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Defining the types of listening comprehension students must master helps teachers decide on which skills to highlight.

What is Listening Comprehension?

Defining the types of listening comprehension students must master helps teachers decide on which skills to highlight.

When discussing listening comprehension, education professionals often think of it as a single skill. In reality, however, it makes more sense to think of listening as related skill sets:

  • Passive listening or appreciative listening – oral reading, theater, music
  • Discriminative listening – distinguishing sounds, phonemes, and non-verbal cues
  • Informational or precise listening – finding details, retelling, sequencing
  • Strategic listening – finding the main idea, summarizing, inferring
  • Critical listening – analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating

Those skills need to be explicitly taught and practiced in multiple ways throughout a student’s school experience for them to really grasp the nuances. Four of the five skills are grouped in what some people may call active listening. We will explore the five different listening categories below.

Defining listening comprehension

When teachers and administrators discuss developing student listening comprehension skills, they tend to lump all listening skills together. However, Dr. Sophie Haroutunian-Gordan (2011) at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy explains that there are four elements to which listening comprehension can be attributed:

  • the goal of the listener in that specific situation
  • the situation in which the listening is happening
  • the role the listener takes, and
  • the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

Generally, listening can be broken down into a few types.

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Appreciative or passive listening comprehension

Passive listening – sometimes called appreciative listening – gets a bad rap amongst educators, but it’s what most of us do while we listen to a podcast while we’re driving or an audiobook while we walk the dog. Passive doesn’t mean not listening – it’s just listening with a different purpose. Perhaps strictly for entertainment, perhaps to learn informally, maybe even to reduce the number of outside distractions.

Passive listening is generally motivated by the listener’s personal, informal interest. It’s important to note that passive listening usually still results in some comprehension and learning.

There also seem to be benefits to passive listening in language learning. Dr. Paul Sultzberger ran a study out of Victoria University in New Zealand that explains that passively listening to a spoken language – even if you don’t understand the word meanings – creates connections between sound patterns and words that are critical to learning and fluency.

Active listening comprehension

Active listening is generally where most teachers focus their attention when working with students. The listener is often expected to do something with the information they’re listening to, and so it must be processed differently than just hearing it in the background.

To comprehend and incorporate information gathered through listening, teachers need to encourage students to make listening the primary activity – not something they’re doing while they’re doing something else.

While there are many ways to break down the various types of listening (e.g., Opitz & Zbaracki’s Listen Hear! framework ), active listening can be broken down into the following categories:

Discriminative listening

Discriminative listening is when the listener determines and defines both auditory and visual information. It involves distinguishing among sounds, identifying their sources, and using nonverbal communication to contextualize them.

If a child is playing on a busy playground and hears someone yell her name, she will look up to see if her mother called her. Discriminative listening encompasses:

  • hearing her name (determining that a sound applies to her),
  • looking around to see her mother was sitting on a bench reading (visual cue indicating the sound does not apply to her), and
  • seeing another parent nearby calling their child with the same name (defining the sound and using visual information to confirm its applicability).

Discriminative listening also incorporates how a message is delivered. For instance, a student who speaks only Romanian attending an English-speaking classroom in the U.S. might pay attention to the teacher’s facial expressions and body language to determine what is happening and what they should be doing.

With so many schools increasing their focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), defining and teaching discriminative listening comprehension is an underused avenue toward helping students navigate social situations, such as those involving intent and irony.

Precise listening or informational listening

Generally employed when students listen but defer any critical analysis or processing, precise listening is simply information gathering.

Students might be listening to a lecture or podcast in the classroom, attending a classmate’s speech, or even watching a group of classmates perform. Note taking is often an activity that demonstrates informational listening comprehension because it preserves thoughts and ideas to be analyzed at a later time.

However, after informational listening, students should be able to define what they listened to, perhaps even paraphrasing some of it. The key indicator is that students haven’t had the time or need to analyze the information.

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Strategic listening

When students are listening strategically, they actively look for connections to their own knowledge and try to make sense of the information. They can generally summarize, identify the main idea, make inferences and connections, as well as compare and contrast the information against what they know.

In a classroom, a teacher might be reading a story to the students and asking them questions along the way:

  • What did the main character look like?
  • Why did the main character make that decision?
  • Do you know another story like this one?
  • Describe the story in one sentence.

All of these tasks make sure the students actually understood and could make sense of what they were listening to.

Critical listening

Critical listening is evaluative in nature. The listener is making judgments and measuring new information against current information to make decisions or ask the next question.

Students are often critically listening when they engage in classroom or group discussions, project planning with other students, or engaged in debate because they must not only listen, but respond with the delivered information in mind.

If you’re trying to teach active listening skills to kids, this is a great place to start.

Eight key listening comprehension skills

To promote student proficiency in listening comprehension, Listenwise has identified eight key listening comprehension skills, which align with Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment evidence statements.

Eight key listening comprehension skills assessed through Listenwise quizzes:

  • Recognizing literal meaning. Questions about facts, details, or information explicitly stated in the audio story.
  • Understanding vocabulary. Questions about the meanings of words as they are used in the context of the audio story.
  • Making inferences. Questions asking students to make inferences as they listen to audio stories, interpreting what is said by going beyond the literal meaning.
  • Identifying the main idea. Questions asking students to identify the central idea or gist of an audio story.
  • Determining purpose. Questions asking students to determine the purpose of an audio story.
  • Drawing conclusions. Questions asking students to draw conclusions by synthesizing information in an audio story.
  • Analyzing reasoning. Questions asking students to analyze reasoning supporting a claim in an audio story.
  • Finding evidence. Questions asking students to identify statements or details in an audio story that provide evidence to support claims or conclusions.

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There’s value in building active listening comprehension skills

Listening skills are increasingly crucial to success in college and careers. The 2017 GMAC survey of 1,000 employers indicated that listening is the 2nd highest skill employers want from new hires. However, knowing that student listening needs to be improved and going about it are two very different things.

For years, it’s been challenging to find specific strategies that teachers can employ in the classroom to increase student listening comprehension. Teachers might create individual listening exercises for their students on a given day, but there’s often little opportunity to reinforce any skills developed (or demonstrated).

One of the challenges to teaching listening, especially at the higher grade levels, is the insistence that teachers “don’t grade behavior.” When listening is seen as a behavior, it’s challenging to incorporate lessons to improve it in the same way a teacher might approach reading comprehension.

One way to deal with this mindset is for teachers to set specific listening goals for their lessons; then, it becomes a standards measurement.

And with the proliferation of online exams, many states have begun to add listening comprehension to their end-of-year state tests.

All of this means more schools and districts are looking for tools to support the development of their students’ listening comprehension skills.

So what next?

Need some quick instructional strategies to get students’ listening ears on?

Try bringing podcasts into your teaching using Listenwise, an online platform that supports equitable learning with easy-to-use podcast lessons and comprehension quizzes for grades 2-12.

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