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Say What? 5 Ways to Get Students to Listen

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Ah, listening, the neglected literacy skill. I know when I was a high school English teacher this was not necessarily a primary focus; I was too busy honing the more measurable literacy skills -- reading, writing, and speaking. But when we think about career and college readiness, listening skills are just as important. This is evidenced by the listening standards found in the Common Core and also the integral role listening plays in collaboration and communication, two of the four Cs of 21st century learning.

So how do we help kids become better listeners? Check out these tactics for encouraging a deeper level of listening that also include student accountability:

Strategy #1: Say it Once

Repeating ourselves in the classroom will produce lazy listening in our students. If kids are accustomed to hearing instructions twice, three times, and even four times, listening the first time around becomes unnecessary. Begin the year by establishing that you are a teacher who rarely repeats instructions and this will surely perk up ears.

Of course you don't want to leave distracted students in the dust so for those few who forgot to listen, you can advise them to, "ask three, then ask me."

Strategy #2: Turn and Talk

One way to inspire active listening in your students is to give them a listening task. It might look like this, "I'm going to describe the process of _________. I will pause along the way and ask you to turn to a partner and explain to them what you heard." You can ask students to take turns talking each time you pause, and meanwhile, walk around observing their conversations (also allowing you to check for understanding).

Strategy #3: Student Hand Signals

Asking students to pay full attention and indicating that they will follow this with a non-verbal signal is a wonderful tool for sharpening those listening skills. It can look like this: "I'm going to read a former president's statement about why he believes war is sometimes necessary. When I'm finished, you will share your opinion by holding up one finger if you agree, two fingers if you disagree, and three fingers if you are undecided or if you have a question." This strategy allows whole-class participation and response. It's also a favorite for kids who are more on the shy side, giving them a "voice."

Watch how hand signals encourage active listening in a fifth-grade classroom.

Strategy #4: Pay Attention, Pause, Paraphrase

Children need structured opportunities to restrain themselves from speaking in order to keep their attention on listening, especially when working in groups. Try this strategy:

  1. When students talk in pairs or small groups, assign one speaker at a time only (they can number off).
  2. Ask all others to listen fully to whoever is speaking and to avoid formulating a response while the other person talks. Tell them to simply listen that is all. (This is a difficult task even for adults!)
  3. When the person stops talking, the other takes a breath before she speaks and then paraphrases something her partner just said: "You believe that...." "You aren't sure if....".
  4. After paraphrasing her partner, she can then follow that with an "I" statement: "I see what you mean...", "I'm not sure I agree...".

Discussion sentence starters are a helpful tool for students as they learn this new way of having a conversation. It's also incredibly helpful for students to see this in action. Ask a couple of students to model it for the whole class or have an adult visit to partner with you.

Strategy #5: Creating Questions

If your students are listening to a speech, watching a documentary clip, or hearing a story read aloud, break it up by stopping a few times and having students write a question or two about what they just heard. This way, students actively listen for any confusion or wonderings they may have -- this takes a high-level of concentration. It's important to provide models for this since we are typically trained in school to look for the answers and information rather than to focus on what is not understood or is still a mystery.

Motivating Words

Good listeners are both rare and valued. It's important to share this with students, and to also share the fact that people who really listen -- make eye contact, show interest, and restrain from cutting others off in a conversation -- are easy to like and respect.

Here's also a few quotes to present to students and/or post around your classroom:

"If speaking is silver, then listening is gold." -- Turkish saying

"I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention." -- Diane Sawyer, newscaster

"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say." -- Bryant McGill, author

In what ways do you teach active listening in your classroom? Please share with us in the comment section.


Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amber White's picture
Amber White
Pre-K teacher from Loganville, GA

I never thought about how repeating your instructions multiple times makes your students lazy. I teach Pre-K so maybe that is why I am exhausted at the end of each day. I repeat the same directions and the same answer to the same questions over and over all day. You provided some great tips. I especially like #3 students using hand signals. I ask my Pre-K kids to give me a thumbs up or down and it really helps my ELL students who are very shy and not sure of their English yet. I also plan to start using the turn and talk. Not only will this help their comprehension, but it will also increase their language skills. Listening is a skill that we have to assess and it is very important. Teaching and helping my students to be good listeners will help them and many teachers for years to come.

