Reading skills are very important to students of all ages, and teachers justly spend a lot of time working with students to build good reading skills. But most of the information students receive over the course of an average day is not presented as writing—it’s presented as sound.
Success in life depends on being able to listen. Listening to someone talk is not easy when you break it down. It means being able to understand intonation, accent, pacing, and vocabulary (formal and colloquial and sometimes from other languages). Pauses have to be interpreted as meaningful spaces for thought or just time for someone to take a breath. Changes in volume are interpreted. “Ums” and “uhs” and repetitions have to be filtered out.
That’s a lot of work to do. But auditory literacy is an important skill to help students build. For example, they will spend their lives listening to the news. This means listening to people being interviewed by reporters. Students will need strong auditory literacy to understand whether a reporter is leading, criticizing, or supporting the interviewee, and thereby attempting to influence how we, the listeners, respond. When a reporter paraphrases an interviewee, we need to be able to tell if that reporter is accurately summing up the other person’s statements or subtly changing them to say something else. When an interview turns into a sharp debate or even an argument, we need to be able to understand why this is happening and what has triggered the shift.
Listening to classroom peers, administrators, and teachers is similarly complex and equally important. It’s about more than “paying attention”; it’s about developing aural intelligence, to add a category to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. And it’s a crucially important intelligence to focus on, because listening is a high-stakes venture. Unlike with reading, students don’t have the opportunity for multiple iterations of an aural “text.” An announcement is made once over the loudspeaker and that’s it. A speaker at an assembly makes a presentation one time. Test instructions are read out and then the test begins. Students often have to be able to get listening right the first time.
What can you do to help? Have students practice listening as much as possible. Here are some options:
- NPR radio stories are available online as audio files, and they offer good practice listening to accents from around the world, high-level vocabulary, and interviews.
- YouTube has millions of videos that feature people giving instructions—how to do squats, how to play the guitar, etc. Have students start a video and then minimize the screen so they can’t watch it and have to rely on listening.
- Have students work in groups of four. Have two of the students debate a topic you provide to them (something non-controversial) for three minutes, while the other two students listen. Then have each of the listening students sum up the arguments they heard on both sides and let the debating students critique those summaries for accuracy, pointing out where they think the listening students did not hear them properly.
You can learn more about multiple intelligences at workshop 6, “The Mind’s Intelligences,” from Looking at Learning… Again.
How do you work on listening skills with your students?