34 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
listening strategies, an approach that emphasizes improving their knowledge-based abili-
ties; others (Hulstijn, 2003; Mayberry, 2006; Norris, 1995) promote a pedagogical view
that learners are best taught when the priority is on fostering bottom-up, linguistic abili-
ties, such as their segmental and suprasegmental skills; while still others support a com-
bination of both these broad approaches (Field, 2008; Lynch, 2006).Although it is widely
agreed that learners’interactive listening abilities are important (Vandergrift, 1998), little
research to date has examined how differing approaches develop interactive listening or,
more specifically, whether a bottom-up approach requires supplemental work to bring
forth listeners’ higher-level, strategic abilities. Accordingly, the aim of this study is to
detail learner development in a course that emphasized bottom-up, linguistic skills.
Before discussing further these instructional approaches, particularly a bottom-up
skills approach, along with our rationale for the study, here we first outline the central
processes involved in L2 listening comprehension. We then delineate the deficiencies in
these processes that characterize L2 listening, the deficiencies that these various instruc-
tional approaches are designed to address.
II Relevant literature
1 Fluent listening
Fluent listening involves the automatic processing of information at both bottom-up and
top-down levels1 (Vandergrift, 2004). Processing at the bottom-up level involves the
listener using lower-level, linguistic information from the text, such as word recognition
and sentence parsing, that provides the raw data to build meaning. Processing at the top-
down level is when listeners ‘use context and prior knowledge (topic, genre, culture, and
other schema knowledge in long-term memory)’ (Vandergrift, 2007, p. 193) to actively
construct meaning (Richards, 2003). More specifically, these top-down, knowledge-
based processes include listener expectations, and various types of inferences to add
coherence to the text and elaborate on it (Lynch & Mendelsohn, 2010; Richards, 2003).
In such effective listening, top-down and bottom-up processes operate in harmony. As
well as providing the foundations to build meaning, bottom-up processing also assists in
constraining listener interpretations of the utterance (Wu, 1998). In turn, top-down pro-
cessing facilitates interpretation by contextualizing, guiding and enriching the incoming
linguistic input (Field, 2004; Wu, 1998).
A further important process, one at the discourse level, and relevant to the present
study, involves the listener’s ongoing construction of meaning as the utterance proceeds.
This development of the listener’s mental model of the utterance chiefly involves inter-
preting the gist of the text, and then either maintaining the interpretation or shifting to a
new one as further information is gathered (Gernsbacher, 1990).
2 Listening by less-proficient L2 learners
Listening by less-proficient L2 learners differs from first language (L1) listening or
advanced L2 listening because of a listener’s limited knowledge of the target language
(Buck, 1995; Field, 2008). Besides deficiencies in knowledge of lexis and syntax, such
Yeldham and Gruba 35
listeners often experience considerable difficulties with the phonological aspects of the
L2 (Field, 2003, 2008) because words are modified in connected speech and close atten-
tion to new intonation patterns is required.
The schematic and pragmatic information which L2 listeners draw on to build
meaning, too, may well differ from those in the target language. However, such
knowledge-based gaps in information are generally less of an impediment for lower-
level listeners than their linguistic deficiencies, which Buck (1995, p. 117) describes
as the ‘defining characteristic’ of L2 listening. Unlike native listeners, for whom these
lower-level processes are automatic, Vandergrift (2004, p. 4, 5) points out that L2
listeners ‘need to consciously focus on details of what they hear, and given the limita-
tions of working memory and the speed of speech, comprehension suffers.’ To offset
their perceptual deficiencies, some learners rely a great deal on top-down strategies;
nonetheless, as research by Tsui and Fullilove (1998) and Wu (1998) demonstrates,
L2 listeners who lack perceptual skills can be led astray by these knowledge-based
3 Instructional approaches to L2 listening
As L2 listening theory and instruction has matured, three ‘skills-based’ instructional
approaches have emerged. One approach, beginning in the 1980s, has been to teach the
learners listening strategies, largely to help them compensate for their processing defi-
ciencies and to deal with partial understanding of a text (Rost, 2002). Goh (2005)
describes listening strategies as ‘conscious procedures for understanding, recalling and
remembering information’ (p. 72), and they include:
1. cognitive strategies, where input is directly manipulated to assist understanding:
processes such as utilizing prominent textual signals, guessing meaning, antici-
pating what the speaker will say next, and using mental images;
2. affective strategies to manage one’s emotions;2 and
3. metacognitive strategies to coordinate these processes and manage one’s listen-
ing performance, before (planning), during (monitoring) and after (evaluating)
listening, and especially when encountering comprehension problems (Goh,
2005; Vandergrift, 2003).
While this strategies-based instruction (SBI) includes teaching learners to utilize both
bottom-up and top-down strategies, Vandergrift (2004) contends that it is an approach
‘favoring top-down processes’ (p. 3) because it helps listeners ‘become more aware of
how they can use what they already know to fill gaps in their understanding’ (pp.
Another approach places emphasis on developing the learners’ lower-level listening
skills. Grounded in a resource-based information processing model, it is built on the
notion that individuals possess such limited working memory that they are unable to
consciously attend to the rapid, complex and simultaneous processes that are involved in
successful comprehension (Hulstijn, 2003; see also Mayberry, 2006; Norris, 1995;
Pemberton, 2004). Explaining this approach, Hulstijn (2003) contends:
36 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
The more learners are able to process text without effort at the lower levels of word recognition
and sentence parsing, the more attention capacity is available for the processing of information
at the higher levels of meaning and content. (p. 424)
Included in these freed up higher-level processes are those involved in actively con-
structing meaning, such as top-down processes and strategies (Mayberry, 2006;
Pemberton, 2004), along with discourse-level processes, particularly those involved in
ongoing mental model building. Importantly, advocates of attending to lower-level pro-
cesses for instruction argue, as Samuels and Flor (1997) contend, that these processes
can be more readily automatized by the learner because they constitute ‘a high degree of
regularity and sameness’, compared with higher-level comprehension processes ‘that are
constantly changing … and [therefore] continue to require attention and effort’ (p. 112).
