semantic, syntactical, discourse, and pragmatic knowledge of the language as well as understanding of the context and of nonverbal communication. Learners then have to apply this knowledge in a range of contexts, both unidirectional (e.g., lectures, radio broadcasts) and bidirectional (e.g., classroom discussions, conversations) listening situations, and while using a variety of technologies (e.g., telephones, computers, digital audio players) [2, 14]. Taking into consideration the complexity of the listening comprehension process and the contexts in which it occurs, it cannot be supposed that a learner’s listening skill will develop on its own. Teachers must make conscious and systematic efforts to develop this skill in learners.

Listening skills are usually divided into two groups: bottom-up listening skills and topdown listening skills.

Bottom-up listening skills refer to the decoding process, the direct decoding of language into meaningful units, from sound waves through the air, in through our ears and into our brain where meaning is decoded. To do it students need to know the code. How the sounds work and how they string together and how the codes can change in different ways when they are strung together. In other words bottom-up decoding shows how meaning moves from recognition of individual sounds to recognition of the meaning of whole utterances. It is not uncommon that most students have never been taught how English changes when it is strung together in sentences. The example of bottom-up skills:

  • Recognizing individual phonemes;
  • Recognizing phoneme sequences which form words;
  • Recognizing word boundaries;
  • Recognizing stressed syllables;
  • Recognizing intonation patterns;
  • Recognizing syllable reduction due to weak forms and/or elision;
  • Recognizing catenation;
  • Recognizing assimilation.

It is obvious that they tend to be phonological, and that is why teacher’s goal is in focusing systematically on phonology during the course for students to better teach bottomup processing skills.

Top-down skills or processing refers to how we use our world knowledge to attribute meaning to language input; how our knowledge of social convention helps us understand meaning. These are the skills that listening teachers should be teaching in their classes. Richards stated: "An understanding of the role of bottom-up and top-down processes in listening is central to any theory of listening comprehension" [4:50]. Top down processing refers to the attribution of meaning, drawn from one's own world knowledge, to language input. It involves "the listener's ability to bring prior information to bear on the task of understanding the "heard" language" [3, 52].

Brown proposes the following top-down skills:

  • discriminating between emotions
  • getting the gist
  • recognizing the topic
  • using discourse structure to enhance listening strategies
  • identifying the speaker
  • evaluating themes
  • finding the main idea
  • finding supporting details
  • making inferences
  • understanding organizing principals of extended speech

There are a great number of sub-skills, which construct the overall skill of listening. Sometimes the ‘bottom-up’ skills are called ‘micro’ skills [2, 78]. O’Malley proposed his own (subjective) checklist of sub-skills involved in listening, which shows the wide range of possible skills [3, 70]. He distinguishes the following skills: perception skills (recognizing individual sounds, discriminating between sounds, identifying reduced forms in

fast speech, identifying stressed syllables, words, recognizing intonation patterns), language skills (identifying individual words and groups and building up possible meanings for them, identifying discourse markers which organize the content of information – then, as a matter of fact, first, second, third, to start with), using knowledge of the world (using knowledge of a topic to guess what the speaker might be saying about it), dealing with information (understanding gist meaning, the main points, details), interacting with a speaker (coping with a variety of speakers in one recording – differences in speed of talking and accents, recognizing the speaker’s intention, to identify his mood, attitude).

Good listeners need to be able to use a combination of sub-skills simultaneously when processing spoken language; the skills they will need at any particular moment will depend on the kind of text they are listening to, and their reasons for listening to it. Of course, in the beginning, language learners will not be very good at these skills and teachers will need to teach them strategies for coping with what they have missed or misunderstood.

Strategies are efforts to compensate for uncertainties in understanding, and could include making inferences, realizing where misunderstandings have occurred, and asking for clarification. As students get more familiar with the language and more competent at listening skills they should need these strategies less and less, although even very proficient native speakers will need to rely on them occasionally. Strategies can only really be taught effectively by interrupting the listening process and getting students to reflect on what they have just been doing.

To teach both strategies and sub-skills in conjunction teacher should grade the activities so that they move from “easier” listening texts and tasks to more difficult ones. “Easy” texts are shorter and feature familiar voices and topics. “Easy” tasks are those which allow students to be participants rather than in the more distant roles of audience or over hearers. The tasks and texts get more difficult and become longer. They may feature unfamiliar voices and topics, and they place students in the more distant role of audience. Listening strategies are techniques or activities that contribute directly to the comprehension and recall of listening input. Listening strategies can be classified by how the listener processes the input. Names of listening strategies coincide with those of listening skills. Linguists distinguish between the following listening strategies: met cognitive, cognitive, social, topdown, and bottom-up strategies.

According to O’Malley’s point of view “Learning strategies are complex procedures that individuals apply to tasks; consequently, they may be represented as procedural knowledge which may be acquired through cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages of learning. As with other procedural skills at the different stages of learning the strategies may be conscious in early stages of learning and later be performed without the person’s awareness” [3, 52].

There are three main types of linguistic strategies which can also be applied to (listening as well) learning four types of language skills. These are met cognitive, cognitive and social or affective strategies. Met cognitive strategies include the following activities:

  1. selective attention: focusing of a listener on special aspects of learning tasks, listening for key words or phrases.
  2. Planning: planning to concentrate on certain aspects or parts of listening passage, listening for a gist.
  3. Monitoring: focusing on a task, information that should be remembered, or production.
  4. Evaluation: evaluation of language production after it has taken place, comprehension after a receptive language activity has been completed.

