Listening is a complicated skill that requires children to learn how to pay attention – being able to focus on a particular voice or sound by filtering out other voices and ambient noises. They then have to concentrate on the voice or sounds to take in the information, building the stamina needed to listen for extended periods of time. Then they have to interpret that information to gain meaning – comprehension.
The usual approach to teaching children to listen is based on three behaviours:
- Sitting or standing still
- Looking at the person who is speaking
- Thinking about what the person is saying or said
However just because your child is replicating these behaviours doesn’t mean they are listening.
It is also surprising how often children are happy to follow steps 1 and 2 but completely miss step 3.
This is not surprising really as listening is not a set of behaviours but a set of skills that need to be taught and developed, starting from birth.
A child with poor listening skills will find it difficult to complete tasks, as they have not taken in all the information and so not understood the full extent of the task, or what was required of them. This can lead to a child flitting from one activity to another and never finishing anything, slowing down their learning. They also miss out on the sense of achievement and feeling of pride when a task is completed. This helps to build a child’s confidence, self-esteem and self-motivation to try again or attempt a more challenging task.
For many children good listening skills do not develop naturally, they have to be taught!
Children need to learn that in conversation they need to take turns listening and speaking.
This is more complex process than we often give it credit for as often we, especially in our busy lives, can be guilty of only listening to reply rather than listening to understand.
Children need to learn when to talk and when to listen; for this to happen they need to do the following:
- Actively Listen to the other person. This means:
- Concentrate on the words being said, by blocking out other environmental noises and voices.
- For most children and adults this also means looking at the person, watching their facial expression and body language.
- Listening for the verbal cues and/or changes in the tone of voice that signifies that the person has finished speaking.
- Recognising that it is either your turn to respond by formulating a reply or not.
- Formulate a Response. This means:
- Extracting meaning – taking understanding from the words that have been spoken.
- Mentally searching for words to compile a grammatically correct set of sentences.
In young children this can take time, not because they do not have the answer, because they just take longer to recall and formulate their responses. This is due to the constant acquisition of new language and understanding of the grammatical conventions that need to be applied.
- Communicate Response. This means
- Speaking clearly, pronouncing words correctly in coherent sentences.
- Using socially appropriate facial expressions and body language to accompany the response.
- Using the appropriate verbal cues and/or changes in the tone of voice that allow the other person to understand it is now their turn.
- Wait. This means giving time for the other person to formulate their response.
- Actively Listen to the other person.
Learning these skills takes time and needs to be taught as well as modelled by those around the children. It begins very early on for instance, when we talk to a baby, as if expecting an answer. As a baby starts to make cooing and babbling sounds, they begin to respond to you in those gaps, their first conversations.
Something that is worth remembering:
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” (Dalai Lama)
Don’t underestimate the importance of everyday chatter or conversation (‘Small Talk’), children develop and learn a great deal through ‘Small Talk’ with adults and other children.
What do we mean by ‘Small Talk’?
With babies it is the kind of talk that explains what we are doing, what they are doing, where we are going and what we can see. As they get older our verbal exchanges increase as we support their receptive and expressive vocabulary development. Through these exchanges we also support their general language development and understanding of how words are pronounced, basic sentence structure and using the correct tense.
When we talk with a child we demonstrate and model the use of language in real time so that it has meaning. For instance, a child may point and say “cat” and we would respond with “Yes, the cat is sleeping.” Or we may correct the child and say “That is a dog.” If we could we would point to a cat and explain the difference. We also correct mispronunciation of words and correct tense issues in the same way; repeating the word or sentence using the correct pronunciation or tense back to the child.
The Communication Trust has a link to a free downloadable booklet called Small Talk which is a very useful guide for understanding how your child learns to talk from birth to age 5:
Supporting a child to develop their speaking and listening skills is vital!
It is not just the key to literacy success but an essential social communication skill.
Sadly, schools are still reporting huge gaps in young children’s speaking and listening skills. So, over the next 6 weeks, we are re-running our popular blogs that look at different developmental elements of speaking and listening; providing practical games and activities to help build your child’s skills.
Week 1. The Importance of Small Talk
Week 2. Conversational Turn Taking Skills
Week 3. What is Listening?
Week 4. Games to Develop Listening Skills – Sound Screen Games
Week 5. Games to Develop Listening Skills – Sound Scanning Games
Week 6. Games to develop Listening Skills – Music Fun