One account of how learners’ higher-level abilities develop from this bottom-up
approach is through their transfer from the learner’s L1 (Norris, 1995). A prominent view
of how this transfer occurs is the Linguistic Threshold Hypothesis (Clarke, 1980), which
assumes that individuals’ higher-level abilities are short-circuited by their deficient lin-
guistic skills at early stages of their L2 proficiency, but that once this minimum level of
linguistic ability is surpassed, the transfer of more efficient knowledge-based resources
can take place.
A further basis for this instruction in bottom-up skills is to enhance listeners’ abilities
to constrain possible interpretations of a text (Wu, 1998), including through monitoring
their mental model of the utterance (Tsui & Fullilove, 1998).
Over the past decade, an interactive instructional approach combining bottom-up
skills and listening strategies has also gained favor among many L2 listening theorists
(Field, 1998, 2008; Lynch, 2006). While one of these theorists, Field (2003, 2008), has
championed the reintroduction of bottom-up decoding skills, especially at the supraseg-
mental level based on earlier work by Brown (1977, 1990), he has also advocated the
continued instruction of listening strategies. This advocacy stems largely from his views
that lower-level learners need strategic abilities, but that qualitative differences between
the types of strategies one uses in the L1 (such as inferring part of an utterance obscured
by outside noise) and those required in the L2 limit the effectiveness of L1 transfer
4 Rationale for the study
In the main, L2 listening course designers prioritize bottom-up skills. An examination of
current L2 course books and software, including Sounds good (Beatty & Tinkler, 2008),
Interchange (Richards, Hull & Proctor, 2005) and Connected speech (Westwood &
Kaufman, 2009), shows that these materials place an emphasis on developing listeners’
bottom-up skills. Here, we examine a bottom-up approach to listening instruction for
various reasons. Most importantly, we investigate instructional efficiency: if effective,
such an approach may allow a similar rate of learner progress as an interactive approach
but without the extra effort and class time required to teach strategies. Following an
extensive search, we were unable to find any studies that compared any of the three
broad instructional approaches; accordingly, the effectiveness and efficiency of one
Yeldham and Gruba 37
approach over another has yet to be established. In this search, we did find, though, that
the vast majority of past studies have examined listener development in strategies’
courses (e.g. Mareschal, 2007; Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010). Consequently, we feel
it is timely to take a close look at bottom-up instruction.
Note that an additional concern in such an investigation stems from Vandergrift’s
(2007) observation that the increasing importance of computer-based learning ‘will
likely shift the focus from the classroom to independent learning’ for L2 listeners
(p. 206). Research (Bacon, 1992; Vandergrift, 1998) shows that learners have differing
approaches to their listening: many, mainly less-proficient, listeners rely largely on
bottom-up processing (hereafter such learners are referred to as bottom-up listeners)
or on compensatory top-down processing (hereafter top-down listeners), while more-
proficient listeners often have a more interactive approach (hereafter interactive listen-
ers). We surmise that these various ‘types’of listeners may react differently to bottom-up
skills instruction; therefore, there appears a need to examine the progress of individual
learners in our investigation of this form of instruction.
We examined the development of a small number of lower-level Taiwanese university
learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) engaged in a bottom-up skills course,
using longitudinal multi-case studies. This multi-case study method allowed us to chart
the development of individual learners, permitting us to examine the theoretical claims
of this broad instructional approach (Yin, 2003) and also gain insight into how different
types of learners respond to the approach.
The investigation took place in the English department at a university in Taiwan. As an
alternative to compulsory self-access listening comprehension practice for one hour per
week in ‘Lab 101’, freshman general English students, from two intact classes at the lowest
of three proficiency strands (based on student scores on a standardized listening and read-
ing test administered by the department) were offered the choice of attending a one-hour
listening skills class. The first author taught each session: one class on Wednesdays and the
other on Thursdays. The classes lasted a total of 22 hours over one and a half semesters.
Student attrition early in the study left a total of approximately 15 regular attendees in the
classes by week 5 of the course, roughly equally divided between the classes.
1 The listening instruction
Table 1 outlines the processes taught in the course, which placed emphasis on the bot-
tom-up skills of:
1. identifying the full forms of words in reduced/connected speech (Celce-Murcia,
Brinton & Goodwin, 1996; Field, 2003);
2. distinguishing segments (ones tailored to address common segmental difficulties
for Chinese learners of English); and
3. identifying various types of intonation cues (accentual, grammatical and attitudi-
nal) (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996).
38 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
As a logical extension to learning how to identify words in connected speech, there was
also a minor component aimed at improving the learners’bottom-up strategies: using the
stressed words and discourse markers they identified in the text to help guide their com-
prehension and help them construct meaning. The processes in Table 1 are listed (from
top to bottom) in order of the emphasis that was placed on them in the course.
Most of the listening texts used in the course were semi-authentic, but they retained
many of the discourse and phonological features of authentic speech. Some were also
unscripted monologues by native speakers recorded in a studio for the study.
