Based on an excerpt from Practical English Language Teaching: Listening by Mac Helgesen and Steven Brown
We all know that hearing is not the same as listening. As a child, I could hear my mom tell me to do something, but I didn’t actually listen to what she wanted. As a teacher, many students simply hear what you say, but don’t actually listen to the specific directions you’re giving.
Most teachers think of listening as a receptive language skill, and one that is difficult to work on and difficult to assess. After all, you just sit there and listen, right? Wrong. Listening, while definitely a receptive skill, is an incredibly social activity.
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You can just sit there and hear what someone is saying, but to listen you have to be involved and active, which is where active listening comes in. There’s nothing worse than being excited about something and telling a friend all about it, only to find them glancing past you, getting distracted, and not at all engaging with your story.
Teaching our learners how to be active listeners is 50% teaching the art of verbal cues and asking questions, and 50% making them aware of their body language and how that’s translated in the culture they find themselves in.
Keep reading to learn more about what active listening actually is and how to make your students more aware of it. Plus, there’s a free corresponding lesson plan in our Free Resource Library that you can learn more about below as well!
Active Listening: Verbal Cues
One of the best ways to teach any subject matter, is to follow a pattern of having your students identify what they already know (activate schemata), taking them a step further (teaching), and practicing (guided/independent practice).
I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t had experience with someone who just wasn’t interested in listening. Asking your students what that looks like can be a great way to jumpstart a conversation about good and bad listening habits.
Being an active listener doesn’t just mean that you’re a good listener, though. It means that you are actively engaged in the conversation and in what the other person is saying to you. Active listeners respond to the person they’re talking to, they ask questions to keep the conversation going and to learn more, and they make comments based on what is being said. All in all, they show interest both through what they say and through how they react.
Perhaps the most important tool you can give to your students is back channeling, which refers to the small comments and questions that happen parallel to the conversation. Understanding other speakers can be really difficult in a second language, which is why it’s important to know how to ask for clarification in the midst of a speaking opportunity.
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Back channeling phrases can be incredibly helpful for ELLs. It doesn't just refer to seeking clarification, though those often happen to be more helpful for students, back channeling can also refer to the little affirmations that listeners give to encourage the speaker to continue. Phrases like, “really?” or “I don’t think I understand you…” can give your students more confidence to seek clarification and to enter into conversations with others, and phrases like "oh yeah" and "mmhmm" can give the speaker more confidence to continue. See the list below for even more useful back channeling phrases:
- Could you say that again?
- No way!
- What do you mean by that?
- If I understand correctly, you mean...
- I'm sorry, I didn't hear you...
If you’re looking to create a classroom more focused on active listening, try putting helpful back channeling phrases on a poster on the wall or on the whiteboard during a speaking activity. Encourage and teach your students how to respectfully seek clarification in the middle of a conversation. It will not only help them to better understand the speaker, but it will also show that they are actively listening.
Active Listening: Body Language
Listening is much more multifaceted than just being verbally involved in the conversation. Body language plays a HUGE role in communication, and it’s one that we don’t often realize. The way that someone presents themselves and reacts to a story sends a message that may or may not align with what they’re saying.
One of the biggest hurdles with teaching active listening through body language is that it is largely influenced by culture. This is a great discussion starter, though, because if you have a multi-cultural classroom you’re going to have multiple perspectives and experiences.
There are two main routes you can take with teaching body language. The first is to take the route mentioned above of having your students identify what they already know first. To do this, ask them how they would know someone was listening to them if they couldn’t hear. This could be turned into a fun writing prompt or simply discussed as a class.
The second route that you can take is to play a video of people having a conversation with both good and bad body language. Turn off the sound, so that your students can really focus on the nonverbal cues. Ask your students to identify what is going on and whether it is characteristic of good or bad listeners. If you don’t have access to technology, you could just act out the different types of body language.
For more practice, have students sort out flashcards with varying aspects of body language, which can be found below. Time them to make it even more of a challenge!
Good Body Language
- Nodding your Head
- Leaning Towards the Speaker
- Eye Contact
- Facial Expressions
- Facing the Speaker
Bad Body Language
- Glancing Around
- Looking at Phone
- Not Facing the Speaker
- Not Reacting to Conversation
Listening well is a skill, in much the same way that public speaking is a skill. It needs to be practiced and it can get better with time. Giving your students the tools to succeed is the best way to create a classroom of active listeners. Not only will your students become better at listening out in the world, but they’ll also have a much more rich classroom experience when they know their peers care about what they’re saying!
If you’re looking to put together a lesson on active listening, check out my Active Listening Lesson Plan in the Free Resource Library today! There’s so much you can do with listening practice, but I hope you’ll find my suggestions helpful for creating something for your students. Simply sign up for the Everyday ESL Newsletter below to gain access to our Free Resource Library!
I Want to Hear From You!
Have a funny story about someone not listening well? Share it below!
What is your favorite activity to teach about body language in the language classroom?