Donna Wilson of BrainSMART defines listening as, "The skill of hearing and attending to the words of others," (Wilson and Conyers, 2005, p. 12). Listening is a basic skill necessary in school and life, yet this basic skill is rarely explicitly taught to children. Once a child is aware of listening as a specific skill, he or she is able to be metacognitive in its application. However, as with all skills, it needs to be reinforced throughout the school year and at home.
Due to the importance of listening in the development of young children (grades Pre K – 3rd), I prefer to teach the skill of listening separate from the skill of focusing. This distinction is made because listening is foundational in learning to read, write, and for oral language development. Consider the words of Judy Willis in her book, Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension: "Young children's listening and speaking competence is in advance of their reading and writing competence. They understand more words spoken in context than they can read independently." (2008). E. D. Hirsch, Jr. further confirms the connection between listening and learning in his book The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. He says, "At the youngest ages, two through seven, long before children can read as well as they can listen, progress in language occurs chiefly through listening and talking, not through reading and writing," (Hirsch, 2006, p. 27). Now that we have established the importance of the skill of listening, let’s look at ways to teach it!
Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers love to point out that, “facts fade, but stories stick.” With this in mind, introduce listening with a story of a time you or someone you know missed out on something great because you (or whoever) hadn’t listened well. For example, I might tell of the time I missed an important track meet because I hadn’t listened well when told what time the bus would leave! Next I would be sure to share that I learned from my mistake so it didn’t happen again. Ask a few students to share similar stories. Question them about what they learned. Then through questioning guide students in discussions of how listening helps in school.
Students can practice listening by using the fun Listen and Repeat strategy. Separate students into pairs. One student will share a sentence or paragraph about something they’ve done or learned. Their partner will then repeat it back to them. Then they switch roles. Afterwards, ask students what it looked and felt like when they were listening closely. Consider making an anchor chart of their responses and refer back to it often.
One strategy that Wilson and Conyers suggest in their book, BrainSMART 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, is called Name That Tune (Conyers and Wilson, 2011, p. 279). It is similar to that old game show that those of us of a certain age will remember! Pick several songs that your students are familiar with. Play just a few seconds of each introduction. Have them raise their hands or write down the answer as soon as they get it. Finally review how many got correct answers. This strategy not only provides practice listening, but it also helps “students to appreciate how brilliant their auditory learning capacity is,” (Conyers and Wilson, 2011, p. 279).
One of the best strategies is one I find many districts are allowing less time for. That is read-aloud time, or story-time. Not only do read-alouds develop the skills of listening and focus, it also helps grow a life long love of reading and allows students to enjoy books that are above their reading level. I am appalled at districts that do not see this as a priority, particularly in lower grades (oops, I better slide right back off that soap-box). Start with shorter storytimes at the beginning of the year, then gradually extend the time based on grade level. You will see the ability to listen closely for longer periods grow!
One More Step
As with all the strategies, you will want to revisit and frequently reinforce the skill of listening. I find the best way to do this is by modeling the behavior myself, and by pointing out when I see someone doing a great job of listening! Also try to tie it in with other skills. For example, I might say, “I am optimistic that you will listen closely!”
The skills in this series should become a regular part of your daily vocabulary with students. The more these skills are recognized and reinforced, the more students will internalize them. As the skills are internalized, you will see behavior issues decrease and academic success increase.
Hirsch, J. (2006). The knowledge deficit. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Willis, J. (2008). Teaching the brain to read, strategies for improving fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Conyers, M., Wilson, D. (2011). Brainsmart: 60 strategies for increasing student learning. (4th ed.). Orlando: BrainSMART.
Conyers, M., Wilson, D., (2005). Thinking for reading. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.