Active listening is the process whereby the listener 'switches in' to what is being said. It is also referred to as 'Attending' - directing attention to what is being said.
The aim of this article is to present a broad range of practical teaching strategies that encourage active listening. Effective listening is a perceptual skill - it is not just a matter of good manners as a passive listener can appear well-mannered. It is imperative that we help pupils to understand the vital importance of the perceptual skill of listening in their own learning. It is also of vital importance that, as educators, we recognise the link between being a better listener and a better speaker. Twelve key strategies can be used to foster better listening in the Primary classroom -
Strategy One: Transformational Response
After listening to the teacher explaining something / a radio programme / a story being read etc pupils can be involved in Transformational response activities - turning what has been listened to into something else. The main benefit of this approach is the involvement of pupils in immediate review of what has been listened to. The key to the success of the Transformational Response strategy is 'variety'; transforming in as many modes as possible e.g.
Strategy Two: Discussion Partners
To apply this strategy the pupils should first be divided into pairs. They are then allocated either the letter A or the letter B. After an oral input by the teacher the pairs are asked to discuss what has been said. Partner A explains to partner B what the teacher has said and after an allocated time Partner B is asked to add anything that has been 'missed out'. This can be a useful way of 'chunking' a sustained oral input by the teacher: exchanging information with one's partner ensures that there is application of information. The pupils are involved in processing information and therefore are not passive listeners.
Strategy Three: Question Generation
Question generation is another processing strategy. After a period of listening pupils are asked to work in groups of four to produce questions for another group of four. The approach works best if pupils are told what is going to happen prior to listening - this affords a purpose whilst listening. It also allows the teacher to assess levels of understanding as it is not possible to produce questions if one has not listened and understood.
Strategy Four: Beyond KWL grids
KWL grids (What I Know already / What I Want to know / What I have Learned) are a popular part of Primary Practice. When introducing a new topic / area of learning the pupils are asked to say what they know already. Answers are added on a large sheet of paper under the heading 'What We Know already'. Pupils are then asked to say what they want to know about the new topic / area of learning. The teacher then inputs and after the input / activity pupils are asked to say what they have learned. (These answers are written under the heading 'What we have learned')
The approach can be extended using KWLW grids: What I Know already / What I Want to know / What I have Learned / What I Want to know now. The advantage of this simple extension is that it encourages further discussion and implicitly shows pupils that when we learn something new it often generates further questions beyond those that one had initially.
Strategy Five: Listening challenges
To initiate listening challenges the pupils are divided into groups of four or five. Each group is a 'team'. The teacher then explains that they are going to talk about a topic for a short period of time (5 minutes works well). No questions are allowed during this time and teams should listen without taking notes. At the end of the input teams the pupils are asked a series of questions in order to ascertain the 'Listening Team of the week' ! It is essential that pupils work in groups thereby avoiding damaging the self-esteem of individuals with a 'low score'. The activity motivates pupils and explicitly encourages active listening.
Strategy Six: Debriefing
When organising a 'Debriefing' activity one group of pupils are assigned a non-related activity somewhere 'out of earshot'. These pupils should NOT be sitting without something useful and meaningful to do!
The remaining group then listen to something (between 5 and 10 minutes in length). After the listening session is complete they are asked to 'Debrief' the non-listening group who then have time to prepare a presentation back to the teacher and original group.
All pupils involved (and the teacher) then discuss what was included and what was missing. As with many of the other activities this encourages processing of information.
Strategy Seven: Main Point selection
'Main point selection' is another group activity. Pupils are divided into teams of three or four. These teams then listen to the teacher / cassette tape etc. At the end of the period of listening all teams are asked to write down a specified number of main points in short sentences. The number can be variable but it is best not to exceed ten. The teacher may wish to ask pupils to rank their main points from most to least important.
The strategy encourages group discussion and can be extended by asking all groups to show their lists. A discussion regarding why they have chosen their main points can then be elicited. This facilitates metacognitive processing - thinking about thinking!
Strategy Eight: Pupil-Teacher questioning
Pupil - Teacher questioning is a simple strategy whereby pupils are asked to question the teacher after an oral input. Although this often occurs in Primary classrooms one cannot overaccentuate the need to shift the transactional model from: Teacher as questioner / pupil as responder TO pupil as questioner / teacher as responder. Encouraging pupils to ask questions is a fundamental aspect of any effective speaking and listening programme.
Strategy Nine: Summarizing games
Similar to Main point selection, summarizing games encourage pupils to combine the main points of something they have heard into an oral summary which they read out. It is useful to attach a time limit e.g. 'Summary in 2 minutes'. A period of time is given for the pupils to produce the summary : the activity maximises discussion if it is conducted with groups of pupils. (Fours works well)
Strategy Ten: Response comparisons
Not so much an activity as a teaching strategy, response comparisons encourage pupils to listen to each other as well as the teacher. A response comparison is initiated when a teacher asks a question such as Does what Mary say support what Aziz said earlier? When asked on a regular basis the end result is that pupils more readily listen carefully to each other.
Strategy Eleven: In role listening
'In role listening' promotes persuasive talking; it is best played by dividing pupils into a Supporting Team and an Opposing Team. The teacher then introduces a controversial proposal and explains what is intended in detail e.g.
A motorway is about to be built through the school grounds. A large fence will be built to divide this from what remains of the playing field etc etc
The Supporting team then develops a presentation that explains the benfits of the approach and the Opposing Team prepares their presentation that highlights the weaknesses of the idea. The game helps pupils to assume alternative frames of reference and can be used as an adjunct to persuasive writing.
Strategy Twelve: Personal Response
This strategy works best after reading a piece of fiction or poetry. Pupils, in pairs, are asked to describe their feelings about the piece they have heard and to build in supporting evidence. With a lower Key Stage 2 class this works well if they are asked to include the word 'because' at least five times when justifying their response.
Active Listening is one of the tools that educators can use to raise standards. It is also an important life skill that pupils can use beyond the classroom and for this reason a structured approach to the teaching of active listening is of central importance in both a curricular context and in life itself.