Developing Listening

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Developing Listening

Introduction

Listening involves three abilities: attention, hearing and the understanding of language. Within a school setting pupils can present with wide variance in their development of attention and language. Equally, young children may experience difficulties with hearing.

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Attention

In order to listen we must first give our attention to the sounds we hear, whether it be music, someone speaking or background noises. This involves increasing our conscious awareness of it by prioritising it above other external and internal stimuli. By about 5 years old most of us can listen whilst doing another task. However, if we become absorbed in a task, thereby increasing our attention to it. there will be a a reduction in our ability to listen. There is no change in our ability to hear the sounds. Instead it is the fluctuations in our attention which determine whether we listen to them or not. Each of us will have certain sounds and words that grab our attention when we are not listening. Most of us will respond to sudden loud noises, our own name and words that have personal or emotive relevance such as the place where we live or a swear word.

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Hearing

In order to hear, sound waves must be able to travel to the ears, along the ear canal to the ear drum, across the three bones of the middle ear to the cochlea, where the vibrations stimulate hairs that send nerve signals along the auditory nerve to the brain. Clearly damage or congenital defects can lead to total or partial deafness. Equally, interruption at any point within the ear will lead to hearing difficulties. All children will experience temporary hearing loss as a result of colds and flu at some point in their first five years and this can reoccur again and again for many children. (See Glue Ear.)

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Language

Listening has no value without understanding. Therefore, the listener needs to have the ability to recognise and process the words being spoken. This requires the development of a bank of known words often referred to as a child's receptive vocabulary. Before the child is able to read, all new vocabulary is learnt by repeated opportunities to hear the word in a context that gives it some meaning. E.g. Holding a cup and saying "cup" repeatedly connects the sound with the object. Children who have a difficulty with auditory processing will need additional support such as developing phonological awareness e.g. relating sounds to letter blends during teaching of reading. Without a developed vocabulary the child have little motivation to listen. (See also introduction to language.)

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Attending in the classroom

We listen best when other distractions are eliminated or at least reduced. Teachers should ensure that children are cued for listening before giving instructions and explanations. Strategies for gaining attention before giving important information:

Ensure pupils stop their activity completely
Establish listening cue - young children may respond to sound cues like tambourine, older students a verbal signal such as "I need you to listen now (pause)"
Though it may be necessary to raise the voice to gain attention, quickly bring down to quieter level for giving instruction or explanation
You may have to ignore low level non-compliance from pupils with specific special educational needs but never talk over groups of children
Avoid phrases that divert their attention from the present to the future. E.g. "Just before we go to play/assembly/lunch/home I need to tell you..."
Ensure instructions are chronological. E.g. "Copy down the homework off the board." (Pause) "Get your bags ready for going home" is better than "Before you pack your bags copy the homework off the board
Reduce teacher talk so that children know that if you are talking it is important.
Only stop the whole class doing an activity if you want the whole class to listen. Otherwise, work with the individual or group
Stay within the attention span limits for the age group and use movement breaks or brain gym to help refocus
Some children may need individual invitations to listen with their class. E.g. "John, I need everyone in the class to listen now."

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Hearing in the classroom

Consider the ambient noise levels and take appropriate action to reduce environmental noise pollution from traffic, planes, other classrooms and corridors, projectors, computers, uncarpeted areas of the classroom, pupil movement etc. If your classroom has a soundfield system fitted then ensure it is always used. If you need children to listen for long periods consider how comfortable they will be if sat on the floor, or turning around in their chair. Ensure they can see your face when possible and avoid talking when facing away to use a whiteboard etc.

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Understanding in the classroom

Given the prevalence of language delay and difficulties there will always be students who have some level of difficulty in understanding spoken language in most classes including high ability sets. Being aware of individual pupils language abililties can help to avoid these pupils switching off when listening. The following strategies can be useful in ensuring understanding:

Keep sentences short
If using technical or infrequently used vocabulary, define the word within the context. E.g. "On a sunny day a puddle of water quickly evaporates, turning from a liquid into a gas.
If using metaphorical or non-literal language, define the phrase. E.g. "John was over the moon about his new watch, he really was very happy with it."
Use pauses to break up what you are saying into chunks
Recap on key points to be remembered
Use visual prompts and actions to support understanding
Be aware of the working memory limits of the age group and keep key information within this limit.

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Listening Skills

All pupils but particularly younger ones need to be taught listening skills. Each teacher working with the class should reinforce the rules for listening by teaching them explicitly. Don't assume that all pupils know or that they will transfer rules learnt with one teacher to another. Agree listening rules and display them where they can be referred to quickly.

Rules for listening might include:

stopping what you are doing
looking at the speaker
waiting for the speaker to finish before speaking
giving listening feedback such as nodding, smiling as appropriate
being prepared to talk about what you have heard

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You may also be interested in the following pages:

Memory and Learning

Sensory Needs Management - Hearing

Soundfield Systems

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