How New Technologies are Changing the Relationship Between Literacy and Listening

The previous section on listening and the brain illustrated one important thing: skillful listening involves a very complex and varied set of activities. The fact that many areas of the brain are involved in listening (and remember that we have simplified somewhat) is one of the dramatic findings of modern neuroscience. Not surprisingly, when listening is understood in its full complexity, it is clear that becoming a skillful listener requires a lot of learning. Using the same framework as in the preceding section, we would like to highlight, partly as a review, the kinds of learning that successful listeners must undertake.

Learning to Listen

First, successful listeners must learn to recognize the sounds of their environment. As one example, they must learn to recognize the sounds from which their local language is constructed. It is now clear that very young infants are already learning to distinguish the particular phonemes that constitute their language. Later they will learn to recognize the words and syntax, the forms of emphasis and the narrative schemas from which meaning can be derived. This kind of learning, based in the posterior recognition cortex, will continue throughout their lives.

Second, individuals must learn how to listen actively rather than passively hear. They must learn the tactics and strategies needed to comprehend, review, and remember a variety of sounds, from simple language streams to complex soundtracks with sound effects, music, and human speech. These active listening skills require practice and effort: they need to be learned.

Third, to be successful, learners must learn what is important to listen to. From among the many things that they will hear at any moment, successful listeners must learn what to select for further attention and what to ignore. Moreover, a listener must learn the signs and symbols of significance in language—the ways in which sound and language convey value and importance, highlight critical features, manipulate mood and affect, and generate appeal or excitement.

There are at least these three kinds of learning that are important to becoming a good listener. It is now clear that during the early developmental years we are learning to listen in all these ways, and there is much to learn. Learning to listen is critical, since it is by listening that we are able to learn and to communicate with one another.

Video IconView Video — CAST's David Rose describes a framework for the effective presentation of information and knowledge that correlates to the three brain networks as described in Video 1. According to Rose, providing multiple means of recognition, expression and engagement are key principles for supporting learners with individual needs and styles.


Listening to Learn: Multimedia

It is notable that we have eyelids but not ear flaps. Our ears are always open. This difference reflects the importance of hearing to our survival. Our ancestors survived because hearing and listening were critical early warning signals of danger. Listening proved to be much more valuable than vision in that regard. With the onset of language, a new aspect of the value of listening became apparent. Language amplified opportunities for learning by providing a foundation for culture and the social transmissions that could complement and extend direct experience. Within linguistic cultures, humans listened to learn.

Over time, written language emerged and overcame the primary weakness of oral language, its impermanence. With writing, language became permanent, transportable, viewable and recordable. As a result, print literacies came to dominate many cultures, relegating oral literacies and listening to secondary status. In the new media age, new ways of making speech (and other sounds) permanent, transportable, viewable and recordable have emerged. In fact, they have flourished.

As a result of new media and technologies, a much broader palette for literacy is now available, one that extends beyond reading and writing to include aural (and oral) literacy as well as visual literacies. While some scholars still assume that text retains its privileged status over more dynamic visual and aural media for intellectual discourse, the overall culture has already migrated to a broader palette for communication, persuasion, inquiry and entertainment.

This is especially true for young people. Today’s students have never known a world without computers, digital media or the Internet. Described as digital natives, they view the world of information and communication technology (ICT) differently from most of the adults in their lives, who in contrast, are considered digital immigrants (Prensky, 2000). Students spend six hours per day on average using some form of technology-based media (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin, 2005), much of it geared more toward listening and viewing than reading and writing. Teens and tweens (ages 9-12) talk to each other, exchange pictures, send text messages and watch movie trailers on their cellphones. They listen to music that they have selected, downloaded, and organized on their iPods. They spend hours as active participants on the Internet, where they shop for clothes, “chat” with friends, contribute to blogs, create personal web pages to express themselves and get information about almost anything that interests them, including school assignments. They are usually far more savvy than their teachers about how these new digital literacies can work to their advantage. Technology has raised the importance of listening, as students live now in a sea of oral language and sound. Digital natives listen to learn.

While some schools have moved to employ new media in the classroom, most continue to emphasize learning almost exclusively from printed text. This creates a tremendous gap between the learning technologies students use and the way in which academic content is delivered. It also has the effect of relegating listening to a rather minor role, with the major instructional effort reserved for reading and writing. The irony is obvious: while new media are making listening even more important in students’ everyday interactions, listening does not receive the sort of emphasis it should in school, especially in the development of literacy skills.