For class listening practice, the texts were commonly played in segments, usually for
the learners to then discuss with their partners what they had heard after each segment,
mainly to allow them scaffolding through assistance from their partners. The texts were
usually played three to four times, for the learners to listen chiefly for main ideas on the
first listening, then to listen for details and to check their comprehension on later repeti-
tions (Richards, 2003). Usually advance organizers were not used. Rather, texts were
used where the topic was signalled to the listeners early in the passage.
The methods used to teach the skills are outlined in Table 2. A sizeable portion of the
skills practice was based on the class listening texts. For example, learners usually fol-
lowed the transcript of a text during its final playing to observe its various script-sound
correspondences. They also regularly undertook gap-filling tasks, transcribing clozed
sections of the text transcripts that targeted specific aspects of reduced speech. The
courses also included a variety of stand-alone exercises for listening skills practice, many
of which are shown in Table 2. To make the course more engaging for the learners, we
Table 1. The course content.
Bottom-up skills and strategies:
Suprasegmental skills 1. Identify words in reduced/connected speech (focusing
on such aspects as reduced function words, liaison,
assimilation, elision, resyllabification)
2. Identify stressed content words
3. Identify grammatical intonation cues: tone units; cues
signalling question types, levels of finality, etc.
4. Identify/use accentual intonation cues: tonic stress
placement indicating such aspects as contrast, emphasis,
5. Identify attitudinal intonation cues: indicators of
speaker’s attitudes and emotions
Strategies 6. Use stressed words to help construct meaning
7. Use discourse markers to guide comprehension
Segmental skills 8. Distinguish minimal pairs/identify segments
9. Distinguish tenses and plural forms by identifying
regular verb suffixes
Monitor mental model of text (20 minutes spent on this).
Raise awareness that guessing is an acceptable strategy (through occasional brief comments late
in the course)
Yeldham and Gruba 39
additionally used exercises in a CD-ROM, Connected speech, for the learners to practice
various suprasegmental skills (identifying: pause units, word liaisons, words in reduced
speech, and the accentual function of tonically stressed words), and learners also did gap
filling activities in short passages on CDs, which were given to each learner to work on
2 Data collection techniques
A variety of qualitative instruments and language tests were used to collect the data;
see Tables 3 and 4, which list these instruments and outline their main purposes and
how they were administered. The instruments were piloted and refined prior to the
research. Data was collected that focused on the main components from theories
underlying learner development from instruction prioritizing bottom-up skills
(Hulstijn, 2003; Wu, 1998). These components were chiefly the learners’ bottom-up
decoding skills, their higher-level processing and meaning-making abilities, and their
a The tests. Two listening tests were used: pre-instruction and post-instruction. The
Comprehensive English Language Test (CELT) listening subtest (Harris & Palmer, 1986)
was used, as it was the most suitable of the available standardized tests. To additionally
Table 2. How the listening processes were usually taught.
Listening processes How usually taught
1. Identify various aspects of
Transcription exercises targeting the relevant phenomena
2. Identify stressed content
Identify these words in utterances
3. Identify grammatical
Distinguish same-word sentences using tone unit cues
(Gilbert, 2005); identify various other grammar signaling
cues in passages
4. Identify/use accentual
Identify in short utterances how tonic stress placement
signals contrast, emphasis, new and old information
(Gilbert, 2005); practice dialogues and asking and
answering questions using these cues
5. Identify attitudinal intonation Identify in texts a speaker’s emotion and/or attitude based
mainly on intonation cues (Roach, 2000)
6. Distinguish, identify segments Identify differences in minimal pairs, verb suffixes
1. Use stressed words to
Use these cues in listening texts; jot down stressed words
as the basis to construct meaning
2. Use discourse markers to
Re-order jumbled sentences in a text using discourse
3. Monitor mental model/
interpretation of text
Identify anomalous sentences inserted in text; monitor
texts that have initial misleading schema
40 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
Table 4. Qualitative instruments used in the study.
Instrument Main purposes
Verbal reports (VR 1, 2) Establish: (1) listening strategies, and (2) bottom-up skills,
pre- and post-instruction (VR 1, VR 2).
(Int 1, 2, 3)
Gain insight into a range of issues, including learner: (1)
background information, (2) response to the instruction,
and (3) change during the study. (Guided by an interview
Questionnaires (Q’aire 1, 2) Gain insight into learner characteristics pre-instruction
(Q’aire 1), and their views on the listening course and
changes to their listening, post-instruction (Q’aire 2).
Researcher observation, informal
interviews, artefact inspection
Gather relevant miscellaneous data.
Researcher journal (Journal) Record and reflect on data.
test the listeners’ability to understand longer monologues (which constituted most of the
texts in the listening course) recall tests (Recall 1, 2) were also used, where the students
listened to three passages (each approximately 100 words long) in each test and wrote
their recall of these passages. They were not allowed to take notes while listening, mainly
to avoid the possibility of learners who did not initially understand a text being able to
reconstruct it from their notes (as gaining such an advantage from notes is uncommon in
most real-life listening situations). Therefore, to limit memory effects in the absence of
note-taking, each text in the Recall was played in two sections.4
Buck (2001) advocates partial dictation as an effective method to assess listeners’
bottom-up decoding skills. In this Dictation test, the students listened to a recorded text,
and completed the missing sections of a script of the text. Sections containing challeng-
ing vocabulary were retained on this script, while sections containing clusters of function
words and commonly-used content words, especially those demonstrating various
aspects of reduced speech, were deleted for the students to fill in.
b The verbal reports. Verbal reports with each learner were conducted prior to the course
(VR 1) and immediately following it (VR 2). In each verbal report, four to five texts were
used, with their difficulty level tailored to the proficiency level of each participant.
