Are We Teaching It, and If So, How?

ERIC Identifier: ED295132
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Hyslop, Nancy B. - Tone, Bruce
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading & Communication Skills Bloomington IN.

Listening is the first language mode that children acquire. It provides a foundation for all aspects of language and cognitive development, and it plays a life-long role in the processes of learning and communication essential to productive participation in life. A study by Wilt (1950), which found that people listen 45 percent of the time they spend communicating, is still widely cited (e.g., Martin, 1987; Strother, 1987). Wilt found that 30 percent of communication time was spent speaking, 16 percent reading, and 9 percent writing. That finding confirmed what Rankin had found in 1928, that people spent 70 percent of their waking time communicating and that three-fourths of this time was spent listening and speaking.

One might assume, then, that the development of listening skills gets considerable attention in our schools; but that does not appear to be the case. Burley-Allen (1982) found the classroom emphasis on language modes to be inversely related to the time people use them: students get 12 years of formal training in writing, 6-8 years in reading, 1-2 years in speaking, and from 0-1/2 year in listening. Swanson (1984b) calls this the "inverted curriculum."

Curriculum guides usually call for more extensive instruction in listening than children get; for as Swanson (1984a) found, there is a tendency for teachers not to emphasize the listening objectives. Many studies in the ERIC database suggest that educators have assumed that listening develops naturally (e.g., Abelleira, 1987).

Another reason that listening is not emphasized may be that not having experienced much instruction on effective listening themselves, teachers are not certain how best to teach it. A study by Swanson (1986) suggests that teachers are not apt to get much training on teaching listening. His survey of 15 textbooks used in teacher education programs revealed that out of a total of 3,704 pages of text, only 82 pages mentioned listening.


No widely accepted model for listening has developed in the past 10-15 years as one has in reading. The emerging processing model for reading has been intriguing and has led to close scrutiny of existing reading instructional materials and assessment instruments and to innovative attempts to develop new ones. For listening, no such conclusive model has yet emerged to direct extensive development of instructional materials.

The processing models for reading, however, contribute to our understanding of listening; and more than any other approaches to defining listening, appear to influence instruction. Pearson and Fielding (1983), among others, link listening skills to reading skills. They feel that reading and listening make use of similar language comprehension processes. As does reading, they maintain, listening involves the simultaneous orchestration of skills in phonology, syntax, semantics, and knowledge of text structure--all of which seem to be controlled by the same set of cognitive processes.

One aspect of listening which relates to high levels of comprehension may be more relevant to listening than to reading. Thomlison's (1984) definition of listening includes "active listening," which goes beyond comprehending literally to an empathetic understanding of the speaker. Gordon (1985) sees empathy as essential to listening and contends that it is more than a polite attempt to identify a speaker's perspectives--that it expands to "nonegocentric prosocial behavior" that altruistically accepts concern for the speaker's welfare and interests. Gordon admits, however, that a problem with research on empathy has been a lack of conceptual clarity. Coakley (1985) tends to define listening skills as the opposites of negative attitudes. She discusses one common negative listening attitude as self-centeredness--as opposed to being "other-oriented," with a genuine interest in others that leads to acknowledging another person's comments by asking open-ended questions. Disrespect, another negative listening attitude, is shown by sending "superiority" signals and/or by interrupting.

In a careful attempt to compile a definition of listening as a synthesis of many other definitions, Hirsch (1986) treats aspects that span neurological responses and interpretation of sound to understanding and assigning meaning by reacting, selecting meaning, remembering, attending, analyzing, and incorporating previous experience. He groups definitions as

  1. attempts to define the process;

  2. explanations of sequential phases in listening--how sound is received, comprehended, and acted upon; and

  3. generalist definitions that examine aspects of listening without sequencing them or relating each to the others as part of a process.
Hirsch's own definition presents numerous components that do not suggest any sequential model but leave one free to focus on particular aspects of listening without attempting to oversimplify the complexity of how they may relate to each other.


A sampling of methodologies for teaching listening described in the ERIC database illustrates how the developing discussion of listening--particularly as it relates to reading--is contributing to directions in the classroom.

After reviewing relationships between listening and reading, Choate and Rakes (1987) offer a structured listening activity not unlike one that would promote reading comprehension. Four major steps that lead to comprehension of a selection read aloud by the teacher include

  1. developing the concepts in the text by promoting discussion that ties the concepts to the students' backgrounds,

  2. establishing a purpose for listening,

  3. using visual aids while reading aloud to help the students focus attention and to reinforce concepts, and

  4. asking questions that promote both literal and interpretive or critical responses.
Among the discussion and numerous practical instructional exercises offered by Wolvin and Coakley (1979) are some that tie listening to particular purposes, such as appreciating oral literature, giving and getting directions, and interpersonal communication.

Shoop (1986) proposes a technique that she says is equally successful in building listening, reading, or a combination of listening and reading comprehension. A narrative text is selected to be read aloud, silently, or both. The teacher interrupts at several places to call a spontaneous news conference in which the students play investigative reporters at the scene of one of the story events. Their questioning promotes interpretive and critical responses.

