Listening and comprehension skills are divided into three main skill sets: top-down listening, bottom-up listening and metacognitive listening. Most people fall into either the top-down or bottom-up listening category. Each of these skill sets are valid. The primary difference is a matter of approach. A few individuals, however, naturally employ the metacognitive listening skill set. Using the metacognitive listening skill set allows for the greatest flexibility and adaptation.

Top-down Listening

In the top-down skill set, the listener will depend on the knowledge he already possesses to help him understand new information as it is presented. Top-down listening is a technique that helps listeners draw inferences from the information, predict what information will be presented next and summarize the information after it is presented. Top-down listening skills depend heavily on the listener's past experience. This makes it the ideal skill set for comprehending new information that is related to the listener's past experience.

Bottom-up Listening

In the bottom-up skill set, the listener focuses on the language being heard to help decode the meaning of the information being presented. This technique is essential when the listener is completely unfamiliar with the subject matter being heard. In this skill set, the listener will use context, cognates and familiar patterns of word order to help comprehend the information being presented. Bottom-up listening skills are commonly used by people when studying foreign languages.

Metacognitive Listening

Metacognitive listening is a skill set that blends both the top-down and bottom-up skill sets. Listeners who use metacognitive listening consider their familiarity with the subject matter being presented and adapt their listening strategy to fit the situation. Additionally, metacognitive listeners will switch from the top-down skill set to the bottom-up skill set when necessary to maximize comprehension. While training in listening and comprehension skills can be helpful in maximizing comprehension, most people switch from one set of skills to the other without even being aware they are doing so.

Listening for Meaning

Listening and comprehension can definitely benefit from some basic training in the skills used. There are four basic steps to help improve comprehension of the information being presented. First, determine your reason for listening to the information. Being able to anticipate what information will be presented can help improve comprehension. Second, be selective. Focusing on the information important to your purpose and ignoring irrelevant information will maximize comprehension. Third, be flexible in the use of top-down and bottom-up skills; being able to switch from one skill set to the other as necessary will improve comprehension. Fourth, if you are aware of a failure to comprehend some of the information, review it using a different skill set.