Listening from the middle


September 24, 2009 by Willy Cardoso

Adapted from:

Helping ESL Students Adapt to Authentic Listening Situations

John P. Madden
St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, MN, USA)


Learners and teachers give listening greater emphasis now than in the past (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005), though frustrated learners traveling in English speaking countries have always recognized the importance of L2 listening.

 Having to start listening in the middle of a conversation or broadcast is a challenge for learners.

 This article describes techniques to help learners meet the challenge of listening from the middle. The techniques can be used with learners over a range of ages, languages, and proficiency levels. First, it will be provided a rationale for the techniques, and then the techniques themselves.


We usually know why we are listening, and we usually have some idea of what we are likely to hear. Our reasons and expectations help us understand the words we hear. This relationship between expectations and words is central to listening. Listening comprehension is the result of the interaction between “bottom-up” and “top-down” listening skills. Bottom-up skills involve “decoding” – constructing a message from sounds, words, and phrases. Top-down skills involve using background knowledge to make inferences about what the speaker intended. Good L1 listeners have fast, automatic, bottom-up skills. L2 listeners rely on top-down skills to supplement their less developed bottom-up listening. In class, we provide listening lessons with before-, during- and after-listening elements to allow learners to use their top-down skills and to develop their bottom-up.

The goal of listening instruction is to prepare students to understand actual speech in order to communicate in English. L2 listeners must learn to cope with “genuine” speech and “authentic” listening situations. That is, listeners must be able to understand natural English speech to meet their own needs as members of the English-speaking community. L2 listeners may have to start listening from the middle of a conversation, having to attune to the conversation while simultaneously trying to understand it. A listening lesson can be adapted to teach learners how to cope with that situation.


Listening from the middle is a strategy-training activity based on the ideas of Mendelsohn (1994, 1995), and Anderson and Lynch (1988). The goal of the current activity is to give learners strategies for starting to listen in the middle of a conversation by quickly making inferences about the “setting, mood, interpersonal relationships, and topic” . 

Listening Text

Use a recorded text, and start with a portion from the middle, rather than at the beginning. Listening from the middle is an adaptation of pre-listening activities designed to preview a text by playing a portion of it, discussing it, and making predictions.


  1.  Introduce the activity. The class could share times when they have had to start listening in the middle of a conversation or broadcast in their first or second languages. Explain the importance about knowing about the listening time and place, the speakers, their feelings, what kind of speech they are engaged in, what the topic is, and why someone might want to listen.

   2. Tell the students they will be taking notes and discussing what they hear. Present the following guides to the class.


What came before: What I heard *(Start here): What comes next:


What I can identify about:


Relationships among the speakers:

Type of listening:


Why someone might listen to this:


  3. Tell the students to be ready to take notes in the “What I heard” part of Table 1.

  4. Play a one-minute segment from the middle of the listening text. All of the speakers should be heard in this portion. Students should take notes.

  5. Stop the recording. Students should check their notes with a classmate. The discussion provides additional listening practice and opportunities to negotiate meaning

  6. Play the same one-minute segment again. Have the students check or add to their notes, and then confer a second time with classmates.

  7. As a class, discuss and fill out the displayed copy of the “What I heard” portion of Table 1. As a class, discuss and fill out Table 2.

  8. Play the segment a third time. Then, as a class, make corrections to the  “What I heard” and “What I can identify about” tables. I have found that the repetitions and class discussion helps intermediate learners develop their listening. The repetitions could be omitted for advanced listeners, or to increase the context authenticity of the activity.

  9. As a class, discuss and fill out predictions for the “What came before” and “What comes next” portions of Table 1. Students can confirm these predictions by hearing the entire listening selection.

  10.  To close this activity, review the basic strategy of attuning to the listening by identifying who is speaking and what they are saying. Next, the class can move on to working with the listening text as a whole. As homework, students could try out this approach, and report back to class on when and where they had to listen from the middle, and how effective they found the technique. In future classes, use the technique to introduce listening texts.


Listening has implications far beyond the L2 classroom. Students may have to listen from the middle of a broadcast, or from the middle of a conversation conducted face-to-face or via the Internet. Preparing students to listen outside the classroom can help them meet the challenge of listening in the middle of a context, and take advantage of the opportunity to explore their own interests and use English for their own purposes.



3 thoughts on “Listening from the middle

  1. Les Perras says:

    Wow! that is an excellent post. I already want to link to it from my own site. I am trying to think of which page I should put the link on now…
    by the way, what language do you recommend listeners take notes in (L1 or L2)?

    • Hi, your website is pretty interesting, I’ll recommend that to the teachers here.
      Answering your question: I’d always say L2, but it’s not a rule, I mean, for grammar, idioms and some abstract concepts it’s fine, but we can’t deny that some things are easier to remember when translated to L1. It will really depend on what/why you’re listening and what you’ll do with that information.
      That’s a a good topic for discussion, I’ll think more about it and post something here.

  2. RobD says:

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post! 🙂

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