You are here
The power and importance of listening
Of the four major language skills, speaking and listening are by far the oldest forms of communication and pre-date formal human writing systems by tens of thousands of years (Brittanica, 2019). What does all that mean? In simplest terms, it means that speaking and listening are fundamental human communicative tools and since the beginning of humankind have been our most basic and primal way of conveying messages. If one were to ask me which of the two, speaking or listening, is most important to learning a language, I would easily have to say the skill of listening is paramount, and I have no further than my own small children to look at for empirical evidence.
In observing the development of many of my children over the years I discovered an important pattern; most of them spent their entire first 1.5 to 2 years of their lives listening to me, listening to others, and trying to make sense of their surroundings. They can barely talk at that age (except for formal baby talk) but that does not mean communication is not taking place. The most powerful indicator for me that the skill of listening has such a tremendous influence on learning a language is that though children cannot necessarily speak at a young age, they understand many things asked of them. For instance, I may ask my daughter to hug me, put something down, go to her mother, or eat something, and though she cannot reply to me, she does it. Sure, there are metalinguistic (hand gestures or facial expressions) factors that help in communicating messages, but the primary form of communication is through speaking and listening.
Thus, listening is a very important skill and it is important to prepare appropriate and effective listening activities for your classes. There are tons of listening activities to choose from whether they are information gaps, listening for details/ main ideas, role plays, simulations, debates, or a host of other activities. The choice of the activity will depend on the objective of the activity (are the students listening for comprehension/fluency or listening for accuracy?) as well as the level of the students. And of course you will have to consider the amount of time allotted, but the most important thing to remember is that listening should be an integral part of English lessons. Students need to be provided with ample opportunities to practice their listening skills not only in class with their peers but also by themselves in more autonomous conditions. Practice with peers is important because communication takes more than one person and it is crucial to have real-time communication of messages. However, some students may be reticent and not very willing to participate for fear of making mistakes or feeling like they are embarrassing themselves in front of others. To counter that, it is critical to provide independent practice so learners can improve their listening skills in comfortable learning environments and at their own pace.
In terms of teaching strategies for students to develop their listening skills, I would recommend the HEAR strategy (Halt – Engage – Anticipate – Replay) which is built on the idea that listening actually takes active work and it is not just a passive skill. In a blog post by Donna Wilson (courtesy of edutopia.org and can be found here https://www.edutopia.org/blog/training-the-brain-to-listen-donna-wilson), she describes the cognitive and anatomical aspects at work during the listening process and from that research, the HEAR strategy seeks to help students to focus on listening and be more attentive during any communicative exercise. While you can read more about their approach to listening at the link above, the basic summary of the HEAR strategy is that students should:
Halt – “…[to] free your mind to pay attention to the person speaking”
Engage – “Focus on the speaker” by some sort of physical movement towards his/her direction
Anticipate – Actively think about what the speaker might share next
Replay – Review what the speaker is saying and try to make sense of commonalities, either independently or with peers
Additionally, students should keep a log of new vocabulary words as I am a firm believer that vocabulary is a critical component of listening (and reading) comprehension. Students can simply keep a journal and write down the word and its corresponding meaning from the context in which he/she heard it. Hopefully by implementing all of these strategies in your classrooms, your learners will be on their way to improved listening fluency.
Encyclopedia Brittanica (2019). History of writing systems. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/writing/History-of-writing-systems.
Wilson, D. (2014). Training the brain to listen: A practical strategy for student learning and classroom management. Edutopia.org. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/training-the-brain-to-listen-donna-wilson.