Strategies for Developing Listening Skills

Effective language teachers show students how they can adjust their listening behavior to deal with a variety of situations, input types, and listening purposes. They help students develop a set of listening strategies and match appropriate strategies to each listening situation.


Listening Strategies

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.

Top-down strategies are listener based; the listener uses existing knowledge of the topic, the situation or context, the type of audio text, and the language. This background knowledge activates a set of expectations that help the listener interpret what is heard and anticipate what will come next. Top-down strategies include

  • Listening for the main idea
  • Predicting the sequence of information based on knowledge of the type of text
  • Predicting content based on knowledge of the situation or context
  • Drawing inferences based on knowledge of the context and the culture

You can increase your students’ ability to use top-down strategies by teaching them the scripts, or dialog sequences, that are typical in specific situations and contexts. This knowledge can help them predict what they will hear and when in the audio text they will hear it.

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 vocabulary words or phrases
  • Listening for specific grammatical forms or word-order (sentence structure) patterns
  • Listening for specific stress/intonation patterns that indicate the speaker’s focus, intention, or emotions

Strategic listeners also use metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate their listening.

1. Before listening: Plan for the listening task

  • Set a purpose or decide in advance what to listen for
  • Decide if more linguistic or background knowledge is needed
  • Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attend to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focus on the words and phrases)

2. During and after listening: Monitor comprehension

  • Verify predictions and check for inaccurate guesses
  • Decide what is and is not important to understand
  • Listen/view again to check comprehension
  • Ask for help

3. After listening: Evaluate comprehension and strategy use

  • Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area
  • Evaluate overall progress in listening and in particular types of listening tasks
  • Decide if the strategies used were appropriate for the purpose and for the task
  • Modify strategies if necessary


Listening for Meaning

To extract meaning from a listening text, students need to follow four basic steps:

  1. Figure out the purpose for listening. Activate background knowledge of the topic in order to predict or anticipate content and identify appropriate listening strategies.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


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