Most children come to school armed with only one way to learn – listening. Almost all of us were born doing it. Indeed, for the first few years of formal education, listening is an integral part of teaching. But something happens around first and second grade, when students learn to read. Slowly the read aloud books and storytime are phased out, replaced instead by silent reading.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with silent reading. I’m a big reader myself. But I grew up in a family that loved listening, especially to the news. From an early age I learned to tune in closely to the tone, subject, background noise in a story. My love of voice and listening led me to my career as a public radio reporter.
We spend 65-90% of our time listening and yet it’s a skill that is almost entirely overlooked in the K12 classroom. Once a student learns to read, there’s no time spent on improving listening. And yet research shows that listening comprehension is closely tied to reading comprehension through 8th grade and beyond. Our education system needs to do better.
The new Common Core standards have recognized the importance of this skill. The Common Core seeks to improve students’ skills and knowledge across a wide spectrum of learning skills. And for the first time in the history of education, it elevates listening to an anchor skill, cutting across the curriculum and applicable in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Speaking and Listening Standard requires students to interpret information from diverse media formats and to delineate specific arguments and claims.
How do you improve listening? Most of the research on this topic is related to learning a second language, not on becoming a better listener in your native language. But there’s much to learn from these studies. One research study examines how a listener uses cognitive listening strategies to make sense of what they are hearing and metacognitive listening strategies to monitor the process of listening. Am I still listening? How do I get back on track? How do I understand that word? In the paper, Laura Januski PhD says a cognitive strategy might just be for the listener to grasp the main point of the story. A metacognitive strategy would be to check perceptions during listening to assess understanding.
There is no accurate instrument to measure listening in your first language, according to Janusik. There is a tool that measures listening to English as a second language, but it is focused on thinking about and responding to a second language. Without a tool to measure where we are and how we can get better, how will we improve listening? We must work to build better listening measures so we can build better listeners.
If you tell a good story, people listen better. This is pretty intuitive, but there’s research out of Hebrew University that provides evidence to support this scientifically. Teachers exhaust themselves everyday in front of the classroom telling stories about history, science and other subjects. But there are plenty of resources that can help make this process easier. The website Listenwise, for instance (full disclosure, I founded this website), curates public radio stories and readies them for the classroom with wrap around lesson plans. Or teachers can use Narrable to help students tell the stories themselves.
The storytelling on public radio is unmatched in quality. The structure of public radio stories includes academic language, problem solving, and thought-provoking ideas. And the speakers’ accents and the sounds in the background of these stories can take your students around the world – without ever leaving the classroom. A study called Learning to Talk and Listen by the National Institute for Literacy shows that from a very early age “sharing stories helps children build oral language in a variety of ways—developing children’s speaking and listening skills, introducing new concepts or information, and increasing both vocabulary and the ability to define and explain the meanings of new words.”
Digital storytelling can also be an effective way to teach writing, as this Edudemic blogpost points out. But if you don’t have the time, tools or inclination to have your students actually make the stories, you can at least have them listen to some awesome storytelling.
It’s nothing new to teachers of English as a Second Language that listening is one of the best ways to learn English. Listening comprehension is a fundamental building block of reading comprehension. Edudemic recently featured a resource guide on strategies for teaching ELLS.
There are also studies that have found that if you add same language subtitling to the listening experience or to a video, literacy and language acquisition improve. The largest study about same language subtitling has an unlikely source as its subject: Bollywood songs on TV that run in India with English subtitles and are watched by millions of people in India who are minimally able to read. In this study,researchers discovered that kids were learning to read by watching Bollywood films on TV and reading along. They were even writing down the song lyrics to memorize them and share with friends. The study showed that exposure to same language captioning in film songs contributed positively to decoding skills.
While this is something that researcher Brij Kothari noticed casually, he has since devoted his career and created a non-profit organization called Planet Read that’s dedicated to reading and literacy development.
Listening is a skill your students will be called on to use throughout their lives. When they get their first job, their boss will not hand them an app, a video game or a short film to explain their job. Their role and responsibilities will be described to them verbally. They will have to listen, digest and perform. Let’s all work to improve their listening skills because it could improve their performance in life.