This post presents an excerpt from Katie Alford’s July 2020 English Journal article, “Explicitly Teaching Listening in the ELA Curriculum: Why and How.”
Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Listening has, unfortunately, become the “new democratic deficit” (Dobson). In today’s world we so often as listeners focus on formulating our responses that we forget to listen to understand what a person has to say. . . . We are trained to react and quickly respond without taking the time to absorb ideas and consider an opposing position. Perhaps we can blame this tendency on social media or our political landscape, but as an English teacher and teacher educator, I find myself asking: Have I prepared my students to listen well? Do we, as ELA teachers, teach students the intricate skills of being good listeners? What resources exist to support the teaching of listening?
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Practices That Support Listening
Classrooms that value listening do more than teach lessons about what good listeners do. Teachers create spaces and communities that regularly engage in listening and provide models of what this looks like. Below I offer several key ways teachers can modify their practice to embed active listening into their classrooms and build communities that value listening.
■ Teach, assign, assess, and provide feedback on listening explicitly. Do not take for granted that students know how to listen. Begin by teaching the three skills good listeners have and then modify sample assignments to assess listening. Most importantly, give meaningful feedback on how students can improve their listening skills.
■ Make listening an active process. Too often, students sit and listen and do nothing with the information. If we hold them accountable for producing something as a result of their listening, they are more likely to engage in the act of listening actively. Use a variety of listening strategies such as sketchnoting, charting emotions, and headlines to help maintain interest and to provide examples of what active listening can look like.
■ Value teacher wait time. Sometimes pausing and allowing students to contemplate what you have asked garners greater insights. Allowing for ten seconds to lapse before calling on anyone provides the space for students to consider their responses before sharing them aloud. Creating space for thinking before reacting can combat the notion that immediacy is more valuable than thoughtful contemplation.
■ Do not restate what students say. Encourage students to listen to their peers without deciphering for them. When we step in to translate, we are the ones being good listeners, not allowing students to practice the skills we are teaching them.
■ Encourage students to respond to one another’s ideas. Ask students to react, rephrase, or question what they have just heard a peer say. By encouraging students to dialogue without your intervention, they begin to see the nature of a positive communicative relationship.
■ Establish listening guidelines early in the year and practice them frequently. This can include expectations such as maintaining eye contact, not interrupting, and avoiding distractions. SLANT (sit up, lean forward, ask and answer questions, nod your head, and track the speaker) is a common acronym used in classrooms that sets clear expectations for what good listening looks like. Provide feedback frequently and early to help students pick up productive listening habits from the onset.
■ Model good listening. Be an exemplar to students by demonstrating how to follow, genuinely listen, and take a moment before you respond. Model how contemplation is an integral part of meaningful dialogue. Have an open conversation with a colleague in front of your class, then have students analyze what you both do as listeners and speakers.
■ Teach notetaking. Explicit instruction on how to listen to a speaker, determine the salient points, and then quickly rephrase those ideas can benefit students, especially as they approach college and higher-level courses in high school. College students have shared on YouTube their notetaking processes, tips, and tricks, and students might be more receptive to advice from a slightly older, more experienced peer.
■ Create more opportunities for group and partner work. Listening to their peers is even more important, but it is too often undervalued in schools. Providing activities where students work collaboratively and then share their findings helps them be responsible for the work and fosters positive relationships. I regularly ask students to brag about what their partners shared in their discussions.
■ Talk about what they see good listeners doing. We often learn from watching others being successful, so ask students to tell you what they see good listeners doing. You can have them talk in groups and then stop midway to discuss what they saw active listeners doing. When they return to the conversation, they will be more conscious of their own listening since they have just reviewed what good listeners do.
■ Provide models for what positive discussions look like. There are a plethora of videos online that demonstrate positive classroom examples of classroom conversations and debates. Watch and analyze with students what works in these discussions and create a list of what good speakers and listeners do. Then provide an opportunity to have an open discussion and focus on the implementation of appropriate listening strategies.
■ Change how you check for understanding. If you often ask, “Does that make sense?,” switch to asking, “Can you rephrase what I have said?” If you do this often enough, students will become more conscious of their listening because they know you are going to ask them to rephrase what you have said instead of just nodding yes or no.
Implementing these changes in my classroom has allowed students to take up the charge to listen carefully and demonstrates to students that listening takes effort. Students also report feeling more confident, especially in other classrooms where listening is essential to their academic success. Explicitly learning to listen well can be a powerful tool to support learning both in the classroom and beyond.
So if Winston Churchill is right, then we must teach our students to have the courage to sit down and listen as well as stand up and speak.
Listening is a skill to be explicitly taught, practiced, and assessed. It is a political act that, if done well, can foster a sense of agency in our students. When they know how to listen well, they can engage more richly in public debate, and it builds a conscious awareness of all they hear and see in our world. We have focused too narrowly on giving voice to our students, and we have forgotten to provide them with a listening ear (Campbell).
Katie Alford is an assistant professor of education at McKendree University in southern Illinois. She taught high school English, ESL, and reading in Tempe, Arizona, for ten years before pursuing a career in higher education. She has been a member of NCTE since 2005 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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