Table 3. Tests used in the study.
Test Main purposes
The Vocabulary Levels Test
(5,000 word level) (Vocab test)
Assess learners’ vocabulary knowledge pre-instruction.
The Comprehensive English
Language Test (CELT) listening
Assess listening proficiency pre- and post-instruction using
same version of test.
Recall tests (Recall 1, 2) Assess listening proficiency pre- and post-instruction.
A partial dictation test (Dictation) Assess word recognition skills in reduced speech, pre- and
post-instruction, using same version of test.
Yeldham and Gruba 41
They were conducted by a bilingual Taiwanese colleague seated alongside the first
author. Prior to the verbal report the learners were told the texts would be stopped at
regular intervals for them verbalize what they had heard and what they had been thinking
while they were listening (Ericsson & Simon, 1993). Subsequently, the passages were
stopped for the learners to report their thoughts after segments of two short sentences or
one long sentence. The learners were also usually prompted by the interviewer to provide
more information: questions such as, ‘Why did you say __?’, and ‘How did you know
__?’ were asked flexibly in response to preceding listener comments. These exchanges
were then usually concluded with, ‘Anything else you’d like to say?’to elicit any remain-
ing thoughts from the respondent.
The cognitive and metacognitive strategies each learner used5 were tallied in VR 1 and
VR 2 as a way of indicating learner change during the course, so to allow comparability
between each of these verbal reports, for each learner, approximately the same number
of text segments were used in VR 1 and in VR 2. Procedures used in VR 1 and in VR 2
were also maintained as closely as possible to assist this comparison, although the group
of texts used for each learner in VR 2 was slightly more difficult than those used in VR 1
to allow for learner maturation.
The verbal report data was also used to examine learner development in bottom-up
processing. This instrument was referred to as a ‘bottom-up verbal report measure’
(Bottom-up VR measure),6 where comprehension of lower-level idea units, based on an
analysis system used by Bacon (1992),7 was tallied on selected segments of VR 1 and
compared with similar segments in VR 2;8 generally each lower-level idea unit covered
between one to three words in the text.
3 Schedule of data collection
Table 5 outlines the formal data collection timeline, which shows that most of the data was
collected in two waves, in the week before the instruction and in the week following it.
4 The participants
Six learners were selected as case study participants, four from the Wednesday class, and
two from the Thursday class. All were 18-year-old native Mandarin speakers. We aimed
to select participants who had scored between 40% and 60% on the CELT, feeling the
Table 5. Formal data collection timeline.
Pre-instruction Post-instruction One month after the course
CELT CELT Int 3
Recall 1 Recall 2
Q’aire 1 Q’aire 2
VR 1 VR 2
Int 1 Int 2
42 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
Table 6. Case participants’ listening ability and dominant approach to listening.
CELT 1 plus
Recall 1 total
Approximate listening level
Diana Top-down 44.0 19.0 63.0 Intermediate-low
Tina Top-down 48.0 13.0 61.0 Intermediate-low
Peta Bottom-up 54.0 19.0 73.0 Intermediate-low
Nerida Bottom-up 48.0 25.0 73.0 Intermediate-low
Tony Bottom-up 58.0 33.0 91.0 Intermediate
Edna Interactive 76.0 27.0 103.0 Intermediate-high
need to set proficiency parameters to exclude learners who may have lost interest in the
course simply because it was too easy or too difficult for them.
The participants we chose all expressed an interest in staying through the listening
course. Two of these participants, Tony and Edna, were selected mainly because they
seemed attentive in class during the initial wave of data collection (even though Edna’s
CELT score exceeded the 60% limit), and the other four were included because they were
within our ideal proficiency range.
IV Analysis and results
Following translation of the verbal reports, the data was coded manually and using
NVivo 7 qualitative software. Table 6 shows the participants’listening proficiency levels
at the start of the course, based on their combined CELT and Recall 1 scores. Using the
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency
Guidelines (Listening) as a guide, the students ranged from approximately intermediate-
low to intermediate-high level.
1 Establishing the learners’ predominant approach to listening
Each learner’s predominant approach to listening was determined from his or her
propensity to use top-down processes in VR 1 (their use of bottom-up processes was
not included as an additional criterion because these processes were generally less
visible in the VR data). Two of the learners, Diana and Tina, were judged as pre-
dominantly top-down listeners because in VR 1 they both used top-down processes
23 times. These top-down processes chiefly included guessing difficult words and
information, but other main processes they used included the strategy of question-
ing elaboration, which is ‘using a combination of questions and world knowledge to
brainstorm logical possibilities’ (Vandergrift, 2003, p. 495), and the more facilita-
tive process of bridging inference, which links ideas to maintain coherence. A fur-
ther indicator of their approach to listening was that these two listeners were only
unwilling to guess content they found difficult to understand three times and five
Yeldham and Gruba 43
Three of the learners were predominantly bottom-up listeners (in parentheses after
each learner is shown the number of top-down processes they used in VR 1, followed by
the number of times they were unwilling to guess difficult content): Peta (2, 15) and
Nerida (8, 11), and also Tony (9, 6), who additionally often commented throughout the
study about his preference for bottom-up processing. The most proficient listener, Edna,
had a largely interactive approach to her listening (13, 6); qualitative examination of her
VR 1 also showed that she combined bottom-up and top-down processes more effec-
tively than the other listeners.