This is a missed opportunity. Technology now allows us to store and manipulate language in ways previously not possible. Once speech is captured in digital format, it can be transformed in multiple ways to support students’ learning, without loss of the original representation. In doing so, listening experiences can be designed to productively engage diverse learners by providing alternative learning opportunities for reaching common academic standards.

Listening to Learn: Reading

New technologies are repositioning listening as an important “new” literacy, an important way to learn in the digital age (as well as communicate, entertain, etc.). But it is important to recognize that listening is foundational for other, more traditional, literacies as well. In this section we will explore how learning to listen is fundamental in learning to read. Not surprisingly, in view of the neuroscience framework reviewed earlier, we shall see that learning to listen is critical to learning to read in at least four important ways.

First, successful reading depends on phonemic awareness, the ability to recognize the elements of oral language on which reading depends (Nation & Snowling, 2004). Decades of research summarized by the National Reading Panel (2000) demonstrates that young children need to be able to hear and recognize the sounds of language, and its vocabulary, in order to learn to read. Beginning readers develop a foundation for reading by listening to the sounds of language and manipulating them and by listening to the vocabulary and syntax through which meaning is constructed. The current emphasis on phonemic awareness and oral vocabulary and oral discourse for comprehension recognize the critical role that listening to language plays in early reading.

Second, well beyond the early stages of reading, indeed, at every stage of reading development, successful reading is intimately connected with what one has learned from listening. Reading comprehension critically depends on the recognition of words and ideas in the context of what has already been learned. That is, comprehension relies on connecting to general background knowledge, previously learned vocabulary, the concepts and principles that tie words together, the oral discourse structures for telling stories, participating in conversation, giving directions, etc. These can all be learned through listening, for some students only through listening, especially in the early grades.

Third, successful reading requires not only recognizing the elements of language but also implementing effective strategies and tactics for constructing meaning from those elements. Reading comprehension is strongly related to oral language comprehension. Recent brain research has revealed an important finding: when individuals are engaged in active, strategic listening, they use the same executive functions in the prefrontal cortex that are engaged during active, strategic reading (Osaka et al., 2004; Schumacher et al., 1996). This finding from the neurosciences confirms an important relationship: the same strategies and skills that allow a listener to make sense of oral language—predicting, monitoring, connecting to background knowledge and summarizing—allow a reader to make sense of written language. Listening comprehension is critical to reading comprehension because listening and reading require the same strategies. Students who do not know how to listen carefully and strategically also will not know how to read carefully and strategically.

Fourth, for continued development of literacy, lifelong engagement in literate activity is essential. In order to love reading, it is essential that students love stories and narratives, as well as the language and rhetoric in which they are told. Engagement in multiple literacies is hugely important.

The importance of these connections between listening and reading are further demonstrated by the National Research Council report, Preventing Reading Failure in Children, in which the authors describe “three potential stumbling blocks” to learning to read (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998):

The first obstacle, which arises at the outset of reading acquisition, is difficulty understanding and using the alphabetic principle—the idea that written spellings systematically represent spoken words. It is hard to comprehend connected text if word recognition is inaccurate or laborious. The second obstacle is a failure to transfer the comprehension skills of spoken language to reading and to acquire new strategies that may be specifically needed for reading. The third obstacle to reading will magnify the first two: the absence or loss of an initial motivation to read or failure to develop a mature appreciation of the rewards of reading (p.4).

Importantly, these three stumbling blocks directly correspond to the neurological divisions described earlier. Even more important here is the fact that two of these are directly dependent on listening: students must be able to hear the relationship between spoken words (and sounds) and the alphabetic representation in reading, and they must be able to apply the skills of spoken language comprehension to reading. It must be said, moreover, that the third “obstacle” is probably also heavily connected to good listening: students who don’t love language and the stories composed in that language will not see the importance of reading either.

Listening and Literacy in the Modern Era

Both learning to listen and listening to learn are critical to literacy in the 21st century as new technologies rebalance what it means to be literate and to learn. Listening is not merely a “folk” literacy that has been superseded by the modern technologies of print, media, and multimedia, but rather it is a powerful and essential means of developing and mastering both old and new literacies.

Listening is a vital alternative to the limits of print for some students, especially those with disabilities that interfere with the fluent use of printed text (e.g., students who are blind, dyslexic, have visual processing disorders, and so forth). For these students, the skills of listening are critical as an alternative literacy that can allow them to keep pace with their peers in building knowledge. In addition, in the modern era, every student needs to learn to listen in order to be literate—literate in traditional print media (knowing how to read) and literate in the new media of iPods and the web.

Next Section – How New Technologies are Changing What a Literacy Program Should Be