by Gaynell R. Jamison
"You are not listening to me."
"Look at me when I am talking to you."
How many times have we, as teachers and/or parents, made these statements? Probably more than we can count. Too often, we assume that when we are in the role of speaker, the audience is listening. Many times, this is not the case.
One valuable lesson that I learned later in my career was from my aunt, a retired educator and administrator. When I became an early childhood administrator, my aunt shared this pearl of wisdom with me: "Message intended is not always message received." I will never forget having that conversation with her before I began my new position. She instilled in me the importance of listening, being very clear when you speak, never assuming that the audience heard or understood you, and always repeating back what was said. Even in her senior years, she still speaks very clearly, slowly and concisely, and often throughout our conversations, she will inquire, "Am I hearing you say . . . " then repeat her understanding of what was stated.
What my aunt shared with me was valuable insight concerning the importance of listening. Not just listening, but actively listening, being intentional, and being present in the moment. These are important skills no matter a person’s age, even for toddlers who are just learning to talk and navigate the world of speaking, talking, learning, and listening.
As teachers, the first step is never to assume that our students already know how to listen. Ask yourself these questions:
- Did I define listening?
- Did I instruct my students on the importance of listening?
- Did I model for them how to listen?
- Did I share some skills, tips, strategies, and techniques about what good listeners do?
- Did I gain my student's attention?
As a teacher, you must never assume anything. Start with observation. Observe and watch your students. I learned about the importance of observation and being a teacher who notices when I trained as a Reading Recovery Teacher and studied the work of Marie Clay. Observing students will lead you to discover what students already know and what they do not know. It is paramount that you know your students. When you are familiar with your students, then you are ready to develop a plan of action. When you have a clear view, from your observation of their known, as well as their unknown, you then have enough data and documentation to strategically plan your next teaching move.
Pay attention to how many students actively listen. Take note of how many times directions have to be repeated before a task is completed. Take notice if the same children have to be directed and or redirected each time that instructions and directions are given.
From the beginning, have conversations with your students and explain to them the meaning of listening and how important it is to master good listening skills. Acquiring and practicing the skill of good listening is at the base of navigating everyday life. Listening is the nucleus of effective communication. To understand and to be understood is a direct product of listening.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, listening is defined as the ability "to hear something with thoughtful attention." So we must teach children the importance of being a good listener and practicing good listening habits, such as these:
- Being respectful to the speaker is an important communication skill that needs to be mastered. A couple of ways to be respectful are not interrupting and listening when someone is talking or speaking.
- Looking at the person or making eye contact with the person who is speaking is essential. Body language sends a message as well. It can convey whether a person is listening and attending.
- Listen to the end if someone is speaking, without interrupting. Stay alert and tuned in to the speaker.
Our educational system and individual schools have been altered due to COVID-19. Many of our schools across the country are now doing virtual learning or a hybrid model of virtual learning and face-to-face interaction with a list of assignments and tasks that must be completed and uploaded. Ensure you are vigilantly looking out for your students because this is a call for self-regulation, which some students have not yet fully mastered.
I was recently working with a student who had an assignment to complete for virtual learning. The student had to listen to a video clip and answer four questions. Navigating to the site to access the assignment was smooth sailing and presented no challenge to successfully completing the task. The student located the assignment and clicked start for the video clip to play. A person began to read the story. I immediately noticed the disposition of the student. A few seconds into the video, the student lost interest: their eyes began to wander around the room, their fingers began to play with a piece of thread on clothing, they began to hum a tune, and their body language made the statement, "I am not present, nor am I listening."
Further confirmation of student disengagement became evident when it was time to answer the questions. Lack of comprehension was apparent as well. The questions were not read with 100% accuracy. I proceeded to ask questions and was met with a look of confusion. I restated my questions and even rephrased them, only to be yet again greeted with a blank stare. When we finally reached clarity and understanding of the questions, there was no recall of the answer. This meant that the student had to return to the video clip several times to answer the questions. I seized the moment to share with the student the importance of listening and what good listening looks like. We discussed and reviewed the behaviors that were counterproductive to the task at hand.
At the beginning of this section, I mentioned the importance of listening through to the end when a person is speaking. I included that statement because what I noticed was that when reviewing the video clip in search of a response to the question, the student would listen to the beginning of the section that contained information that could answer the question but would immediately hit stop in the middle of the sentence before the statement was completed. This behavior took me back to the 'pearl of wisdom' that my aunt shared with me. I could hear her speaking clearly and distinctly in my head, asking, "Am I hearing you say . . . " along with all of the other advice she shared about the importance of listening and being present. What I had just witnessed from the student was the opposite of good listening.
