Using Listening to Improve Historical Understanding

This school year, two colleagues and I have been conducting some research on speaking and listening skills in our classrooms. Part of this work was funded by an ASCD Teacher Impact Grant and will be presented at their Empower 17 conference in Anaheim on March 25, 2017. Thanks to the Constitutional Rights Foundation and WestEd some of this work will continue for the next two years due to an additional grant focused on expanding teacher practice networks.   

As part of this work, we piloted some listening assessments with Listenwise, a company that aligns National Public Radio content with content standards in ELA, Social Studies and Science. I assigned 11 listening quizzes to my students. On average, students were able to answer 72.8% of the questions correctly. This represents a substantial improvement on a Stauffer, Frost & Rybolt (1983) national study, which found that people, on average, only remember 17.2% of what they hear on the TV news. To increase comprehension, Listenwise offers a variety of supports: academic vocabulary, EL scaffolding, transcripts, and the ability to slow down the audio.

After the semester was over, I asked students to voluntarily fill out the following survey. What follows is my brief analysis of the results. Please note, this is not an empirically validated survey. Further, it is a very small (N=35) population of high school students’ opinions to really generalize about. Nonetheless, these students viewed these listening activities in an overwhelmingly positive light. Read on for the actual details and my interpretations.

More than 70% of my students thought the Listenwise content they heard in class increased their understanding of the historical event under study.lw-q1

Approximately two-thirds of my students felt that hearing Listenwise stories before reading the textbook helped them understand the events better. This finding is contradicted by another question where only 8% of students would prefer to use Listenwise as a preview to a new historical unit, as opposed to test review, homework, or classwork. lw-q2

About 53% of my students would prefer to hear Listenwise content during class, so they could discuss the stories with their fellow students. Interestingly, only 30% of students selected this option on a similar question later in the survey. lw-q3

Half of my students felt that Listenwise stories helped them understand academic vocabulary better.lw-q4

Slightly less than half of my students would prefer to hear Listenwise content at home, so they could think about the story before answering questions about it. Only 20% of students selected the Listenwise as homework option on a subsequent survey question.lw-q5

A two-thirds majority of my students felt that Listenwise stories help them understand the importance of historical events. lw-10

More than 60% of my students felt they understand more academic vocabulary from hearing it on Listenwise than they do from reading the academic vocabulary in our textbook. Research by Nonie Lesaux suggests that students need to know 50,000 words before they leave high school to be successful in college.lw-q6

The most popular reasons for hearing Listenwise stories were to review before exams, for classwork, and as homework. I was surprised that using Listenwise to preview a new historical topic was not as popular because that is mainly how I have used the content. I would be interested in learning how other teachers are using Listenwise and look forward to hearing their results from the teachers who took part in their pilot.lw-q7

Almost three-quarters of my students responded that hearing Listenwise stories makes them more confident when speaking about the Social Studies topic. This is consistent with research that suggests students can “hear” 3-4 grades above their reading comprehension levels. lw-q8

About 64% of my students reported that hearing Listenwise stories after reading the textbook gives them a greater understanding or perspective of the historical events. This is consistent with research that suggests students see a vivid, full color picture in their mind when listening versus students note trouble empathizing with what is going on in a grainy, black & white historical video. Please see (Colby, 2010) for more on the importance of using historical empathy to help students contextualize events from the past.


Whenever schools and districts spend money on new programs, there should be some evaluation and cost benefit analysis. Because good listening skills are highly correlated with historical thinking, building empathy, and many other social emotional learning skills, I feel that Listenwise is worth the investment. If you would be interested in seeing how your students perceive their learning with Listenwise, feel free to make a copy of this Google Form and customize it for use in your class. Please post a link to your results in my comments section and let me know what you find out.


Colby, S. (2010). Contextualization and historical empathy: Seventh-graders’ interpretations of primary documents.Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 12 (1), 71-85.