Russell Stannard – Top down and bottom up processing: why it is so important in language teaching.

When we listen or read, there are actually two processes taking place. Understanding these two processes can help us in organising the way we teach both listening and reading material and also give us a clear appreciation of what is actually involved in learning a language. In this article, I plan to explain these two processes and talk about how they might influence the way we set up our listening activities.

Imagine, you are on the phone to your dentist. You are planning your next appointment. The receptionist offers you a specific day and time and you look in your calendar to see if you are free. It is likely that you are going to listen very carefully, paying close attention to the words, so that you can get the right time and day.  This would be an example of bottom-up processing. You have to listen to the individual words and build-up meaning from each word, hence bottom up. You might not pay attention to every single word, we probably rarely do that, but you will certainly be listening out for detail rather than just getting the gist of the conversation.

In another context, you are at work and your workmate is telling you a story about something that happened at work on your day off. You are familiar with the context, the characters involved and many of the events of the story. You don’t have to listen very carefully to follow what she is saying. In fact a lot of time, you will be almost predicting what she is going to say since you know so much about the context. You are likely to be nodding and gesturing to show that you are following the story and it is only when it comes to a part of the story that is rather odd or different to what you predicted that you might pay careful attention. This would be an example of top down processing.

It is sometimes surprising to people to realise that they are often predicting language and not actually processing each word. Most people think they pay careful attention to each word they hear. One way to demonstrate how much we actually do this is to think about jokes. Often what makes you laugh is the fact that the ending or punch line, is not what you predicted. You are suddenly surprised because the story has taken a complete change. This is also why sometimes people miss the punch line of a joke. Suddenly they have to shift from top-down processing to bottom up processing as they can no longer predict the outcome of the story but have to listen carefully.

Both types of processing are important. Generally, in most situations, you will be using a combination of both processes, so there will be times when you are top down processing and other times when you are bottom up processing. The context is absolutely key here and how much a student is familiar with the context will dictate what type of processing a student does.

To prepare students for top down processing, we need to help them activate their schemata. We need to get them to predict and make use of their knowledge of the context, particularly paying attention to the language they might hear and the sorts of topics that might come up in the listening. When we prepare students for bottom-up type activities, we need to help them to think about what details they will need to extract from the listening and when they will need to listen carefully.


What does this mean for the teaching?

Whenever I do listening work with my students I ask myself whether the focus is on top down or bottom up processing. Here are some practical examples

Top down activities

  • Make use of the pictures in the book which are often related to the listening material. Ask students to work in pairs and predict 4-5 things that the listening might be about. This will get them focusing on the picture, thinking about the context and will help them activate their schemata on that particular context.

Express books in action

We can see a great example of how books make use of pictures in On Screen B1+. On page 29 students have to look at a picture and take notes regarding the place, the people, the feeling and the actions they can see in the picture. Students have to share their ideas in pairs and then after they listen to someone describing the picture. Students then compare their own ideas with the actual description they listen to. This is a perfect example of an activity that is encouraging the students to activate their schemata on a particular topic.

  • Use the title as a way of getting students to predict things about the listening. Write the title of the listening on the board and ask the students to think of 2 things they think they will hear about in the listening and two things they don’t think they will hear about. It is a good idea to get students to predict what they won’t hear as well as what they think they will hear and it helps to make clear how important the schemata is.
  • Get students to predict words they are going to hear in a listening activity. Tell them the title or a picture related to the topic and then get them to predict words. You can also give students a list of words and get them to predict or check the meaning. We often see this technique in the Express Publishing books.
  • Another way is to focus on the schemata is to present the title of the listening and then write 5-6 things on the board and ask the students to decide whether these things are relevant to the title. This again will get them focusing on the schemata and thinking about what is relevant and what is not relevant.

Express books in action

In on Screen B2 page 44 students listen to a story related to holiday problems. On the board, I wrote the following problems and asked students to think about which of these problems might happen on holiday. This activated their schemata and get them focusing on the topic.

-You lose your bus pass.

-Your boss asks you to do some overtime.

-The flight is delayed.

-You arrive late for work.

-You lose your passport.

You forget to feed the cat.


Top up processing

Here our objective is to get the students prepared for listening for detail. Students need to focus on what they have to listen out for, what words might indicate that the following sentence is important or make use of the intonation and stress patterns.

  • Let’s say the listening is based around a group of students giving their opinions on climate change. Students will need to listen for detail and will need to understand what the different opinions are. We can train students to listen out for keywords that will help them to predict when something important is going to be said. For example, words like ‘In my opinion’ or ‘From my point of view’ or ‘My feeling is’ are words that we are likely to hear just before someone gives an opinion. If we can train students to listen out for these words, it will help them to pick up the details.
  • Another technique is to get the students to think about the details that are likely to be important. For example, the students might be listening out for train accouchements. The students will need to their focus on the destination, the platform number and time. Getting students to think about this and think about what it is they need to listen out for, is key.

Express books in action

Learning to listen for the stress patterns and the intonation in sentences can help students to understand where the detail is in a sentence. One technique is to focus on the questions in a dialogue as that is very likely to mean the answer will follow.  This is exactly what we can see in Screen B2 page 76 where students listen to and repeat stressed questions. Sensitising students to these stress patterns will help them to focus on the important and relevant information.



Understanding the processes involved in listening can help us enormously when setting up listening activities in the class. Students need skills in both types of processes to be effective listeners. My feeling is that it is well worth making students aware of how they listen as it will help them to understand why you do certain activities in the class. Understanding this has actually helped me to be a better teacher but also a better language learner. Sometimes students don’t understand why they are doing certain activities in the class and I think there is some value of making them aware of the two processes we have talked about and asking them when you do activities what process you are focusing on.


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