Category Archives: Speaking & Listening


It is always a pleasure to come and present to risk-taking and proactive educators at LACOE that want to increase the amount of speaking and listening in their classrooms. Most of the work I am presenting comes from the books of Erik Palmer and the course I taught with him and Corbin Moore on Canvas Network.

Feel free to save the presentation to your Google Drive and use whatever parts you find useful.

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.

Using Flipgrid to Improve Speaking Skills

This Fall, I have been using a video response tool called Flipgrid to help improve my students’ speaking skills. Flipgrid is a video platform used by over 30,000 teachers to ignite classroom discussions and promote social learning. In Flipgrid, teachers post discussion topics to which students respond with videos, providing every student an equal voice, increasing retention, and encouraging peer-led learning. Full Disclosure: Flipgrid asked me to join their Ambassador program and bribed me with stickers, t-shirts, and love. This program rocks and I have fallen in love with Flipgrid.

Since September, my students have created 304 video responses to 10 topics on 5 grids. They have viewed each others’ videos 6,324 times resulting in 1 year and 139 days of total viewing time. After some trial and error, I primarily use two grids: US History and World History for the majority of my assignments. I can add new topics and keep the majority of my student work organized. I am trying to use Flipgrid once or twice a month to check for understanding and see how well students can verbalize their thought process. Part of the impetus for using Flipgrid came from my principal who is fond of asking “How do you know if they have learned from your instruction?”  With Flipgrid, I can just click and let my students speak for themselves.


In the above example, I asked my students to play a “Who Am I?” game with their individual Enlightenment Philosophes. The students had 90 seconds to tell us everything about their philosophe except their name, then we would use the videos to review for the final exam on the Enlightenment. Because Flipgrid allows you to download the individual videos, I was able to upload the best to YouTube (unlisted) and then create a video Kahoot for the students to use as a review game. This was a big hit.

So far, I have asked my World History students to explain differences between Roman and US checks and balances in government, paraphrase three stories from The Adventures of Ulysses, and elaborate on historical details from the French Revolution. My US History students have had to conduct to a say, mean, matter on the Preamble to the constitution, justify eliminating four Amendments from the Bill of Rights, demonstrate an Academic Conversation about Imperialism, tell the story of the Panama Canal, and preview three arguments for an essay about civil disobedience. I am at the beginning of my Flipgrid adventure. This tool will help me show growth in student speaking skills. I can see using Flipgrid this spring to fine tune the work I am doing with my ASCD Teacher Impact Grant colleagues as we participate in a video lesson study on student speaking skills. Further, by sharing Flipgrid with the 300 Social Studies teachers participating in the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Teacher 2 Teacher Collaborative, this important tool can dramatically increase the amount of student speaking assignments in classrooms. Try Flipgrid One for free and share how you used it in the comments section.

Measures of Effective Listening

Thirty-two years ago, Donald E. Powers wrote Considerations for Developing Measures of Speaking & Listening. It was published by the College Board, which expresses how important these measures are to a student’s academic success, particularly in their Advanced Placement programs, yet has not validated any standardized tests to measure these skills. This synthesis on some of the research on listening offers advice to teachers enrolled in our MOOC Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills

Research shows that students can listen 2-3 grade levels above what they can read. Listening while reading helps people have successful reading events, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy. Listening while reading has been shown to help with decoding, a fundamental part of reading. The average person talks at a rate of about 125 to 175 words per minute, while we listen and comprehend up to 450 words per minute (Carver, Johnson, & Friedman, 1970).

Listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek in entry-level employees as well as those being promoted. Even though most of us spend the majority of our day listening, it is the communication activity that receives the least instruction in school (Coakley & Wolvin, 1997). On average, viewers who just watched and listened to the evening news can only recall 17.2% of the content.

Listening is critical to academic success. Conaway (1982) examined an entire freshman class of over 400 students. They were given a listening test at the beginning of their first semester. After their first year of college, 49% of students scoring low on the listening test were on academic probation, while only 4.42% of those scoring high on the listening test were on academic probation. On the other hand, 68.5% of those scoring high on the listening test were considered Honors Students after the first year, while only 4.17% of those scoring low attained the same success.

Students do not have a clear concept of listening as an active process that they can control. Students find it easier to criticize the speaker as opposed to the speaker’s message (Imhof, 1998). Students report greater listening comprehension when they use the metacognitive strategies of asking pre-questions, interest management, and elaboration strategies (Imhof, 2001). Listening and nonverbal communication training significantly influences multicultural sensitivity (Timm & Schroeder, 2000).

Understanding is the goal of listening. Our friend Erik Palmer suggests before students engage in purposeful listening, their teachers should tell them what to attend to. We need to teach students what to respond to, how to respond, and when to respond. For example, today we are going to listen to five speeches. For each speech, we are only listening for LIFE. After each speaker finishes, clap, then take a minute to evaluate the level of passion they put into their speech. After that write down three suggestions on how they could improve the LIFE in their speech (i.e., instead of emphasizing: you stole my red hat, try stressing, you stole my red hat).

A classroom teacher who reads Powers (1984) College Board study will understand that speaking, listening, reading and writing are all tightly correlated. Empirically measuring oral communication skills requires many hours of assessment on small, controlled populations. It is the opposite of what we experience in public schools where it is not feasible for us to precisely measure each skill. The important takeaway here is that teachers need to prepare their students to actively listen, avoid distractions, and teach listening and speaking with core academic content by training students to evaluate how well various speaking functions are accomplished by their classmates. While there are reliability issues with classroom peer review models, the benefits of “learning by evaluation” far outweigh the negatives.


