Posts Tagged ‘how to teach listening skills’

Six Steps to Active Listening

Active Listening

Six Steps to Active Listening

As a middle school teacher, I’m quite familiar with the research showing that only 30% of my audience is actually listening at any one given point of a class lecture. Many of us can relate to the actor, Ben Stein, trying to engage his high school class in this clip from the 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Most teachers would not perceive themselves as being that boring, but our students might at times disagree. Through experience, teachers learn a variety of cueing strategies, such as the teacher’s lights-off/lights-on cue, the clap-once, clap-twice response, or the “Eyes on me!” techniques to get their students to pay attention.

However, something more than cueing strategies is needed to help students become effective listeners. As is often the case with many of the key study skills that students need to be successful in school, active listening needs to be specifically taught, not incidentally caught.

Surprisingly, there is little educational research on how to teach listening skills.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman completed a meta-analysis of what good listeners actually do in their article in the Harvard Business Review. Based upon data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches, the authors identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%).  Zenger and Folkman arrived at these conclusions: 1. Good listeners viewed listening as a “two-way” activity in which listeners ask questions that promote discovery and insight. 2. Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. 3. Good listeners tended to be cooperative, not competitive with the speaker. 4. Good listeners made suggestions and provided feedback to the speaker.

Despite the lack of listening research, we do know from life experience that there certainly are different levels of listening engagement. Generally speaking, we tend to classify the levels as active and passive listening. The listening behaviors described by Zenger and Folkman would be classified as active listening. However, in much of our daily experience, we tend to be passive listeners. For example, we frequently turn on the television not to watch, but to provide noise just to keep us company. While in the car, we turn on the radio to reduce the noise of traffic. If we are honest, we also tune out in some of our conversations. The problem is not the fact that we are sometimes passive in our listening. The real problem is that we have become so habituated to listening without real engagement that when we need to listen carefully, we are out of practice. So how can we turn the switch back on and replace passive listening with active listening when we really need to listen? And how can we teach our students to do so?

First of all, recognize that active listening is not a one and done teaching lesson. Improving our students’ active listening skills takes practice and plenty of reinforcement. Learning new habits to replace old ones takes time and patience. However, students can improve listening skills by applying the Six Steps to Active Listening, summarized as ED IS PC. A helpful memory trick students will remember. Who knows? Maybe you even know someone named Ed, who really is politically correct. Or go with Ed, the virtual reality computer. Display the graphic and get ready to teach!


Eye contact with your conversation partner is essential. One of our famous poets once said, “The eyes are the windows to our souls.” When we “lock in” to the speaker’s eyes, we better focus on what is being said. We all remember a parent demanding, “Look at me, when I’m talking to you” or a teacher saying “Eyes on me!” to the class. Experience teaches the fact that eye contact improves attention to what is being said.


Distractions must be avoided at all costs. Anything or anyone that takes you away from active listening must be identified and eliminated to the extent that you can control. In a classroom or in a workplace, sitting next to your best friend or someone who is not actively engaged with the speaker will distract you from listening fully. Time to move! Avoid having toys within arm’s reach that will challenge your ability to pay close attention. Think of toys such as cell phones, pens, reading materials—any external stimuli that distract you from the 100% listening task.


Interact with the speaker. Get into the speaker’s mind and think like the speaker. A good speaker will have an organizational plan to any presentation. A lecture, interview, and meeting all have their own patterns of organization. Identify this pattern as soon as you can, and anticipate where the speaker is going next. Common organizational patterns include the following: cause and effect, reasons for, compare and contrast, chronological, issue and action step, main ideas or points and their key details/examples, problems and solutions, questions and answers, argument/opinion and justification.

Practice these interactive actions to increase your active listening:

  • Ask questions to clarify speaker points.
  • Maintain an internal dialogue with the speaker about each of the main points.
  • If appropriate, make comments or answer questions.
  • Connect to prior learning. How does what is being said now relate to what has recently been said?
  • Focus on the main ideas and don’t get lost in the details. Recognize when your speaker gets off on a tangent or “bird walks.”
  • Write down summary notes at the end of key speaker points—not in the middle of the point. Jot down questions or points to clarify for later.
  • Hear the speaker out from beginning to end. Predict where the organizational pattern will take your speaker next and check your predictions as you listen.


Signal words that identify main ideas must be identified. Pay attention to the key words that signal the introduction of a new idea. Each pattern of organization has its own signal words to transition between ideas. For example, the chronology pattern makes use of “first,” “next,” “then,” “finally” and many more. Listening to these cues will help you concentrate better.


Posture matters! Sit up straight with feet flat on the floor. Adjust your seat or desk so that you are looking directly at the speaker, not from an angle. Keep both hands on the table or desk to maintain this posture. A bit uncomfortable? Good. Perfect relaxation induces passive listening. A little stress promotes active listening. Try to sit as close as possible to the speaker—front and center gets the most speaker attention and your best position for interaction.


Concentrate on what is being said and don’t daydream. Listening is a full time job. Develop the mind-set that you must fully understand everything that is being said, how it is being said, and why it is being said. Practice the mind-set that you will have to remember each of the main ideas and be able to use or apply each of these soon. A good trick is to pretend that you will have to repeat the speaker’s presentation immediately following.

After using these active listening skills, help place this short-term learning into your long-term memory by completing a Quick Daily Review as the first part of your homework plan.

The author’s Essential Study Skills is the study skill curriculum that teaches what students need to know to succeed and thrive in schoolOften, the reason why

Essential Study Skills Program

Essential Study Skills

students fail to achieve their academic potential is not because of laziness or lack of effort, but because they have never learned the basic study skills necessary for success.

The 56 lessons in Essential Study Skills will teach your students to “work smarter, not harder.” Students who master these skills will spend less time, and accomplish more during homework and study time. Their test study will be more productive and they will get better grades. Reading comprehension and vocabulary will improve. Their writing will make more sense and essays will be easier to plan and complete. They will memorize better and forget less. Their schoolwork will seem easier and will be much more enjoyable. Lastly, students will feel better about themselves as learners and will be more motivated to succeed. Essential Study Skills is the ideal curriculum for study skill, life skill, Advocacy/Advisory, Opportunity Program classes. The easy-to-follow lesson format of 1. Personal Assessment 2. Study Skill Tips and 3. Reflection is ideal for self-guided learning and practice. Contact the publisher for affordable site licenses.

Literacy Centers, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , ,