Create a Classroom of Active Listeners

Are your students listening, or just waiting to talk? And how hard is it to tell the difference? If you find teaching and assessing active listening skills challenging, you’re far from alone. But it is possible to teach students how to listen more effectively—and doing so deepens learning for everyone in the classroom.

Putting the “active” in “listening”

Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, defined listening as the “very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives.”1 More academically, Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teaching places “active listening” on the list of indicators that a classroom has achieved the climate of “respect and rapport” necessary for effective learning.2 But what’s so “active” about this type of listening?

A student engaged in active listening is fully focused on understanding what the person speaking is saying. And since students spend more time listening during the school day than engaging in any other activity, explicitly teaching listening skills is vital.3

Group discussion is a powerful way to teach purposeful listening, since exploring open-ended questions requires students to learn from each other’s responses throughout the activity. The following suggestions for building a classroom culture of listening are drawn from our more than 75 years of experience helping leaders use the Shared Inquiry™ method to drive learning through discussion.

With the proper foundations in place, active listening becomes an everyday classroom practice and a skill students use across the curriculum. The four strategies below will help you establish an active listening community in which students are excited to learn from each other!

Four Classroom Strategies to Foster Active Listening

  1. Set explicit guidelines. With students’ help, create clear explanations of listening behaviors. This may take the form of a mini-lesson or group conversation, and should result in agreed-upon norms. Those norms might include:

  • Looking at the person speaking
  • Waiting a beat after someone has finished before beginning to speak
  • Not raising hands while someone is talking, or doing anything to distract others from listening

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  1. Model the behaviors you want to see. You are the most powerful influence on your students’ classroom listening practices. If you consistently practice active listening, your students will see its importance. To do this, you can:

  • Regularly ask students to repeat or clarify answers if you feel you or your students may have missed something. This not only shows that you care about understanding students’ comments but also makes it clear that they can ask each other the same types of questions.
  • Ask follow-up questions that include students’ own words. For example, if a student says a character is “silly,” you might ask “What makes you think she is ‘silly’?” Using students’ own words demonstrates that you are listening closely.
  • Rather than paraphrasing what students say, ask them to restate their ideas. Paraphrasing puts the power in your hands, and even if your restatement doesn’t capture what a student meant, they are likely to assent to what you say. Instead, ask questions like “Can you say that again?” or “Would you say more about what you mean?”

  1. Establish peer accountability. Sometimes students will listen to you but talk over each other or respond sequentially to a question without engaging each other’s ideas. To encourage student-to-student listening, you can:

  • Require students to track the discussion by asking questions like “Which answer do you agree with most?” and “Whose idea seems closest to your own?” These questions draw on students’ experience of the entire conversation.
  • Regularly ask students to respond directly to each other, rather than always talking to you. Using students’ names in your questions also helps. For example, you can ask “What do you think about Elaine’s answer?” or “Do you agree or disagree with Amir?”
  • If students say they didn’t hear or understand another student’s response, ask questions instead of paraphrasing. Paraphrasing in this situation shows students that you will take the responsibility for listening. Instead, ask the first student to repeat their comment, and then ask the student who didn’t hear at first, “So, what do you think of that idea?”

  1. Lead students in regular reflection. For an active listening culture to take hold in the classroom, students must feel that they are responsible for maintaining it. To encourage meaningful investment in the group’s listening behaviors, you can:

  • Have students complete a reflection form after every third or fourth discussion—or more often, if needed. Include items specifically focused on listening: “We let people talk without interruption,” “We respond to other people’s ideas directly,” “We use respectful language when we disagree,” or any other listening behaviors you want students to reflect on. Making the group the focus rather than individuals helps students honestly evaluate behaviors.
  • With students’ help, set goals to improve listening behaviors. Invite students to talk about what would help them listen to each other and what behaviors are distracting. When these suggestions come from peers, students are more likely to listen.
  • Praise the group when you see good listening in action. Be specific about how you see the class improving; for example, you might say “I noticed that more people were looking at the person talking today” or “I saw people agreeing and disagreeing with each other without my asking.”

Finally, emphasize that active listening is a lifelong skill that gets easier with practice. Celebrate your students’ achievements, and be an encouraging coach when they fall short. Your attitude toward building listening skills has a meaningful influence!

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Continue to practice active listening through Junior Great Books®

When you learn the Shared Inquiry method and discuss thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction texts with your students, you will get plenty of practice facilitating active listening in your classroom! Our professional development gives explicit instruction and myriad strategies to harness your students’ curiosity, and our classroom materials give students rich texts to read closely and talk about with energy and enthusiasm. Talk to your K–12 partnership manager today to learn more!

  1. Fred Rogers. You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor. Penguin Publishing Group, 1995.
  2. The Danielson Group. The Framework for Teaching.
  3. Melissa Kelly. “Active Listening in the Classroom, an Important Motivational Strategy.” ThoughtCo., November 2019.

Senior Professional Learning Consultant Danielle Martin is an educational consultant for the Great Books Foundation. She has more than 15 years of experience as a teacher, curriculum developer, and instructional coach. She holds an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an MA in theater history and criticism from Catholic University.