Benefits of Teaching Listening

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Does this seem familiar?  You give a set of directions for students to follow. You check for understanding and feel confident that everyone knows what they are supposed to do. And while some of your students complete the task correctly, without intervention, there are always students who don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, can’t remember what you said or simply got your instructions wrong. “Why does this happen? I know they all heard me,” you may think. Your students appeared attentive, they were able to repeat your instructions, and no one had any questions. As exasperating as this scenario is, it illustrates an important issue that there is a real distinction between listening and hearing.

Hearing vs. Listening

Although hearing is a complex process, it is essentially an automatic, passive activity. It is possible to hear sounds without consciously engaging in the process. Below is a step-by-step description of how we hear:

Diagram of How the Ear Hears

  1. Something vibrates and creates a sound wave.
  2. The sound wave travels to the ear and is collect by the outer ear.
  3. The sound wave then moves into the ear canal.
  4. When it reaches the end of the ear canal, the sound waves bump up against the eardrum.
  5. The ear drum vibrates with these sound waves.
  6. The vibration moves tiny bones in the middle ear.
  7. These bones carry vibrations into the inner ear to a fluid-filled tube called the cochlea.
  8. The fluid inside the cochlea vibrates a series of tiny hairs called cilia, which are attached to auditory nerves.
  9. The movement of these cilia stimulates the nerve cells, and they send signals to the brain via the auditory nerve.
  10. The brain processes these signals into the sounds we hear

Step 10 is where the brain identifies those sound vibrations as familiar sounds or words. The brain doesn’t automatically translate these words into the message they are conveying. That is essentially what listening is – determining the meaning and the message of the sounds or words. It is an active process that involves much more than assigning labels to sounds or words.

 

Factors active listeners consider

While the brain may decode the sounds into words, it is the listener who then must consider a myriad of factors when interpreting the message. These factors include:

  • Context
  • Personal experience and feelings
  • Facial cues
  • Pitch, loudness and rhythm

Let’s say you were sitting in your car, waiting for the traffic light to turn green so you can proceed through the intersection. You hear a sound. Your brain decodes this sound as “fire engine.” If that were the end of the listening process, then you might think to yourself, “There’s a fire engine nearby” and then drive off when the light turns green. But, as an active listener, you consider the current context — being stopped at an intersection — and draw on your previous driving experiences to interpret the message that fire engines don’t stop for red lights and that you need to stay safely out of the way. You look to the left and see the fire engine as it enters the intersection — at the exact same time that your light turns green. Good thing you’re an active listener.

Suppose you find yourself in a friend’s neighborhood. Her car is out front so you decide to stop by and say hello. You knock on the door. When your friend opens it and sees you, she says, “What are you doing here?” You know she’s surprised by your unannounced visit. But how can you tell if she’s happy to see you? Look at her face — is she smiling? Did she use a louder voice, higher pitch and emphasize “you”? If so, she’s probably happy you dropped by. But if she’s frowning, her voice and pitch are low, and she emphasizes “what,” she may be annoyed you came by without an invitation. As an active listener, you examine her facial cues, and the pitch, loudness and rhythm of her voice to interpret her message quickly.

Why you want students to be active listeners

Photos of teachers working with students at a learning stationStudents spend a large portion of the school day listening. They listen to announcements, to classroom instruction, to peers and to various school personnel. Students with good listening skills are generally more successful than their peers who are passive listeners. All students, however, can be taught to be better listeners and reap the benefits below:

Successful Time Management

Students with good listening skills generally follow directions correctly the first time they are given. This means they spend more time on task. Active listening skills enable students to use their time more wisely. They don’t have to spend as much time asking questions, clarifying information or fixing mistakes made as a result of passive listening.

Educational Success

Students who are active listeners use new information more productively. They are better equipped to access their prior knowledge, which allows them to make connections with new information. It also enables them to decide how to use this information. By activating their schema, they have a framework for understanding new content and whether or not the content is relevant. As a result, they are much better at sifting through all of the information they receive and determining what the main points are and what are extraneous details. Because good listeners tap into their prior knowledge when hearing new information, they can more readily integrate new ideas into their schemas. Students who use active listening strategies also exhibit better concentration and memory. Active listeners filter information, connect to what is important, use it and store it in a meaningful way. Consequently, they often seem to have a better grasp on academic content than their peers who listen more passively.

