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Decoding Skills: A Neglected Part Of Listening Comprehension?




lady listening to musicWhen you sing along to a song, are you sure you’ve got the right words?

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody contains the line, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?’, but it is often misheard as ‘will you do the banned tango?’

The Police, actually sang ‘When the world is running down, you make the best of what is still around’, not ‘you make the best home-made stew around.’

Amusing, but the point is a serious one. When we listen, there are two sets of processes taking place simultaneously:

1. Meaning building or top-down processes

  • Drawing upon knowledge of the world, topic or culture.
  • Understanding literal meaning
  • Selecting relevant information
  • Recognising redundant information
  • Connecting ideas
  • Making inferences

2. Decoding or bottom-up processes

  • Identifying sounds
  • Working out where words begin and end
  • Dealing with unknown words
  • Recognising where clauses and phrases end
  • Making use of sentence stress
  • Recognising chunks of language

Over the last few decades, there has been much more emphasis on the first set of processes. We are all familiar with activities where we activate students’ knowledge about a topic, encourage them to make predictions and select or reject the information they hear in order to answer comprehension questions.

And these activities are useful; they just aren’t the whole picture. A good listener is also carrying out the second set of processes, and these decoding processes can be very challenging for the English language learner.

The ability to decode

Decoding is made particularly difficult by all the features of connected speech. For example:

‘Will you do the banned tango’: the final /d/ in ‘banned’ elides into the ‘t’ of tango, making it sound very similar to ‘Fandango’. Especially if you don’t know what a Fandango is (it’s a kind of dance, not as well known as the Tango).

Good listeners are able to use world knowledge (such as what a fandango is), together with the ability to decode. If they can’t decode, perhaps because the speaker is inaudible, they can predict from their knowledge of syntax. Given a sentence like ”When the world is running down, you make the best …… ‘, they think about what it is that the person might make the best one of (though stew is a slightly bizarre choice, even if it does begin with the same consonant cluster as ‘still’!)

Recent research, however, suggests that less efficient listeners have to put so much energy into decoding that they can’t use their meaning building skills effectively. They simply can’t hold onto enough of the meaning to make connections between different parts of the text.

So, as well as providing practice of the top-down/meaning building skills, there is a clear argument for more listening activities which focus specifically on developing decoding skills, especially at lower levels, where students have a more limited vocabulary.

So, after your usual comprehension work, why not try some of the following?

Sounds and weak forms

  • Minimal pair work (coming back into fashion). Learners listen to two words, e.g. ‘pat’ ‘bat’ or ‘pat’ ‘pat’ and say if they are the same or different.
  • Learners look at a transcript and mark the words carrying the main stresses (either as they listen, or they predict the stresses and then listen to check).
  • Play or dictate short chunks, especially formulaic chunks like ‘What do you mean?’ pronounced naturally, with reduced forms, and ask students to write the full forms.
  • Students transcribe a (short) section of a listening text and compare what they have written with the original transcript.


  • Also using a transcript, students mark ‘chunks’ of meaning, either while or before they listen.
  • Play part of the listening text again, stopping halfway through each sentence and asking students to try and remember what comes next. This is nominally a memory exercise, but it will develop the ability to predict based on an understanding of English sentence structure.
  • Students look at the transcript and pull out groups of words that often go together (formulaic chunks). Then listen to how they sound when pronounced naturally, and even drill them.


Have you tried any of these activities? Have you successfully used any other decoding activities?

Rachael Roberts, teacher trainer and author, discusses the often neglected use of decoding skills in listening comprehension.


  1. Identifying when a word starts and finishes may sound trivial but I spent literally months sitting with Arabic speaking friends and family before I could identify the most basic of utterances even though I was studying modern standard Arabic at Jordan University. One of the best exercises I have ever used for this is ‘How many words?’ in which students listen to a recorded sentence and write down how many words they have heard. The same sentences can then be used as a dictation, but beware as they will find it difficult.

    • Yes, I know what you mean. I learnt a lot of phrases in Polish without realising they were made up of separate words. That’s fine, when you recognise the chunk and can use it, but when everything you hear is just one long stream of sound, not quite so good!
      The exercise you suggest is a great one for helping raise awareness, thanks for adding it.

  2. Another inspiring blog post Rachael 🙂 I have found myself talking about this in a couple of places lately – as for you and Jill, largely inspired by own language learning experience, but also because I get annoyed by the way popular coursebooks treat listening over and over again in the same way (context, listen for gist, listen for detail, now go and do something else) – with the result that both teachers and learners think that this is the only way to address listening skills. Anyway, great ideas in your post and from Jill to really exploit listening material. I can add ‘shadow reading’ – after sts have got a good feel for the text aurally and visually, and marked out the sense group chunks as you suggest, then listening and reading along “under their breath” is a further way to link up and internalise the pron and syntax areas they have worked on.

    • Thanks for the idea, Sophia. I can see exactly how that would work. I am a big fan of a bit of drilling too for chunks that could be used productively.
      I have to agree with you about coursebooks (and that’s coming from someone who writes them). I have included some of this kind of stuff, but under a pronunciation heading, as that’s acceptable, whereas working on decoding skills is, as you say, not really seen as part of listening yet.

      • Actually the exercise I suggested came from a series of course books written by Cambridge that we used in the 80’s! I think the focus on listening to whole text for meaning etc was a reaction to this based on communicative methodology. Many thanks Rachael for raising the importance of having both a top-down and bottom-up approach.

  3. Yes, I think you’re spot on about the impact of communicative methodology. Of course, overall meaning is vital- there’s no point counting words if you don’t understand the meaning as a whole. However, I think the bottom up aspects have indeed been overlooked in recent years…maybe time for the pendulum to swing back to the middle?

  4. Yes, these decoding skills are indispensible for effective listening. One activity I try is to dictate short chunks like “I can swim” and “I can’t swim” and ask the students a simply to write a + sign if they hear a positive sentence or a – if they here a negative. Then I ask them how many words they hear (a contraction counts as one word) before having them write down the actual words. I then drill the chunk in question. I find this step-by-step approach helps build confidence.
    I wonder if the somewhat arcane “listen for the gist, pre, during and post tasks” are a result of methodologies encouraged on pre-service courses like CELTA and Trinity? Decoding skills are, it would seem to me, are more difficult for the teacher from a technical point of view. Working on elision, cantenation, juncture, tonic prominence and other features of connected speech is far more demanding than setting a couple of pre-set questions and true/false follow up ones. I would also be very interested to hear from “non-native” teachers of English how they feel about teaching decoding skills.

    For years I heard Marvin gaye’s Classic “Can I Get a Witness” as “Can I Get to Widnes!!!”

    • I’m sure Marvin Gaye would have loved Widnes, if he ever got there..

      Thank you for your comment, Simon. I think you’re absolutely right that it is much harder to focus on decoding skills than on more top down skills. It also doesn’t look that exciting on a printed page, which may be another reason why this kind of work doesn’t feature much in published coursebooks.

      BTW, for anyone interested- which if you’re reading this far down you must be- I’ve just added a follow up post on my blog http://www.elt-resourceful.com on ways of analysing and raising awareness of the listening processes.

      • hi
        my Q is :
        Why do most teachers neglect the skill of listening when they teach and test their students?

        • Well, I think, as Simon says, that it’s harder to focus on identifying and teaching the skills involved in listening than it is to simply ‘do a listening’-i.e. play the recording and set a few questions. Harder, but well worth doing.

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