Beyond Top-Down and Bottom-Up: Nine Different Ways to Explore Listening

Beyond Top-Down and Bottom-Up
Nine Different Ways to Explore Listening

Hall Houston
by Hall Houston 16,096 views

Consult several books about teaching listening and you will come across some of the same types of listening: top-down, bottom-up, listening for gist, listening for main idea, and listening for inferences.

While these are crucial concepts, others are equally important. What follows is an assortment of alternative ways to teach listening, some quite simple and others based on many years of research. In each case, I will explain each one briefly and give you a suggestion for using it in class. In addition, I have provided a list of resources about each item, for readers who want to learn more about a topic.

9 Different Ways to Explore Listening

  1. 1

    Affective Listening

    Affective listening (not to be confused with effective listening) refers to listening with the student motivation at the forefront. (It’s one of Rost and Wilson’s five frames of active listening, further explored in their book titled ACTIVE LISTENING.) A good listening teacher can improve motivation by paying attention to learner needs and learner styles, offering learners choices, using a variety of methods to teach listening, and getting the students more involved in the lesson. Try this: play a popular song that your students love, or bring in a speaker to talk on a subject that has relevance to your students.

  2. 2

    Autonomous Listening

    Autonomous listening is working on listening skills outside of the classroom. With a wonderful abundance of listening material available online, both for language learners ( and as well as listening for native speakers ( or, students have numerous opportunities to develop listening comprehension on their own time. Try this: introduce your students to a website with lots of audio tracks for them to learn from, and assign them to choose a track and listen to it in their free time. You can provide a worksheet that guides them through the process.

  3. 3

    Competitive Listening

    Competitive listening is simply setting up a listening game where students compete in groups to win. While most listening work is individual, this type of activity makes it more social and interactive. The competitive aspect increases student motivation. Try this: Prepare about 10 sentences to dictate to the class. Put the class into two teams. One member of each team will listen to your sentence, then run to the board to write the sentence before the member of the other team does. One point goes to the team whose member writes the sentence first without errors. Keep track of points and award a small prize to the winning team.

  4. 4

    Extreme Listening

    Extreme listening is an activity from outside the world of ELT. This term was created by educationalist Nancy Kline, and explained in detail in Caroline Webb’s book, How to Have a Good Day. It’s a form of listening where you give 100% attention to the person you’re listening to. The rules are simple: don’t interrupt, show the person you are in tune with them with your body language (make eye contact, face the person) and by using backchannel, sounds that show you are paying attention (mmm-hmm, yeah). Also, when the person finishes speaking, instead of talking about your own issues, you continue to support the person by asking him to tell you more. Try this: give a brief presentation on extreme listening. Put students into pairs, and ask students to practice extreme listening as their partner tells them about an event from their past.

  5. 5

    Live Listening

    Live listening, also known as listening unplugged, is where the teacher provides the listening in class, live. No audio files or CDs. The teacher can tell a story, relay an anecdote, tell a joke, explain how to do something, or make an announcement. This can be varied by asking guest speakers or even fluent students to perform the live listening. Try this: tell your students a humorous anecdote. Next, put them in pairs to share what they remember from your story.

  6. 6

    Loop Listening

    Loop listening is a simple technique for helping students to comprehend difficult sections of an audio track, by allowing for extra repetitions. You can record a very short segment of an audio track that might be hard to understand, and play it on a loop. Students benefit from additional listening. Try this: play a tiny section of a listening track for your students, one that you think they might have trouble comprehending, and repeat it 6 or 7 times. Ask a volunteer to write it on the board. Play it 2 or 3 more times, and ask the other students if the volunteer wrote it correctly.

  7. 7

    Metacognitive Listening

    Metacognitive listening (part of the metacognitive approach to listening) involves thinking about your listening skills and becoming aware of how you listen and how you can improve your listening. Students benefit from learner strategy training and keeping diaries on how their listening is improving. Try this: after doing some listening work, put students into small groups and ask them to discuss how they did on the listening activity. You can provide discussion questions to guide them, such as “What was the most difficult part of the listening?” or “What strategies did you use to get the most out of the listening?”

  8. 8


    Micro-listening involves listening to short bursts of speech in order to gain familiarity with the difficult nature of connected speech. For example, students might have trouble understanding everyday expressions, such as “Where do you want to go?” spoken at a normal rate of speech (Wheredyawannago?). Students need extra practice to get used to contractions, elisions, intrusions, and other features of spoken English. This can be done by reading out short sentences where students have trouble understanding, and asking students to discuss or write what they heard. Try this: Inspect an audio track from the coursebook you are using. Jot down a few phrases or sentences that students might have trouble comprehending spoken at a normal rate. Dictate these to your class, and ask them to write the full version. For example, you say “idunno” and they write “I don’t know”. After the dictation, call on several students to write their versions on the board.

  9. 9

    Thematic Listening

    Thematic listening refers to listening to several different listening texts on the same subject. In the process of listening to the texts, the student would encounter some of the same vocabulary over again, and become better at comprehending the subject. Try this: Collect a number of short audio tracks on a subject (an issue, a general topic or a news event). Students listen to all the tracks at home in order to improve their listening. In the following class, call on students to tell you what they remember.

In conclusion, I’d like to point out that not all of these concepts may be useful in your classroom.

Your students might prefer a competitive listening game over applying metacognitive awareness to their burgeoning listening skills. Apply the ideas in this list carefully, and look over the resources before making any drastic changes to your listening lessons.


Rost, M. and Wilson, JJ. 2013. Active Listening. Pearson Education: UK.

Rost, M. and Wilson, JJ. 2013. Active Listening. Pearson Education: UK.

Horrigan, M. 2013. Competitive listening. IH Journal, Issue 34.

Webb, C. 2016. How to Have a Good Day. Crown Business.

Bilbrough, N. 2009. Listening Unplugged. Humanising Language Teaching, Year 11, Issue 4.

Bilbrough, N. 2014. Livening Up Listening. British Council Palestine Webinar

McCaughey, K. 2010.Loop listening. English is Everywhere blog

McCaughey, K. 2016. What Happened to Listening? American English Webinar

Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. 2011. Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening. Routledge.

Conti, G. 2015. Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons (Part One). The Language Gym blog.

Conti, G. 2015. Micro-listening skills (Part 2) – More micro-listening tasks for the foreign language classroom. The Language Gym blog.

Field, J. 2008. Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Madden, J. 2008. Helping ESL Students Adapt to Authentic Listening Situations. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.

Like us!
Related Categories

Entire BusyTeacher Library
Get the Entire BusyTeacher Library:
Dramatically Improve the Way You Teach
Save hours of lesson preparation time with the Entire BusyTeacher Library. Includes the best of BusyTeacher: all 80 of our PDF e-books. That's 4,036 pages filled with thousands of practical activities and tips that you can start using today. 30-day money back guarantee.
Learn more

Popular articles like this

Listen Up!
Seven Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Listening

0 34,371 0

9 Ways to Develop as a Listening Teacher

0 13,821 0

Help Your ESL Students Improve Their Listening
7 Ideas that Really Work

0 159,817 0

What Every Listening Teacher Needs to Know

0 15,578 0

Top 7 Ways to Get the Most out of Listening Comprehension Exercises

0 38,436 0

5 Real Life Listening Skills Your Students Need

0 43,437 0