Listening for learning

by Dr Lyn Dawes

Learning to listen is important. Learning depends on children’s capacity to attend, listen and think. These skills are more subtle than simply hearing what is going on without responding to it. Sound pollution can encourage children to create their own silences by not listening. This may be a good defence mechanism; but in classrooms, we want children to learn to listen and to consider what they hear. We can help them understand how to attend to sound by working on this skill with their classmates and by making the importance of listening explicit. We can usefully find out what children think about listening in class.


What does it look like in practice?

Talk about the difference between hearing and listening. Ask children what sounds they like to hear, and what are difficult sounds. Talk about voices, music, healing and painful sounds, the acoustics of rooms, sound logos and ringtones; raise awareness of sound in the classroom and the school environment.

Ask children to tell you when it is easy to listen, and when it is difficult. When are they asked to not talk, and why? Can they say who they like to talk to?

What do they know about talk as a distraction, when it is off task, noisy or inappropriate? What do they know about ‘talk for learning’?

A more comprehensive topic might look at ears and hearing, animal sounds and hearing, sounds as warnings, making sounds, making music, talking in class to explain, to instruct or to ask questions; talking at home to relay a message or find out something; sound pollution; the science of sound as waves that travel in air, liquids or solids.




  • ’20 sounds in 20 seconds’ (available here) – or create your own ‘mixtape’ of sounds.

Explain that you are going to play a mix tape in which everyone will hear 20 sound effects, very rapidly. They must listen without moving or speaking to the entire mix tape and then think – on their own – what sounds they heard. Maybe play it twice, still with no discussion. You may want to ask them to write a list.

Next ask children to work in a group with one or two others. Take turns to go through their lists and compare; who heard what? Did they all hear the same thing? Can they make a group list? Ensure groups collaborate and make sure that children know that they are supporting one another’s learning by discussing ideas.

Once the groups have talked through their ideas and completed their group lists, ask children to listen again to the same mix tape. They must be very careful not to speak or move while the mix tape is playing. This is a chance to hear the sounds again and fill in some gaps. After listening, think as individuals again for a few minutes, then compare new ideas and complete their group list.

Review the listening. Were there any problems identifying certain sounds? Were there any problems with listening to one another? What was the point of listening without speaking or moving? What difference did it make to talk in groups and compare lists?

Talk with children about their listening skills. How can they develop their capacity to learn by listening and thinking?



Ask children to make their own mix of sounds by recording at home or in class. Repeat the activity with these mixes.

Ask children to listen and remember a phrase, a sentence, a short message, a rhyme, a list, a poem. Relay to someone else; recall a day/a week later. Make links between listening and remembering and ask children to suggest ways of listening that make remembering easier.

Talk with children about listening to one another, to adults, to spoken language on film or digital resources. Help them to make the link between speaking, listening, thinking and learning.

Create an effective listening environment with the children as consultants.



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