Interviews with each of the learners indicated that their six years of high school EFL
had included little formal listening practice, as listening is not tested in their college
entrance exams. The interviews also revealed that none of the learners had previously
been taught any listening skills or strategies.
2 Overview of each learner’s development during the course
Prior to discussing each learner’s development in the course, Table 7 shows the change
in their listening scores during the course (the far right column shows the total change).
Note that one of the learners, Tina, dropped out of the course, but is retained in the study
for the insights her response to the course provided.
a The two predominantly top-down listeners: Diana and Tina. Diana’s listening profi-
ciency improved substantially during the course (CELT 44% to 72%; Recall 19% to
46.5%), more than any other learner in the two classes. She also maintained a very
strong level of interest throughout the course, although this may have been as much a
function of her interest in learning the bottom-up skills as her strong interest in learning
English for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons that she explained she had before the
course began (Int 1).
Her bottom-up word segmentation skills did not seem to improve based on the formal
measures used (Dictation 81% to 83%; Bottom-up VR measure 54% to 56%). However,
she specified a number of bottom-up skills from the course that she felt helped her listen-
ing, notably her improved ability to ‘notice key words’ (Q’aire 2) and use intonation
patterns, and also to notice aspects such as word suffixes indicating tense or plurality.
Diana felt that the improvements in her bottom-up skills occurred ‘partly due to natural
Table 7. Change in participants’ listening scores.
Learner CELT 1
CELT 1 plus
Recall 1 total
CELT 2 plus
Recall 2 total
Diana 44.0 19.0 63.0 72.0 46.5 118.5 +55.5
Tina 48.0 13.0 61.0 – – – –
Peta 54.0 19.0 73.0 60.0 31.0 91.0 +18.0
Nerida 48.0 25.0 73.0 58.0 31.0 89.0 +16.0
Tony 58.0 33.0 91.0 74.0 64.5 138.5 +47.5
Edna 76.0 27.0 103.0 68.0 56.0 124.0 +21.0
44 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
progress’ but ‘mainly because of the class’ (Int 2). Her bottom-up strategies also showed
improvement: for example, in VR 2, she used grammar, discourse markers and intonation
to construct meaning on 6 occasions (all 6 times accurately understood: hereafter accu-
rate), after appearing to have used none of these cues in VR 1.
Her top-down strategy use progressed, too, with the major change being her improved
ability to correctly guess unknown information: from 10 guesses (with only one correct)
in VR 1 to 12 guesses (6 correct) in VR 2. She felt that her improved ability to guess may
have been because she could identify the key words in a text more accurately (Int 2). She
also felt that her enhanced use of bottom-up skills, overall, constrained her use of top-
down information. These factors educated her guesses, many of which had been based
on very scant evidence in VR 1. In addition, she felt that her improved bottom-up abilities
helped her to monitor her comprehension more effectively. Indeed, in relation to her
metacognitive abilities, in general, she felt that she had more flexible and automatic
control of her listening strategies (Int 2).
Box 1. Summary of key aspects of Diana’s development.
• Gains: Successfully integrated the bottom-up skills into her listening, mainly helping to
constrain her top-down processing; Her listening proficiency improved most of all the
As mentioned, the other top-down listener, Tina, dropped out of the course (in week
18 after only seven appearances in class), so she is only dealt with briefly here. When she
did attend class, she sometimes seemed to lack motivation. For example, as noted in the
researcher journal the week before she left the course:
Tina seems high octane – she was checking and talking on her mobile phone and not showing
a great deal of interest in the class – and has a little difficulty focusing on learning rules.
It was difficult to know the main reason for her sporadic appearances in class and even-
tual withdrawal from the course: whether she had other commitments, or whether per-
haps, as a strongly top-down listener, it was because she found learning the bottom-up
skills unpalatable, as it appeared in class. Her initial enthusiasm to be a case study par-
ticipant had suggested that she was initially quite motivated to learn English; it seems she
must have had a strong reason to withdraw.
Box 2. Summary of key aspects of Tina’s development.
• Impediment: Appeared bored from learning some of the phonological rules.
b The three predominantly bottom-up listeners: Peta, Nerida and Tony. Peta began the
course with comprehension difficulties due to a tendency to translate word-for-word and
also due to problems understanding connected speech (learner comments during VR
1). These difficulties also contributed to: anxiety when faced with comprehension
breakdowns; difficulties remembering recently comprehended information while
Yeldham and Gruba 45
dealing with new listening input; and problems constructing a coherent mental model of
a text (VR 1). At the end of the course, many of these problems remained, although most
to a lesser extent; some of this improvement, though, Peta attributed to a new job as a
waiter, that she began a month before the course ended, where she sometimes spoke
English to Western customers (Int 2).
However, the two main features characterizing her response to the course were: (1)
her continued difficulties retaining comprehended information while listening and her
consequent problems being able to construct text mental models, and (2) her apparent
boredom with learning some of the phonological rules in the course.
Numerous pieces of evidence support the first conclusion. The most compelling
was during the final stages of the course; when the first author elicited Peta’s interpre-
tation of longer segments of text played in class, she could usually only recall isolated
words or phrases, often from the final sentence of these segments (Journal wks 14, 17, 22).
The first author also noticed this trait in her VR 1, and its continuation in her VR 2.
