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Say What? 5 Ways to Get Students to Listen

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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.

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Courtney's picture
Third Grade Teacher

I have enjoyed reading many of your blogs. This year I have a challenging group who struggles with listening. The five strategies you listed to get students to listen are practical. This year I have noticed that I have been repeating directions more than I have in the past. After reading your post, I have learned that my students rely on my repeated directions. I like your strategy, "ask three, then ask me." I will be using this strategy tomorrow.

In my classroom we use collaborative pairs frequently throughout the day. I assign students a number (1 or 2). When I ask a question or give directions I always communicate to students which partner will talk first. Then I say switch, and the other student responds. As I walk around I absorb some of their answers and model active listening by saying: "As I was walking around I heard Johnny say...." Not only am I demonstrating active listening, but I am also letting my students know that I value their thinking. However, I would like to implement the 4 steps you have listed under strategy #4 to improve student listening.

Strategy #3 is another strategy I incorporate in my classroom. In fact today my students were learning about multiple meaning words. I read a sentence to them and they had two choices of definitions to choose from. After listening to the sentence students had to hold up one finger if they thought the first definition was used and two fingers if they thought the second definition was used. I also do thumbs up and thumbs down quite a bit.

I also use attention grabbers such as, "Hocus Pocus, Everybody Focus." When students hear me say this they know I have something important to say. I never give directions or call on a student until all eyes are on me. I try to use different attention grabbers so that my students do no become bored with them.

I also play games such as Simon Says to review concepts. This week in geometry we are working on clockwise and counterclockwise turns. I have the students stand up and close their eyes. Active listening is a must if students want to remain standing. It is also a great way to informally assess student mastery of a concept.

Thank you for your ideas.

linda's picture
Ninth grade Earth Science teacher from Brentwood,NY

I am new to Edutopia and I have enjoyed scrolling through many of the blogs and articles offered. I too struggle with students listening to directions. Every time I give a unit exam the instructions are always the same yet so many ask me the same questions (directly after I give instructions). It is frustrating. I am anxious to try your suggestions, especially asking another student to explain. My kids love explaining to others. I will let you know how it goes!

Sheila Greene's picture
Sheila Greene
Third Grade Co-Teaching Intervention Specialist from Vermilion, OH

As an intervention specialist in a co-teaching third grade setting including students with deficits that affect auditory skills, I've found it useful to write or type a set of visual directions to accompany my verbal directions--then when students finish listening and say "what"? I refer them to the posted visual directions--nice strategy for my students who have trouble processing language.

Tinatena's picture
Dance teacher, Portugal

As a dance teacher I use a lot of these tactics in my classes. I teach mainly 3-6 year old and the first thing I teach is look and listen to me. I think it is important to help children to learn how to listen instead of just telling them to listen. I could tell children just to point their toes but I do not, I teach them how to. Very good article, it will be passed on.

Greg Graham's picture
Greg Graham
Writing Instructor at University of Central Arkansas

Thank you for the excellent tips. I especially like the idea of stopping while watching a documentary and having the students formulate a question or two. My students are currently watching a documentary, so I'm going to try it out immediately.

For an excellent speech on the importance of listening, I recommend Diane Rhem's 2007 commencement speech at American University.

parentwhiz's picture
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Consultant, Author, Presenter, Blogger, Former Educator, Parent, Grandparent.

I taught school for 16 years and now I am a mental health professional. We are always working on good listening skills during sessions and these ideas are good. They would also be good for parents to use with their children with just a a few modifications.

Jonathan Crow's picture
Jonathan Crow
Conversational artist. Education nut. Dad.

Interesting thoughts. Do you find this strategy works equally well throughout the range of ages?

Ragavi Roy's picture

Great tips and interesting too. For teachers this is the hectic task, these tips will help them to great extent.

Ragavi Roy

Christi's picture

I have been in the classroom many years and still love new ideas on how to engage students in active participation and listening. I will also share these ideas with my daughter who is completing her student teaching soon. Things have not changed over the years when you look at the importance of classroom management and making sure the students are listening to the lesson material.

romancemom's picture

One thing I heard as a suggestion several years ago to get the attention of a younger child is to instruct them to "Show me your eyes." I find this very effective in getting the attention of children who are distracted by classmates (or siblings!) or activity going on around them. Rather than saying, "Listen to me," which does not necessarily compute, having a child look at your face almost universally gives you their more complete attention. If you just tell them to listen, they may continue watching other students (or the snow falling outside, or a helicopter flying past the window, etc.), and truly believe that they are listening, even if their attention is elsewhere.

Last year, I had a fifth grader that I had to use this on a fair amount, and it was not 100% effective, but was the best trick I had. I can't wait to use some of these new suggestions next year!

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