Listening is a 21st-Century Skill

students listening

By Scott Petri

In order to be academically successful, students must leave high school with a working understanding of about 50,000 words. Good vocabulary teaching involves a lot of talk and practice using language. Listening to academic vocabulary being used correctly is an important first step in helping students gain confidence before they start speaking with new words.

That said, most social studies teachers probably do not consider themselves ELA teachers or feel the need to teach listening. However, research shows that students learn 55% of their academic vocabulary in social studies. Listening is a key component of strong social studies instruction, and is often integrated into primary learning, but then unfortunately fades away.

Speaking and listening standards have become the forgotten part of the Common Core. Few schools or districts formally assess them. A 2015 UCLA study found a majority of social studies teachers struggled to explain how they helped students develop speaking and listening skills. These teachers reported using small and whole-group discussions regularly, but their students were rarely (if ever) assessed on their participation and only 15% of teachers surveyed spoke confidently about their speaking & listening instruction.

Teach Listening First

Research shows that students can listen two to three grade levels above what they can read. Listening while reading helps people have successful reading events, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy.

Most importantly for teaching students career readiness skills, listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek. Although most of us spend the majority of our day listening, it is the communication activity that receives the least instruction in school.

Source: GMAC (2014) Corporate Recruiters Survey. Figure 11, p. 19.

Very few educators provide instruction in listening. We assume that every student can listen, if they will just stop talking. As a result of this, students do not understand that listening is an active process that is under their control. Many students don’t listen to each other simply because no one has shown them how.

Sound expert Julian Treasure implored his TED audience to teach listening in schools. He offers a mnemonic so educators can teach every student to Receive (pay attention), Appreciate (nod at the speaker, smile, make eye contact), Summarize (so?), and Ask questions (about what was said)–RASA.

Just as students struggle to identify inferences and bias in texts, they need practice and extensive coaching before they can learn to listen between the lines and hear the big picture. Students report greater comprehension when they ask questions, manage their interest levels, and discuss what they just heard. Although social scientists report that listening and nonverbal communication training positively influences multicultural sensitivity, more research is needed to examine the link between listening and building empathy, which is presently a crucial component in Social Emotional Learning and Restorative Justice programs.

Embed Teaching Listening Throughout Your Curriculum

I enjoy using a couple of resources for teaching listening throughout my curriculum. Listenwise, a company that aligns National Public Radio content with content standards in ELA, Social Studies and Science, helps my students take this skill seriously. My high school students listen to the selected three to seven minute audio clip and then take a multiple choice assessment to test their listening comprehension.

Overall I have assigned 11 listening quizzes to my students and on average, students have been able to answer 72.8% of the questions correctly. This represents a substantial improvement over a study which found that people could only remember 17.2% of what they heard on the news. The overwhelming majority of my students felt the Listenwise content they listened to in class helps to increase their understanding of the material in their textbooks.

I also use the website 15 Minute History to create note-taking drills that build listening stamina and focus. First, I review the transcript and create questions that test how well students listened for main ideas, point of view, made inferences, and understood academic vocabulary. Then I divide the class into four groups:

  • Group A: Is not allowed to take notes.
  • Group B: Takes notes but turns them in after the lecture.
  • Group C: Takes notes and uses them on the test.
  • Group D: Takes notes, uses them and gets the transcript.

After listening, all of the students take the same quiz. Typically there is a 35% gap between Group A and Group D. This teaches students the value of taking notes and listening intently. I do not grade these activities on a traditional percentage basis. Instead, I look at the distribution of scores, divide them into four to five ranges or listening proficiency bands, and see if I can show growth over time.
Percentage of questions each group answered correctly out of 15 questions

Students need practice listening to each other and many enjoy engaging in whole-class discussions, but this is a difficult format for one teacher to master. Monitoring who participates, how often they participate and keeping the flow of conversation collegial can be challenging. Many teachers worry classroom conversations can veer off course. The Constitutional Rights Foundation offers a civil conversation model to guide students through controversial issues (a recent issue discussing Syrian refugees is timely and necessary for all Social Studies students).

Focus on the Goal of Listening Comprehension

Understanding is the goal of listening. Teachers need to prepare students to actively listen, avoid distractions and engage in conversations around what they just listened to. Author Erik Palmer suggests before students engage in purposeful listening, their teachers should tell them what to attend to. We need to teach students what to respond to, how to respond and when to respond. Fortunately, educational leaders are responding to the emphasis on college and career readiness skills.

What professional learning activities are you creating for your teachers so they can increase their listening instruction? How is your school or district supporting its Professional Learning Communities to assist educators embarking on this journey? Leave me a comment below or tag me on Twitter to let me know.

For more, see:

Scott Petri is a high school social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Follow him on twitter @scottmpetri 

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Thom Markham

Important for PBL teachers to remember that a good, team-based PBL project teaches ALL Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards. You can't design a project WITHOUT meeting these standards.

Erika D Copeland

I am an early childhood educator, I was just doing my bible study and I like to dig deeper. I got across this article and I completely agreed. I'm also a second language speaker, listening has helped me in my personal and professional life. I was reading Proverbs 16:20, and got to learn something more about listening to instruction. I appreciate the information which is giving me another perspective and approach when working with my own children and my students in understanding the importance of listening. God bless you.

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