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Beowulf, Cotton Vitellius Manuscript

Building the Habit of Listening

Learning habits are the routine ways in which we think and act when faced with new experiences and challenges. Very often they are second nature to us. Sometimes they make us very productive and efficient, for example, helping us know how to get started with something when we’re stuck. At other times, our well-honed habits can cause us to work in a constrained and limited way. We may be in the habit of saying – I’m no good at that…I just don’t think in those ways…My mind doesn’t work like that…

It is clear that habits are formed through use: they become habituated. If I am in the habit of listening to really understand other people then I will always do so; if I am not I will hear surface noise, or, just what I want to hear. The more I use a particular habit in one context, the more I will learn to apply it elsewhere in other aspects of my life.

As teachers we are in the habit-forming business. Those habits that we model in front of young people influence the ways in which they perform and behave. Therefore, we need to be sure to foster productive learning habits. If we frequently say Ask me if you get stuck we are not building our students’ self-reliance and resilience. Before they know it, they have become the creatures of our making: replicating our ways.

We need to remember that bad habits are there to be broken and not slavishly maintained. New habits can be formed if we are in the right frame of mind to shape and use them. Beware: old habits die-hard.

What does a well-formed listening habit look like?

    • Being genuinely interested in what other people are saying – engaging with them with curiosity and engagement
    • Being comfortable with silence and patiently attending to what is being said
    • Making well-judged interventions to elucidate, probe or challenge
    • Managing distractions constructively and focusing on the current moment
    • Attending to visual cues and atmospheres
    • Noticing details and nuances
    • Making links with other experiences and contexts

Hearing between the lines of what is being said – drawing inferences

  • Being socially aware – respecting and valuing the contribution of other individuals content here.


Good Listeners are likely to:

  • Listen to understand what others are saying
  • Know when to stay silent
  • Pose questions for clarification, or, to unearth meaning
  • Reflect and supplement what others are saying
  • Form their own opinions
  • Be respected for their timely contributions
  • Become self-confident and self-aware
  • Evaluate the reliability of evidence

Becoming aware of your habits

Since teachers are habit formers, they need to be mindful of the ways that they help students form, break and re-form their learning habits.

The development of listening habits is seldom given attention in schools despite the fact that most teachers will say that Students aren’t good listeners

Here are some of things that we do that limit the capacity of our students to be in a listening frame of mind:

  • Believing that instruction is the best way of securing understanding
  • Presenting ideas at length without stimulating student engagement
  • Showing little interest in what students have to say
  • Ignoring the need to exercise students’ listening capacities
  • Assuming that to hear means to listen
  • Using collaborative group-work infrequently
  • Saying Will you listen…and…Ssshhh…insistently


Here are some things that we could do to build better listening habits:

  • Use centering activities as lesson starters
  • Introduce elements of surprise and mystery in lessons
  • Plan for occasions when students are required to listen differently
  • Make students aware of how and when to listen effectively
  • Develop listening routines to suit a variety of circumstances
  • Provoke students to examine the varied evidence of their ears
  • Require students to listen attentively to each other
  • Enabling students to set their own listening targets


Building effective listeners

Provide a number of images of people in listening mode (e.g. to a radio broadcast, to a concert, to a person’s heart, to a politician/comedian, to another person) as rapid images on the interactive whiteboard.

Ask students to develop a spider diagram supplementing what they have just seen with additional ideas and words to describe how people listen (e.g. attentively, casually, cynically, eagerly, cautiously etc).

Ask students to recount their own experiences of listening – what they find particularly demanding and challenging.

Require students to define The habits of effective listeners with different groups defining listening in different contexts (e.g. when working with others, when listening to instructions, when following an argument, when constructing and argument etc). Enhance group efforts through class plenary.

Display prompts on classroom walls to support the development of autonomous listening habits. 

Listening activities

  1. Play a piece of atmospheric music as students enter the classroom, ask them to concentrate on what they are hearing – mute the music and ask them: how many instruments and what are they? Turn on the sound and ask them to work it out. Close your eyes and visualise a place or action that the music suggests. What title would you give to this piece of music? Now tell them what the piece is called – What are you seeing now in your mind’s eye? (Tracks from Points of View by the Dave Holland Quintet work particularly well.)
  2. Show a two minute scene from a film…without the visuals
    • Listen for cues in sound effects, voices, soundtrack
    • Predict what is happening
    • Show the film and attend to the way in which sounds contributed to meaning
  3. Play recordings of
    • Recognisable people – Who are they…what’s the evidence…how do you know?
    • Unknown individuals talking – What do you know…who could they be…how do you know?
    • One end of a telephone conversation – Who’s on the other end…what’s being said…how do you know?
    • A dialogue – What’s just happened…what happens next…how do you know?
  4. Provide complex directions or instructions
    • A sense of direction exercises: 
      • You are facing east, you make an about-face, and then you turn left. Which direction is now on your left?
      • Castle Street is parallel to St John’s Street. The Avenue is perpendicular to Purley Road. Purley Road is parallel to St. John’s Street. Is The Avenue parallel or perpendicular to Castle Street?
    • There’s something wrong here
      • ‘There’s a mistake there!’ Teacher reads a sentence or statement without expression, then reads it again with changes – no repetition. Students are asked to spot the changes. This can work particularly well when using a foreign language. 
        Karen takes the train to work but Katherine always drives. Clare takes the bus to work but Kim sometimes drives.
        Next year Christine is going on holiday to France. Next week Christina is going to work in France.
        After Easter, Lynn and Drew are going to Switzerland to visit Drew’s mother. During Easter, Linda and Drew are going to Swansea to visit Linda’s mother.
    • Present two people’s views of the same event – how do they differ?
  5. Play listening games in the round: using drama lesson activities in other curriculum areas
    • Speak sentences using different tone, pace, etc., to change meaning, for example:
      • ‘I don’t know why you didn’t go.’
      • ‘Please get on the first bus home.’
      • ‘My mother didn’t give me £10’
      • ‘How can I answer that?’
    • Whose voice is it?: One student stands in the centre of a circle, eyes closed. He or she calls out a phrase such as ‘Read all about it…Shock last minute equaliser’, while pointing to someone in the circle. That person echoes what has been said, and the person in the middle has to try to recognise the voice, (only one try). If correct, they then change places.
    • Tell a story sentence by sentence leading on from the previous contribution
    • Cheese: It is forbidden to say a certain number as they count round the circle, e.g. ‘seven’ becomes ‘cheese’, ‘fourteen’ becomes ‘two cheese’ etc. Change the forbidden number and the way the word ‘cheese’ is spoken, e.g. high-pitched voice/quietly, etc.
  6. Listening to each other games
    • Back to back drawings: Give instruction to replicate a complex diagram – the listener may generate questions to gain the information s/he needs
    • Making an omelette: One person is seated with hands clasped behind the back. The other provides the hands and mimes the actions that go with the other person’s spoken instructions

Raising awareness of listening skills

Introduce students to some frameworks for understanding listening

Stephen Covey defines five levels of listening:

      • Ignoring the other – simply not listening at all
      • Pretending – saying automatic words of confirmation but not really listening
      • Selective listening – paying attention to certain parts
      • Attentive listening – paying attention, reflecting back, checking understanding (active listening)
      • Empathic listening – seeking an understanding of the person that goes beyond words

 Help students to understand how to manage their distractions when listening

  • Put aside thoughts of what you are going to say next
  • Avoid interrupting
  • Know what else is on your mind and ignore it
  • Face the other person so you both see and hear
  • Ask for clarification when you don’t understand
  • Focus hard on the main points
  • Make brief notes of key words

Enable students to define how best to listen when working with others

  • Agree common goals (‘Let’s make sure we know what we’re trying to do…’)
  • Use encouraging language (‘That’s a good idea…that’s interesting…’)
  • Ask for clarification (‘I don’t quite get what you mean by that…’)
  • Paraphrase (‘Let’s just say that again…’)
  • Remember quiet people are also listening and have valuable things to say – draw them in
  • Don’t talk over each other
  • Don’t undermine other people – no put downs


Ten top tips for becoming a better listener

      1. Be willing to become a good listener: understand the benefits of becoming a good listener and remind yourself regularly.
      2. Respect other people: be attentive – try to develop openness to other people’s contributions.
      3. Focus completely on what is being said rather than thinking or composing your own reply.
      4. Provide visual cues that you are attentive, interested and involved.
      5. Let someone else finish before you intercede or reply. Be patient.
      6. Give oral encouragements – “I see”, “I understand”, “I agree” – that send signals to the speaker that you are really listening, and ask questions to stimulate lively discussion.
      7. Occasionally summarise and repeat back in your own words what you understand of what has been said.
      8. Give proper feedback – provide your honest opinion whenever you are asked or when it seems appropriate.
      9. Become curious about the person with whom you are talking. Being curious about another person helps to validate and encourage them.
      10. Try not to ask more than one question at a time. Give others time to respond and make use of follow-up questions in response to what is said.

Commentating to strengthen the listening habit

There are five preferred styles that can be used in response to different circumstances:

  • Appreciative: enjoying what is being said and how it is being said in a relaxed way
  • Empathic: responding to the feelings expressed with sympathy and understanding
  • Discerning: focusing on information, making notes and avoiding distractions
  • Comprehensive: relating what is said to what they know already, asking questions, preparing arguments
  • Evaluative: critiquing what is being said and building counter arguments

These are underpinned by a desire to be either task-oriented or relationship-oriented.

In order to teach with listening in mind, it is a good idea to set up the lesson with a specific listening purpose. For example, in one lesson it may be appropriate to require students merely to listen with relaxed enjoyment to appreciate the experience for itself; on another occasion the focus may be on listening with discernment, whilst another may require listening in order to generate counter arguments.

Once listening intentions are clear, it is possible to plan and – in due course – assess for the development of students’ skill levels across these five listening styles.

Teachers can use post-listening activities to evaluate listening skills and the ability to transfer the use of listening strategies to other contexts.

Modelling the listening habit

Teacher routines build students’ habits of mind. The following help students listen more effectively:

  • Start lessons with an aural challenge…from time to time
  • Be physically and mentally present in the moment: show that you are genuinely interested in everyone else
  • Withhold judgment about students’ attitudes for as long as possible – give them time to say what they mean
  • Make listening experiences as authentic as possible and relate them to real life circumstances
  • Clarify specific listening intentions within lessons – don’t merely expect students to Just listen…
  • Establish pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening approaches to prepare, focus and deepen the experience
  • Ask students to use Covey’s five levels to grade their own – and others’ – listening in a given circumstance

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