The good old art of listening

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Anne Barnes argues that children can be helped to learn to listen more attentively. Every few weeks some piece of research or fragment of political policy triggers off a familiar headline or cliched bluster: "It's the television's fault - children don't read any more." Or sometimes, "They don't listen - I blame the telly."

The debate about various strategies for developing literacy is being well aired at present, but not much is said about listening skills. And it is listening skills which relate to and significantly affect the ways children learn to read as well as the way they develop the power to speak effectively.

It is true that today's children are surrounded by more alluring media than past generations were, but that has made them more selective in what they choose to enjoy and has enabled them to develop a confident response to the ways in which sound and image work together. Because the conventions of listening have changed, parents are often left suspended half way between wonder and discomfort.

Many of us who believe that in the theatre or cinema one has to sit silent and motionless in order not to miss anything - and that roughly the same rule applies to television - are baffled to find our teenagers conducting long telephone conversations with their friends while at the same time apparently watching and absorbing their favourite soap opera.

We are dismayed when they shuffle and make chatty asides to each other in the theatre, partly because we feel that we have not taught them to listen properly.

Perhaps we do not know enough about the art of listening and more thought should be given to the way children can be helped to develop it.

Research done in New Zealand has shown how children who appear at first to have difficulty in concentrating when, for instance, a story is read to them, can significantly increase their listening skills if their teachers help them to focus on what listening is.

They can be encouraged to blank out distracting thoughts and to predict how the story or the information to which they are listening might develop by asking themselves questions as the reading progresses. They can be taught to make a mental note of important details and to deliberately relate the points they are hearing to other things they know about.

As with everything else, effective listening is a matter of confidence - and strategies which can be adapted to circumstances will build up that confidence. It is really surprising how many children get to think that they were born without the ability to concentrate and therefore that it's out of their reach for ever.

Most teachers develop skill in assessing the listening abilities of their pupils, but perhaps they do not always find enough time to give explicit practice in listening or to develop appropriate resources to support it. Although the last thing we want is to resuscitate the sort of listening tests which have proved so pointless in the past, there are ways in which listening skills could be supported by interesting and worthwhile materials.

The needs of pupils who speak English as an additional language may help us to get back to a sense of what constitutes good listening and how important it is.

Many of the children who come into our classrooms with, say, Bengali as their first language, are exceptionally good listeners, coming from a culture with a strong oral tradition. But their confidence in their own ability to pick up what is said is often eroded when they try to disentangle the nuances of spoken English with its buried metaphors and shortcuts to meaning.

Sometimes the idiom of teaching is inappropriate and needs to change. Children who get used to hearing comments, descriptions or instructions which they feel they can't properly understand will stop listening. Teachers therefore have to work hard on speaking clearly and without too much busy repetition or confusing paraphrase - and this is not always as easy as it sounds.

Of course, for other groups of children who have special educational needs, the art of listening is also particularly important, while for those who are said to be dyslexic attention to listening skills may be a vital way to help them out of their difficulties.

A "better listening campaign" might be overdoing it a bit, but it would be nice to think that the work done on "speaking and listening" really focused as much on listening as on speaking.

Research shows that improved listening results in improved reading and that good listeners in primary schools become confident learners later on. It is high time we took this matter seriously - and did something about it.

Anne Barnes is general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

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