Writing for Ears

I have been doing some research for a MOOC I will be teaching with Erik Palmer and Corbin Moore this summer. Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills will launch June 20th on the Canvas Network. Like most teachers, I assign speeches and presentations within my instructional program and I am almost always disappointed by how poorly my students listen to each other and how little they gain from their colleagues’ presentations. This is because I rarely give them directions on how I want them to listen and what I want them to listen for.

This post asks questions about how teachers can inspire their students to Write for Ears. Specifically, what writing tasks teach students to listen? TED speaker Julian Treasure has an excellent primer that explains why we are losing our listening.

Even though most of us spend the majority of our day listening, it is the communication activity that receives the least instruction in school (Coakley & Wolvin, 1997). Research suggests that listening while reading helps people have successful reading events, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy. This also helps with decoding, a fundamental part of reading. The average person talks at a rate of about 125 – 175 words per minute, while we listen at up to 450 words per minute (Carver, Johnson, & Friedman, 1970).

Imhof (1998) found students do not have a clear concept of listening as an active process and they often find it easier to criticize the speaker as opposed to the speaker’s message. Conaway (1982) demonstrated how listening skills are crucial to academic success by giving a listening test to a freshman class of over 400 students at the beginning of their first semester of college. After their first year of studies, 49% of students scoring low on the listening test were on academic probation. Conversely, 69% of those scoring high on the listening test were considered Honors students after the first year. Only 4% of those scoring high on the listening test were on academic probation.

Similar findings have been replicated in other studies, on average, viewers who just watched and listened to the evening news can only recall 17.2% of the content. Timm & Schroeder (2000) showed that listening and nonverbal communication training significantly influences multicultural sensitivity. Further, listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek. Despite this, schools, districts and assessment consortia have turned a deaf ear to this important skill. What strategies and techniques have you found helpful in improving listening comprehension?

Active Listening

Don’t miss our #TeachWriting chat on April 5, 2016 at 6pm PT. Where we chat about the following issues in increasing the listening comprehension of our students.

08: Q1 What prevents our students from becoming good listeners?

14: Q2 What are common misconceptions students have about listening?

20: Q3 How can you use audio to increase literacy skills in your classroom?

26: Q4 What listening objectives are most frequently used in your class/discipline?
Photo-Card w/ Mead (1978)

  1. to recall significant details;
  2. to comprehend main ideas;
  3. to draw inferences about information;
  4. to make judgments concerning the speaker (e.g.,attitude, intent, bias, credibility);
  5. to make judgments about the information (e.g., type, evidence, logic, arguments)

32: Q5 What types of listening activities can help students improve their writing skills?

38: Q6 What writing assignments do you use with songs & speeches?

45: Q7 What strategies/games can Ts use so that Ss actively listen to their peers’ presentations?

52: Q8 What writing assignments have you created that teach listening skills?

I look forward to hearing how you are teaching your students to listen. Dust off the lessons you have used to help students improve their listening skills with writing and get ready to share. Thanks to for a great collection of listening facts.

Rarely Assessed Standards

My UCLA Social Studies Methods professor Dr. Emma Hipolito is simply god’s gift to History teachers. I can honestly say that I probably would have quit teaching within my first two years if it weren’t for Emma’s nurturing and kindness. She gave me my first chance to present my work to academics. In short, she helped me find my strengths. Anyone who went through UCLA’s Center X teaching credential program can attest to how dedicated she is to the success of her students. Dr. Hipolito finished her dissertation Social Studies Teachers and The Common Core: A Study of Instructional Practices last year. It is a fantastic read and deserves a wider audience. My biggest takeaway is that Emma has quantified how the teaching of speaking and listening skills is severely neglected in most classrooms.


Hippolito (2015) found a majority of Social Studies teachers struggled to explain how they helped students develop speaking and listening skills. While these teachers regularly reported using small and whole-group discussions, their students were rarely assessed on their participation. Only 15% of teachers surveyed spoke confidently about their speaking & listening instruction.

This mixed methods study surveyed 217 California Social Studies teachers and conducted interviews with 20 High School teachers in order to assess how teachers are shifting their instructional practices in response to the CCSS standards. The survey data resulted in three key findings.

First, teachers – particularly those working in low-income schools − are concerned about the academic preparedness of students to engage in the Common Core. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher participants agreed or strongly agreed that students “are not academically prepared to engage in these types of activities.” However, a statistically significant 85% of the teachers in 101 low-SES schools agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, as compared with 48% of teachers in affluent communities.

A second finding was that high school social studies teachers are implementing some of the practices associated with the CCSS. These include the use of primary sources, the consideration of the origins and purpose of a source as an aspect of reading in history/social studies, and the use of critical thinking question to promote reasoning. However, teachers less frequently focused on critical reading practices that examined perspective, bias, and analysis of multiple sources on a similar topic. Relatedly, the development of speaking and listening skills is an area that is currently neglected in classrooms in California.

A third finding is that many social studies teachers in California report that neither they nor their colleagues are prepared to teach the CCSS. Only 30.8% of all survey respondents reported that they were “very” prepared to teach the Standards to students. Despite over 60% of teachers participating in four or more days of professional development, only 15% reported that the CCSS were “very” integrated into the practices of teachers in their departments.

Three other findings emerged from the interviews: (1) Teachers believe that a CCSS’s skill-based approach means less coverage and more in-depth work with fewer historical topics. (2) Interviewees at low-income schools had more tools and strategies to support literacy development than did teachers at high-SES schools. (3) Educators want more time to plan, more time to work in content-alike groupings, and more instructional resources provided for them in order to implement the CCSS.

I am interested in learning how schools and districts are re-shaping their professional development offerings in response to CCSS. I have yet to find any well-articulated courses on how to teach speaking and listening to adolescents. Have you found any gems I should be familiar with? If so, please add them in the comments section. Congratulations to Dr. Hipolito. I hope you influence a few thousand more Social Studies teachers.