The most effective way — and the most intuitive way — to teach listening is through “top down processing.” This means focusing on “the big picture”, as if you’re observing a place from “above it”, understanding the gist of the information, analyzing the main ideas, and recalling key points. (The two other ways, less intuitive, but still important, are bottom-up processing and interactive listening, which we’ll talk about in another post.) To use top-down processing activities, you just need to have relatively long pieces to listen to — start with one or two minute extracts, audio or video or you can perform live as well.

A lot of activities can be successful but here are five principles to consider when planning and carrying out any activity.


There are individual differences in comprehension.    When two people listen to an identical input, such as a news story, they “hear” different things. Why?  (1) People vary widely in what they attend to (2) People have different skill, capacity, efficiency, and intention in how they employ their attention span and short-term memory (3) they have different priorities as to what is relevant to their comprehension goals (4) they vary widely in how accurately and completely they recall information.   • Be flexible. Don’t focus on one correct answer.
• Allow students to express what they understand.
• Have students share ideas after listening. 
Background knowledge creates a template for comprehension  Understanding does not take place in a vacuum. In order for understanding to take place, a listener must find common ground with the speaker of the text. (Technically, this refers to sharing similar activation spaces in memory, having a kind of mutual cognitive model.)  Without this shared background knowledge, there can never be adequate mutual understanding.  (When communicating in their native language, speakers and listeners depend on activation of similar cognitive models of specific concepts, which are called prototypes.) Use listening input that encourages a range of cultural interpretations.
• Recognize that all comprehension is filtered through our cultural knowledge.
• Encourage students to seek out different points of view. 
Pre-Listening Tasks boost selective attention and comprehension.   Cognitive expectations (“schemata”) that are activated prior to listening significantly influence what is understood and how well it will be remembered. Pre-listening activities will boost comprehension and retention: lexical priming (previewing concepts and key words in advance, visual priming (previewing images related to the input) pre-listening questions (prompts about what will be asked while you listen or after you listen), and advance organizers (previewing the overall rhetorical organization).      Always prepare a pre-listening task — something for students to do before they listen.  
• Use vocabulary previews – a set of 5-10 words and phrases. 
• Use some images or screen captures to encourage guesses about content before listening. 
• Use outlines graphs or charts (“advance organizers”) to guide students through a long listening experience 
While-listening and Post-listening tasks boost recall.   While pre-listening activity influences comprehension, activities the listener undertakes during and after listening will significantly influence retention. Active listening tasks provide a more potent encoding effect. Additional positive effects, such as improved recall, are observed when while-listening tasks such as note-taking, are paired with post-listening tasks.  Always prepare a post-listening task — something for students to do after they listen. 
 • Have students summarize or just talk about their notes – to reconstruct what they heard.
• Have students complete charts, answer questions, ask additional questions.  
Language processing takes places at multiple levels of cognition.   We often think of listening as involving only the aural channel, but nearly all listening involves attention to signals in multiple channels. In live face-to- face communication as in multimedia text processing, the listener must attend to multiple layers of input, including the verbal system(written, auditory and articulatory verbal codes), the non-verbal system (visual and symbolic content), and the physical context (including peopleand objects referred to) . In actual listening then, the listener processes large amounts of information simultaneously and makes complex configurations of mental representations while listening • Make tasks that include paying attention to non-verbal elements: Tone of voice, gesture, co-present object (things you can see). 


About The Author

, 5 Principles for Teaching Listening, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.