When Teaching Literacy, Our Definition of Listening Is Too Narrow

I sometimes get emails from an organization about improving student listening skills. They point out that speaking and listening are not being addressed in schools and claim that listening is a key piece of the “literacy puzzle.” 

Kudos to educators who focus on these forgotten language arts! For years, English teachers have been focused only on “reading and writing.” If you look at conferences, Twitter feeds, and educators’ blogs, you will see “reading and writing” so many times that it will seem as if we ought to just adopt a new word: readinganwriting. You never see “reading, writing, and speaking” or “reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” This reveals an enormous blind spot.

The most critical language arts—the ones upon which almost all learning depend—are ignored. Are all students competent listeners? Isn’t it apparent to all educators that students generally do not speak particularly well? Yet no one seems to think that we ought to start paying attention to these language arts. We seem to not realize that speaking and listening are teachable, too.

The organization suggests playing audio clips of interesting news stories for your students and then asking comprehension questions about the stories. If I use a story I heard on National Public Radio about how China is no longer buying plastic waste from the U.S., for example, and ask online comprehension questions, I wonder if that is sufficient. Does listening to the news teach listening skills? What do my questions really measure? Is this a test of comprehension skills, checking to see if students understand what a main idea is? While the main idea may be “China has stopped buying our discarded plastic,” a child may report that container ships arrived in the United States from China with goods made in China and, instead of going back empty, were being filled with plastic. The student listened well but had difficulty with the concept of main idea. Is this a memory test? A question such as, “What reasons did they give for why China doesn’t buy plastic anymore?” may assess remembering more than listening. 

Putting those issues aside for a moment, notice all the elements of listening that were never asked about:

  • The story had a little music at the start as the reporter introduced himself. Did you notice it? Is the music important? Why do you think the music was added? What does music contribute to a story?
  • At one point, some sound effect was playing as the speaker was talking. What was that noise? Did you realize it was noise from a recycling plant? Did you hear glass tinkling? Did you hear the conveyor belt running? Why do you think they added that sound? Does it help you understand the story?
  • How well does the reporter speak? Was his voice clear? Did he have feeling and emotion in his voice? Is there a certain style of talking that news people have? Is that the way you speak?
  • Sometimes the reporter played a clip of other people speaking. Did hearing the voice of the recycling plant manager add to the story? Did hearing the voice of the environmental scientist affect your understanding of the problem? If the reporter had just told you what they said instead of playing a recording of their voices, would it have made any difference?
  • How well did the plant manager and the scientist speak? Did they have different styles from each other and from the reporter? Who was your favorite to listen to? Why? What makes someone fun to listen to? 

We don’t have to be media literacy experts to think of these questions. We simply need to realize that good listeners should be able to do much more than repeat what someone said. Because messages come with sounds and music attached, listeners should be asked to think about the audio elements of messages. Because speaking skills can dramatically affect the way we receive messages, listeners should be able to identify the skills needed to be an effective speaker and to critique the speakers they hear. If we fail to teach students how to listen to all the elements of what they hear, we risk creating passive consumers of media instead of astute, active thinkers about media.

Bottom line: It’s time to broaden our ideas of listening. If we really want to improve listening skills, we need to listen to much more than words.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on HMH's new K–12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.

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