Research on how to improve listening comprehension skills explains that listening, along with the ability to decode words, is one of the essential building blocks to excellent reading comprehension. Reading and listening are inherently linked, and they are developed in very similar ways, which is good news for students.
Teachers are starting to get better about including explicit instruction on listening. While speaking and listening skills have been listed in state standards and the Common Core for over a decade, state testing of listening comprehension is only now beginning to catch up as more and more districts make the switch to digitally-delivered exams. Of course, there’s more information about how to – prepare for state listening exams here.
Why do we need to be good listeners? We know that listening is critical to effective human communication. It’s so essential that many believe listening develops naturally.
In some respects, this is true. When small children grow up in households that encourage demonstration of good listening, they tend to repeat those actions naturally while in school. Parents might ask a child to repeat back directions regularly. Or they might read stories out loud together. Maybe they’ll listen to the radio in the car and talk about things they heard.
Many students, however, do not come to school with the skills already in place. Therefore, teachers need to learn how to improve listening comprehension skills for kids who, for whatever reason, may need more instruction and practice.
Improving Listening Comprehension with Formative Assessments
Formative assessments are perfect for determining starting places. They don’t need to be intensive, and there are plenty of ready-made options to give teachers data to ascertain students’ listening comprehension levels.
They also provide an opportunity to assess why students might have lower listening comprehension skills. Listening is made up of three interconnected elements:
- Hearing – the physical element of listening; the ability to discern sounds; phonemic awareness
- Attention – the mental discipline and skills to focus on specific sounds and to block out other environmental stimuli
- Comprehension – the ability to make sense of the ideas being related via others’ speech
Formative assessment can help identify areas students might need extra attention and identify specific students who might need a specialist’s help (low hearing ability, language delays, ADHD, etc.).
There is a lot of flexibility in teaching listening at different grade levels. It’s always surprising how much high school students enjoy the occasional game of Simon Says! But knowing which element of listening to focus on, teachers can focus on various strategies to help their students make better sense of information obtained by listening.
Listening for kids in grades K-5
The younger the student, the more the focus needs to be on hearing and processing language, and turning these exercises into games is a time-honored way to get kids on board.
Read a sentence. What do students hear? Can they identify word pieces? Teachers could also have students close their eyes while listening to a sound chosen by the teacher. Can they identify the sound?
Blending hearing with attention, a teacher might have a classroom procedure to say directions and have students repeat them back to make sure they both heard and paid attention. As students get older, teachers can encourage the responsibility of paying attention to spoken directions by not repeating directions for students on demand. Instead, students who missed directions the first time ask their classmates; the teacher is available if no classmates can help the student.
Games like Simon Says! and Red Light-Green Light are fun ways to get young kids on their feet and practice listening and paying attention. Find other excellent listening comprehension exercise ideas here.
Finally, offering students opportunities to listen and respond is the keenest way to encourage comprehension skills and attention. Students can listen to a radio broadcast or a podcast and have a class discussion afterward (Listenwise combines podcasts with ready-made listening comprehension quizzes). Or they can read a book out loud together and have students recall facts and details, discuss vocabulary in context, or even make inferences about the characters.
Listening for kids in grades 6-12
It’s tempting for middle and high school teachers to assume that all student impairments were caught in elementary school with their battery of testing and specialists. But some issues like dyslexia, ADHD, hearing loss, and certain specific learning disabilities can hide from classroom teachers and parents.
In upper grades, including specific listening material in lessons is the best way to incorporate listening comprehension instruction into the curriculum. If teachers notice that a student is really struggling, they shouldn’t shrug it off. Soliciting special education services can sometimes pinpoint an underlying reason that a student is having difficulties. Then additional supports can be arranged.
As students progress through middle and high school, they should be expanding their listening comprehension skills to determine the purpose of listening and the speaker’s reasoning, identify evidence (or a lack thereof), and draw conclusions.
And older kids still need support focusing their attention! Instruction and review of good note taking habits and listening behaviors (like when multitasking is or isn’t appropriate) can guide students toward better listening comprehension skills.
Improving listening comprehension takes practice.
Good listening comprehension supports good reading comprehension (and has proven to increase test scores). While using different strategies across age groups will always be a judgment call, there are some things to keep in mind for students of any age when working to improve their listening comprehension skills.
- Start small. Meet students where they are. If they are younger or clearly behind, it might be a great idea to start with audio clips instead of complete broadcasts. Work up to longer audio texts.
- Practice regularly. Regular practice will help improve listening comprehension skills for kids at any age. Make it part of the daily or weekly plan rather than an afterthought in the curriculum.
- Make it authentic. Students know when they’re being given busy work. Make sure that the listening is valuable and relevant with audiobooks, radio broadcasts, and podcasts. Many students listen to these on their own outside of school and will often see more value in their use than a contrived “listening exercise.”