Listening is more than merely hearing words. Listening is an active process by which students receive, construct meaning from, and respond to spoken and or nonverbal messages (Emmert, 1994). As such, it forms an integral part of the communication process and should not be separated from the other language arts. Listening comprehension complements reading comprehension. Verbally clarifying the spoken message before, during, and after a presentation enhances listening comprehension. Writing, in turn, clarifies and documents the spoken message.

Teachers can help students become effective listeners by making them aware of the different kinds of listening, the different purposes for listening, and the qualities of good listeners. Wolvin and Coakley (1992) identify four different kinds of listening:

bulletComprehensive (Informational) Listening--Students listen for the content of the message.
bulletCritical (Evaluative) Listening--Students judge the message.
bulletAppreciative (Aesthetic) Listening--Students listen for enjoyment.
bulletTherapeutic (Empathetic) Listening--Students listen to support others but not judge them (p. 7).

Traditionally, secondary schools have concentrated on the comprehensive and critical kinds of listening. Teachers need to provide experiences in all four kinds. For example, listening to literature read, listening to radio plays, and watching films develop appreciative in addition to comprehensive and critical listening. When students provide supportive communication in collaborative groups, they are promoting therapeutic listening. For example, the listening behaviour can show understanding, acceptance, and trust, all of which facilitate communication. Students benefit from exposure to all four types of listening.

Listening is a general purpose in most learning situations. To be effective listeners, however, students need a more specific focus than just attending to what is said. See the following chart which contrasts effective and ineffective listening habits.

Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits The Listening Process Assessment of Listening Informal Assessment Formal Assessment

Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits

Effective Listeners Ineffective Listeners

horizontal rule

bulletBuild their background knowledge on subject before listening
bulletHave a specific purpose for listening and attempt to ascertain speaker's purpose
bulletTune in and attend
bulletMinimize distractions
bulletStart listening without thinking about subject
bulletHave no specific purpose for listening and have not considered speaker's purpose
bulletDo not focus attention
bulletCreate or are influenced by distractions
During Listening

horizontal rule

bulletGive complete attention to listening task and demonstrate interest
bulletSearch for meaning
bulletConstantly check their understanding of message by making connections, making and confirming predictions, making inferences, evaluating, and reflecting
bulletKnow whether close or cursory listening is required; adjust their listening behaviour accordingly
bulletAre flexible notemakers--outlining, mapping, categorizing--who sift and sort, often adding information of their own
bulletTake fewer, more meaningful notes
bulletDistinguish message from speaker
bulletConsider the context and "colour" of words
bulletDo not give necessary attention to listening task
bulletTune out that which they find uninteresting
bulletDo not monitor understanding or use comprehension strategies
bulletDo not distinguish whether close or cursory listening is required
bulletAre rigid notetakers with few notemaking strategies
bulletTry to get every word down or do not take notes at all
bulletJudge the message by the speaker's appearance or delivery
bulletAccept words at face value
After Listening

horizontal rule

bulletWithhold judgement until comprehension of message is complete
bulletWill follow up on presentation by reviewing notes, categorizing ideas, clarifying, reflecting, and acting upon the message
bulletJump to conclusions without reflection
bulletAre content just to receive message without reflection or action

Listening requires conscious mental effort and specific purpose. The purposes for listening relate to "types" of listening:

bulletAre you listening to receive information?
bulletAre you listening to follow instructions?
bulletAre you listening to evaluate information?
bulletAre you listening for pleasure?
bulletAre you listening to empathize?

Students should be able to determine what their purpose should be in any given listening situation.

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Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits The Listening Process Assessment of Listening Informal Assessment Formal Assessment

... the act of listening requires not just hearing but thinking, as well as a good deal of interest and information which both speaker and listener must have in common. Speaking and listening entail ... three components: the speaker, the listener, and the meaning to be shared; speaker, listener, and meaning form a unique triangle.
(King, 1984, p. 177)

There are several strategies that students can use to prepare for a listening experience. They can:

  1. Activate Existing Knowledge. You need to ask the question: What do I already know about this topic? From this you can determine what information you need in order to get the most from the message. You can brainstorm, discuss, read, view films or photos, and write and share journal entries.
  2. Build Prior Knowledge. You can review the appropriate background information including information about the speaker, topic of the presentation, purpose of the presentation, and the concepts and vocabulary that are likely to be embedded in the presentation. You may rely upon the oral interpretation to convey the meanings of unfamiliar words, leaving the discussion of these words until after the presentation. At this stage, you need to analyze the role that oral punctuation, body language, and tone play in an oral presentation.
  3. Review Standards for Listening. You need to know the importance of the audience's role in a listening situation. There is an interactive relationship between audience and speaker, each affecting the other.
    bulletYou have to be physically prepared for listening. You need to see and hear the speaker. If notes are to be taken, they should have paper and pencil at hand.
    bulletYou need to be attentive. In many cultures, though not all, it is expected that the listener look directly at the speaker and indicate attention and interest by body language. The listener should never talk when a speaker is talking. Listeners should put distractions and problems aside.
    bullet"Listen to others as you would have them listen to you."


  4. Establish Purpose. You need to ask yourself: "Why am I listening?" "What is my purpose?" You should be able to articulate your purpose.
    bulletAm I listening to understand? You should approach the speech with an open mind. If you have strong personal opinions, you should be encouraged to recognize your own biases.
    bulletAm I listening to remember? You should look for the main ideas and how the speech is organized. You can fill in the secondary details later.
    bulletAm I listening to evaluate? You should ask yourselves if the speaker is qualified and if the message is legitimate. You should be alert to errors in the speaker's thinking processes, particularly bias, sweeping generalizations, propaganda devices, and charged words that may attempt to sway by prejudice or deceit rather than fact.
    bulletAm I listening to be entertained? You should listen for those elements that make for an enjoyable experience (e.g., emotive language, imagery, mood, humor, presentation skills).
    bulletAm I listening to support? You should listen closely to determine how other individuals are feeling and respond appropriately (e.g., clarify, paraphrase, sympathize, encourage).

    Before a speaker's presentation, you should formulate questions that you predict will be answered during the presentation. If the questions are not answered, you may pose the questions to the speaker. As well, you should be encouraged to jot down questions during listening.

    An additional strategy is called TQLR. It consists of the following steps:

    T -- Tune in
    (The listener must tune in to the speaker and the subject, mentally calling up everything known about the subject and shutting out all distractions.)

    Q -- Question
    (The listener should mentally formulate questions. What will this speaker say about this topic? What is the speaker's background? I wonder if the speaker will talk about...?)

    L -- Listen
    (The listener should organize the information as it is received, anticipating what the speaker will say next and reacting mentally to everything heard.)

    R -- Review
    (The listener should go over what has been said, summarize, and evaluate constantly. Main ideas should be separated from subordinate ones.)

  6. Use a Listening Guide. A guide may provide an overview of the presentation, its main ideas, questions to be answered while listening, a summary of the presentation, or an outline. For example, a guide such as the following could be used by students during a presentation in class.
    Speaker's name:
    bulletWhat is the general subject of this talk?
    bulletWhat is the main point or message of this talk?
    bulletWhat is the speaker's organizational plan?
    bulletWhat transitional expressions (e.g., firstly, secondly, in contrast, in conclusion) does the speaker use?
    bulletDoes the speaker digress from the main point?
    bulletWrite the speaker's main point in no more than three sentences.
    bulletWhat is your personal reaction to the talk?
    (Based on Devine, 1982, p. 33)

During Listening

You need to understand the implications of rate in the listening process. Nichols (1948) found that people listen and think at four times the normal conversation rate. You should use the "rate gap" to actively process the message. In order to use that extra time wisely, there are several things you can be encouraged to do:

They can run a mental commentary on it; they can doubt it, talk back to it, or extend it. They can rehearse it in order to remember it; that is, they repeat interesting points back to themselves. They can formulate questions to ask the speaker ... jot down key words or key phrases ... They can wonder if what they are listening to is true, or what motives the speaker has in saying it, or whether the speaker is revealing personal feelings rather than objective assessments.
(Temple and Gillet, 1989, p. 55)

This kind of mental activity is what effective listeners do during listening.

