Listening in a large group is a crucial skill for students. There’s a wide range of developmentally appropriate levels of listening. Current research suggests that we have been guilty of bombarding the brain with much more than it can successfully process. Why hasn’t that been more obvious? I think these limits on listening have been partially camouflaged by compliant behavior; many kids look like they are paying attention. The listening process can be supported by visual cues which extend the learner’s ability to track verbal information. Teachers who help students make effective connections can also stretch that window of opportunity. The timing of lengthy periods of verbal instruction is also a factor that influences how much the young brain can absorb.
Teacher behavior can short-circuit the listening process. Teachers who maintain a constant flow of dialog, with directions lost in the midst of random comments, can make it difficult for students who want to listen. Some directions are overly complicated and students may only catch the first or last steps. Sometimes, teacher talking becomes a white noise that kids only “hear” when the volume goes up or their name is called.
Even the most proficient teachers are daunted by some kiddos with listening weaknesses. Students with language processing issues, which can include a wide range of identified disabilities, may be trying to listen but find it too difficult. For kids on the autism spectrum, written/visual information is usually more easily grasped. Students with attention challenges are often distracted by “irrelevant” classroom sights and sounds; for this population, they may struggle to determine what is relevant. (Check out the attention simulation on Understood.org for a glimpse of how this feels.) Gifted kids may be inattentive due to boredom. Twice exceptional kids may be anxiously preparing themselves for the next classroom challenge.
The most interesting non-listener I’ve ever taught (a student on the autism spectrum) simply could not “hear” the teacher in a group setting, despite numerous interventions. He was bright and cooperative, but could not isolate the teacher’s voice, even in a quiet room. Finally, using an earbud wirelessly connected to a teacher microphone (typically used by hearing impaired students), the teacher’s voice was amplified and this student learned to listen in 2nd grade. It was a remarkable “aha!” experience for him. And me! Another autistic student needed a clipboard and graphic for recording specific components of a lesson, based upon his weaknesses in participating and listening to peers. After a month or so, he no longer needed that visual support for listening in a large group.
I’m sure all of us can identify with kids who seem to be listening but have no clue what was said!