Do you really listen? Many people lack really great listening skills, and so why should we be surprised if kids also are unable to listen. Listening skills are important in classrooms as they allow us to make sense of information communicated. Children with poor listening skills are disadvantaged immediately as they do not understand what is being taught, and have difficulty with social situations.
There is an exercise I like to do when teaching adults to communicate (though you can also use this exercise with all ages) It goes like this: people work in pairs, one person talks about a topic and the other person just listens. They are not even allowed to ask questions, only use non-verbal cues to keep the other person talking.
Believe or not, most people can’t get through this exercise without asking questions or worse yet, just talking about themselves instead of listening. However a good listener can keep the other person talking without a single word.
Listening skills are rarely part of any curriculum and so mostly we hope our students will be able to listen and are surprised when they don’t. Most teachers learn skills so they can communicate their message. However shouldn’t we also be helping kids learn skills to improve their own listening. Here are some practical ways to teach kids listening skills.
1. Show Leadership and model listening behaviour
One way that children learn social and communication skills is by copying what others do, especially adults. If you want children to listen then you have to also listen to them.
There are lots of activities where teachers can listen to kids. One of my favourites is where you brain storm ideas as you might do with creative writing. You are showing how to listen, you are modelling non-verbal language to encourage the speaker, asking questions for more information and writing down the information. All skills that we would like kids to have as well.
2. Play listening games in the classroom
There are plenty games and activities that encourage and build listening skills. They are useful as break out activities and also build useful skills.
- Simon Says is the classic game with a range of different variations.
- Drawing games, where one group describes a picture that the other group can’t see. They have to try and draw the picture from the description. It also teaches kids to put themselves in the other person’s position and clearly communicate.
- Follow instruction games. There are many of these. Maybe they have to follow a set of instructions to go to a location. Walk 3 steps forward, turn left, walk 2 steps, turn right etc, or maybe build something or solve a problem.
3. Get kids to explain information to others
Some people might call this turn and talk, and it works really well when you have self-paced activity time. When one child has finished a task that you taught them how to do, they then have to teach another student how to do that task.
4. Repeat it back
This is one of the tricks they use in the military. When an order is given to you personally, you can’t just say “Yes sir”, you have to repeat the instruction back to show that you were listening and understood the instruction.
Want to know if kids understand the instructions that you have given, ask them to repeat it back to you. If you have explained something to the whole class then ask students to tell you what you have told them. It is also a great way to find out if what you have said made sense to them.
The core skill here is called reflection. This is where we repeat what was said back to someone in our own words to clarify that we understood what was said. This can also be a great skill to model with students when we listen to them.
5. Getting kids to ask the right questions (active listening)
While paying attention, listening and understanding first time are important skills, learning how to ask the right questions when you don’t understand is another useful skill. A lot of the time when we think kids don’t listen in reality we have given them instructions that were wrong, incomplete or they failed to follow our meaning. A skill that they need to build up is asking intelligent questions when they don’t understand.
20 questions is the classic question asking game but you can incorporate question asking into any class. Great teachers often start by simply saying something like “We are going to play a game.” and then wait for the kids to ask “What game?”, “How many teams?”, “What is the size of the team?”, “How do we play?”
6. Story time
A great way to get kids, especially the younger ones, to actively listen is through stories. Great story readers are always asking the listener what they think is going to happen next, how different characters might be feeling and so on. This encourages thoughtful listening. Having stories read to them is also one of the best ways for young children to develop listening skills and increase concentration span.
The first thing any teacher or parent should do after reading this is to go out and practice their own listening skills. In fact writing this has reminded me that I should do some things to practice my own listening. It is not that we are bad listeners but really good listening is a difficult skill worth pursuing.
If we want kids to be great listeners we have to help them learn the skills be great listeners. Do you have any activities you use to build up listening skills in your students, then please share them in the comments section.
Bonus – Taboo
Here is a bonus game I use to help students learn to listen to multiple sources of information and filter out wrong, contradictory, unhelpful and extraneous information. This game comes under different names, such as Taboo, Hot Seat or I prefer to call it, Don’t Say That Word.
The class is divided up in the middle into two teams, with one team on the left of the classroom and one on the right of the class room. Volunteers from each team are brought to the front of the classroom. Usually I take two from each team so no one feels too shy. The players at the front face the other students so they can’t see the secret word that I will write on the board. Their classmates will give them clues until one of the players at the front calls out the correct word.
Now here is the trick. Players from the left side of the classroom stand on the right side of the room and the players from the right side of the classroom stand on the left side of the room. The other players will call out clues and the students at the front must guess the words. Students always complain, with everyone calling out clues it is hard to listen; which is exactly the point. The students at the front are being bombarded with sentences, clues, sounds, various signals, actions and so on. A lot of the clues are unhelpful and some are often wrong. For example, if you write the word money and someone thinks the word was actually monkey and starts talking about eating bananas and living in trees the students at the front have to filter out this information to work out the correct word.