Listening forms part of everyday life. In education, when learners are able to listen effectively, we know it can lead to improved behaviour, work being completed correctly and possibly dangerous situations being avoided. Helping our learners build their listening skills is vital in setting them up for success in education and life in general.
What is listening?
Listening is a skill and like other skills we can build it and get better. Firstly, it’s important to ensure we have a solid foundation. So let's look at the building blocks of listening and how to help learners build their listening skills.
What are listening skills?
Listening is about being able to receive information through our ears, and then thinking about it so that we understand what is being said.
Listening doesn’t necessarily always happen. We cannot listen if we do not try to, if anything is in the way of our ears, or if we are thinking about something else.
It can be useful to remind our learners that it is important to listen because:
- We might learn information that helps to protect us, or to keep us safe
- We might understand how someone else is feeling about something
- We might learn how to do something better
- We might understand something new that we hadn’t understood before
We need to be focused in order to listen effectively. Introducing a simple listening model to learners about how to listen can be a good place to start.
One simple model of listening to share with learners is Stop, Focus and Repeat:
- Stop anything that might be a distraction. That might include putting down stationery or tools, not writing or reading anything else, and ensuring that there are no distracting background noises.
- Focus on the speaker by looking at them and being ready to receive the instructions. Your brain must be in a place of actively trying to remember what is being said. You cannot be thinking about other things.
- Repeat what you are hearing in your head several times so that you have been able to process it and check that you understand what it means in your head.
Once learners are focused on listening, the next step is to see if learners can recall simple instructions. This itself is an important listening skill, as throughout a learners education they will be expected to listen and remember instructions regularly.
How to store and recall simple instructions
It should be possible for many learners to store and recall three simple instructions within their working memories. They then need to be considered and processed to pass into our longer-term memory.
To help things to stick in our long-term memories we can encourage learners to:
- Think about whether the instructions follow patterns that they already know – for example, there might be links between how we clean different objects, how we write different things down, or how we play different games
- Visualise themselves completing the task by following the instructions
- Break the instructions into three separate packages and imagine them in order
If there are more than three instructions it can be hard to remember them. We might need to put them into smaller subsets of instructions.
You can help your learners to do this by using some of the following activities.
- Give learners a simple set of instructions – for example, to create a model or to rearrange objects in a particular way. Model how you would take an instruction, repeat it over in your head and then try to visualise it. Ask the learners to do the same.
- Give one learner another simple set of instructions to read to their partner and then the other learner tries to recall and complete the challenge.
Regular practice in the classroom setting will help learners to continuously build their listening skills, and once mastered will support learning and a positive classroom dynamic.
As a teacher you can:
- Remind learners of the three-step process (Stop, Focus, Repeat) to ensure that they are ready to take on instructions before you start
- When giving instructions, model to learners how they can process those instructions, making sure that they have taken them on
- As learners become more confident in this skill step, provide less scaffolding when giving instructions – perhaps replacing verbal reminders to Stop, Focus, Repeat with visual reminders in the classroom
- Be confident over time in giving sets of instructions without substantial repetition and demonstrate your confidence that learners will be able to follow these instructions
You can also use practical exercises to assess how learners are doing in building their listening skills. For example: give learners a simple set of instructions – to fold a piece of paper, to draw a particular picture on one side and to write something on the inside. Observe who has been able to recall and follow those instructions.
Using questions to check your understanding
Once learners can focus and recall instructions the next step is to check they have understood what they have heard.
It can be helpful to provide learners with strategies to help them check what they have understood. They can do this by repeating back or rephrasing what they heard. Another nice exercise is to ask learners to think through the key questioning words in relation to what they have heard:
- Who – who is involved, and how?
- What – what is happening?
- Where – where is this taking place?
- When – when is this happening; at what time and for how long?
- How – how is this going to happen; what are the steps that will be followed?
Once your learners can reflect on what they have already understood they can use the same question stems to come up with good questions that are relevant to the situation to learn more. Questions that are not relevant will waste time and suggest to the speaker that they have not been listening.
To support your learners to build this skill you could:
- Give learners some basic information about something – for example an upcoming event. Ask them to formulate the questions they need to build up a full understanding of what is going on. For example, when the event is, what will happen, who will be invited, and what is going to happen to get that event ready.
- They can then try it out with one another. For example, one learner can be given a set of information but can only share it when they have been asked a question that gives them the chance to share that information. This can be extended, where relevant, to sharing of subject knowledge like historical events or scientific ideas.
- Learners could be given a topic to investigate by developing the questions that they would like to understand the answers to, and then inviting in an expert to help address those questions.
Again this listening skill can be regularly practised in the classroom, a few ideas to do this are:
- Reminding learners of the key clarifying questions that they might ask – visual reminders of these around the learning environment might be helpful.
- Deliberately encouraging learners to ask questions to expand their understanding of a particular topic or in classroom learning more widely.
- If learners have opportunities to share their work, encourage other learners to find out more by asking clarifying questions to deepen their understanding of what is being shared. The teacher should praise learners who ask effective clarifying questions.
Retaining and processing information
Your learners will spend a lot of time learning new things. A topic will often start with the basic ideas which then become gradually more complex. This means it is very important that learners can remember extended things that they have heard. But this can be difficult.
Most people will find it difficult to recall anything verbatim (that is, exactly in the same way that they were told it).
Instead, people remember extended things they hear in one of several ways:
- They relate a new piece of knowledge to what they already know and fit it into an existing conceptual framework. For example, they might link something geographically, or place it in a historical context. Or they might link a concept in science to something that they have observed themselves.
- Alternatively, people turn the information into a sequence or story that they can follow – humans are good at using stories as a way of storing information.
- Finally, thinking about the implications and feelings about what is being heard can be a very effective way of processing information.
In any case, it often takes a little time to think and to process what has been heard before we can share that information with someone else. Taking a bit of thinking time is a good idea.
The key thing is to focus on keeping the same key points – not to get all the words right. The most important information to share will depend on the situation, and it is worth focussing on this key information.
Creating opportunities for your learners to learn how to do this is really important. A few ideas of how you could do this are:
- The learners could listen to an extended talk of 3-5 minutes, then take time to think about what they have heard and what the most important facts are. The teacher can model and scaffold this initially by listening with them and showing them how to think about what the most important pieces of information are.
- Once this has been modelled to learners then they can practise by listening to an extended talk or story from you for 3-5 minutes. The teacher should give them a chance to think about what they heard, and then try to tell the story to one another.
- Another good activity, if the group makes it feasible, is to play a version of Broken Telephone – they each pass a short story along to someone else, try to recall it and then pass it on to the next person.
Regular practice in the classroom setting is also really important, and once mastered, will support learning and a positive classroom dynamic.
- Routinely remind learners before they are listening to an explanation that they will need to be able to tell someone else what is going to happen next. The teacher could even only tell half the learners, so that they then need to explain what is happening to someone else.
- Encourage learners to listen to a story or learn something new at home and come to class ready to recall and share what they learnt.
Listening skills are vital in education and in our wider lives. Providing learners with regular opportunities to practise their listening skills in the classroom supports effective learning and can help create a positive classroom environment. Building some of these activities into your daily classroom routine will help learners develop a better sense of what is expected of them and how to respond to what they have heard.