Interpersonal Success

Active listeners tend to have more successful interpersonal relationships. Their active attention supports the speaker and helps build his confidence. Because speakers know they are really being listened to, they feel valued. This promotes feelings of trust and respect which in turn, makes the speaker more likely to cooperate. By encouraging feelings of respect, active listeners have the ability to persuade and successfully negotiate.

Students who use active listening skills are better able to determine when miscommunications have occurred. They are also more successful at gleaning additional information from the speaker. Therefore, good listeners are able to initiate a resolution to the misunderstanding more readily. And because active listeners engender respect, the speaker is more likely to accept the suggested solution.

How do we teach students to be active listeners?

Teacher reading over student’s shoulderEarly childhood educators weave listening skills into their daily curriculum. They know that young children need to be taught to listen and pay attention. So, they integrate listening into almost everything they do. Teachers prompt children to attend to them by getting down on the floor and making eye contact. They gain group attention through rhyming phrases such as “1,2,3, eyes on me.” During circle time, children sing songs that require turn-taking and group interaction. Songs like B-I-N-G-O require students to listen for the silent pauses. They play rhythm games that involve listening to a clapping pattern and then repeating it. They play games where they dance until they hear music stop, and then they freeze. Teachers read books to the class and elicit comments and reactions. When resolving conflicts between children, teachers ask each child how they are feeling and then repeat what the child said or have the other child repeat how his friend is feeling. Although this is just a sample of what occurs in a preschool classroom, these activities clearly illustrate how listening is an integral part of the early childhood experience.

As children get older, these listening activities begin to fall by the wayside as curriculum demands increase. At the same time, oral language in the classroom gets increasingly complex. Children are expected to listen to this information without direct instruction in how to process this information. If there was unlimited time, teachers could adapt early childhood listening activities to be more age-appropriate. But the reality of most classrooms is that there is barely enough time to cover the mandated curriculum. Since active listening skills can increase your students overall success, finding ways to integrate these skills into your classroom would benefit everyone. How can you fit explicit listening instruction into your daily classroom?

Discuss why listening is important and that you are going to emphasize listening in your classroom. Then, teach students the active listening steps below, changing the language as necessary to make it more age-appropriate for your classroom. One way to teach these skills is to model them during a mock-interview. As each step occurs, stop the interview and address your audience, pointing out opportunities to carry out each step.

Active Listening Steps

  1. Make eye contact/Follow speaker – Look the speaker in the eyes. When the speaker is addressing a large group (e.g., during a lecture or presentation), eye contact will not be possible. In this case, follow the speaker’s movements.
  2. Summarize what the speaker is saying – Summarize every few sentences by stating the main ideas. Take notes, if this is helpful.
  3. Make connections – Link what you are hearing to what you already know.
  4. Ask and answer questions – Check your understanding of what you’re hearing by asking questions about what you are hearing. If you can answer the questions, you understand the material. If you can’t answer the questions, you need to ask the speaker for help.

 

Model and practice these steps over and over, in the context of your curriculum. For example, when students are giving presentations to the class or to small groups, practice the active listening steps. Then, ask students to use the steps during the presentations. Have them take notes, if that is appropriate. Follow up with a discussion about how active listening is working for them. Ask them to share some of the main ideas they came up with or the connections they made. Ask them questions about the content or have them ask each other.

When introducing new content to your students, use the active listening steps to check their comprehension. What do they think the main points are? What connections have they made? What questions did they ask and what were their answers?

Adapt the active listening steps for listening to fiction. Instead of summarizing and main points, ask students to visualize what they are hearing — perhaps even draw pictures.

You can even use the active listening steps during conflict resolution. Have students practice in pairs trying to resolve a personal conflict. Instead of determining the main points, students would paraphrase what the other person’s complaint is.

There is no limit to when students can use active listening in your classroom. The more they practice it, the more automatic it will become. The goal is to have students generalize the steps to all listening situations. And then maybe, just maybe, you won’t have to repeat your directions over and over again. Imagine what you could do with that extra instructional time!

Whatever note taking strategy you use in your class will work with active listening. Below is a simple chart you can provide students with as a reminder of how to use active listening.

Benefits of Listening Chart pdf | Benefits of Listening Chart RTF

 

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