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Teaching Children to Listen ... And Hear

January 17, 2014
By Linda Shalaway - School Bells columnist , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Listen, did you hear that?

No matter what it is a story read aloud, directions for an activity, an explanation of a concept chances are, many students in the class simply didn't hear it. There's nothing wrong with their ears. They just don't know how to listen.

Listening is a skill that must be taught and learned, claims Diana Senechal, former middle school teacher and author of "Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture." Yet contemporary educational policies undermine this important skill, Senechal claims in a recent Education Week article.

Teachers are told that students are not supposed to stay quiet, she explains. "They turn and talk; they perform tasks; they work in groups; they press buttons on gadgets. They might know how to listen for instructions or information, but not how to sink into sounds and words. They do not know how to pick up overtones, refrains, allusions. What they know is pancake listening: flat, warm for an instant, and then gone."

When we stop expecting students to listen, says Senechal, we can't expect them to "hear" the nuances in a poem or take the time to patiently struggle with something they don't immediately understand.

"Learning requires patience," claims Senechal, adding that, "Listening helps because it involves a certain surrender, a willingness to sit with what one does not already know."

Children and adults who "lack the practice of listening" will have no idea how to approach difficult tasks and texts, and what's worse, they see "no reason to bother."

And indeed, that is exactly what many classroom teachers encounter: Students who won't stop talking long enough to hear anything of substance.

"I don't understand."

"What do you want us to do?"

"What's this even about?"

I know I'm not the only educator who has handed out written directions for an assignment and presented the directions orally, only to have someone immediately ask, "What are we supposed to do?"

Experienced teachers agree that listening is a skill that must be taught and modeled. But how?

One suggestion frequently offered is to give students written directions as well as oral ones. But that's only a start. Equally important, agree the experts, is to say something just once. If students miss what you've said, they will have to figure out how to get the information they need.

Middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron, author of "Tween Crayons and Curfews:Tips for Middle School Teachers," points out that by stating directions just once, teachers (and parents) encourage kids either to listen harder or to problem solve independently.

"It's a win-win," she claims in a recent blog.

Wolpert-Gawron suggests a "listening lesson" that she calls visual note-taking. Here's how it works: Read students a passage (just once!), then ask them to sketch every detail they can remember within a specified time limit. After time is up, read a list of the itemized details, awarding points for each item the students sketch.

I've found that quiz bowl practice and competitions offer students another great way to practice listening skills. As per the rules, questions can only be read once. And for older students, the questions are intentionally convoluted, presenting so much peripheral information that students are hard-pressed to know what is actually being asked. Anyone talking, day-dreaming or not totally focused loses track of the question.

Is listening worth the effort for teachers to teach or students to master?

Absolutely, Senechal insists. Not only worth the effort, but critical to the learning process and the appreciation of great literature and ideas.

"Listening requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect, or want," she explains.

And the payoff is increased knowledge and awareness of our world.

Linda Shalaway, NBPTS-certified teacher and author of "Learning to Teach Not Just for Beginners" (Scholastic, 2005) teaches at Cameron High School.

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