Effective listeners:

bulletconnect: make connections with people, places, situations, and ideas they know
bulletfind meaning: determine what the speaker is saying about people, places, and ideas
bulletquestion: pay attention to those words and ideas that are unclear
bulletmake and confirm predictions: try to determine what will be said next
bulletmake inferences: determine speaker's intent by "listening between the lines"; infer what the speaker does not actually say
bulletreflect and evaluate: respond to what has been heard and pass judgement.
Sample Listening Guide

Name of student: ______________________________

Nature of spoken presentation: ___________________

Where heard: ________________________________

Name of speaker: _____________________________


  • Speaker's expressed purpose:


  • Qualifications of speaker:


  • Main Idea(s) presented:


  • Noteworthy features of presentation:


  • In what ways was the talk effective? Ineffective? Why?
  • "Comprehension is enormously improved when the speaker's schema or organizational pattern is perceived by the listener" (Devine, 1982, p. 22). There are various structures (e.g., short story, essay, poetry, play), organizational patterns (e.g., logical, chronological, spatial), and transitional devices. Effective listeners can follow spoken discourse when they recognize key signal expressions such as the following:

    bulletExample words: for example, for instance, thus, in other words, as an illustration

    Usually found in: generalization plus example (but may be found in enumeration and argumentation)


    bulletTime word: first, second, third, meanwhile, next, finally, at last, today, tomorrow, soon

    Usually found in: narration, chronological patterns, directions (and whenever events or examples are presented in a time sequence)


    bulletAddition words: in addition, also, furthermore, moreover, another example

    Usually found in: Enumeration, description, and sometimes in generalization plus example


    bulletResult words: as a result, so, accordingly, therefore, thus

    Usually found in: Cause and effect


    bulletContrast words: however, but, in contrast, on the other hand, nevertheless

    Usually found in: comparison and contrast (and whenever speaker makes a comparison or contrast in another pattern)(Devine, 1982, p. 24).

    Palmatier (1973) suggests students can benefit from the Verbatim Split-page Procedure [VSPP]. Students divide their notebook paper so that 40% of each page lies to the left and 60% to the right. Students take brief notes on the left-hand side only. The right-hand side is used after listening for reorganizing and expanding on the scribbles to the left.

    Sample VSPP

    40% 60%




    Typical of Time/Culture


    1. The superhuman heroic tradition is universal and enduring.


    2. Each hero/heroine is typical of a time in history and the culture of that time.

    Critical thinking plays a major role in effective listening. Listening in order to analyze and evaluate requires students to evaluate a speaker's arguments and the value of the ideas, appropriateness of the evidence, and the persuasive techniques employed. Effective listeners apply the principles of sound thinking and reasoning to the messages they hear at home, in school, in the workplace, or in the media.

    Planning and structuring classroom activities to model and encourage students to listen critically is important. Students should learn to:

    bulletAnalyze the message.

    Critical listeners are concerned first with understanding accurately and completely what they hear (Brownell, 1996). Students should identify the speaker's topic, purpose, intended audience, and context. The most frequent critical listening context is persuasion. They should keep an open-minded and objective attitude as they strive to identify the main idea(s)/thesis/claim and the supporting arguments/points/anecdotes. They should ask relevant questions and restate perceptions to make sure they have understood correctly. Taking notes will enhance their listening.

    bulletAnalyze the speaker.

    Critical listeners must understand the reliability of the speaker. Is the speaker credible? Trustworthy? An expert? Dynamic?

    bulletAnalyze the speaker's evidence.

    Critical listeners must understand the nature and appropriateness of the evidence and reasoning. What evidence is used? Expert testimony? Facts? Statistics? Examples? Reasons? Opinions? Inappropriate evidence might include untrustworthy testimony; inadequate, incorrect, inappropriate, or irrelevant facts, statistics, or examples; or quotations out of context or incomplete.

    bulletAnalyze the speaker's reasoning.

    Critical listeners must understand the logic and reasoning of the speaker. Is this evidence developed in logical arguments such as deductive, inductive, causal, or analogous? Faulty reasoning might include hasty or over-inclusive generalization, either-or argument, causal fallacy (therefore, because of this), non sequitur (confusion of cause and effect), reasoning in a circle, begging or ignoring the question, false analogy, attacking the person instead of the idea, or guilt by association.

    bulletAnalyze the speaker's emotional appeals.

    Critical listeners must understand that persuaders often rely on emotional appeal as well as evidence and reasoning. Critical listeners, therefore, must recognize effective persuasive appeals and propaganda devices. A skilled critical listener identifies and discounts deceptive persuasive appeals such as powerful connotative (loaded) words, doublespeak, appeals to fears, prejudice, discontent, flattery, stereotype, or tradition. The listener must also identify and discount propaganda techniques such as bandwagon appeals, glittering generalities, inappropriate testimonials, pseudo-scientific evidence, card-stacking, and name-calling.

