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Active Listening in the Classroom: Strategies for Creating Powerful Student Listeners
By: Ron Nash
Do school environments encourage active listening?
I often pose the following two questions in my presentations to educators: “How many of you had a speech class in college?” Almost every hand goes up. “How many have had a listening class in college?” One or two sets of hands. We still inhabit a professional environment, in classrooms and in training workshops, where talk is king – rattling on from the front of the room, that is. When I began my teaching career five decades ago, I truly believed talking was teaching, and silence on the part of my students was golden. After all, I had much information to impart because I had many centuries of American or European history to cover. Time was of the essence in my classroom, and I had no idea that, sometimes, less is more.
My experience as a student in high school and college had reinforced that belief; I had many a college professor who talked from yellowed notes. Lecturing was – and still is in many classrooms – the main mode of delivery. When I am in classrooms in a coaching capacity, I watch the kids, not the teacher. What I often see is one student after another going to a better place in their minds, until the whole class is, mentally at least, somewhere else. They have learned to look at the teacher and smile, however, which often led me, in my early years, to think I had their attention. I didn’t.
I thought, “Pay attention, Eddie!” was the be-all and end-all of listening, aka “Sit up and pretend to listen!” It took me a long time to realize that active listening is a critical part of the learning – and teaching – process. Inviting students to pause, reflect, pair, and share allows them to take part in their own learning – what a concept! I have found in my personal life that those with whom I am conversing appreciate it when I listen to what they are saying, without being otherwise distracted. The same is true in classrooms; teachers and students alike can learn to listen to what others are saying.
Why is active listening in the classroom important?
As teachers and students come back into classrooms after a long period of mostly virtual learning, building relationships becomes paramount if we want students to communicate effectively and work collaboratively. A student’s willingness to listen in classrooms, “is a marker of emotional regulation,” affirm Frey, Fisher, & Smith (2019). “Unfortunately, for a lot of students, the opposite of speaking is waiting to speak again, rather than listening” (p. 102). Teachers can model effective listening skills, but there is no substitute for having students practice those skills in the classroom with classmates, beginning with pairs.
Students who learn to talk constructively with classmates on a regular basis are developing social capital that will serve them well in life, college, and the workplace. Teachers and administrators can plan ways to develop those skills at each grade level, so that social skills are improved seamlessly from the elementary school all the way up through high school. Listening is not a “soft” skill; it is a key component of communication and collaboration, and it must be a part of the social development of students in all subject areas, not just language arts. Every teacher at every level can model and teach effective listening skills.
Listening is not a “soft” skill; it is a key component of communication and collaboration, and it must be a part of the social development of students in all subject areas, not just language arts. @RonNash20 via @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet
2 examples of how to promote active listening in the classroom
There are many things students can do as they practice active listening skills with partners or in groups. If the listener is confused, she can ask the speaker to clarify something he just said, or she can ask a question that would help clarify what the speaker intended. In face-to-face conversations, nonverbal cues are incredibly helpful for a student who may feel uncomfortable sharing something with a classmate in a seated or standing pair share.
1. Nonverbal cues
One of the things missing in the flurry of texts that go back and forth between kids today is body language. A text may be received, and the person who received it may misinterpret the message; indeed, the message may be indecipherable, and the person who sent the message may have turned off the phone at a time when the receiver is in need of an explanation or some feedback related to the message. It is the same with emails.
Face-to-face communication brings with it the opportunity to clear things up immediately, or to let a bit of body language contribute to a clear understanding of the speaker’s message. Jeff Zwiers, in Next Steps with Academic Conversations (2019), points out that students need to use—and practice—nonverbal cues (head nods, eye contact, gestures) with partners in the classroom. Teachers can model these cues, but, as with any other skill, nothing beats repeated practice. According to Zwiers, “A lot of the fluency in using these cues develops from immersion in conversations with a wide range of others” (p. 22). In my workshops with educators, we practice these nonverbal cues, along with one of the best strategies for understanding what someone else just said: paraphrasing.
2. Paraphrase for understanding
Students who step outside their comfort zones to share something with a partner in the classroom want to be understood. The listener has an obligation, in that situation, to seek to understand, and to let the speaker know they are understood. Body language can help with that, but taking the time to pause, then paraphrase, will help seal the deal. Pausing after your partner is finished speaking (and looking away briefly), gives both the speaker and the listener time to relax for a short period of time and think. Making eye contact again and declaring, “What you’re saying is…” gives the speaker a chance to hear what he said played back to him in real time, and it allows him to either confirm that what the listener said is true or off the mark. Any confusion as to what the speaker said can, therefore, be cleared up on the spot. It also, according to Zwiers, will “help the partner and the conversation stick to the topic and build the intended idea” (p. 54). Again, this takes practice, with the speaking and listening roles being reversed, even in the same conversation.
I watched a second-grade class with 24 students paraphrase with different partners for the better part of 10 minutes. They did it as well as I have seen, and they felt comfortable paraphrasing with maybe five or six different partners during the activity. The teacher told me later on that she begins the year with students standing, pairing, and sharing in order to become accustomed to working with others. She told me working in pairs helped them succeed in larger groups. There is no short cut here, and no worksheet or lecture can prepare students to work cooperatively and effectively in pairs, trios, or quartets. On-the-job training is the only way I know to help students become better listeners.
Resources: Books by Author Ron Nash
- Big Little Things: 40 Tools for Building a Better Classroom
- The Power of We: Creating Positive and Collaborative Classroom Communities
- And What About You? Getting Started with Interactive Pairs and Small Groups
- In Praise of Foibles: The Impact of Mistakes, Failure, and Fear on Continuous Improvement in Schools
- Virtual Book Study – In Praise of Foibles: The Impact Mistakes, Failure, and Fear on Continuous Improvement in Schools
Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Smith, D. (2019). All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond. ASCD.
Zwiers, J. (2019). Next Steps with Academic Conversations: New Ideas for Improving Learning Through Classroom Talk. Stenhouse.
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