Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Help Students Become Better Listeners

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 30, 2011 6 min read
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Chris Moore asked:

“How do you teach people to LISTEN better? Everyone seems to want very individualized instructions. They don’t listen to any of the instructions and then the minute they have a problem with the assignment they want me to explain it all over again to them personally. It seems to be almost every teacher’s number one problem -- how to teach listening skills...”

Many of us have faced, or are facing, this challenge. It can be frustrating to hear students asking “What are we supposed to do?” within seconds of having explained instructions. There are, I think, some effective strategies to deal with this challenge.

Verbal/Written Instructions & Modeling

A major mistake many of us make is not providing verbal instructions before an activity. Extensive research emphasizes the importance of providing verbal and written instructions to English Language Learners, and this classroom practice works well for all learners. This will not only reduce the number of repetitive student questions, but it is also far easier for a teacher to point to the board in response to that inevitable repeated question, “What are we supposed to do?”

Teacher modeling is also an important instructional strategy that is often shortchanged in the classroom. After you give instructions, teachers actually demonstrating them can go a long way towards students understanding of what they are supposed to do. In addition, researchers have found that modeling has a major impact on increasing student self-confidence that they can replicate the task. Robert Marzano also recommends teacher modeling as a way to “deepen” student comprehension.

Of course, teacher modeling does not have to be limited to instructions for assignments. If we want students to be good listeners, we need to try to model that behavior at all times, too. We can lead with our “ears” and not our “mouths” during our interactions with students in and out of the classroom. Who among us has not too abruptly cut -off a student because we felt constrained by time? We probably all can also remember times when we have been distracted while a student has been speaking with us.

Lessons On Listening

Providing explicit lessons on the importance of listening is another way to help students improve their skills. After asking students to answer if and why they think being a good listener is important, and getting them to share what they believe are the qualities of a good listener, teachers could invite students to react to research results like this -- first in small groups and then as a class:

“Caring listening can result in people feeling better about themselves, becoming less defensive, and being more open to new experiences.” (p. 19)

A recent TED Talk on the importance of listening could be used as a discussion starter in the same way (thanks to Sue Harlan for the recommendation).

And you could always ask students what they think is the meaning of this famous story that was supposedly told by the then - Queen of England over a hundred years ago. She described the difference between spending time with two of the Prime Ministers with whom she governed:

“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England,” she said. “But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”

Advice From A Guest

I asked Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a middle school teacher in San Gabriel, CA and author of ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews :Tips for Middle School Teachers to share her response to the question:

Teaching how to listen is about controlling one’s own responses.

First off, and I mean this as a teacher who has been burned by her own over-talking: don’t be superfluous. If you want students to listen, make sure you’ve built up a trust that what you’re saying matters.

Also, delegate the voice in the room as much as possible. Mix-up the voice that the students hear, and their ear will focus more on what’s being said.

Additionally, only say it once. Not twice. Once. After that, don’t get mad if the students need a little training time to believe you mean it. Give them ways to get the information without asking you again and they will either a. begin to listen harder, or b. problem-solve independently more often. It’s a win-win.

If you’re looking for a cool listening lesson, however, visual note-taking is a great activity to build up those listening muscles. Read them a passage, excerpt, etc...then time them as they sketch every detail they recall. When time is up, slowly remind them of the itemized list of details they may or may not have heard. If they sketched it, they get points. The goal is to get the most points, and the teacher decides what details the students should have absorbed with only one reading.

Learning to listen is about practice. Make sure you give them opportunities to practice because listening isn’t a skill that comes naturally to many. It takes scaffolding, but it can be developed.

Advice From Readers

Readers shared other helpful advice:

Connie M. Montgomery listed six strategies:

1. Tell students WHAT to listen for before you talk.
2. Give clear expectations of how to listen
3. Immediate, meaningful, appropriate follow-up accountability activity.
4. Be brief!
5. Integrate authentic listening with ongoing classroom activity
6. Model good listening to your students
7. Don’t repeat what you say

And Alice Mercer pointed out that there may be other reasons why students ask for instructions to be repeated:

1. If the students are language learners, they will need instructions repeated, as they may not process the first time. If they are asking for re-wording, you need to rethink the vocabulary of your instructions, and scaffold potentially unknown words;

2. Some of the kids may have a processing disorder that affects how they process what they hear, etc.

In addition to Connie’s ideas, Alice suggests referring students to each other for a repeat of instructions, and with the teacher listening in to make sure it is being conveyed accurately.

There may always be some students who will continue having listening “challenges” no matter what you do. If you have some of those few students in your class even after trying the strategies suggested here, you might want to consider doing what I’ve tried to do after hearing another teacher’s advice -- swallow my frustration and chalk it up to those particular students needing to feel connected because of other issues they face. And I try to feel honored that they choose to want to feel connected to me, and try to remember that they’re choosing to act that need out by repeatedly asking “What are we supposed to do?”

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to these ideas, or write about other strategies you’ve tried that have been effective.

Thanks again to Chris for posing this week’s question, and to Heather, Connie and Alice for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.