Teaching Active Listening Skills

In today’s world, teaching students to be effective, active listeners, is a vital task. In an environment of quick click, constant scrolling, pithy soundbites, the ability to be fully present to the people speaking around us is a significant skill to develop. But that is just it: it is a skill to be mastered and constantly worked on; it requires plenty of practice to fully develop the effective habits of a good listener. As teachers, we need to provide students with opportunities to discuss, exchange ideas, and listen meaningfully; we also need to give them the tools to do so effectively. 

Why Teach Listening Skills? 
There are countless reasons why learning to become a good listener is important: not just in terms of developing critical thinking abilities, but also learning to be an empathetic human being. Some such reasons include (but are not limited to) the following: 
  • When we listen effectively, we open ourselves up to opportunities for learning and personal growth
  • As good listeners, we improve our ability to think critically, by being able to fully engage in a more informed way.
  • Displaying the attributes of a good listener makes space for others to be able to express themselves openly, helping to build relationships and exchange ideas.
  • True listening helps avoid misunderstandings, and limits the potential for just talking past one another. 
  • When really listening to the thoughts and ideas of others, we can develop empathy and compassion.
If the above goals are reached, we set students up to be more active learners, effective communicators, and attuned critical thinkers.  But how do we practically do so in the classroom?

1. Provide Opportunities for Listening
(Almost) every lesson should provide students with ample opportunities to exercise their listening skills. Whether it is through listening to instructions and lectures, paired conversations, class discussions, or media experiences: students should be encouraged to actively listen to others, over and over again. Yet, more importantly, they should be regularly reminded, when doing so, that they need to be exercising the skills of a good listener, and they should be reflecting on their own skill development in this area. 

2. But what are the Attributes of an Effective Listener?
Click to purchase these LISTENING SKILLS POSTERS
You certainly know it when you encounter a good listener, and this can be a great place to start: ask students who comes to mind when they think of somebody they know personally, who really listens when one talks to them. Discuss what makes them such a good example, and mindmap these attributes on a piece of chart paper. Students will, most likely, describe someone who listens with their whole body, leans into conversations, makes eye contact, gives visual cues such as nodding or smiling; somebody who asks thoughtful follow up questions, who doesn’t interject with their opinions when you are speaking to them; somebody who isn’t clearly distracted while listening, who isn’t merely thinking about what they want to say next; someone who gives positive reinforcement during a conversation and remembers what you say; somebody who picks up on the emotions and feelings of a speaker as they are fully present to the moment of listening; somebody who remembers what was said in a speech or lecture, and can summarize it effectively. If students aren’t forthcoming with these attributes, ask scaffolded questions to draw them out. Then, leave this mindmap up on the classroom wall to regularly reference and remind students. 
3. Give Students the Tools to Practice 
We cannot just tell students: “be good listeners”. We need to give them tangible tools to help them develop these skills. The activity mentioned above can be a great starting point, but there are other ways to reinforce the concepts. For example: 
  • When holding a class discussion, pause halfway and ask students: “How is your body language right now indicating whether or not you are listening?” 
  • When watching a TEDtalk or video clip, teach students to sketchnote as a way of listening to the ideas presented, and engaging with them, rather than daydreaming and drifting off. 
  • Engage in paired discussion time where one person remains completely silent for a set time (usually a minute or two) and simply listens, then echoes back to the speaker what they have heard them say.
  • During group discussions, split the class into two and have an outer circle observe and play the role of “listeners.” During the discussion they could try and visually represent what is said through drawings or diagrams. At the end, they can be asked to summarize common threads or conflicting arguments. 

4. Model Good Listening Skills
This one cannot be emphasized enough: students are highly observant of the behaviors we exhibit in the classroom. We cannot expect them to be effective listeners if they see us not valuing the skill. While it can be difficult to be fully present to what a student is saying when we have a million and one thoughts rushing around our brain during a lesson, we need to make sure that when a student is expressing thoughts and ideas, we - as the teacher - are engaging fully with eye contact, giving visual cues to listening, echoing back what has been said, validating contributions, etc. The more we do this, the more opportunities we give students to learn from our demonstrations.

5. Encourage Students to Reflect on their Listening Abilities 
Self-reflection is a vital aspect of any meaningful learning opportunity (see here for more on teaching students to be self-reflective), and equally so for the acquisition of good listening skills. All too often, students think that if they are hearing others, they are listening. But we need to make them more aware of their actual proficiency in this area, and instill a mindset of growth and improvement. As a regular bell-ringer exercise ask students: How well did you listen in class today? How could you have been a more active listener today? Download this FREE reflection page to help students reflect on their listening skills

Earnest Hemmingway said: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Let’s take his advice and teach our students to listen completely

Looking for other resources for LISTENING SKILLS? Check these out: 
by Room 213
by Tracee Orman
by The Daring English Teacher
by Nouvelle ELA

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