Pay attention! How to actively teach listening skills
| June 04, 2014
"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." ― Ernest Hemingway
If you ask teachers what their greatest frustrations are in the classroom, inevitably you will be told that students do not know how to listen.
Given this frustration, it would seem that teachers would spend significant time actively teaching listening. Yet many teachers have not been shown how to explicitly teach listening skills in their teacher education programs or through professional development.
In the classroom, students are expected to know how to listen to a variety of delivery formats: during lecture or instruction on skills and concepts, to directions on how to complete a task, to each other, to videos and more. Listening is more complex than in may seem on the surface.
When listening, students need not only to hear the words, but also to distill the most important messages from what is being said and integrate those words into their understanding, or apply those words to a task to be completed. For students with processing disorders and for students who are learning English as a new language, this can be especially challenging.
The Common Core State Standards have put a renewed emphasis on listening skills as well, having explicitly listed standards that relate to listening. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for listening K-12 are:
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally.
3. Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning and use of evidence and rhetoric.
These skills pose a challenge to many students. All students, then, must be taught the specific skills related to each of these standards.
For example, Standard 1 poses several implications for listening actively, including understanding the messages of diverse partners, which may include students with differing language proficiency levels and ability levels, as building upon those ideas as well as building and expressing their own ideas.
Standard 2 refers directly to the varying listening tasks students will be tasked with in today's society through differing formats and media. Standard 3 also poses challenges, as students must not only listen and comprehend, but also use critical thinking skills to determine point of view, reasoning, evidence and rhetoric.
When teachers actively teach these skills, students are better prepared to meet the challenges of today's classroom and world.
Listening during instruction, lecture and discussion
During instruction, it is imperative that students listen actively in order to comprehend what is being taught. There are many strategies teachers can use to help students be better listeners.
Begin with being explicit with students as to what they are listening for. This can be accomplished through writing and sharing explicit language objectives. Language objectives focused on listening may include a number of skills, such as focusing on specific vocabulary words and how they are used in context, on determining the sequence of events in a story, historical event or in a science experiment.
With the addition of content objectives, students will know the specific content they are required to learn, and will be able to focus on listening for that content.
Once specific objectives have been written and shared with students, it is clear to everyone in the room what the focus of the lesson is. When delivering the lesson ― be it through lecture, discussion, video or other multimedia ― be as succinct as possible.
Use materials that get to the point without lots of extra content, and in your delivery, be as succinct as you can to make your point comprehensible. In this way, students learn that what you have to say matters and is worth listening to, as it is not full of extra or superfluous information.
Throughout the instructional process, model listening skills for students. For example, pause after important content has been delivered and use a think aloud to note how it relates to the objectives, makes a connection, relates to other important concepts, etc.
Alternatively, have students discuss the concepts they just heard. This relates back to the CCR Anchor standard listed earlier. Students should be taught how to summarize by using the key words they heard as well as other academic words used to describe, summarize, sequence or express cause and effect. Students can be taught to use sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words as a way to share what they have learned.
As an additional scaffold for summarizing what students have just learned, use strategies such as visual note-taking. In these strategies, students pause after a chunk of information (often determined by the teacher as a scaffold) and sketch what they have heard and learned.
The students can then use the sketches to summarize with a partner, or use the sketches to create a written summary. Students can be given the opportunity to explain their sketches to another student, then add to or revise these notes based on the conversation.
It is helpful if students have the opportunity to immediately apply the information they are listening to or for. For example, students may need to have a discussion, fill in a graphic organizer, create an outline or do a quick-write to integrate the information. This will help students see the urgency of the listening activity as well as help to solidify the information heard.
Teachers can use other activities to reinforce listening as well. Having students read a short passage, for example, and highlight a few key words or phrases can help students determine what is important in text. Teachers should employ the gradual release of responsibility and explicitly demonstrate how to do this, then have students practice with guidance from the teacher and with peers, then practice independently.
Help students see how the process in listening is similar; the listener is listening for key points to determine the message being delivered.
Listening to directions
Students benefit from having directions shared in writing as well as shared orally. While it seems like extra work to write out directions of academic tasks, it can save time by having a visual representation for students to refer back to when completing the task.
This is especially important for English learners, but for other students as well. Written directions do not necessarily need every detail in them, preventing the need for listening to the oral explanation. However, they serve as a reminder to students of what step comes next when needed.
When explaining the task, it is beneficial to demonstrate for students and to have an example of the completed product. Use professional judgment to decide how much of the task should be modeled at one time ― step by step, or several steps at once before having students practice or complete the task. The variables are the complexity of the steps and the age and readiness of the students for the task at hand.
When the inevitable question from students arises, "What are we supposed to be doing?", have students refer back to the written instructions, or have them problem-solve by checking in with peers.
Having students summarize, as mentioned earlier, is effective in listening to directions as well. Have students turn to a partner and explain the task at hand. This provides a quick opportunity for students to clarify any confusing points before beginning the activity.
When students are intentionally taught how to listen, they are more likely to be able to get to the academic tasks assigned and use time more productively. Listening is a challenging skill to teach, but as teachers focus on it more regularly, students will benefit.
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