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critical listening
What is critical listening? What is strategic listening? How is listening connected to critical thinking? And how can teachers improve their students’ listening, speaking, and critical thinking through listening skills exercises?

Critical Listening Exercises

What is critical listening? What is strategic listening? How is listening connected to critical thinking? And how can teachers improve their students’ listening, speaking, and critical thinking through listening skills exercises?

Critical listening and strategic listening are vital pieces to building active listening comprehension – and are especially crucial to both success on listening exams and in the classroom, generally.
Strategic listening asks students to listen to identify and process what they’ve heard, while critical listening asks the listener not only for comprehension of the message but also for evaluation.

Using critical thinking in listening might include analyzing a message to identify gaps in logic and reasoning, identifying and analyzing speaker bias, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and detecting propaganda techniques.

Why is teaching critical listening so challenging?

Haroutunian-Gordan’s (2011) identified four interrelated elements of listening (the listener’s goal, the situation, the role the listener takes, and the relationship between the speaker and listener), and there can often be a disconnect between teachers’ expectations and students’ beliefs about each.

Consider this pairing during a whole-class discussion:

Teacher’s expectations for students’ beliefs Student’s actual beliefs
Goal Participate in the discussion; listen to classmates and the teacher to offer a thoughtful response. Avoid having the teacher call on them; listening to the teacher to answer if called on.
Situation Whole class, teacher-led discussion Whole class, teacher-led discussion
Listener’s Role/Actions Taking notes, paying attention; analyzing what classmates have said, considering teacher responses, responding to teacher prompts Answering the teacher’s questions.
Relationship Congenial and warm Hierarchical; wants to please the teacher

Even though we tend to believe that listening is one of the most important foundational skills, it is very often neglected within school curriculums (although at least 22 states now test listening). Teachers talk of curriculums that are so tightly packed with other content that they rarely have time to teach soft skills like critical thinking in listening. However, there is also a lack of concrete, applicable strategies that teachers can use to improve students’ critical listening skills (Erkek & Batur, 2019).

Paired with the current prevalent idea that teachers “shouldn’t grade behavior,” listening becomes an activity that happens by chance rather than a deliberate skill to be planned and practiced, especially at the higher grade levels.

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Strategic and critical listening skills exercises

It can be challenging for teachers to find specific activities to focus on these components. There are many lists of tips to improve cognitive listening comprehension, but few include clearly-defined student exercises to accomplish critical listening goals in the classroom.

Below are several specific listening skills exercises suggestions to improve comprehension, paired with classroom activities.

Distinguish between facts and opinions

One of the essential individual components of critical listening is the ability to recognize the difference between assertions of fact and assertions of opinion. It is also important to recognize when our own views might be clouding our understanding or reception.

Erkek & Batur (2019), Turkish researchers who identified specific classroom exercises to boost critical listening comprehension, suggest that guided student government activities might provide excellent critical listening examples for students.

Student government provides the perfect opportunity for students to listen critically to campaign platforms and student speeches. Teachers, then, can engage the voting student population to recall and analyze each candidate’s assertions and campaign promises. Students can write statements they remember on the board, then sort them in a t-chart: which are fact-based assertions, and which are assertions of opinion?

Then, the teacher can model critical thinking by guiding the class through what is possible given school rules. Are the campaign promises based on factual information, or are they based on the students’ feelings and opinions? Students can then discuss in small groups or cast ballots based on their improved understanding.

The goal here is both analysis and evaluation of the stated assertions through critical thinking in listening. So if students have shown that they understand the speaker’s role and can distinguish between the speaker’s factual statements and assertions of opinion, then the activity was successful.

Understanding bias and assumptions

Assumptions are gaps in logical reasoning that lead to feeling a certain way about a topic or group. We might look at a student who sleeps during class and assume that they are unmotivated without having all the facts that lead to this action in the classroom. Spotting the assumptions of others can help us communicate more clearly, ourselves.

One way to enhance students’ critical thinking in listening is to present them with oral stories or roleplay scenarios featuring one person’s assumptions. For instance, to introduce the plot of Othello to students, a pair of students is given a scenario to perform for the class where one friend tries to convince the other that his girlfriend might not be loyal. Then another pair performs an improv skit where one tries to convince the other that their significant other has been “checking out” another guy (Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Twelfth Night and Othello. Folgers Shakespeare Library. 1995) .

Then the class discusses the various assumptions and implications of the different parties – of course, driving to a preview of what they’ll be studying in Othello. But allowing students to listen to the scenarios allows for practice with acquiring information to process critically apart from reading.

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Improving logic and reasoning skills

One of the more challenging skills to teach is reasoning. Even adults have trouble identifying the logic and reasoning of various statements. But if we can get students to at least consider and question supporting details, then we’re off to a good start.

So, how is listening connected to critical thinking? Erkek and Batur (2019) offer an exercise that presents a situation for students to listen to: an eight-year-old boy describes his morning preparing to sell bagels while watching other children go to school (p. 643). The boy is sweet and honest while explaining what is clearly a typical morning for him.

Students applying critical listening should be able to identify the problem with the story, which is, of course, that an eight-year-old boy is working instead of going to school.

Offering situations that allow students to identify a line of reasoning or identify gaps or problems within a presented sequence gives them opportunities to practice acquiring information through listening but holding it long enough to analyze it.

Hold up new ideas next to old ones

Being able to relate new information to ideas students already hold – essentially, making comparisons – is the hallmark of a good teacher and a good reporter. Students who are practicing critical listening can use recorded material like an NPR radio news story to gather information and then clearly explain it to another student (or in a recorded video) in terms that they understand.

Alternatively, a teacher might present two radio news stories on the same topic. Students could identify why they might accept one as more believable than another (considering tone, word choice, assertions, etc.)

Be receptive to new ideas and perspectives

Often, students get especially invested in their own perceptions of situations, but good critical listening requires an open mind. One way to practice seeing alternative perspectives is to explore them through familiar stories.

Students could listen to a familiar story like “Little Red Riding Hood,” then retell the story from various other characters’ perspectives. Students might tell the story from the wolf’s perspective or the woodsman’s.

When students listen to their classmates’ stories, the teacher could have them evaluate the authenticity of the stories in relation to the original story. They could also consider the variations in stories written by all the students who chose to write from the grandmother’s point of view, for instance.

Students should be encouraged to reflect on what surprised them about their classmates’ retellings.

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The relationship between critical thinking and critical listening

At this point, we could be forgiven for thinking that there’s no difference between critical thinking and critical listening – and in some respects, we’d be right. In developing critical listening comprehension, what we’re really doing is building critical thinking.

However, what most of us think of as critical thinking is actually critical reading. Whether critically reading or listening, we are taking information from the outside and bringing it in to analyze it against what we already know.

Rather than always relying on critical reading, teachers have a clear opportunity to integrate more listening practice, and these listening skills exercises are a wonderful place to start. Teachers can then begin finding additional opportunities to shift critical thinking exercises from reading to listening to ensure more equal distribution.

Focusing on helping students acquire information from listening as well as reading results in more balanced skill development and students who understand that their own actions can dictate their learning.