History and Overview of Listening

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway

It is virtually impossible to think of a task that does not require hearing, which most people are able to do. However, people do not always listen. The two terms, listening and hearing, are often used interchangeably but mean very different things. According to the International Listening Association:

  • 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening.
  • Students are expected to acquire 85 percent of the knowledge they have by listening.
  • Only 2 percent of the population ever received formal listening instruction.

The majority of the population is born with the ability to hear, but not to listen. There are several reasons that people do not or can not listen or remember, ranging from physical conditions to cultural beliefs. Since the beginning of mankind, the skill of listening has been necessary to communicate, relay messages and obtain information. Before 3200 BC, when writing was first used by cultures such as the Sumerians or Egyptians, listening to people speak and repeating the message was the only way to communicate.

But what is listening?

Listening involves a collage of skills:

  • Predicting
  • Guessing
  • Reflection
  • Recognizing connectors
  • Recognizing discourse markers
  • Understanding intonation
  • Summarizing
  • Identifying relevant and irrelevant points
  • Understanding inferences

Listening happens in all aspects of life. We listen to each other talk, to gossip on the street, to sermons, to advertisements, to lectures, to music and in all kinds of situations. One must be able to listen to material in whatever form and however fast it is presented!

Students listen in different ways and for different reasons throughout the school day. They listen to directions, they talk with their friends, they listen to stories, they listen to game rules, they listen to announcements, etc. Each of these situations requires a different type and level of listening skills.

There are four general types of listening that occur:

  • Inactive listening: Inactive listening is simply being present when someone is speaking, but not absorbing what is being said. Example: Imagine attending a conference session that has no interest or applicability to you. You will be there physically, but not mentally.
  • Selective listening: Selective listening is hearing what you want to hear or what you expect to hear instead of what is being said. Example: In your ninth grade English class, Duane always does his homework. One day you ask students individually who turned in an assignment, and Duane replies that he did not do it. You move on to the next student without comment until another student complains that it’s not fair that Duane gets excused from doing the assignment.
  • Active listening: Active listening is hearing what is said, concentrating on the message and absorbing it. Example: The Board of Education is offering bonuses to teachers that complete a required list of professional development courses. You are interested in the courses and the bonus. You take detailed notes and pay close attention to what you need to do.
  • Reflective listening: This is one of the most complex types of listening. It involves actively listening, interpreting what is being said and observing how it is being said. Example: A student regularly comes to class looking sad and depressed. When you ask her if everything is o.k. at home, she responds that it is, but the look on her face and body language scream it is not. You ask her again if things are o.k., but question her body language. She breaks down and begins to cry, revealing that her parents have been arguing a lot.

Students need to receive instruction on how to become effective listeners, especially students diagnosed with learning disabilities. It requires conscious planning by the teacher to include listening activities and practice by the student. Here are some easy tips to start helping your students become better listeners now:

  • Place student’s seat in a place that will maximize learning
  • Get the student’s attention before speaking to them
  • Speak in short sentences
  • Have the student repeat directions or important information after you say it
  • Use body language to reinforce what you are saying
  • Provide the student with written versions of what you are saying
  • Teach students note-taking skills so they can write down important information

Teaching listening skills may not seem necessary, but according to statistics, studies and state standards, it is. Listening is a skill that students can use in every subject, and it will benefit them throughout life.