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Teaching Strategies to Turn Students into Active Listeners

Jordan Catapano

If we want to use teaching strategies to educate students to be good at catching and thinking through what’s said to them, then we must use specific teaching strategies to educate them to be active listeners.

For instance, growing up I often heard my mother, but I did not listen to my mother. She might have told me all kinds of things, but later on I’d swear, “You never told me that!” There’s a subtle difference between hearing and listening, and the success of our students could depend on which one they’re doing. To hear implies that a sound crosses the ears and registers at a subconscious level. Hearing happens automatically. To listen means that an individual chooses to pay attention to the sound and register the meaning at a conscious level. Sometimes our students listen, but sometimes they only hear what’s going on around them. The difference is that listening is a choice and an exertion of energy. It requires focusing on sounds and using one’s mind to interpret their meanings. Listening does not just happen on its own.

Teaching Strategies: The Attributes of an Active Listener

“Active” listening is the process of engaging oneself in the listening process. Instead of passively receiving communication, the active listener interacts with the communication.

Here are the seven attributes your students ought to know about and choose to do:

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Be Prepared

Before the communication even begins, students should be physically and mentally prepared to actively listen. Any supplies they’ll want – such as note-taking tools – should be ready to go. The listener should also make sure they feel rested, fed, and mentally anticipating the energy and focus they’ll need to apply. Any pre-class work, such as reading necessary materials, should be completed as well.

These preparations will ensure the student is primed for paying maximum attention to the communication they will take part in.

Tune In

Once the listening begins, the listener must physically position oneself to pay attention. This means that students should sit up in their desks, not slouch. Eyes should be directed towards the speaker. They should breathe deeply. All of this puts their body in a position that helps activate the mind and direct attention towards the source they want to pay the most attention to.

Watch the Action

Communication is much more than words; it’s gestures, tones, movement, and objects. An active listener pays attention to all of these elements to understand the most of a speaker’s communication.

As students listen to a teacher or one another, they need to “Listen with their eyes” just as much as with their ears. If they can watch the way a speaker’s hands and body move to create additional meaning, then they’re more likely to understand the speaker’s communication.

Directing our eyes towards a speaker is also a non-verbal form of feedback. The speaker sees our attention directed towards them and knows they are being listened to.

Take Notes

In addition to using ears and eyes, an active listener should also use hands. Taking notes on what a speaker says helps in two ways: First, it helps the listener mentally process the speaker’s words and meaning, and second, it provides a record of communication for the listener to return to at a future point.

Students should be encouraged to mentally interact with the information they’re listening to by writing down their own version of notes. Notes can be strictly organized or creatively mapped out; they can even be visual. When students write down what they hear, they are more likely to understand it in the moment and remember it later on.

Make Personal Connections

Knowledge is not absorbed; it is created. A speaker might talk about a subject as clearly as they can, but it takes an active listener to construct meaning out of it. The best listeners are the ones who put what they hear into terms of their own personal experience. They take the new information they’re hearing and use it to build off of what they already know.

As students listen, they are more likely to retain and understand the information if they can connect it to what they already know. This means that while they’re listening, they’re processing through what they hear and put it into terms (and into their notes, hopefully) that make the most sense to them.

Avoid Distractions

Listeners can easily be distracted, and with the increase of alluring technology in the classroom, it’s even more likely that students’ attention may veer off course. Active listening is a choice not just to pay attention, but to consciously avoid the items that may pull attention away.

Students should be encouraged to think through what is most likely to distract them: A smartphone or tablet, a friend, a song. What could potentially keep them from paying full attention to the speaker? Once students identify those distracting elements, they should make the conscious choice to keep them away. Keep the phone in their locker; stay on their note-taking app on the tablet; sit away from their talkative friend. If they can do these things, they are more likely to maximize their listening.

Follow Up

Finally, good listening requires that students have some sort of response to what’s being said. Some responses might include asking questions, rephrasing information, talking through what confused them, verbalizing a personal connection, or sharing an additional detail. Communication happens two ways, and when students follow up their listening, they are enhancing their own (and their peers’) understanding of the message.

The Goal is Mutual Understanding

Someday, we’ll be able to put a jump drive in our heads, upload our thoughts, then plug the jump drive into someone else’s head and download our thoughts to them. Until that day arrives, words are the best thing we’ve got to communicate.

It’s essential that students not only focus on their communication skills, but that they focus on their listening skills as well. Truly effective communication happens when an individual genuinely listens to others and does everything possible to understand them. We might hear one another with our ears, but listening happens with the ears, eyes, hands, mind, and heart.

The goal of active listening is to improve mutual understanding. It’s ideal for students interacting with and learning from one another. It’s essential for capturing and processing key information in classroom discussions and lectures.

So as you proceed throughout your year, don’t assume students are automatically active listeners. Share these elements of active listening with them, and encourage them to become truly good listeners.

How do you help your students become better listeners? Share your ideas with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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