This suggested adequate decoding skills, on one hand, but minimal processing and
retention of the information, on the other. Further evidence was that in only scoring
6% out of the possible 20% in the final section of the CELT (both pre-instruction and
post-instruction), she explained that this low score was because the passages in this
section were very long for her (Int 2), even though they were usually only about three
or four sentences in length. A final piece of evidence was that in Recall 2 the first
author noticed she continued to discretely take notes while listening to the text,
despite twice being asked not to do so. When she was later asked about why she
needed to take these notes, she explained that with longer texts she had difficulties
retaining comprehended information while also having to focus on understanding
subsequent input from the speaker (Int 2). She also explained that this had been an
ongoing problem for her through the course.
Peta did feel that her inability to construct and retain meaning was easing to some
degree, though, as during the course she had consciously worked on tactics to address the
problem: focusing on what she understood in an utterance and ignoring information she
did not understand, and trying harder to organize and to remember what she had heard
(Int 3). Clearly she was still having problems, though (note that she was absent for the
lesson when the class practised monitoring their interpretation of a text, practice which
may have assisted her problems).
Peta’s motivational problems in class were evident at times through the researcher’s
observations of her chatting with friends, or just looking bored while being taught some
of the bottom-up skills (Journal wks 14, 15, 21). In Int 2, she also expressed the view that
learning about the phoneme /t/ inAmerican English in a week 18 class had been explained
in too much detail for her, and she also felt that some of the course content related to
learning connected speech had been repetitious for her.
Coupled with her problems constructing mental models, Peta also felt that most of her
other metacognitive behaviours had not developed much, a view backed up by little
change in the number of metacognitive strategies she used from VR 1 to VR 2. She addi-
tionally felt that she failed to develop more flexible metacognitive control of the cogni-
tive strategies at her disposal (Int 3).
46 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
Peta did claim to be able to identify key words better and faster as the course progressed,
though, explaining further that combining these words helped her to understand more
effectively: ‘Because if I know those words, I will know the general meaning’ (VR 2).
Improvement in her bottom-up decoding skills, though, were not verified by her scores on
the Dictation (which remained at 71%), or on the Bottom-up VR measure (40.5% to 43.5%).
However, she relied on stressed words that she pieced together or words retrieved in chunks
more frequently to help her construct meaning in VR 2 (11 times, 7 accurate) than in VR 1
(4 times, 3 accurate), and her reliance on isolated stressed words decreased (10, with 6
accurate in VR 1, to 5, with 2 accurate in VR 2). Piecing and chunking words was a more
effective use of lexical items than relying on isolated words (Vandergrift, 1998).
Her use of top-down strategies also developed, increasing from just two in VR 1 to
nine in VR 2, with three of the five guesses she made in VR 2 being correct. Her test
scores also showed that her listening proficiency improved to some degree (CELT 54%
to 60%; Recalls 19% to 31%), which was probably partly attributable to her more inter-
active listening style.
Box 3. Summary of key aspects of Peta’s development.
• Gains: Some developmental gains, including increased use of top-down strategies, and
listening ability (although these were partly assisted by interactions with native speak-
ers in her new restaurant job).
• Impediments: Continued difficulties constructing text mental models; Bored from
learning some of the phonological rules.
Turning now to Nerida, in Int 2, when asked about her use of top-down strategies, she
said she simply realized herself, very early in the course, the need to use her background
knowledge and to guess more to understand the texts that were played in class (prior to
any mention of guessing made in the course) (Int 2). Consequently, her guesses doubled
from five in VR 1 to 10 in VR 2. However, only one of these 10 guesses in VR 2 was cor-
rect. This suggests that her self-initiated attempt at a more interactive approach to listen-
ing – which some would describe as transferring her L1 use of these top-down strategies
for use in the L2 – was not very effective.
In terms of the more positive aspects of her development, her decoding skills seemed
to improve, based on the Bottom-up VR measure (50.5% to 60.5%), although only mar-
ginally on the Dictation (78% to 81%).9 She also felt that many of the lower-level lin-
guistic skills taught in the course had improved her bottom-up abilities. She stated, ‘I can
grasp the key words better than before’(Int 2), ‘Also I know a lot more connected speech’
(Q’aire 2). One positive consequence she claimed from her improved bottom-up skills
was that she was ‘less afraid to talk to Westerners’ (Q’aire 2), as she realized she was
able to understand more of what the speaker said (Int 2).
Box 4. Summary of key aspects of Nerida’s development.
• Gains: Benefitted from learning bottom-up skills, and early in the course started trans-
ferring top-down strategies from L1.
• Impediment: Top-down strategies she transferred from L1 were used inaccurately.
Yeldham and Gruba 47
During the course, Tony engaged in a very large amount of extracurricular listening
practice, spurred on largely by his desire to pass an important English test at the univer-
sity. Consequently, many of the changes to his listening abilities may be attributed as
much to this extra listening practice as the skills he learned in the course. Tony claimed
a major change in his bottom-up listening abilities was that he relied more on stressed
key words after the instruction course:
I used to just listen to the words I understood … Then after I listened, I felt my mind was totally
blank. But now I will pick key words to listen to and I will use the key words to think about
content after the key words. (Q’aire 2)
As evidence of Tony’s development in this area, his use of isolated stressed words 10
times (5 accurate) in VR 1 decreased to 6 times (all accurate) in VR 2, while the number
of times he pieced together stressed words or used chunks of words to help construct
meaning increased from 8 times (6 accurate) in VR 1 to 24 times (11 accurate) in VR 2.
He also used grammar and discourse markers 5 times in VR 2 (4 accurate) after having
not used them in VR 1.
Additionally, he said he was able to understand words in fast speech more effectively.
