How difficult to listen!

by Lyn Dawes

Some thoughts on teaching listening in primary schools

In a conference workshop, I asked a group of teachers to listen to an excerpt from a poem. There was an illustration on a slide, but they did not have the text to look at. They were working in talk groups, and I gave each a separate task – to listen and think about some straightforward ideas:

  1. What time of day is it?
  2. What plants are growing in the area?
  3. What sounds are referred to?
  4. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?
  5. What colours appear in the poem?

I read the poem, and everyone listened attentively, then talked with their group to decide what to say to the rest of us.  Asked to volunteer information, one delegate was extremely keen to tell us what he’d heard, so we asked him to share his thought first. He said that one plant appearing in the poem was ‘blackened moss’. Yes – we all agreed that this was the case.

‘I didn’t hear any more,’ he said. ‘I had to remember those words and could not listen to the rest!’

Those words ‘blackened moss’ were the second and third words of the poem! The rest of it was a blank to him, blocked out by the need to retain this key piece of information at all costs. Around the room, we found the same effect. The group focusing on the rhyme scheme told us it that it was ababcc – but had no idea what the poem was about. The group listening for colours could not say anything about the story going on in the poem. And so on.  We were all highly amused by this – and slightly shocked.

‘How difficult to listen,’ said a delegate.

Teachers are amongst the brightest and best in our society, and speaking and listening are tools of the trade. These teachers expected to know how to listen, – but were surprised to find that the focus on a particular aspect of the content, coupled with the pressure of presenting to the whole group, took up their entire attention. In effect, they were distracted. As they noted, there are implications here for classroom practice. We commonly use talk to carry out important tasks such as conveying information, explaining things, giving instructions or advice and linking ideas together.  We also set the context for listening, and context makes a discernible difference to how speech is heard and interpreted.

A straightforward and important activity is to ask your class for their perceptions of listening, it problems and its interest. Perhaps they can talk together to decide:

a) what makes listening easier?
b) what stops you listening?
c) what do you like listening to?

Children can readily say what they experience as barriers to listening (and therefore to learning). They may identify simple things such as some rooms that have too much echo, or some places to sit that are too uncomfortable. They can identify people they enjoy listening to, and others that stop them listening. They can also say something about how long they feel it is possible to really listen, and what difference it makes to have visual or other information along with the talk.  I am not suggesting that we can offer every child a comfy sofa in a carpeted room with all information tailored to their wishes – this is neither useful nor necessary! But what we as teachers say is crucial for their learning, and if we want them to really hear us, we need feedback on what makes that more likely.

We can usefully consider these contexts for listening:

  1. Physical context: Acoustic properties of the room; lighting; heating; visual distractions; audible distractions; time spent listening; the child’s physical condition (hunger, lack of exercise, alertness); the child’s physical capacity to hear.
  2. Cognitive context: The child’s understanding of active listening; their interest in and knowledge of what is being said; their attitude to listening; their ability to process information received through talk; their understanding of what they are listening for.
  3. Content of talk: Appropriate vocabulary; interest level of the topic; relevance to the child.

Each of these factors (and there are certainly others just as important) can be analysed and reviewed to help listening seem less difficult. If you find that a child, or a group or class of children ‘just doesn’t listen!’ it may be worth evaluating the context for listening, because there is usually something you can change, and if changed in consultation with the listener, you can make a real difference.

My use of ‘advance organisers’ to structure the conference teachers’ listening task was a certain way to ensure a focus for listening, and at the same time, stop them hearing the bigger picture. A focus may be what we want. But in setting a context for listening in which only the first two words of a text make any meaning, or only certain words seem important, we must be aware that we cannot then expect the listener to make meaning of the entire piece.

Teaching listening

It’s tempting to link listening to behaviour, but beware. Being still and being quiet may look like indicators of listening but may really be signs of abstraction or apathy. Teaching listening really involves helping the child to understand their own mind. They need help to recognise that listening involves thinking. Thinking and learning are linked, as are learning and talking – so the process of the cycle ‘speak, listen, think, learn’ should be transparent to the child. They need to be able to identify when they stop listening, and when they need to speak to ask for clarification or to hear another point of view. Silent children – it’s an oxymoron really – how many of them are learning?  What do they have to say about it? Of course there is only one of you, and however willing, you cannot listen to every child. But they can listen to one another, if you get the context organised. If there are thirty children in a class, there are twenty nine other people that the child ought to have access to as a listener, and as a speaker. Starting with brief discussions or information exchanges, you can teach children to speak aloud to a listening classmate, then swap. Children can give positive feedback on who listened well or interesting things they heard. Making sure everyone has chance to talk to everyone else may need careful planning, but is perfectly possible; otherwise some children may go through an entire school year and never talk to others in the same room. This is unhelpful socially and educationally.

Children know that listening is not a certain consequence of being quiet and still. It’s obvious to every one of them that this is not the case. They are aware that they are asked not to talk because quietness is ‘good’ and stillness ‘sensible’. Sometimes we need children to be quiet and still. That is fine; they can understand that sometimes such behaviour is necessary. But it is not listening. They need more accurate and honest information about listening. Their understanding of listening must instead be linked to an individual recognition that when they listen and think, their mind is actively working on what they hear, and that they are putting effort into their own learning.  By learning this they can see that talking to a classmate is of mutual benefit; as part of a conversation, they are in the powerful position of helping others to learn.

One of my granddaughters attends a village school where stories, songs, listening games, rhyme, visual information and changes of pace are the order of the day. Humour and serious content are combined. Everything is interesting. She is in Year 6 and loving it. My other granddaughter is in Year 5 in another village school. She came home last week to say they were being told about the difference between mammals, reptiles, birds and fishes. She already knew all this. We suggested she say so. ‘I am not allowed to speak,’ she said. ‘We must be quiet.’

To start a topic by asking children to tell one another what they already know about it has been good practice in primary classrooms for decades. It has been equally common to forbid children to speak. But we now have the research evidence to show that encouraging children to speak and listen pays invaluable dividends. Teaching children the oracy skills they need to interact with their classmates, and creating a dialogic classroom in which discussion and the child’s voice are given as much time as more authoritative input from the teacher, can enable every child to develop their intellectual capacity. Listening is one of the skills children need if they are to learn more readily. It might seem that they know how to listen already, or that if they are quiet they are listening, or that by saying ‘Listen!’ ‘Listening ears!’ etc’, we ensure they will – but no. We need to teach about listening and how to listen and why.

Funnily enough some of the teacher delegates asked for a copy of the poem they had listened to but not heard. As adept learners themselves, the curiosity aroused by a glimpse into a poem was enough to make them want to find out more. Children are awash with curiosity, and if they are taught to listen, little glimpses into things they do not know can be enough to set them off on a personal learning quest. Especially before they can read fluently enough to learn from texts, listening and talking about what they’ve heard is their way in to the wonders of the world.

Further reading

A tutorial on advance organisers

2 thoughts on “How difficult to listen!”

  1. Excellent article.

    It’s a great example of a well known phenomenon in psychology, which is widely used in marketing. We can only focus on one thing at a time. The lesson is that we should choose carefully what we focus on… 🙂

    The best known example of the phenomenon is the Monkey Business Illusion…

    One suggestion for improvement – it would be much easier to read on my screen if the paragraphs were split up.

    1. Hi Henry

      Thanks for your comment and the fascinating video!

      May I ask, which screen are you reading on where the paras are not separated?

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