Jason Mihalko's picture

Interestingly, none of the tips for listening strategies involve the teacher holding themselves responsible for providing interesting, engaging, and powerful lessons.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Sometimes the best way to get their attention, and even make them happy in the process, is to tell them they're getting a substitute teacher tomorrow.

Watch them perk up immediately.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

I really appreciate the techniques and tips offered by the writer and the comments. I would like to add one more thing.

When students participate in improvisational theatre or theatre games, they learn the importance of listening because their next line depends on understanding what they just heard. One game that is very helpful (and great fun to play) is called "Yes, and... Storytelling."

3-5 students are chosen to form a line at the front of the classroom. The students in the audience determine the title of the story that they would like to be told. (For arts integration, the teacher could use curriculum material to create the titles of the stories and this can be used as a formative or summative assessment, i.e. The Day the Cell Split or a retelling of a story they've read or an event in history.)

Chorally, the students in line say the title of the story together at the teacher's 1-2-3 cue. This indicates that they have all accepted the story title and will do their best to tell the story together. Then, the first person begins the story by saying the first line. The next person must begin their line with the words "Yes, and..." as a way to accept the story that has been given to him/her (Yes) and a commitment to further the story (And...), then they give the next line.

The game can be catered to whatever your curricular goals are or it can used as a warm-up to get the students focused in a fun way or it can used as a way to transition between activities. At its core, though, it is two things: 1. a listening exercise that trains students to listen not just to the words, but the tone and other verbal cues; and 2. a lesson in beginning, middle and end.

Darcy's picture
HHSLT Teacher

I think strategy #4 would be most useful in my classroom. Students like to feel that their classmates are listening to their responses, but often get distracted if they have too much time to talk amongst themselves. This gives the structure of a time limit, as well as an opportunity to ensure that everyone speaks. My only concern is with the enforcement of this; how can you ensure students are talking about the assigned topic?

Rory Donaldson's picture

"Accountable," yes. Please let me know how you plan to go about this. I'd be very interested in learning about what your training has had to say about holding kids, parents and teachers "accountable." And, "accountable" to what?

LauraRichardson's picture

I really enjoyed this post! I would like to incorporate # 1 and 5 in my classroom. I often find myself repeating myself for the same students. However, I need to start holding these students accountable. I really like the "ask three,then ask me" rule. I believe this will be useful for the students who tend to drift off during a lesson. I also really liked the students asking questions. While reading a story, this allows me to see if they are listening and allows them so ask any questions they may have while I read. Thank you for the suggestions!

Sarah's picture

There's a new resource for educators for developing the neglected, and all-important listening skills that maps to the CCSS and supports other important subjects. It's called Listen Edition ( It was just launched last year by a prominent NPR reporter and builds lesson plans around public radio stories. It's got all sorts of tools for teachers, and they are building the curriculum materials as fast as they can to expand to ELA, etc. Right now, they have a lot of content for Math and Science, and Social Studies targeted at middle school students. They will expand in grade levels and content, but a great resource for teaching listening in the classroom!

Amy's picture
ESL Instructor / Ed-Tech Coordinator

I have a comment about Strategy #1: Say it Once. Since I teach ESL, I try to make everything I say a listening activity. Repetition IS important for a second language learner; however, rather than ME repeating, I have THE STUDENTS do it instead.

For distracted and attentive students alike, I call on different individuals to repeat the instructions I just gave. I do this especially for important directions like homework and at the start of group/pairwork activities).

If a student doesn't know/understand, I ask another student. Then, I return back to the student who didn't know and have them repeat it. I'll keep doing this until I feel everyone has heard and understood the directions.

Works like a charm.

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