Friday, August 23, 2013


ELT Research Blog Carnival- Bottoms up!

I wasn't going to participate in the ELT Research Blog Carnival website this month, as I didn't think I would have time, but Monday I came across this link on bottom up processing in listening by Joseph and Aki Siegel. Given my current interest in using jokes and connected speech I started reading and thought, "I'll make time."

In short, the article spoke about how there are two ways of processing listening. Top down processing (deductive) and bottom up processing (inductive).

Top down is when we look at the big picture first. When I travel and someone asks me, "________ _______ _________?" in a language I  don't understand, I am pretty good at reading the nonverbal and contextual clues to answer, even though I have no idea what is being said. Similarly, with top-down processing students can tap into their own experiences to better comprehend a situation. Tasks used in class are often predictive and take place before listening. If we were going to listen to a talk about sweatshops first I may show pictures of sweatshops and have students describe what they see. Where would they imagine this place is? etc.

Top down is very fashionable right now and I understand why; whenever students can use critical thinking and relate an item to themselves, it makes learning better.

Bottom up on the other hand is when we look at the little pieces and then get to the big picture. We focus on individual sounds in the listening activity. We pick up on each word. These tend to be more specific tasks. This paper focused on how bottom up processing (which has fallen out of vogue lately) can be used to help students listening.

Bottom up, like translation in teaching, has fallen out of fashion. This study hoped to answer two questions:

"1. Do direct BUP activities help students with perception and parsing as demonstrated on dictation tests?
2. What are student perceptions of direct BUP activities?"
What did they mean by bottom up tasks? In this case there were different activities (each taking less than 8 minutes) that were inserted into a normal 90 minute class. There were 6 different activities, but I'll just touch on three of them:
  • Highlighting connected speech (Yay knock knock jokes :-D)
  • Listening and filling in the blanks (I am not a huge fan of clozes when they are overused, but sometimes they can be a great tool.)
  • Short transcriptions (I prefer dictoglosses, which start with a short transcription).
Now, I understand why these activities sometimes get a bad reputation...but let's look at connected speech. Honestly I think teaching connecting speech can be fun! Clozes aren't great every day either (as they tend to get boring fast) but every once in a while can be fun. Dictation exercises can be dull if we just  do them, but when we combine them with other activities (running dictations, dictoglosses etc.) students really get a chance to use all their skills.

By far my favorite part of the study: Most students reported that their confidence rose in listening. This makes sense to me. When students are able to comprehend all the pieces, it stands to reason that they feel more confident. Confident students are more likely to use their skill meaning they will improve!
Clearly top down and bottom up both are used when communicating. If one of them fails, then communication is often strained. Take a look at the clipping to the left. The reporter was writing about a flood which caused pigs to end up in the river. Cute story right? Using our top down skills we can tell this is newsworthy because it doesn't normally happen. When it is reported that 30,000 pigs are floating we know that number seems big, but we also know that this is newsworthy so it makes sense.

If we had used more of our "top down" skills we would have known that a female pig is a sow. If we had used out "bottom up" skills we would have remembered that the th and s sounds are sometimes confused. Using either of these skills we could have avoided the "30,000 pigs" instead of "30 sows and pigs" error, but using both of them would have increased our chances of catching it!

In the end I think that they said it best when they said that BOTH top down and bottom up should be used in class. In teaching I think we too easily stop using methods when we pick up a new one. Using students prior knowledge is amazing, and should not be ignored, but neither should letting students really breakdown a listening and understand each part (as well as the whole).

So the next time you are planning a listening activity do ask students to use their prior knowledge. Do as them to predict. Do have them apply the concepts to their own life. However, don't be afraid to fall back on some of the older techniques bottom up processing is just as key.

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