Updated: Sep 4, 2019
By Isaac Wells is the Assistant Director of Professional Learning, The Core Collaborative
“Listening is arguably the most important skill used for obtaining comprehensible input in one’s first language and in any subsequent languages. It is a pervasive communicative event. We listen considerably more than we read, write or speak”
— LeLoup and Pontero, 2007
I remember early in my career I would repeat directions again and again with visual cues and examples but some students still did not know what to do. I would read articles, poetry, and books aloud with great enthusiasm, but some students struggled to remember even the topic or main character. There was nothing “wrong” with these students, they were not misbehaving, they just didn’t remember what they heard. Over time, they had gotten behind and began to lose their sense of self-efficacy.
I wasn’t sure what to do then, but the good news is that listening can be improved.
Listening is a powerful tool for students to learn anytime and anywhere, but most children have never stopped to think, “How am I listening?”. Students often learn more about what listening is not than what it is.
Knowing that listening is not having side conversations, acting out imagined stories with erasers, or poking your neighbor reduces distractions but creates the impression that listening is a passive activity.
Teaching children how they can listen empowers them to learn about topics of interest, enjoy stories and poems, and connect more deeply with others.
Listening is a Skill
When students learn to think of listening as something they do, they are empowered to decide when and how to take in information. The first step is to make it clear to students that listening is a skill and that any skill can be learned and improved. This becomes an opportunity to nurture a growth or dynamic mindset.
Students learn to see themselves not as “good” or “bad” listeners, but as someone who is learning to listen. Most students understand the analogy that their brain is a muscle that grows stronger the more it is used.
Younger students enjoy the actions of flexing a bicep and pointing to their heads while saying, “I’m making my brain stronger.” Repetition connected to success is key for shifting students into this mindset. Stop a dozen times a day and have students flex and repeat “I’m making my brain stronger.”
For specific skills such as listening, we can adapt the actions to include pulling on our ears before pointing to our brains and saying something such as, “I’m making my brain stronger by listening.” or “I’m exercising my listening muscles.”
Learning to Listen
The next step is to teach students how to listen. To remember what we hear, we must attend, listen, process, store, and recall the information. In the accompanying video, there is a visual support teachers have used successfully to teach children ages five to eleven how to remember auditory input.
The two posters below list steps for listening matched with easy to remember visual cues.
Talk with students about how they listen and record their thoughts.
Invite a child to join you in front of the class to share something special while you or a student model listening.
Ask students to identify what the listener is doing. You can think-aloud about steps they leave out. Add these thoughts to your list and organize them to create a list of criteria.
Draw attention to students using any or all of the criteria. When students make a connection, predict what will happen next, or answer a question, they have been listening to remember.
Each time a student is successful, celebrate their success and have them help you review the 5 steps with the class.
The final step is teaching students how to monitor their own listening. Usually, I am an attentive and focused listener excited to learn. There have certainly been times where I was quietly following a presenter with my eyes and nodding in agreement, but not processing a word of what they shared. Even worse, I may have thought I was listening until I realized I did not understand or even remember what had been said. In those moments, I was motivated, perfectly compliant, but not engaged.
What I needed was what many children need: a checklist for listening. Knowing the steps now allows me to identify where my listening is breaking down and make an adjustment.
Set the Purpose for Listening
Students listen better when they understand how what they are hearing relates to themselves or their goals. Take a moment before a read aloud, mini-lesson or oral presentation to get students thinking about why they should listen as individuals.
The general goals of understanding, enjoying, and being able to participate in discussions are powerful motivators and can be used as learning intentions.
Here are some examples:
“I wonder who took the missing pizza. Listen carefully if you want to find out.”
“Looking back at our chart, we still have a lot of questions about bees. Listen in to see what answers we can find.”
“_____ has brought something special to share with us today. Listen closely so you can ask questions to find out more.”
Model Monitoring and Adjusting
Highlighting student examples is powerful, but you have the ability to share clearly how you are thinking. When you catch yourself not fully listening in class, stop, share how you realized you weren’t listening, and think-aloud about what you will do about it. Your vulnerability creates the safety students need to understand that it is okay to struggle with listening and your think-aloud shows them they have the power to improve.
At the same time, your think-aloud can shift the focus from compliance or following rules to focusing on your own understanding.
Here’s an example:
“Let me stop you for just a minute. You were doing an excellent job telling us the story of your drawings, but I just realized I don’t remember some of what you said. I was listening and I remember the beginning, but then I must have stopped recording. If you will start back here I will make sure I’m making a movie in my head for what happened in each picture so I can remember the whole story.”
Feedback has the power to nearly double the rate of learning. Now that you and the students have a shared understanding of what is involved in listening to remember, you can support their development as listeners.
At first, you can recognize and label students’ thinking, providing the language they will use to monitor and reflect on their own listening. For example:
“I notice ___ has put away his things and is looking at me as I get ready to share. That makes me think ___ is ready to listen.”
“____ must have recorded those details in her brain because she was able to tell us exactly what we learned about the sun.”
Soon you can shift the thinking to the students. When a learner follows multi-step directions, retells a story they have heard, or answers a question about a read aloud, stop to recognize that they listened to remember and ask them how.
“How did you remember what you heard?”
The child may not know how they remembered, but asking the question and referring them to the five steps or other criteria sets them up to monitor their own listening. Each time a child realizes she has listened well, she has had a mastery moment and those instances of success will motivate her to continue to listen even when it is difficult.
When listening breaks down, you can help a child reflect on what they are doing well and how they can improve in a brief conversation.
“You mentioned you are having trouble remembering the settings of stories. While you listen, “see” the place and time in your head and imagine each action happening as if you are there. If you can’t see it in your head, ask to see the illustrations or we can find a picture that will help."
In the video, Five Steps for Listening to Remember, I joke about trouble with listening to remember in school. Unfortunately, the lost opportunities for learning and engaging with others are no joke. Supporting students’ listening is well worth our time and energy because it impacts their lives inside and outside of school and it deepens the impact of every conversation, direction, read aloud, etc. throughout the day.
Take a moment to reflect.
What are you doing to ensure students are able to listen to remember?
What is one more step you can take to empower students to take ownership of this important skill?
Bio: Isaac Wells is the Assistant Director of Professional Learning at the Core Collaborative. His passion for expanding student ownership of learning has grown through sixteen years in public education and partnerships with schools across the country.