Top-down processing

I was working in Murcia today, back again in Medtirranean Spain as part of my work for Trinity College. My hotel is in Alicante, so I set off early towards Murcia, pondering en route as to how I might get the idea of top-down and bottom-up processing across to my audience during the first part of my session on teaching listening (as opposed to just testing comprehension). Top-down and bottom-up processing are easy to grasp once you have grasped them, but not so obvious if you are new to either, and I’m always looking for ways of making a first contact with these two key processes in listening as accessible as possible to those new to them.

Lost in my thoughts I came into the rush-hour traffic around Murcia, and was surprised to see signs for the city come and go whilst the navegator told me to stay on the motorway for another five kilometres. When I’d done this, I was politely instructed to leave the motorway and take the second exit off the roundabout that I’d come to. This I did and almost immediately the signs for the university that I now increasingly needed to see, suddenly appeared. I say ‘needed’ because I still don’t fully trust satellite navigation, Google maps, etc.. This morning, as if to fuel the fires of my distrust, at the third roundabout the navigator told me to turn left, whilst the signs to the university indicated off to the right. Panic, panic! What to do? Follow Google, idiot. So I did.

I ended up in a housing estate with not a single university building ‘on your left’, as the navigator charmingly informed me, nor indeed anywhere in the immediate vicinity. I’m going to be late, I thought. And worse still, I’m going to have to ask somebody the way (which any women readers will realise is highly challenging for male drivers). Refusing to be late (or to ask for help), I turned round, drove back to the motorway, used my instinct, and arrived on time.

What, though, has this got to do with the processes we apply to listening? Well, I’d suggest that when you follow the voice instructions from the navigator, you’re being given the data ‘bit by bit’, and so are pushed into something analagous to the bottom-up processing we use some of the time when listening. This works fine, of course, until it doesn’t work, as it didn’t this morning. As I see it, the problem is that when you have no prior knowledge of the place you’re trying to get to (as this morning), the abundance of ‘bit-by-bit’ data from the navigator impedes your vision of the journey as a whole. In other words, if I’d looked at a map of the univesity campus in relation to the city of Murcia and the motorway exits, instead of innocently assuming that the navigator would do its job faultlessly, I could have used my prior knowledge of the route, and the top-down overview of the journey that this knowledge would have provided me with, to override the navigator and turn right where in fact I turned left.

Top-down processing, then, is what we take to the text that allows us to deal with it effectively, even when the data coming in at the level of bottom-up processing suggests that it is going in a different direction. The problem in the language classroom is that learners all too often fail to apply their prior knowledge to the listening text in hand, and so constantly default to a bottom-up processing approach which, quite apart from exhausting (or don’t you ever get tired of satnav voice wittering away telling you things that are stunningly obvious?), can blind you to the true picture the text is trying to convey. And once you’re lost, once you’ve turned left instead of right, it’s sometimes impossible to find your way back. Preparing learners for a listening task, then, must include as a minimum some sort of activity to thoroughly activate the knowledge they already have about the topic, knowledge that will alllow them to deal with what they hear much more efficiently and much more successfully, which is what we all want.

2 thoughts on “Top-down processing

  1. Hi, Robin. I have attended your course in Valencia. Such a pleasure! Thanks a lot.

    Great parallelism. Sometimes, as learners or simply as humans in the world, we forget the basic way of understanding things: have a look around! 🙂 I loved it. I will use it and quote you!


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