This was verified by his substantial improvement on the Bottom-up VR measure (54.5%
to 73.5%), and also on his improved performance in the Dictation (87% to 92%) despite
an apparent ceiling effect.
Tony regularly expressed his comfort with learning the bottom-up skills, often indi-
cating his interest in understanding the associated phonological rules. For example he
explained in Int 2: ‘If I can totally understand the rule, I will automatically be able to
make it into my brain.’ Conversely, he expressed a discomfort with using top-down
strategies, such as guessing (Journal wk 17). However, he said that over the final two
months of the course, he slowly realized the need to use such strategies to further his
listening ability. This was despite possessing a large vocabulary (scoring 90% on the
Vocab test), which would have assisted his bottom-up processing. In Lab 101 he had
been using a CD-ROM called Language Connect Institute English (1999) to practise the
four language macro-skills, but found that advice it included on listening strategies –
such as predicting and guessing – along with some accompanying practice exercises
were useful for developing his top-down listening abilities. He needed to rely mainly on
learning the strategies this way because there was little reference to them in our course.
He described these top-down strategies as ‘things that you use in your mind to help you
understand’ (Int 2), and he felt that this extra practice contributed to his much more
frequent use of them: for example, in VR 1 he guessed 3 times (2 correct), increasing
this to 14 times (7 correct) in VR 2.
Box 5. Summary of key aspects of Tony’s development.
• Gains: Major developmental gains in virtually all areas of the analysis (although partly
due to large amounts of extracurricular listening practice).
• Impediment: Lack of top-down strategies in the course impeded his development in it,
encouraging him to learn these abilities through self-study.
48 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
c The most proficient,more interactive listener:Edna. Edna claimed on three occasions that
increased processing speed had been her main gain over the period of the instruction (Int
2; VR 2). For example, she explained, ‘Before, when people spoke very fast, I would be
thinking, “what are you talking about?” But now I can understand them, in general’ (VR
2). She also felt that the intonation skills in the course were the most useful to her because
they allowed her a deeper understanding of the speaker’s message (Int 2). By contrast,
she considered that the various skills related to word segmentation abilities had been less
useful (although not entirely so) mainly because she felt she already possessed many of
these skills (Int 2). Consequently, she sometimes looked a little bored during tasks which
practised these skills.
Her word segmentation skills did not seem to improve based on either relevant meas-
ure (Bottom-up VR measure 63% to 57.5%; Dictation 94% to 90%), although there was
obviously a ceiling effect in the dictation. However, her total listening score improved
from 103 to 124 (CELT 76% to 68%, Recalls 27% to 56%); this was despite a lower score
on CELT 2 than CELT 1, which she ascribed to feeling tired when she took CELT 2.
Her use of top-down processes reduced slightly from 13 in VR 1 to 9 in VR 2. She
attributed this partly to becoming more cautious with her use of top-down information,
explaining further that she had become more aware of how top-down processing could
mislead her. She also considered her reduction in top-down processes was because she
was able to rely more on information from the text, which she felt stemmed from her
perceived improvement in bottom-up skills, in general (Int 2, 3). So, like Diana, she felt
that the bottom-up instruction helped to constrain her top-down processing, somewhat.
Box 6. Summary of key aspects of Edna’s development.
• Gains: Faster processing speed; Felt that her improved bottom-up abilities helped to
constrain her top-down processes.
• Impediment: Learning some of the word segmentation skills was unnecessary, so some-
times bored when practising these skills.
1 Relevance of findings to L2 listening instruction theory
From the perspective of L2 listening instruction theory, the findings indicate that instruc-
tion focused on developing bottom-up abilities is inadequate for many listeners (at least for
learners instructed in these skills for a period of 22 weeks over a semester and a half). This
was especially the case for all three of the learners with a predominantly bottom-up
approach to their listening. One of these learners continued to demonstrate major difficul-
ties in developing and maintaining robust text mental models. Her lack of progress in this
area was despite her attempts to address the problem by trying harder to direct her attention
to, summarize and remember what she heard. Consequently, this outcome for the learner
was contrary to the resource-based information processing model, where this key meaning-
making ability is theorized to improve as the learner’s bottom-up abilities develop and WM
space is freed for such processing (Hulstijn, 2003). Similarly, despite improving their bot-
tom-up decoding skills, the other two bottom-up listeners had difficulties developing their
top-down strategy use, abilities also theorized to develop, given increased available
Yeldham and Gruba 49
cognitive space afforded as decoding skills improve. One of these learners consciously
transferred her use of top-down strategies as a result her L1, but without much success, as
virtually all of her increased number of guesses turned out to be incorrect. The other learner
found the need to learn top-down strategies outside of the course to round out his listening
abilities. In sum, despite their bottom-up skills developing in the familiar environment of a
bottom-up focused course, some of the higher-level listening abilities of these three learn-
ers did not develop greatly as a result of the instruction.
There was a mixed response to the course from the two top-down listeners. For one of
these learners, improving her bottom-up abilities complemented her existing top-down
style, in that it helped to constrain her use of top-down processes, making them less
erratic (Wu, 1998). Probably partly as a result of this, her listening proficiency improved
markedly. By contrast, the other top-down listener appeared bored learning the bottom-
up skills, perhaps because they differed from her preferred mode of processing, and she
left the study early. It is difficult to know why these two top-down listeners responded to
the course in such contrasting fashion. The other learner, a more interactive listener,
benefited from the course to some degree, feeling that her overall processing speed
increased and that her perceived improvement in bottom-up processes helped to con-
strain her top-down processing, much like the first top-down listener mentioned above.
