I will always remember the moment my re-entry into the teaching profession became a sign of interesting things to come. As I was working with Lexi on her expressive writing I asked her, "How old are you?" She quickly answered, "Eight."

I then told her, "OK, I want you to write a sentence with eight words." She quickly responded, "I should have told you I was four." We exchanged smiles that would mark the beginning of a warm relationship.

One year earlier, I had retired from a school district where I had spent my entire career, first as a speech pathologist, then as the district Response-to-Intervention (RtI) coordinator and finally as a special education supervisor. As the RtI coordinator, I carefully designed a data-driven framework and continuously monitored to ensure that the research-based interventions were implemented with fidelity.

However, it became an increasing concern that students were remaining at Tier II interventions for a long period of time. The students could read words fluently but could not comprehend proficiently. The reading gap never closed.

What was the cause? Was something missing from Tier I core instruction?

The answer came a year after I retired when I began to volunteer with a group of third-grade girls at a children's summer program in northwest Detroit. What Hope, Mariah, Lexi and Tamara (names have been changed to protect their privacy) provided me is invaluable insight and firsthand experience into the world of metacognitive processes and the key role active listening plays in academic achievement.

These remarkable young ladies opened my eyes, and I will forever be in awe of them.

When we first met that hot summer afternoon, all of them were reluctant to answer the questions I posed to them. Perhaps it was shyness or uncertainty, but questions such as "What did you do over the weekend?" only garnered short answers such as "played with my niece" or "went swimming."

What was more revealing was the look of relief each girl had when I moved on to the next student. It seemed to me that their heads were "hurting" from my steady barrage of questions and probing into their daily experiences.

What was of course happening is that the girls' brains were "waking up" as they were being asked to employ active listening skills. Research has shown that active listening is more exhausting than speaking.

Active listening concentrates on what is being said rather than passively listening to the speaker's message. It requires focus and consciously uses all of the senses to understand what is being communicated by the sender. It is a literacy skill that needs to be explicitly taught.

We are not born with listening skills already developed. Active listening is found in the Common Core State Standards and is integral to the vital 21st-century skills of collaboration and communication.

As the weeks went by, the girls began to realize they had to be alert because I never seemed to run out of questions, so they entered the classroom prepared and ready to be engaged in thinking. They summoned their brains to "wake up," to be ready for the challenge ahead of them.

I had loads of questions for each of the girls during guided reading, after a field trip, during snack time, while they wrote in their journals or when they drew pictures in their personally created "Summer Experience" book. My line of questions was constant, probing, challenging, guiding. No longer did their faces reveal a pained expression, but rather an eagerness and a confidence to respond was visible in their eyes.

For example, after reading a story on playing hide-and-go-seek, each student participated in a lively discussion of where the best hiding places were inside and outside of their homes. They voiced their opinion on why they thought it was the best hiding place and related a story of being discovered by a friend or sibling.

Each of their answers was more than a three-word utterance. Their responses were thoughtful and complete. They weren't reluctant or uncertain anymore.

Why is active listening so critical? It is a vehicle for metacognitive processes to become fully engaged during classroom instruction. Metacognition is "thinking about thinking." It is a student's ability to plan, monitor and assess his/her thoughts, understanding and performance. Metacognition leads to improved comprehension and higher-order thinking skills that are central to the Common Core and 21st-century job skills.

It is my belief that students remain in Tier II interventions because Tier I instruction is not robust in the development of active listening and metacognitive processes. If classroom instruction is teacher-directed and not student-centered, active listening can easily turn into passive listening. It is almost a certainty.

By engaging students in conversations that require them to activate their prior knowledge and purposefully think about their responses to a problem, comprehension and learning occurs. The reading gap will close.

When I decided to volunteer at the summer program, it was my hope that I was going to provide so much to the individual students. What I found instead is that I came home every day feeling fulfilled.

I discovered the answer that had been eluding me, and I saw it in the eyes of Hope, Mariah, Lexi and Tamara. Each girl displayed daily improvement in her oral and written expression.

On the last day, I sat with pride as they carefully thought about, wrote and read aloud an essay on their career goals. Their faces beamed, their eyes sparkled and their heads didn't appear to ache. They have acquired essential 21st-century skills.