Being an active listener is very important in language learning. If we can encourage our students to become active listeners and provide specific practices to help them develop active listening, it will help them not only become better at listening, it will also make them more effective language learners.
What is active listening? We can think of active listening as an approach or mindset that includes an open attitude, an inquisitive mind, and interactive behavior.
So when we encourage our students to be active listeners, we can think in terms of how to create a more flexible approach to understanding, how to activate curiosity, and how to promote meaningful interaction.
If this seems overly complex or nearly impossible to achieve, the good news is that learners tend to naturally become more flexible, more curious, and more interactive if given the opportunity!
Teachers can give students the opportunity to become better listeners by experimenting with different “learning styles”. Seven core learning styles have generally been agreed upon:
||A learner who prefers this style…
||Learns best by listening. Enjoys music, songs, poetry and feels comfortable with aural input; tends to remember clearly what was said
||Learns best by looking. Likes to use pictures and images; tends to create imagery during the learning process, has a strong ability to visualize
|Learns best by doing. Likes physical activity and hands-on learning; tends to move a lot while learning
||Learns best by reading. Makes sense of the world through language; likes to have information presented explicitly
||Learns best by using logic and reasoning to work out ideas; likes having information presented in charts and tables
|Learns best by working with others. Enjoys engaging with others in group work; likes to confirm what was learned
|Learns best by working alone. Enjoys self-study and is self-motivated. Often has a strong ability to reflect and reconstruct what was learned
The key to promoting active listening in this “experiential approach” is to involve students in tasks that involve different “learning styles.” Learning styles is a concept based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. A central aspect of this theory is that each person has a unique “learning style”—a personal preference for how to process information, a most efficient avenue of learning. Whether or not you accept this theory of intelligence, there is value in seeing multiple avenues of learning and engagement.
Seven core learning styles have been differentiated. A person’s learning style is likely to be a combination of these “modalities”, rather than any single one.
Listening itself involves primarily the auditory modality — but (ah-hah!) not only audition. If we can infuse listening practice with other modalities of learning, we can enhance our learners’ engagement and encourage them to be more active listeners.
In this vein, here are some prototypical tasks that I have used over the years, drawing on the learning styles framework. You will note within each of these frameworks that I try to achieve some level of activity before listening, during listening, and after listening.
• Personal Anecdotes. Prepare to tell a personal story involving an event in your life. Before listening, circulate some pictures that provide references or details of the story. Ask the students to describe the pictures and guess how they might fit into the story. Then narrate your story, enhancing with details and asides as appropriate. While the students are listening, hold up the relevant pictures as you tell the story. This use of images aids in visual processing of the input. Check comprehension with some oral questions or with a gapped summary paragraph that the students fill in with key words. As a follow up, you can have the students do a similar picture-based activity in groups.
• Fly Swatter. Prepare a large number of words or phrases that the students have been studying, on the board or on a large paper. Divide the students into two groups. Each member of the group has a turn being the “swatter”, standing near the board, holding a plastic fly swatter that you provide. Read the target word or expression in a sentence or dialogue context. The first person to swat the word wins a point for the team. Even though you could more easily do this activity on a worksheet, adding a kinesthetic element (E.g. racing to the board, slapping the correct answer) and an emotional element (E.g. the light-hearted competition, being cheered on by your team) can enhance the value of the activity.
• Bio Jigsaw. Prepare a short bio of a famous person that you can read to your students, or find a suitable one on online. If you need ideas, you can search YouTube for biographies of famous artists, musicians, inventors, etc. Then create three separate readings, each including some of the information about the person that the other extracts do not contain. Before the students listen, distribute the readings to the students in equal numbers. Give the students some time to go over their readings, underlining key facts. Then have them form groups of three, one A-B-C person per group. They share the information they learned with the other members of the group. Then narrate the bio, or play the media (the audio or video segment) of the biography. The preparatory reading and collaboration helps prime the students for the listening activity. As a follow up, you can have the students work in groups to prepare a bio report of a famous person for the next class.
• Map It. Any listening activity that involves maps, graphs, or charts tend to appeal to the logical/mathematic learning style. For this activity, prepare copies of a map – for a city, district, or country. Create a sequential story, such as a recent holiday trip or local shops that you have visited in the past week, that involves multiple locations on the map. Before listening, have the students identify as many places on the map as they can. Then narrate your sequential story. While the students are listening, they mark the places on the map that you mention. As a follow up, students can use the same map and work in pairs to create a similar listening activity, taking turns as speaker and listener.
• Time Line. A listening activity that involves the students listening attentively to each other appeals to the interpersonal learning style. In this activity, the students prepare to talk about five events in their lives. Before they listen, each student receives five cards; they put a key word or phrase (but not a date) on each card or draw a simple image, something that represents an important event in their life. Students then work in a group of three or four. One student begins by placing his or her cards randomly on the table. The other students (the listeners) ask questions (to the speaker) about each card: What does “(word)” represent? What happened? Tell us more about that. (You can list sample questions on the board.) The speaker answers questions honestly, but tries to avoid giving the exact date of any activity or event. After asking questions about each card, the listeners try to put the speaker’s cards in a time line.
• Guided Story. Any listening activity that requires imagination and personal reflection tends to appeal to the intrapersonal learning style. For this activity, have the students close their eyes. Narrate a story that involves a lot of imagination. Be sure to intersperse the story with several open ended questions such as: You see (a person). What does (the person) look like? / You enter (a room). What do you notice? What do you hear? / (The person) approaches you. What happens next? At the end of the imagined story, have the students work in pairs to recount the story they experienced, using as much detail as they can.
These are examples of listening activities that involve multiple learning styles. Is it important to use these same activities? No, of course not. There are many ways to engage your students, to assist them in becoming more active listeners. But by involving different modes of processing information during listening activities, you can help students explore new ways of understanding. As they become more open in their ways of practicing, they will become more active and find more enjoyment in learning.
© 2019 Michael Rost