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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

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

Thank you! I have worked for Polk County, FL for 14 years - and I am back in the classroom after 8 years of being a support staff - it is very easy to walk into a classroom and see what's right and wrong but can you do it? Back in the class, working on my PHD in Ed - indeed a learning curve! Thank you!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I often find that students have trouble understanding what we mean when we say they need to listen, since listening is largely an internal activity. So what we're really asking them to do is show us that they're tuned in which is a slightly different thing. We create T- Charts with kids, focusing on what happens during a Quality Conversation- what it looks like and sounds like. This presumes that all exchanges in the classroom are dialogues- or at least opportunities for dialogue. We do the same thing for a Quality Audience, for Quality Work, and later for things like Collaboration, Problem Solving, Communication, etc. It certainly makes it easier to coach (and assess) when everyone is clear about what we're looking for!

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

Listening has long been the "weak sister" of the reading-writing-listening-speaking" collection of literacy skills. In addition to Rebecca's excellent suggestions, I would add: IF YOU TEACH IT, TEST IT. AND IF YOU TEST IT, TEACH IT.

How often do teachers involve their students in listening comprehension activities, rather than reading comprehension ones? Not very often, except teachers teaching their students foreign languages. The same reading materials and reading comprehension questions used routinely by reading/language arts teachers can be used and adapted as listening rather than reading activities.

Rory Donaldson's picture

A format I always use is (in a soft voice, assuming a strong stance), "Voices off. Eyes on me." Then I never ask a question I haven't given the answer to first.

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


New ways of teaching and learning should be tried. A better job must be done with those who have trouble learning.

--Georgia, by Elmer D. Williams

They're still reading these dang essays today from behind The Lectern of Speaking because I told them to and they're still whining about it and then when they get to reading them the students seem to like being the center of attention after all.

Hap's up there going to town on his essay this morning and doing a real good job and then there's Tempest on the front row and Petal's sitting in the second row right behind Tempest and for some unknown reason Tempest turns around and engages Petal in conversation and Petal engages Tempest in conversation right back.

So these two are just going to town.

Hap's up there also going to town reading his essay.

I'm sitting at the desk in the front watching and listening to Hap ... then I'm looking at Tempest and Petal ... and then I'm watching and listening to Hap ... and then my attention once again turns to Tempest and Petal. For all the wrong reasons.

It would have been okay if Tempest had turned around to tell Petal to go find a fire extinguisher because her Georgia History textbook was on fire. But that just wasn't the case as far as I could tell. Tempest just wanted to talk to Petal during Hap's fine reading of his essay so she starts talking to Petal. Petal was polite enough to talk right back to Tempest. Now isn't that a wonderful moment for Tempest and Petal in the development of what Principle Lurlene would call a student's "social piece."

I went nuts.

And when I go nuts, particular to a social situation like this, several unsociable things happen in real quick succession. Here they are ...

1. I yell real loud what the heck are you doing while Hap's reading his essay

2. Then I sit up real high in my chair and say ... time out ... real loud and frantically and then do the time-out sign with my hands as if the referee isn't paying attention to me and it's near the end of the Super Bowl and I think we have a chance to win

3. I watch everybody perk up real super-fast and shut up

4. I remind, real loud, Tempest and Petal, that a fellow student is nervously doing his best to read his essay in front of a group of people and the teacher lives for these classroom moments very much

5. I look at Hap and say I'm sorry on behalf of these two atomic Butts County heads, Tempest and Petal

6. Tempest says she's not an atomic Butts County head

7. I make the atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap

8. The atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap

9. Then I say to Hap that he all of a sudden has the atomic power to boot anybody out of class he feels is not paying attention to the reading of his essay ... especially Tempest and Petal

10. Hap smiles and asks if I am totally kidding

11. I give Hap my satisfied smile

12. Hap asks again if I am totally kidding

I put my feet up on the desk, lightly grasp The Teaching Stick, and deeply enjoy the rest of the reading of Hap's fine essay.

Susan Weikel Morrison's picture
Susan Weikel Morrison
Science Education Program Developer, Sci-Q Systems

As they progress up the grades, students get very good at appearing to listen -- while their minds are a million miles away. This is probably something that we'd prefer they not learn, but it may be a useful skill in adult staff meetings.

Be as that may, here are a few tips for K-6 that I've picked up over the years that effectively encourage listening:

First, set expectations: When a class and I are first becoming familiar with each other, I tell them, "I want your eyes on me, your ears listening to me, your brain thinking about what you are seeing and hearing, your hands on your desk, and your back straight in your seat." And they all snap to attention.
If they are supposed to be focusing on something besides the teacher, these directions can be modified. After a few weeks, all you have to say is "Attention positions!" and they snap to.

To encourage them to listen to each other, have partners repeat what the other just said until they get the idea.

Credit for the above two goes to the Success for All Foundation.
(I didn't agree with some of their reading pedagogy, but their classroom management ideas are terrific.)

Many teachers try to call randomly on students by pulling tongue depressors with students' names on them out of a cup. I think this is too random. You really want to target your weakest students.

Instead, I would put a check by a student's name on a seating chart every time they responded satisfactorily. I would target the students with the fewest check marks and give them plenty of time and coaching (if necessary) to come up with a good response. At the end of the week, I would date the seating chart and put out a new one for the next week. The chart collection made a nice record for report cards and parent conferences.

Some students need to be constantly re-directed. Keep those kids near and dear to you -- within arm's reach.

Other kids are so distracted and distracting, that they need their own semi-enclosed space at the back of the room where they can see you and you them, but the rest of the class is out of their range. Unfortunately, they may also need re-direction, and you can't always do that for them long-distance. Sometimes you can get to them while the rest of the class is busy with an activity and/or enlist parents, paraprofessionals, RSP teachers, and psychologists to help give such children the best education you can. But dealing with them should not dominate your day. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

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