Teach Listening First

Teach Listening First: How to Link
Listening Instruction into your Career Pathway
EdTalk given at Cal State Poly Pomona by Scott M. Petri


I should start by saying if my wife was here listening to me talking about the importance of teaching listening skills, the laughter would be deafening. She often complains that I don’t listen to her, refuse to write anything down and don’t remember anything she tells me. It’s like she hit the lottery of clueless husbands. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a listening expert to teach listening skills. I started down this path by attending my daughter’s 2nd grade publishing party. Each child read their poem from the author’s chair and then each audience member gave them a compliment by focusing on one of the poetry terms. I really liked how you used personification. Awesome alliteration Alex. I loved your onomatopoeia. . .

I went back to my school wondering how I could implement this in my classroom without my 9th graders shouting BORING at each other. After talking with colleagues who reminded me that teachers set the culture in their classroom, we wrote an ASCD Teacher Impact Grant and were given funding to conduct a video lesson study on teaching listening and speaking skills. This experience inspired us to teach listening first.

As a history teacher working in a medical careers pathway, I have shifted my traditional instruction to skills-based instruction. It’s a simple concept. I demonstrate a skill for students. They practice it. I measure it, and we repeat. Students pursuing medical careers understand the need for strong listening skills. If doctors and nurses can’t listen during patient intakes, misdiagnoses happen and patients suffer.

So I teach skills now. Listening skills, writing skills, speaking skills, collaboration skills. Basically anything that can’t be measured with a standardized test. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat. Over the last 7 years, I have obsessively measured every academic variable in my classroom with the unwavering determination of a lunatic. This has made me popular with my students because I can show them where they are in relation to their peers. It’s only taken me 30 years, but I have finally become popular in high school.

If you have happy students, you are on your way to becoming Teacher of the Year. One way to create this atmosphere is to measure performance tasks that show student growth throughout the year. This is simple data collection. What I learned from looking at all this data is that what we don’t know is bigger than what we do know. This is especially true of our students, who are so intimidated by what they don’t know, that they often fail to engage in even the most basic of academic tasks. This is what exasperates teachers and leads to burnout.

How do we teach speaking to students who would rather take a zero than embarrass themselves in front of their peers? And how do we teach listening when as soon as you hit play, half the class reaches for their cell phones? The kids we don’t engage haunt us. How do we keep inspiring? How do teachers keep pushing that rock up the hill? Like the journey of a thousand miles. We begin with a single step. Goal-setting. This involves showing students where they are and showing them where they need to be.

We know students must leave high school with a working understanding of about 50,000 words in order to be academically successful in college. Good vocabulary teaching involves a lot of talk and practice using language. Listening to academic vocabulary being used correctly is an important first step in helping students gain confidence before they start speaking with new words.

Although most social studies teachers probably do not feel the need to teach listening, research shows that students learn 55% of their academic vocabulary in social studies classes. Listening is a key component of strong instruction and is often taught in elementary school, but fades away in middle and high school.

Speaking and listening standards have become the forgotten part of the Common Core. Few schools or districts formally assess them. A 2015 UCLA study found a majority of social studies teachers struggled to explain how they helped students develop speaking and listening skills. These teachers reported using small and whole-class discussions regularly, but rarely (if ever) assessed their students during these activities. Only 15% of these teachers spoke confidently about their speaking & listening instruction.

All of this convinced me that we need to teach listening first. Listening while reading helps people have successful interactions with text, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy. Research shows that students can listen two to three grade levels above what they can read.  Most importantly for CTE Pathway teachers like me who teach career readiness skills, listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek. Although most of us spend the majority of our day listening, how much time do we spend trying to become a better at it?

Very few educators provide instruction in listening. We assume that every student can listen, if they’ll just stop talking. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Without specific instruction, students do not understand that listening is an active process under their control. If you have ever sat through a series of student presentations, than you know many students don’t listen to each other at all. We need to teach them how.

Sound expert Julian Treasure begged his TED audience to teach listening in schools. You know his wife is lucky. He’s a real listening expert. He developed a mnemonic RASA so educators can teach every student to Receive (pay attention), Appreciate (nod at the speaker, smile, make eye contact), Summarize (so?), and Ask questions (about what was said)–RASA. This is an easy poster to hang in your room and point to throughout the year.

Before I move on to specific techniques and resources that can help you teach listening, I want to remind you that just as students struggle to identify inferences and bias in text, they need practice and extensive coaching before they can learn to listen between the lines and hear the big picture. Students report greater comprehension when they ask questions, manage their interest levels, and discuss what they just heard. Mix these tasks into your listening activities for best results.

Now, let me give you three resources to help you embed listening into your classroom practices. The first is Listenwise, a service that aligns National Public Radio stories with content standards in ELA, Social Studies and Science. Listening to these stories regularly in class helps my students take this skill seriously. My high school students listened to 11 stories last semester. These were paired with assessments that tested their comprehension and tracked the results over time. This tool can help you teach listening in as little as three minutes a day. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat.

Second, I use longer podcasts to create note-taking drills that build listening stamina and focus. First, review the transcript and create questions that test how well students listen for main ideas, point of view, inferences, and academic vocabulary. Then, divide the class into four groups:

Group A: Is not allowed to take notes.

Group B: Takes notes but can’t use them on the test.

Group C: Takes notes and uses them on the test.

Group D: Takes notes, uses them and gets the transcript.

After listening, all of the students take the same quiz. Typically there is a 30% gap between Group A and Group D. This teaches students the value of taking notes and listening intently. I do not grade these activities on a traditional percentage basis. Instead, I divide them into listening proficiency bands and show students their growth over time.

I do this during the first week of school to demonstrate that the act of taking notes can move a student up three letter grades. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat. These longer listening drills have ended my least favorite question — should we be taking notes on this?  If I could only end — Can I go to the bathroom? and — How many points is this worth? I would be the happiest teacher in the world!

Students need practice listening to each other and many enjoy engaging in whole-class discussions, but this is a difficult format for one teacher to master. Monitoring who participates, how often they participate and keeping the flow of conversation collegial can be challenging. Many teachers worry classroom conversations can veer off course. The Constitutional Rights Foundation offers a civil conversation model that helps guide students discussing controversial issues like the Syrian Refugee Crisis and ICE Deportation Raids.

Regular use of these three tools: Listenwise stories, longer listening drills, and civil conversations helps students focus on the goal of listening comprehension. Understanding is the goal of listening. As teachers we need to prepare students to actively listen, avoid distractions and engage in conversations around what they just heard. Author Erik Palmer suggests before students engage in purposeful listening, their teachers should tell them what to respond to, how to respond and when to respond.

Today has been all about teacher leadership and affirming that teachers are better together. I have seen teachers across subjects and grade levels sharing lessons and ideas, but it is still too hard for us to connect and collaborate. Next year, I will be working with The Constitutional Rights Foundation in expanding Teacher Practice Networks for teachers integrating speaking and listening instruction into their classes. I invite you to join us and share what happens when you teach listening first. Together, we can work toward improving listening in all schools.

At the end of our Teacher Impact Grant, we realized that our explicit focus on listening instruction had also helped our students strengthen their attention spans and improve their collaborative skills. After reflecting, we realized that listening had a powerful effect on learning in each of our classes. I only wish my wife would tell me that I’ve gotten a little better at listening too, but I think I was supposed to pick up our kids 15 minutes ago.

Thank you for listening.

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