These findings, while acknowledging that they only involved a small number of par-
ticipants, do not identify any particular ‘type’of listener, in terms of processing approach,
who may benefit greatly from such a course. In particular, while one of the top-down
listeners benefited from the complementary bottom-up abilities offered in the course, this
did not appear to apply to the other top-down listener.
Another outcome of the study was that it underscored how learners, regardless of their
predominant listening approach, need to develop an interaction between bottom-up and
top-down processes in order to progress. This was especially evident with the four learn-
ers with listening approaches dominated by either bottom-up or top-down processes who
were tracked through the entire course. The study showed how these learners sought, or
came to achieve, this interactive style in their attempt to improve their listening – in
essence, to compensate for their initial ‘lack’ of one set of these processes or the other.
2 Implications for L2 listening instruction
The study indicates a need for learners, especially those with a predominantly bottom-up
approach to listening, to learn both bottom-up skills and listening strategies to develop
their interactive listening abilities.10 The additional variety to a bottom-up skills course
afforded by adding strategies instruction would also likely maintain greater learner inter-
est in the course. Additionally, in classroom instructional settings, such an interactive
approach would be more likely to cover the needs of learners with a diversity of
approaches to listening.
There are two main approaches to strategy instruction in the L2 listening literature.
One, outlined by Vandergrift (2004, 2007), involves leading learners through the meta-
cognitive processes of ‘prediction/planning, monitoring, evaluating, and problem solv-
ing’ (Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010, p. 470). This pedagogical cycle raises listener
awareness of the strategies available to them and teaches the learners how to coordi-
nate their use of these multiple strategies (Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010). The
50 Language Teaching Research 18(1)
monitoring and evaluating components would also help listeners to practice develop-
ing their text mental models.
The other main approach involves adding the explicit teaching of cognitive strategies
to this metacognitive strategy instruction (Mendelsohn, 1994, 2006). In this approach,
activities to develop cognitive strategies, such as inferencing and guessing, could include
having learners: (1) infer unstated information in a text to assist comprehension, using
cues such as the topic, setting, and mood and relationships of the speakers; (2) guess dif-
ficult words and information in a text; and (3) guess missing segments of information in a
text purposely obscured (by the teacher) by white noise (Mendelsohn, 1994, 2006).
Exercises requiring learners to complete the endings of sentences or short utterances
would provide practice at anticipating text content (Field, 2008).And mental model build-
ing abilities could be practised by asking learners to summarize a text into its main ideas
and details (Field, 2008), and also by having the learners hypothesize the content of a
short text, and continue to revise or confirm it as the teacher plays it further, section-by-
section (Mendelsohn, 2006).
Included with either of these two strategies approaches, it would be important to raise
students’ awareness of the range of strategies available to them (Field, 2008); useful lis-
tening strategy taxonomies can be found in Field (2008) and Vandergrift (2003).
Based on our work, there is clearly a need to research the effectiveness of an interactive
approach combining bottom-up skills and listening strategies. Surprisingly, this approach
has not yet been investigated, and such a research effort could usefully include investi-
gating the balance of skills and strategies that might benefit different types of listeners.
An instrument to test a wider range of phonological skills than in the present study would
be a useful addition to such research – one such as Gilbert’s (2005) Clear Speech test,
which assesses listeners’ segmental skills and also their reduced speech and accentual
and grammatical intonation skills – as, perhaps, would instruments to assess listeners’
automatic processing of words and sentences, such as auditory lexical decision and sen-
tence verification tasks (Poelmans, 2003).
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
1. Here, and throughout the article, we refer to these terms more in the sense of processing levels
than direction of processing, although, as Vandergrift (2007) and Wu (1998) point out, the two
correspond to a large degree.
2. They also involve social strategies in conversational listening, such as asking for repetition or
3. Some of the adherents to a mainly bottom-up approach also acknowledge the probable need
to devote some attention to developing listeners’top-down strategies but, unlike Field (2008),
their focus remains on developing listeners’ bottom-up skills.
Yeldham and Gruba 51
4. The relative difficulty level of the two Recalls was determined by administering them to 27
learners of similar ability to the participants, asking these learners to rate the difficulty level
of each passage in these tests on a 7-point rating scale. Based on these procedures, the tests
were then scaled to make them comparable.
5. The VR strategy coding scheme was devised from a review of the L2 listening strategies lit-
erature, and modified when piloting the verbal reports prior to the study (Yeldham, 2009).
6. Reliability of the VR strategy coding scheme, the Bottom-up VR measure and the Dictation,
were established at .8, .9 and .97, respectively, through inter-rater reliability procedures.
7. This system used by Bacon included idea units identifying: What happened? – Who did it
(subject)? To what (object)? What was done (verb)? – along with: What kind? (modifier),
Where? When? How? Why? For whom? and the discourse marker unit.
8. The four criteria for selecting these verbal report segments were that: (1) the segment was
relatively short so the listener did not have difficulties remembering its content; (2) the seg-
ment had the phonological features of natural speech, to assess the listener’s ability to under-
stand connected speech; (3) lexis and syntax in the segment was not too complex, to avoid the
listener having to wrestle with unknown language that may have distracted him or her from
understanding or recalling other parts of the segment; (4) interpretation of the segment was
not dependent on the need to have understood information from earlier in the text.
9. Note that the Bottom-up VR measure was not as precise a measure of decoding skills as the
Dictation, which assessed listener recognition of the same words pre- and post-instruction.
10. So that the research did not disadvantage any participants, all were provided with listening
strategies practice materials at the end of the study.
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