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Top Down & Bottom Up Listening Strategies in the Classroom

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Most of the teaching we do will incorporate some top down and bottom up listening. This lesson offers some strategies you can offer your students to help them get better at each kind of listening.

Different Kinds of Listening

No matter what subject area or age you teach, you want your students to know how to listen. Some scholars think of listening in two different categories: top down and bottom up listening.

Top down listening happens when we use background knowledge to make sense of what we are listening to. We already know a fair amount about the topic, and the story or information we are getting fits into a previously established schema.

Bottom up listening, on the other hand, happens when we understand language sound by sound or word by word, with less use of background knowledge.

Most of the time, your students will combine some bottom up and top down listening to make sense of what they hear and perceive in the world around them. Sometimes, however, it can be helpful to offer them strategies suited to the specific type of listening you are working on. The more cognizant students are about each type of listening and the strategies it embeds, the better equipped they will be to do good listening work.

The strategies in this lesson can be used in the classroom to work with different kinds of listening.

Top Down Listening Strategies

This section focuses on strategies you can teach your students for doing good top down listening.

  • Identify the topic. Before you start figuring out what the speaker is saying, make sure you know what they are talking about in general. Try to encapsulate the topic in one to three simple words that get at the overall theme. Some examples might include politics, weather, or short story characters.
  • Identify the speaker. What do you already know about this person, what he or she thinks, and how he or she speaks? Remembering these things in advance will help you make sense of what you hear today.
  • Make a prediction. Think about what you already know about this topic, and what you have heard this speaker say about it before. This will help you make a good guess about what they are going to talk about today.
  • Remember some vocabulary. Is this a topic you have recently learned about? If so, think of some of the key words and phrases you know in relation to this topic and what they mean. Chances are, you will hear them again today.
  • Form pictures in your mind. As you listen, allow yourself to do some envisioning based on the words you are hearing. Envisioning is one of the ways you will put what you are hearing into context with what you already know about the theme.
  • Stay focused. Even though you have a lot of prior knowledge, make sure you are maintaining eye contact with the speaker and reeling yourself back in if you find yourself getting distracted.
  • Take notes. Sometimes, jotting down a few words and phrases will hold you accountable and help you put what you have heard into context with what you already know.

Bottom Up Listening Strategies

Here, you will find strategies you can teach your students when they need to do bottom up listening.

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