Skip to main content

Listen Up

Hello? Do you hear me? Are you there? Do you have a response? I ask these questions pretty consistently in my classroom after I pose a question and a sea of emotionless faces just stare back in my direction. Julian Treasure, a sound expert, stated that "listening is our access to understanding," but if our students are not responding, how do we know they are listening? To make matters worse, in our society today, most people are disengaged from conversations because their eyes and attention are glued to their phones. We are "great" multitaskers, but the question becomes, do we actually listen when we are not 100% focused on the topic at hand?

The art of listening - passive and active listening - has taken over my mind this week as I visit World Language classrooms and struggle to comprehend the lesson, activity, and expectations because the teachers are speaking in a different language. I've had to listen very carefully, ask students for clarification, and also discuss what I observed with the teacher. While I took numerous years of Spanish, I have not used it consistently enough to be fluent. With this, I understand bits and pieces while visiting Spanish classes, but I have to listen closely. Very closely. If we need to listen in order to understand, how can we demonstrate our comprehension? This is the difficult question that teachers must tackle on a daily basis in any classroom. Through my observations, I've considered three ways we can empower our students to listen in the classroom:

1. Practice and Exposure
Students need to be given numerous opportunities to listen - both in class and out of class. At times, we need to ask our students to disconnect from their phones and Chromebooks and just listen to the teacher or students they are working with. Teachers must put expectations in place in order for this to be a consistent part of the classroom environment. Other times, we must ask students to listen to some sort of media - song, video, presentation, and so forth. Spanish teacher, Mr. Arnoldo Gonzalez, explained the importance of training the students' ear when it comes to learning the language. He encourages his students to be exposed to the new language outside of class by watching TV or listening to music in Spanish and really listening to the language. Teachers can also share these resources on Google Classroom if students need access. Similarly, Ms. Lucy Tiffin believes that exposure to the language is extremely important and conducts her classes almost all in the Spanish Language. With this consistency, students are always able to practice their listening skills, and she utilizes gestures and emotions in order to help them listen and understand.

2. Modeling and Patience 
If we expect our students to be good listeners, we must model effective listening. How can we do this? We must actively listen to our students and ask questions, respond, or build on what they said to demonstrate our understanding. For World Language teachers, this task becomes even more important because they must listen and evaluate the student's use of the language. Ms. Tiffin and Mr. Gonzalez both did this so well in their classes because they listened, helped, coached, and encouraged their students as they struggled to formulate a question/response in the new language. Both teachers asked follow up questions and for clarification when needed. They were patient and made the student feel like they were really listening to what he/she had to say. Modeling and patience = keys to success. Also, I've witnessed students struggle to answer questions posed by a teacher. Instead of dismissing the student, the World Language teachers have given them time to think by asking for another student to respond and then coming back to the original student. With this, students are not embarrassed but also not let off the hook. They can ask a classmate, look through notes, or even just collect themselves before answering the question. It is essential to model this type of patience when listening to others because at times, people just need a second to formulate a response...and nothing is wrong with that!

3. Expectations and Application 
Teachers need to provide clear expectations for their students when it comes to establishing the focus for listening. By coaching them through this process, we can help them realize what they have to listen for and also ask them to evaluate themselves based on their understanding of the expectations. For example, in Ms. Marge Urbanowicz's Spanish classes, she asked the students to listen to a recording in the Spanish language multiple times.They were given numerous questions to answer while listening in order to check for understanding. She didn't expect them to get it all on the first try; instead, she gave them opportunities for understanding and more exposure to the language itself. I also learned that many World Language teachers have their students record their conversations with group members during class and then go back and actually listen to what they said and how they said it. Students can then take ownership of their language by listening and evaluating themselves based on the expectations provided by the teacher. Screencastify, Flipgrid, and the camera on a cell phone can all easily be used to complete this process.

In addition, we must provide opportunities for students to listen to one another and then demonstrate their understanding. Academic discussions and Socratic Seminars are great for this purpose. Before throwing students into the discussion, however, we must teach our students the difference between passive listening and active listening. If a student is listening and understanding, how can they show others that they understand and are thinking about what the heard? The answer is simple: Opportunities for thoughtful responses. In Mr. Ben Tatham's classes, the students prepared to take on various roles for an upcoming assessment. Not all students will be taking the assessment; some will be evaluating their classmates based on what they hear and observe. Students will have to listen, reflect, and provide feedback based on a rubric. From there, students will have to demonstrate their listening and evaluation by meeting with Mr. Tatham and explaining their observations. What a great way to apply various skills! Want to try something like this? Try opening up a backchannel while students complete a speaking activity. Ask the rest of the class to listen, comment, question, and analyze what their classmates have to say. Today's Meet, Google + Communities, Padlet, and Twitter are all great options for this type of activity.

In my opinion, one of the best compliments a person can receive is that he/she is a great listener. Let's teach our students how to listen and provide them with authentic experiences where they can practice this valuable skill. #listenup #whatsup

Still curious? Watch Julian Treasure's TED Talk, "5 Ways to Listen Better."


  1. After reading this in depth post about classroom discussions, I was reminded of an Edutopia post from the past about conversations in the classroom.


Post a Comment