What Does Good Listening Look Like?

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“Much has been made for teacher modeling in literacy literature, followed by guided practice, and independent work.  Understandably, teachers have taken this to mean that they must model and think aloud constantly.  However, at times less is more, and teachers must also model what good listening looks like.”  ( Mason and Gallaway IRA, Reading Today Feb/Mar 2012.

Students often hear the command listen. Listen for what?  If I listened but don’t understand what I heard, what should I do? What if I disagree with what I heard, what could I say? What if I agree but have another idea or would like to add on to what was said?  I think these were the questions I never thought my students who were listening might have much less support those who seem to not know how to pay attention.

In implementing Turn and Talk, partners take turns talking and it is assumed they also Turn and Listen. But often, that is not the case. How do I know?  When I ask, “So what did your partner say?”  The responses are often “I forgot.”  “I didn’t understand what he said.” This really lead me think about how am I teaching my students how to listen.

At first, I would model listening and using the sentence starters to respond to what I heard students were saying.  I would say, I heard ___ say, ____. Is that right?  I agree with ___.  Now when you Turn and Talk, listen to see if you agree.  In whole group share out, students would say, “Hey, he stole my idea!” Or “Hey, that’s what I was going to say.  This presented a perfect opportunity to teach them they could say instead,  “I  agree.” When they did, they would  say “I agree with __.”  They were asked to repeat what they heard before saying I agree.  As a side note in case someone was wondering, I purposely did not write out the sentence stems because I just really wanted them to focus on listening and responding appropriately and not having them “read” a stem before speaking. I have observed that stems could sometimes become the end rather than the means to an end. Besides, I had more than half of my class reading below a level 2 and I just wanted them to focus ALL their energy on listening and speaking.  Next, we worked on adding to what someone said.  When someone would share an incorrect answer, students were quick to say “ I disagree.”  This told me they were listening! I reinforced this by giving the responder the specific praise, “You were really listening.”  

As students developed the habit of listening for whether their classmates had the same idea or a different idea, we moved into asking for clarification. At this time, I had introduced Clara the Clarifier from Lori Oczkus’ book Reciprocal Teaching. When we come to a word we don’t know or don’t understand something, we need to ask for clarification.  This provided the hook to what it means to clarify.  Again, modeling the listening and responding paid off! Now, students ask for clarification if they don’t understand what the person is saying.

As an example of a How-To for Writer’s Workshop, I used the topic How to Listen.  When I got to the final step “Respond to the speaker,” we started to generate a list of ways to respond based on what we think we heard. 

Stephen Covey, in his book the 8th Habit, writes, “Communication is without question the most important skill in life. There are basically four modes of communication: reading, writing, speaking and listening.  And most people spend two-thirds to three fourths of their waking hours doing those four things.  Of those four communication modes, the one that represents 40 to 50 percent of our communication time is listening – the one mode we have the least training in. Most of us have had years and years of training in reading, writing and speaking.  But no more than about 5 percent of us have had more than two weeks of formal training in how to listen.”

Many articles suggest that Oral Language Development is the bridge to closing the achievement gap. Increasing student talk is definitely a step forward. While there are listening standards, there are not too many How To's on teaching listening.  

As teachers, we are accustomed to speaking to impart the knowledge of our content areas on our students.  When students speak, we assess their understanding of that knowledge.  If they get it right they must be listening. If they get it wrong, they must have not been listening.  We give them a grade and move one.  If what Covey says is true then taking the time to work on listening seems to be a logical step if we want to give students a life skill that will serve them well in addition to reading and writing.