Listening to Understand: Five Strategies to Try with Students

Multi-ethnic group of students with teacher in classroom listening to understand

In this era of sound bites and hot takes, everyone seems to be talking––but who is listening? As a consequence, many students are growing up without experiencing authentic conversations. In this environment, classroom modeling of how to listen and respond to others is increasingly important.

At the Great Books Foundation, we’ve been facilitating in-depth, collaborative discussions for almost 75 years. We know that listening can be taught, and the five strategies below are our leading tips for helping students of any age become better listeners.

  1. Set clear expectations. Establishing ground rules for speaking and listening lets everyone know how and when to participate in the conversation. For younger students, a mini-lesson on good listening behaviors (e.g., looking at the speaker, not engaging in distracting actions, focusing on what is being said) may be helpful. Groups of all ages benefit from reminders to avoid interrupting someone who is speaking. Many teachers post guidelines in the classroom and refer to them as necessary.
  2. Be a model listener. It’s a teaching truism that students learn more from what you do than from what you say. If you demonstrate careful listening, your example will have a powerful influence on students’ behaviors. Slow down discussion if you’re having trouble keeping up with what is being said, and ask students to repeat answers for clarity. Ask follow-up questions that pick up on students’ own words (e.g., What makes you see this character as “generous”? or Would you say more about why this part of the story “startled” you?
  3. Hold students accountable. Don’t just say that listening is important; show it through your actions as a facilitator. Frequently ask students to respond to each other’s comments by using follow-up questions like What do you think of Stephen’s idea? or Do you agree or disagree with what Kamika just said? If the student you call on can’t remember the previous comment, have the first student restate their answer, and then ask the student you called on for their response. Instead of paraphrasing students’ comments, require them to listen to one another.
  4. Embrace the pause. Teachers often allow only a second or two of silence after asking a question before making a comment or asking another question. Silence is often construed as a problem, rather than a natural part of the thinking process. Give students time to think after asking a challenging question. If you model ease with occasional pauses, students may surprise you with the quality of their responses. They’ll also be more likely to relax and more willing to think aloud about ideas they aren’t sure about.
  5. Reflect and set group goals. To encourage listening, regularly ask students after discussion to share answers they heard that they hadn’t thought of themselves. You can also help students develop their listening skills by leading a reflection on how the group did with concrete behaviors like taking turns speaking, responding readily to others’ comments, and recalling answers that were offered. Having students set goals for the next discussion is a great way to help them become more mature and responsible listeners.

Senior Professional Learning Consultant and Editor. Nancy Carr has over 20 years of experience as both a professional development coach and a curriculum developer, working in schools throughout the country and with a wide range of student populations. Her work focuses on the intersection of curriculum materials and classroom practice, and she has helped develop many of the Foundation’s current K–12 materials. Nancy holds a PhD in English from the University of Virginia.