Research Bites: Discovery Listening


Wilson, M. (2003). Discovery listening – improving perceptual processing. ELT Journal, 54(2), 335-343. [link]

Twitter Summary

Discovery listening: dictogloss and self-assessment to build listening skills.


Magnus Wilson wrote this article back in 2003. His main argument was that textbooks and teachers relied too heavily on top-down processing when teaching listening. Basically, listening instruction was teaching students how to guess from context. Eleven years later and this still seems to be the predominant technique. Even though little has changed, bottom-up processing (understanding the sounds and words) is becoming more popular.

Discovery Listening

Wilson suggests an activity he calls “discovery learning,” which focuses on bottom-up processing as well as students self-assessing their trouble spots in order to address specific problems. He recognizes that top-down processing plays an important role, but when many students can’t even hear familiar words, or are stuck somewhere between bottom-up and top-down problems, finding and addressing specific issues is important.

The Technique

Using a level-appropriate short listening text at normal speed, the task consists of the following simple steps (see the appendix of the article for the specific worksheet):

  1. Listening
    1. listen without taking notes
    2. self-assess (in terms of a %) their comprehension
    3. listen two more times while taking notes
  2. Reconstructing
    1. in small groups, students use their notes to reconstruct the text
  3. Discovering
    1. compare their reconstruction with the original
    2. determine the source of their mistakes (chosen from a list; see appendix of the article)
    3. decide how important the error was
    4. listen again, focusing on their most important errors


While, so far as I can tell, untested, Wilson’s idea seems to be a logical attempt to address important bottom-up processing problems students often encounter. By improving these skills and making sound and word discrimination more automatic, students will likely be able to decrease this type of cognitive processing while simultaneously increasing the processing of meaning.

I think this is a simple yet powerful idea, and it is one which I plan to integrate (or possible test) relatively soon. I already do a mix of bottom-up and top-down work and focus on both extensive and intensive listening practice. Discovery listening seems like a wonderful technique to add to my repertoire of listening activities. In addition, I really like the idea of self-assessment and noticing of errors and I can see myself adapting this in a number of activities. Thank you, Magnus!


2 thoughts on “Research Bites: Discovery Listening

  1. In my own language learning, I found that determining meaning from context alone is just inadequate. There is simply too much potential for error in guessing the meaning of a word from context….just one of the many ways in which I think popular teaching techniques are mistaken in and inappropriate. I like the idea of bottom-up processing (of course apart from the potential for puns).

    • Anthony Teacher says:

      That was a quick response! I totally agree with your point, too. When I was learning French, and even Korean, the only listening instruction I had was “just listen”. Even being immersed in the language is often not enough, as even the simplest of vocabulary is sometimes incomprehensible. This is why I like to focus on bottom-up skills, and its something I do in my class activities and in my required listening journals. I’d like to test Wilson’s ideas out too, in some sort of pretest/posttest design, if not for the publication, then just to write Magnus Wilson over and over again. I really like his name.

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