Abelleira argues that listening should be taught as a separate mode. The first three of five components in her approach to introducing listening to first graders are included to make sure that the pupils understand how the auditory system functions, have some grasp of the science of sound, and know some rules that relate to successful group discussion. The last two components are a list of objectives for the instruction: the students should learn to decode; follow verbal instructions; infer word meanings; listen for details, sequence, and main idea; distinguish fact from opinion; and identify mood. These objectives matched closely the instrument that Abelleira used to demonstrate that the method is effective. Interestingly, they are also very compatible with those on many standardized reading tests.

Lundsteen (1985) points out that the quality and appeal of what one is asked to listen to is instrumental in determining how well a listener attends, and she suggests that the same textual qualities that promote attentive reading comprehension should promote more skillful listening. In an extensive discussion of how listening should and can be framed in integrated language instruction, Lundsteen (1979) covers pertinent research as well as available instructional materials.

Ronald and Roskelly (1985) define listening as an active process requiring the same skills of prediction, hypothesizing, checking, revising, and generalizing that writing and reading demand; and they present specific exercises to make students active listeners to the same "inner voice" one hears when writing.

The tendency of many teaching methodologies and techniques on listening to draw on theory, objectives, and skills more established in the other language modes seems reasonable. The interest in empathy may ultimately distinguish a listening model from those of the other language modes; on the other hand, it is not yet clear why empathy would not also be relevant to reading. The neglect of listening may, in fact, be most efficiently remedied by transferring what is practiced in developing reading, writing, and speaking proficiencies and skills.

This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under contract number RI88062001. Contractors undertaking such projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their judgment in professional and technical matters. Points of view or opinions, however, do not necessarily represent the official view or opinions of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.


Abelleira, Patsy G. Listening Instruction: A Program for First-Grade Students. Nova University, 1987. 78 pp. [ED 287 615]

Burley-Allen, M. Listening: The Forgotten Skill. New York: Wiley, 1982.

Choate, Joyce S., and Rakes, Thomas A. "The structured listening activity: a model for improving listening comprehension," Reading Teacher, 41 (2), November 1987, pp. 194-195.

Coakley, Carolyn Gwynn. "Listening competencies at the secondary/post-secondary level." Paper presented at the 71st Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, 1985. 19pp. [ED 264 623]

Gordon, Ronald D. "Empathy: the state of the art and science." Paper presented at the International Conference of the World Communication Association, 1985. 16pp. [ED 260 470]

Hirsch, Robert O. "On defining listening: synthesis and discussion." Paper presented at the 7th Annual Meeting of the International Listening Association, 1986. 16pp. [ED 267 475]

Lundsteen, Sara W. "Listening and story structure in books for young children." Paper presented at the 6th Annual Meeting of the International Listening Association, 1985. 16pp. [ED 264 587]

Lundsteen, Sara W. Listening: Its Impact at All Levels on Reading and Other Language Arts (Revised ed.). Urbana, Illinois: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills; National Council of Teachers of English, 1979. 179pp. [ED 169 537]

Martin, Robert. "Oral communication," English Language Arts Concept Paper Number 1. Portland, Oregon: State Department of Education, 1987. 9pp. [ED 284 314]

Pearson, P. David, and Fielding, Linda. "Instructional implications of listening comprehension research." Urbana, Illinois: Center for the Study of Reading, 1983. 28 pp. [ED 227 464]

Rankin, Paul T. "The importance of listening," English Journal, 19, October, 1928, pp. 623-630.

Ronald, Katharine, and Roskelly, Hephzibah. "Listening as an act of composing." Paper presented at the 36th Conference on College Composition and Communication, 1985. 12pp. [ED 257 094]

Shoop, Mary. "InQuest: a listening and reading strategy," Reading Teacher, 39 (7), pp. 670-675.

Strother, Deborah Burnett. "Practical applications of research: on listening," Phi Delta Kappan, 68 (8), April 1987, pp. 625-628.

Swanson, Charles H. "Teachers as listeners: an exploration." Paper presented at the 7th Annual Convention of the International Listening Association, 1986.

Swanson, Charles H. "Monitoring student listening techniques: an approach to teaching the foundations of a skill." Paper presented to the Eastern Communication Association, 1984a. [ED 240 653]

Swanson, Charles H. "Their success is your success: teach them to listen." Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the West Virginia Community College Association, 1984b. 23pp.

Thomlison, T. Dean. "Relational listening: theoretical and practical considerations." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the 5th International Listening Association, 1984. 30pp. [ED 257 165]

Wilt, Miriam E. "A study of teacher awareness of listening as a factor in elementary education," Journal of Educational Research, 43 (8), April, 1950, pp. 626-636.

Wolvin, Andrew D., and Coakley, Carolyn Gwynn. Listening Instruction. Urbana, Illinois: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills; Speech Communication Association, 1979. 48pp. [ED 170 827]

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