Teachable Moments: Beyond basics of listening to learn

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

A common complaint of teachers is that children don’t know how to listen. In fact children are constantly talking while the teacher is talking. If your child is having difficulty in class, it might be a simple problem that he/she has not learned to listen. The purpose of this article is to make suggestions of how you might help your child learn the skill of listening.

One of the first suggestions that I make to parents when their child has demonstrated to me that he/she might have a listening problem in school is to think to ask the doctor to do a brief test of hearing. Often nurses in schools can provide a screening hearing test.

If the tests show no problems, then the parents need to help the child to learn to focus on listening. According to Julian Treasure, there are really four parts to listening to teach. (

1. Receiving is the hearing of the words spoken The child needs to focus on the person talking (teacher, parents, or friend). Make sure your child looks at adults when adults are talking.

2. Appreciate is the understanding of what is being said. You need to talk to your child about some things that are not related to commands for them to do a job. Selecting a topic that your child has shown interest is the place to start. If your child show’s interest in plants, talk to them about a specific plant. As you talk you only discuss in the beginning two to three bits of information about the topic.

3.Summarize is the ability of the child to put into their own words what someone has told them. You ask your child to repeat back the important information that has been talked about. If your child is successful, you praise. If your child is not successful, repeat the information back to him/her by saying, “I also said ….”

4. Ask. Teach your child to ask questions he thought about while listening to what you said.  For example if you talked about Puffins but did not say where they lived, the child might ask where Puffins live. If you know the answer, provide it. If you don’t then say let’s look that up.  That is where modern media is very helpful as a learning tool.

It is important to teach your child to know that all humans listen through filters. These filters, like lenses for the eye, often color what we hear.  The earlier a child recognizes these filters and the impact on listening, they can begin to control the effects of the filters. Some of these filters include:

Personal interests and relevance. Choose speakers for your child to listen to that know your child’s interest in the beginning. The relevance filter is like interest and very important. Teach the child to see how the speaker is relating what is being said to the child’s life. If the speaker is not doing that, teach the child to ask questions that will help the speaker relate to the child.

Preconceived notions and expectations and biases/prejudices. This filter can sometimes cause the listening to be faulty. Teach your child to understand the impact of preconceived notions and expectations and how to identify bias and prejudices in others.

Voice tone. The tone of a speaker can often highlight important facets of what the person is talking about. In school, the teacher often uses a stronger tone when stating something that will be on the test. They will also often repeat the information.

Appearance. Teach your child that you can’t judge a speaker by the clothes.

Mood. The mood of the speaker and the mood of the listener can affect effective listening. The sooner a child recognizes this, the better. Mood becomes a big issue during teenage years.

Vocabulary and jargon. Teach the child to ask what words mean when someone talks to them, and they don’t understand the meaning of the word.

Body language and gestures. Children need to learn to interpret the body language and gestures of others. There are books on body language as well as videos on You Tube.  This should begin in some form as early as six years old. Parents can discuss with their children how to interpret what the parent is conveying by using body language and then help the child transfer this to the adults at school.

Attitudes and strong feelings. Attitudes and strong feelings are attached to emotions and emotions often take control of rational thinking. Help your child recognize how to identify the feelings and attitudes that are affecting their understanding of what they are listening to and know that these will interfere the most during teenage years.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.