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Developing Listening Skills

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.


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.


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 Otitis Media page.)


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.

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:

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.

Understanding in the classroom

Given the prevalence of language delay and difficulties there will always be pupils who will struggle to understand 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:

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:

You may also be interested in the following pages:

Memory and Learning

Non-Literal Language

Reward Systems