Listening Skills Can Be Learned

Researcher K. L. Erickson says, "We listen a book a day, we speak a book a week, we read a book a month, and we write a book a year."

This statement underscores the need to develop a skill that is often neglected: listening. Humans communicate through listening and speaking approximately 70 percent of the time, yet the majority of language arts instructional time is spent teaching children to read and write.

When all children arrive in the school setting, they have been practicing listening and speaking since birth. They have listened well enough to know the fundamental structure of their native language and to use this knowledge when they speak, even if they may not apply all the rules of standard English.

On the other hand, fewer and fewer youngsters have been exposed to the concepts they must learn before they can read and write proficiently. Mastering the complex functions involved in becoming literate is challenging for most students, grades 1-12. It is no wonder schools feel compelled to concentrate on literacy skills and rank oral communication development as a lesser priority, giving it a limited amount of instructional time.

Nonetheless, classrooms throughout our nation do regularly provide opportunities for students to hone their speaking abilities. Children routinely participate in show-and-tells, oral reports, class discussions, dramatizations, and dozens of other spoken language activities throughout their public school years.

It is instruction in listening, then, that gets left behind. Parents and teachers can work together to help students become better listeners as the students process information for meaning or when they make a critical judgment.

One way of making sure information has been heard accurately is by taking and making notes. While watching the evening news, or another brief informational programming, students can take notes on the left side of a sheet of paper about facts they hear. After viewing, they can make notes on the right side of the same sheet — notes that include questions, ideas, comments or summaries of their notetaking. The notemaking part of this activity helps students really engage in comprehension, rather than merely writing facts down in a mechanical way.

Listening to make a critical judgment can be improved when listeners are aware of common propaganda techniques. Watch commercials to pick out post hoc fallacies (asserting unproved cause-and-effect relationships), card stacking (presenting only favorable facts about a product), and bandwagoning ("everybody is buying this product, so you should, too").

Naturally, these and other propaganda techniques aren’t limited to advertising! Five minutes of family discussion about faulty logic used on television will help young people listen more critically when they hear political speeches, civic debates and even arguments between friends.

For all the importance of reading, writing and speaking proficiency in our students’ lives, let’s not forget that the real key to their future success may be in how well they can listen to and understand the communication of others.