Cognitive strategies are divided into the following activities:

  1. Rehearsal: repetition of names of items or objects to remember them;
  2. Interference: guessing meanings of new linguistic items, predict outcomes, complete missing parts using heard information.
  3. Summarizing: activity where listeners synthesize what they have heard to ensure the information has been retained.
  4. Deducting: activity in which learners apply rules to understand language.
  5. Imagery: use of visual images or pictures for understanding, remembering or organizing new verbal information.
  6. Transfer: ability to use known linguistic information to apply to and facilitate a new learning task.
  7. Elaboration: an ability to link or integrate new ideas contained in new information to those with known information.

Social or affective strategies contain:

  1. Co-operation: an activity where learners work with peers to solve a problem, exchange information, check notes, share ideas, or get feedback on a certain type of activity.
  2. Questioning for clarification: receiving from a peer or a teacher additional explanation, clarification, paraphrasing or examples.
  3. Self-talk: the process of thinking to assure oneself that a learning activity will be completed successfully or to decrease anxiety about a task.

Top-down strategies are listener based; the listener taps into background knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener to interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next [3, 85]. Topdown strategies include:

  • listening for the main idea;
  • predicting;
  • drawing inferences;
  • summarizing.

Bottom-up strategies are text based; the listener relies on the language in the message, that is, the combination of sounds, words, and grammar that creates meaning. Bottom-up strategies include:

  • listening for specific details;
  • recognizing cognates;
  • recognizing word-order patterns. Strategic listeners also use met cognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate their listening.
  • They plan by deciding which listening strategies will serve best in a particular situation.
  • They monitor their comprehension and the effectiveness of the selected strategies.
  • They evaluate by determining whether they have achieved their listening comprehension goals and whether the combination of listening strategies selected was an effective one.

To develop top-down skills a teacher can get her students to predict the content of a listening activity beforehand, using information about the topic or situation, pictures or key words. By doing this a teacher is helping students to develop their top-down processing skills, by encouraging them to use their knowledge of the topic to help them understand the content. This skill is very important, even advanced learners are likely to come across some unknown vocabulary. By using their knowledge of context, they should be able to guess the meaning of the unknown word, or understand the general idea. There are other examples of common top-down listening activities that include putting a series of pictures or sequence of events in order, listening to conversations and identifying where they take place, reading information about a topic then listening to find whether or not the same points are mentioned, or identifying the relationships between the people involved. A list of top-down strategies proposed by Richards [4, 87]:

Anticipation: working out what comes next

  • Teacher plays half a sentence, learners complete, or answer multiple choice questions.

Reference: relating pronouns, etc., to the items they refer to

  • Teacher pauses cassette after ambiguous referring expressions; learners say what they refer to.
  • Teacher lists referring expressions/general nouns; learners listen for them and write down what they refer to.

Monitoring for information

  • Learners monitor a long text for key words.

Relevance: identifying important points made

  • Slot-and-filler summaries;
  • Filling in tables (specific/general);
  • 'Find (four) points about...

Learners need to be able to listen effectively even when faced with unfamiliar vocabulary or structures. If the learner understands very few words from the speaker or recordings, even knowledge about the context may not be sufficient for him/her to understand what is happening, and they can easily get lost. Of course, low-level learners may simply not have enough vocabulary or knowledge of the language yet, but there are situations in which higher-level students fail to recognize known words in the stream of fastconnected speech. For this purpose bottom-up, listening activities can help learners to understand enough linguistic elements of what they hear to be able to use their top-down skills to fill in the gaps.

Successful listening depends on the ability to combine these two types of processing (skills). Activities which work on each strategy separately should help students to combine top-down and bottom-up processes to become more effective listeners in real-life situations or longer classroom listening. A list of bottom-up strategies:

Discrimination: distinguishing minimally different words

  • Ear training in minimal pairs;
  • Teacher dictates minimal pairs.

Segmentation: identifying words in continuous speech

  • Teacher dictates sentences, which include contractions, weak forms, elision, and assimilation;
  • Learners transcribe a section of an authentic passage;
  • Learners listen with transcript, paying attention to weakly stressed items.

Extrapolation: working out the spelling of unrecognized words

  • Teacher dictates words in spelling groups (laugh, cough, enough);
  • Learners guess the spellings of difficult-to-recognize cognates;
  • Matching names to words on a map. There is an example of how using topdown strategies a teacher can get students in listening for main idea. To extract and understand meaning from listening, students need to follow four basic steps:
  • Figure out the purpose for listening. Activate background knowledge of the topic in order to predict or anticipate content and identify appropriate listening strategies.
  • Attend to the parts of the listening input that are relevant to the identified purpose and ignore the rest. This selectivity enables students to focus on specific items in the input and reduces the amount of information they have to hold in short-term memory in order to recognize it.
  • Select top-down and bottom-up strategies that are appropriate to the listening task and use them flexibly and interactively. Students' comprehension improves and their confidence increases when they use top-down and bottom-up strategies simultaneously to construct meaning.
  • Check comprehension while listening and when the listening task is over. Monitoring comprehension helps students detect inconsistencies and comprehension failures, directing them to use alternate strategies.

To sum up, teachers and learners focus too much on the product of listening and too little on the process. The solution is to perform different listening exercises and activities using bottom-up and top-down strategies to acquire listening skills in learners. Listening exercises should fulfill different purposes: familiarizing learners with the features of natural conversational speech, and training learners in two types of listening skills. These skills and strategies practiced in isolation must later be combined and applied to a longer text. Effective use of listening skills and strategies will help us achieve desirable results in a classroom and real-life listening.



  1. Brown, Gillian, and George Yule. Teaching the Spoken Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986
  2. Brown, G. 'Investigating listening comprehension in context'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
  3. O'Malley, J. M., & Chamot, A. U. Listening comprehension strategies in second language acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990
  4. Richards, Jack C.and Charles Lockhart. Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
  5. Ur, P. Teaching Listening Comprehension .Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology