5 reasons to boost listening literacy in schools

Listening well has become an educational standard for college and careers
By: | Issue: April 2020
March 12, 2020

How often have you heard any student boast “I’m a great listener!”? Beyond preschool, probably not often. It turns out we should be hearing it a lot more.

Listening well is not only a highly relevant skill—thank you TED Talks, podcasts and audiobooks—but it’s also become an educational standard as well as a long recognized critical link in future success.

Last year, a survey by Morning Consult for the ed tech company Cengage found listening skills were the most in-demand talent among employers—74% of whom indicated it as a most-valued skill.

For college-bound kids listening is essential. In fact, researchers have called this phase of life a four-year (or more!) linguistic swarm marked by a daily boatload of oral language.

More from DA: Why learning to read relies on content

And then there’s a little thing called standardized testing—with 22 states now testing for listening. It’s an anchor standard across all grades, says Monica Brady-Myerov, CEO of Listenwise, a provider of educational listening programs. “No doubt, listening really took off with the adoption of Common Core.”

Auding, or listening to spoken language, skills have become so important that MetaMetrics, creators of the Lexile leveled reading framework, recently introduced a listening framework.

How to get started with listening

Theresa Blanchard, the EL Program Specialist for Sanger Unified School District near Fresno, California, has been helping implement and finetune a listening program in her district for the past two years. Here are the steps she recommends for getting started.

Seek out your early adopters.
There are always some teachers who love to experiment with different resources. They’ll help pilot a program and share wisdom. They can also steer professional learning communities centered on best practices for listening activities.

Think outside the English class.
Blanchard recommends integrating listening as much as possible into all subjects, but especially with science and social studies in the secondary level. “There’s a lot of great audio content that brings these subjects alive that teachers will want to embrace,” she says.

Focus first on subgroups of students.
If you introduce listening first with English language learners and students with IEPs, many of whom need alternate strategies to access content and build skills, Blanchard says other teachers will clamor to use it as well.

Don’t rely solely on tech.
No matter how good your listening ed tech resource might be, there’s still some old-fashioned explicit instruction that needs to take place. Think alouds, modeling and mini-lessons are effective listening instruction strategies. Many students will need to be taught how to take notes or annotate a transcript while listening along or even how to have a collaborative conversation after listening. Teachers will also need to coach students to use the features of tech to their advantage—for example, accessing definitions for unfamiliar vocab words.

Too much hoopla over a soft skill we didn’t think to explicitly teach a few years ago? Nope. In fact, listening can be seen as a superpower. Here are five reasons why.

1. Listening exposes cracks in literacy

Comprehension is the underlying skill for both reading and listening for learning. Students have to be able to draw conclusions, integrate and make inferences.

In early grades, however, poor comprehenders can go undetected when these students are good decoders. But with more complex texts later, hidden impairments emerge.

A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Speech and Language Pathology highlights a growing number of children who fail to develop adequate reading comprehension skills, primarily due to deficient listening comprehension skills.

“Sort of the classic dyslexic is a student who might listen well but struggle with reading, but there are also students with the opposite profile,” says Alistair Van Moere, chief product officer at MetaMetrics, the creators of Lexile. “Students who have cracked decoding are able to take a passage and read aloud. We think, ‘Oh they’re doing fine,’ but comprehension is really a separate skill.”

By actively teaching and evaluating listening comprehension, educators get a fuller picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. “It just gives you a more global view and it often tells you that you need to work on comprehension skills, something you maybe didn’t realize,” says Van Moere.

2. Listening serves as a dyslexia inclusion strategy

Laws requiring dyslexia screening recently took effect in many states, including Missouri. This year districts there were required to screen every student in kindergarten through third grade.

Amanda McCaleb, a literacy intervention specialist with Springfield Public Schools, says her district’s results were in line with what research has indicated. “We found about 18% of those screened—almost one in five —were identified as at risk for dyslexia,” says McCaleb. “This is definitely a significant amount of students who need some very specific interventions.”

About half the schools in the district of 25,000 students are Title I and have an interventionist on staff, but the district also needed a way to better assist kids in the other schools. They’re now using MindPlay virtual reading coach, a tool that relies heavily on audio to teach vocabulary and grammar for the students identified as needing extra help.

Another key tool, Learning Ally, is specifically dedicated to listening. “The audio piece is really important for all students, but especially for our students who either have a diagnosis of dyslexia or may be at risk for dyslexia,” says McCaleb. “What we’ve found is that typically these students have quite high listening comprehension.”

Struggling readers who listen to content rather than read it —or listen while also reading a transcript—often can comprehend at or above grade level. “In this way, audio is an assistive technology just like speech-to-text assists with writing,” says McCaleb. “We can make learning accessible to students who might otherwise not be able to access grade-level content.”

Occasionally, teachers think relying on listening rather than reading is somehow unfair, but most educators take the opposite stance: they feel it’s one way to help level the playing field.

“For me, those conversations always come back to needing to support the student to make sure they have equitable access,” McCaleb says. “And now I really think primarily teachers are very excited and want to just kind of figure out how to incorporate more audio content.”

3. Listening can improve reading comprehension

Reading aloud to children has long been heralded as the foundation for literacy development. Studies dating back decades have called it the single most important activity for reading success.

More from DA: Why school book fairs are bouncing back

It makes sense, then, that since the advent of audiobooks, educators have embraced them as golden resources for vocabulary, comprehension and reading fluency.

Students can use audio along with text, which scaffolds weaker readers. In effect, they can ‘ear read.’ But there is a hitch. Once students become proficient readers, the tables turn. Strong readers learn complex information easier by reading than by listening.

4. Listening can engage hard-to-reach students

At first, listening instruction in Tyson Bohlinger’s English language arts classes at Griffiths Middle School in Downey, California, included TED Talks and a graphic organizer.

Now he’s graduated to Listenwise, which provides short NPR clips and a host of rich resources students find intriguing. Bohlinger ties the listening activities with other lessons—recently it was civil rights and social justice—and he’s even able to sync the lessons and activities with his Google Classroom.

He introduces a new audio lesson every two weeks, and what he has noticed is nothing short of miraculous for middle schoolers: A lack of complaints.

“They just get the headphones on and get to work,” he says, adding that he makes sure students understand the purpose behind the activity. “I tell them that learning to listen well could be the difference between holding on to a job or losing a job. But I also explain to my students that listening is a skill set that is going to be extremely important not only to just becoming intelligent humans, but also important so that they can contribute to civic society—especially since we’re living in an age of disinformation.”

It helps that Bohlinger is a podcast and audiobook fanatic. “My passion definitely comes through,” he says.

5. Listening matches up with core standards

“Speaking and listening” skills ae part of the Common Core standards for English language arts. Like most U.S. students, Bohlinger says Griffiths middle schoolers haven’t been doing particularly well in this area.

But as a Title I school, they are fortunate to have one-to-one devices and funding to spend on tech and supplemental programs. Bohlinger became determined to get his kids listening well.

“When I first started out I allowed transcripts along with audio, which is kind of like training wheels,” he says.

More from DA: How states are expanding support for dyslexic students

Eventually, he removed the transcripts to align with the scenario that would come up on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASP).

After a semester of using Listenwise, Bohlinger tested the waters. He gave his students the interim listening assessment that CASPP provides and then compared one class’s results with what those same students scored for their seventh grade standardized test. Roughly 22% more students scored above the standard.

“I’d call that statistically significant,” he says. He’s looking forward to results from this year’s test, but so far he’s convinced listening is a worthwhile investment.

Victoria Clayton is a Southern California-based writer.

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.