The Listening Skill – Part 2

“Listening is the Cinderella skill in second language learning”. (Nunan, 2005). For many years, listening skills were not prioritized in language teaching. Teaching methods emphasized productive skills, and the relationship between receptive and productive skills was poorly understood.

Richards (2005) provides a clear description of how listening comprehension is achieved by native or non-native listeners. He refers to this listening process as bottom-up and top-down processing.

Bottom-up processing refers to the use of incoming data as a source of information about the meaning of a message. From this perspective, the process of comprehension begins with the message received, which is analysed at successive levels of organization until the intended meaning is arrived at. Comprehension is thus viewed as a process of decoding.  An example of bottom-up processing is scanning input to identify familiar lexical items.

Top-down processing, by contrast, involves the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message. Background knowledge may take several forms. It may be previous knowledge about the topic, situational or contextual knowledge, or stored in long-term memory in the form of “schemata” and “scripts” – plans about the overall structure of events and the relationship between them.

In order to enable learners to develop their ability to listen well in English outside the classroom – where they do not have the advantage of a teacher to help them and they are not exposed to graded language – they need help in developing the sub-skills associated with top-down processing. It is recognized today that both bottom-up and top-down strategies are necessary.

Furthermore, we cannot deny the importance of the transactional and interactional functions of language in which language is used primarily for communicating information. They are “message”-oriented rather than “listener”-oriented. Accurate and coherent communication of the message is important, as well as confirmation that the message has been understood. Coherence, content and clarity are crucial. Interactional uses of language are those in which the primary purposes for communication are social. The emphasis is on creating harmonious interactions between participants. The goal for participants is to make social interaction comfortable and non-threatening, and communicate good will. Examples of interactional uses of language are greetings, small talk, and compliments, among others.


Fluent listening depends on the use of both bottom-up and top-down processing. The extent to which one or the other dominates reflects the degree of familiarity the listener has with the topic of discourse, the kind of background knowledge they can apply to the task, and the purposes for which they are listening.

Traditionally, listening has often been regarded, alongside reading, as a passive language skill. However, it involves more than language. The role of the successful listener has to be thought of as an active one. Understanding is not something that happens because of what a speaker says: the listener has a crucial part in the process, activating various types of knowledge, applying what he knows to what he hears, and trying to understand what the speaker means

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Roseli Serra

Roseli is an enthusiastic educator in Brazil. Graduated in English and Portuguese, she works as an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer, Cambridge examiner and e-moderator. She's a member of the IATEFL LT (Learning Technologies) subcommittee and works, teaches and trains professionals in the area of TD and LT. She’s also a psychologist, a mentor and a coach certified by SLAC (Sociedade Latino Americana de Coaching). She has a post-graduate degree in Applied Linguistics and is now doing her MA studies in Science of Languages at UNICAP (Universidade Católica de Pernambuco). She truly believes in life-long learning and teacher development.

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