It’s shocking that an ability which children rely on for up to half of the school day is rarely evaluated nor a major focus of instruction. Listening is the cornerstone to learning, the foundation of reading and critical to reasoning. It is far more important to academic and personal success than learning fractions, decimals or reading strategies. When was the last time your child was in a class that devoted daily blocks of time to listening, speaking and verbal reasoning?
Listening and speaking are children’s most natural way of learning, helping them develop social skills, understand themselves and the world. Conversation helps children ease tensions, resolve conflicts, reflect on the past and plan for the future. These are the primary way that children build relationships, develop cognitive skills and understand themselves.
Listening is part of the assumed curriculum — critical areas of learning that we assume students have mastered. However, a sizable percentage of children have auditory issues that limit listening attention, auditory reasoning, memory and discrimination. They struggle not just with lectures but with almost any teacher or parent-dominated instruction that lasts for more than a few minutes. The vast majority of secondary students with reading or writing difficulties have underlying auditory processing issues — which makes sitting in most classes a challenging task.
The curriculum in most schools is also inverted — a lot of time is spent on reading and writing while adults spend only about 15% of their time involved in written communication. Math plays a critical but minor role in most of our lives. Listening and speaking are the predominate forms of communication — consuming up to 75% of our time at work and at home.
The good news is that listening is an innate ability that improves with practices such as reflective listening, storytelling, open ended discussions, learning to listen with intent and perspective taking. We must encourage children to talk — not demand silence. We should help them learn to listen with an open mind and intention. Learning to explain lessons in their own words, to negotiate and influence others with the power of their words.
Finally, speech therapists should have the same status as reading teachers. SLP’s are skilled at assessing and developing listening and conversational skills. Reading is a receptive (listening) language ability — something that few reading teachers are taught to address.
“A properly designed school system needs to focus on cognitive abilities, not scholarly subjects. Kids will recognize instantly that these activities are the ones they know how to do and that they need to get better at.” Roger Schank, Teaching Minds; How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools