Supporting the development of listening skills

Published on Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Last updated on Monday, 15 November 2021

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Developing the ability to listen benefits a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development, but humans are not born with good listening skills, it is an ability that needs to be nurtured, practiced and encouraged.

Listening is often confused with hearing. While hearing refers to the sounds entering a person’s ear – which is involuntary and natural – listening is a complex behaviour drawing on active thinking skills and requires concentrated effort.

Listening is not a process that children automatically acquire, but it’s an important skill for learning and communication. Listening habits and skills are a good predictor of oral language proficiency, reading and writing skills, and later school success. It is an ability that is crucial for all aspects of life, especially as poor listening skills can impact on a child’s life and learning.

Asking a child to listen actually involves a complex process. Educator, Eleanor Johnson, provided this description in Teach Early Years: “It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what we mean when we ask children to listen. We are really saying: can you hear my voice; can you listen to the words I’m saying; can you look at me or the object; can you filter out background noise of other people talking or environmental sounds; can you clearly see the visual stimuli; can you break down my sentences and understand their meaning; and can you sustain all of these at the same time for a reasonable length of time?”

The process of listening is connected to what the brain understands, how it uses the sounds we take in, focuses attention on these sounds and make sense of them. Listening is not just hearing; it is the active construction of meaning from all the signals – verbal and non-verbal – that a speaker is sending.

Good listeners need to learn how to filter out much of what they hear – such as distracting sounds in the classroom – in order to concentrate on a message. All of these processes underline why listening is a tough ask of young children and it’s not surprising when they do struggle, in fact it’s part of their learning process.

Listening is not something that comes easily to many children, especially at a young age but they will develop good listening skill over time and with practice. Educators need to have realistic expectations of children’s abilities to listen and to pay attention. And children will always be better listeners when they are interested and engaged with what they’re supposed to be listening to.

An important aspect of being a good listener is attention. This is the ability to obtain and sustain appropriate focus for a task. It is important to be aware of the stages of attention development and plan activities that encourage children to move to the next stage of being a good listener.

In the 1970s, psychologist Joan Reynell defined the different stages of attention a child will move through from birth to the age of about five as follows:

  • Distractibility, 0 – 1 year: babies can only hold their attention for a few moments and are easily distracted by new sounds or objects.
  • Single-channel attention, 1 – 2 years: children begin to focus their attention on one activity and do not like a spoken or visual distraction. We have all spoken to a child so engrossed in an activity that they appear not to hear us at all.
  • Single-channel attention with more flexibility, 2 – 3 years: children continue to focus on one activity and still find it difficult to shift their attention when spoken to. However, they do begin to respond to interruptions and distractions if their name is called or a visual distraction is offered. At this stage, children still find it difficult to pay attention to a visual and verbal task at the same time.
  • Attention under voluntary control, 3 – 4 years: children begin to control their own focus of attention and can shift this between an activity and the speaker. However, children still have to look at the person speaking.
  • Two-channelled attention, 4 – 5 years: children can now move their attention between an activity and a speaker without stopping to look at them. Their attention span may still be short, but children are now ready to pay attention within a group. Children can now attend to a visual and verbal activity at the same time.
  • Fully integrated attention, 5 years onwards: children can now carry out a task, focus their attention in various sized groups, ignore distractions and maintain their attention for a reasonable length of time.

Not all children follow these stages rigidly. Children need opportunities to develop their attention and listening skills through adults spending time with them, encouraging early turn-taking and play experiences.  Given, some children may have limited opportunities or developmental delays which impact their progress, it is wise to think about their developmental “stage, not age”.

Encouraging children to listen

Before starting an activity such as reading, art, music or a craft project, it’s always handy to cue children into getting ready to listen. 

For example: “Before we read our story let’s get ready to listen with our whole body. Let’s put on our good listening ears (pretend to twist on ears). Now Let’s put in our good watching eyes (pretend to twist in eyes). Now let’s zip our lips because it’s my turn to talk and your turn to listen (move fingers across mouth to zip lips).

Oh, and we can’t forget our brain for good thinking (pretend to put brain in your head). Now our brain is ready to think. Our hands are in our lap. Our feet are quiet. Our whole body is calm and quiet. Now we are ready to listen and learn.” 

Teaching practices to encourage listening skills

Reading and telling stories are excellent options for encouraging listening at all ages. Educators can teach listening skills throughout the course of the day as you speak with, listen to, and respond to children. For them, you are a model of active listening. 

Supportive practice examples:

  • Model listening skills and look at children while you speak
  • Ask children for their opinions
  • Accompany your speech with non-verbal gestures
  • Avoid speaking too quickly
  • Start a conversation by saying the child’s name
  • Talk to children in singing or rhyming phrases
  • Link new ideas to a child’s previous experience
  • Vary your intonation so that it is more interesting for children to listen to you
  • Encourage good listening
  • Tone of voice can activate listening and hold a child’s attention

Listening activities for preschoolers

While the same teaching strategies to encourage listening in toddlers applies to preschoolers, here are some activities to make listening super-fun:

Resources and further reading

Teach early years: Learning to listen

Empowered parents: Why listening skills in early childhood are vital + how to teach them

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