We discussed it and problem solved for every counterproductive behavior that was displayed for a more productive solution. We talked about clearing the mind of clutter and being ready to actively listen. Don't think about other things when listening to the story. Keeping the hands still and not twiddling and playing with the fingers, controlling the body language, and not humming when one should be listening. The printed text was there, but the student did not follow along during the reading. We also talked about the importance of following along and keeping up when someone is reading or speaking. It is essential to review with students what good listening is and what good listening is not.
Children must be provided with lots of opportunities to practice and enhance their listening skills. As a teacher, be intentional and focus on a listening skill or activity every day. Start on day one, impressing upon your students the importance of listening. Make it a regular part of the daily routine. By doing so, a pattern will be established, and the students will come to expect it and know what to do. Share your expectations around the importance of listening with your students' parents, so they become stakeholders in these expectations.
Often, teachers use various tips, techniques, and strategies to assist students with focusing their attention and learning to listen. Here are a three strategies and techniques to try to encourage students to be active listeners:
Playing games where students have to listen and follow directions is a great way to teach the importance of listening. Playing ‘Simon Says’ is a game that requires students to listen and follow a direction. They must listen to see if ‘Simon’ said it to complete the task.
A couple more games that I recall playing from my childhood that required listening and following directions were ‘Mother May I’ and ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ Mother May I is very similar to Simon Says. When a direction is given, one cannot complete the task unless ‘Simon’ said it or asks permission from the leader in Mother May I. Red Light, Green Light allows the players to move toward the game's leader, and the first person to reach the leader is the winner and new caller. Players step toward the leader when Green Light is called and stop or freeze when Red Light is called.
‘Guess What It Is’ is a game that can be monitored and used in various ways. It can be played with musical instruments, animal sounds, and such, where children have to listen and predict what sound they hear. Items can be placed in a bag to determine what they think is in the bag by listening when the bag is shaken. All of these games require the ability to listen and follow directions.
Asking questions requires students to listen, as well as pay attention actively. It generally requires a response or a direction to follow. With younger children, start with a simple question, and as students began to master the task, move from simple to complex. At some point, students began to acquire the ability to complete a two-part or more question.
Using stories to teach listening skills:
You can use reading to foster listening. Books are always a good way to teach the importance of listening, and they also build comprehension. Everything must have a meaning and a purpose. Below is an example of active listening using a story:
Book: Wishy-Washy Garden
Author: Joy Cowley
Series: Joy Cowley Early Birds
Guided Reading Level: F
Introduce the story by doing a book orientation. Allow the students to make predictions about what they think the story will be about after you show the cover of the book. On the cover of the book, Mrs. Wishy-Washy is watering the garden. Ask questions to find out what prior knowledge the students have about gardening. Talk about why Mrs. Wishy-Washy is watering the garden, the plants that she is watering, what grows in a garden, if they have ever seen a real garden, etc. Ask the students to predict what they think the story will be about. Jot their predictions down if possible, and definitely remember their responses.
As you read the story, be sure to show the pictures. Even during reading, you could ask the students to predict what they think will happen on the next page before you turn to it. Ask students to listen as you read to see if their predictions are correct. This request will set the stage and the purpose for listening. After reading the story, revisit the children's responses to determine whether or not their predictions were correct.
At the beginning of this blog post, I shared with you the valuable lesson that I learned from my aunt about the value and importance of listening and never assuming that the message being relayed is the message that is being received. Neither should we assume that students know or practice good listening. Teaching them the importance of listening and supplying them with strategies and tips to communicate and listen successfully is vital to academic success, as well as being an important life skill to master. It is our job as teachers to demonstrate, model, and teach how to become good listeners.
Gaynell R. Jamison is a reading specialist, children’s author, early childhood trainer, and pre-K director with 38 years of experience in education. She has studied extensively in the field of literacy with a specialty in teaching reading and administering reading programs as a former Reading Recovery Teacher and Reading Recovery Teacher Leader. She has served on two national committees for leveling books for Reading Recovery. She has a passion for children’s literature with an interest in early and emergent literacy acquisition and teaching young learners to become readers.