    By understanding and practicing the principles of objective thinking, students can prepare themselves to listen effectively in most situations.

    Listening affects our ability to make good decisions, our appreciation of the world around us, and our personal relationships. Effective communication begins with listening and with listeners carrying 80 percent of the responsibility in the interaction (Brownell, 1996, pp. 6-7). Whether at home, in school, or in the workplace, effective listening is important for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships.

    After Listening

    You need to act upon what you have heard to clarify meaning and extend your thinking. Well-planned post-listening activities are just as important as those before and during. Some examples follow.

    bulletTo begin with, you can ask questions of yourselves and the speaker to clarify your understanding and confirm their assumptions.
    bulletHook and Evans (1982) suggest that the post-mortem is a very useful device. You should talk about what the speaker said, question statements of opinion, amplify certain remarks, and identify parallel incidents from life and literature.
    bulletYou can summarize a speaker's presentation orally, in writing, or as an outline. In addition to the traditional outline format, you could use time lines, flow charts, ladders, circles, diagrams, webs, or maps.
    bulletYou can review your notes and add information that you did not have an opportunity to record during the speech.
    bulletYou can analyze and evaluate critically what you have heard.
    bulletYou can be given opportunities to engage in activities that build on and develop concepts acquired during an oral presentation. These may include writing (e.g., response journal, learning log, or composition), reading (e.g., further research on a topic or a contradictory viewpoint), art or drama (e.g., designing a cover jacket after a book talk or developing a mock trial concerning the topic through drama in role).



    Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits The Listening Process Assessment of Listening Informal Assessment Formal Assessment

    Assessment of Listening

    Listening is one of the more difficult aspects of the language arts to assess. It cannot be easily observed and can be measured only through inference. However, there are both informal and formal strategies and instruments that teachers can use to help them in their assessments.



    Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits The Listening Process Assessment of Listening Informal Assessment Formal Assessment

    Informal Assessment

    The most effective assessment of listening may be teachers' observations and students' self-assessments. Students initially may not be aware of how well they listen and, therefore, need teacher guidance.

    Self-assessments should be followed with one-on-one discussions about student progress. Teachers can also videotape students while they are listening and follow up with discussion.

    The following forms can be used or adapted for informal assessments:

    The following assessment forms are provided as examples. To be able to view and copy these files the user must have a viewing program such as Acrobat Reader. If you do not have such a program, click on the Acrobat Insignia provided below.

    Download Acrobat Reader

  • Sample Self-assessment for Listening
  • Sample Listening Behaviour Checklist.



    Contrasting Effective and Ineffective Listening Habits The Listening Process Assessment of Listening Informal Assessment Formal Assessment

    Formal Assessment

    More formal listening assessments can be prepared by teachers based on objectives and perceived needs. Some examples follow.

    1. Excerpts from different genres of literature
      (e.g., prose, poetry, play) can be used as follows:
      bulletPrepare a set of ten questions on the excerpt.
      bulletSet a purpose for the listening activity
      (e.g., "Listen to determine the setting of the following passage.").
      bulletHave students listen to the excerpt (pre-taped or teacher-read).
      bulletHave students respond in writing to the prepared questions.
      bulletA score of 70% or better on basic recall and basic inferential questions indicates that the student has comprehended the passage.

      Questions can also be designed to determine if students are comprehending critically and creatively.


    2. Students can paraphrase, summarize, analyze, make notes, complete a listening guide, or write a response to a spoken or multimedia presentation. The assessment tasks can be as simple as listing significant ideas and arguments, answering a series of questions, or identifying connotative meanings of key words. They can be as challenging as formulating their own questions; identifying irrelevant details; identifying fallacies, bias, or prejudice; using the information presented and applying it to a new situation; or judging the effects of various devices the speaker may use to influence the listener or viewer.


    3. Devine (1982) gives examples of other types of listening assessments.
      bulletAfter placing ten details on the chalkboard, the teacher reads a ten-minute story aloud. After listening to the story, students are asked to jot down the four or five details that are most important to the outcome. The responses provide insights into students' listening ability.
      bulletStudents listen to a story and, afterwards, write down three key qualities of the character and their reasons for selecting these. While listening to the story a second time, the students listen for and record details that prove their assertions about the character.

    Even though listening is a difficult language strand to evaluate, assessment must take place to validate its place in a curriculum and to provide feedback to students. The feedback should be specific, concise, and as meaningful as possible. As with all evaluation, it needs to be continuous.


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