Listen to me!

I was giving a lesson the other day to a group of students on the topic of pet hates. The students had to make a list of their pet hates and then compare with their partner in order to find out if they had anything in common. I then asked the learners what some of their pet hates were. Traffic, queuing, rain, and warm beer all came up. And then one student said, “people who don´t listen”.

People who don´t, or who are incapable of listening is also one of my pet hates. There are a number of ways in which ´non-listening´ can manifest itself, some of which are more annoying than others. Firstly, the person who talks over you as you are speaking (shut up!). Secondly, the person who asks you a question and then proceeds to answer the question themselves (why did you ask me the question in the first place?). Thirdly, the person who gives you a totally irrelevant response to what you have just said or asked (what?). Fourthly, and sadly much more common these days, the person who is busily sending a text message while you are talking (if you were with the person you are texting, would you be texting someone else?). There are probably many more examples of ´non-listening´ but these are the ones that get on my nerves the most.

Being a ´good´ listener is so important. You only have to go to Google to find out how important ´good´listening skils are in a wide variety of professions. However, I think that we teachers have often ignored teaching ´good´ listening skills at the expense of speaking. And when we do teach ´listening´ skills, we teach passive skills (listening to radio commentaries, films, dialogues, etc), which are no more nor no less important than active skills.

´Active listening´ involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening. Otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.

And we can use a number of techniques to promote active listening. Amongst these are:

  • maintaining eye contact
  • nodding in agreement
  • rephrasing what the person has said
  • asking questions
  • leaning forward to show interest

Maybe one of the reasons that some students are so reticent about speaking in class is because they think that the person listening to them is not going to be interested in what they have to say. I, personally, would have a problem in talking to someone who I thought would not be interested in what I have to say. So, it would be worthwhile, I think, to begin teaching some of these active listening techniques in the hope that it will encourage learners to open up a bit more, no matter how boring the subject.

However, teachers and coursebooks are often their own worst enemies in terms of encouraging active listening. For some of the subjects that students are asked to discuss are not even mildly interesting. I, for one, would not be interested in someone telling me six decontextualised sentences about people I didn´t even know. What do I care?

I have often been in situations where I have had to listen to students telling me stories about themselves.  The first time I heard the story I probably used my active listening skills unconsciously. For it was actually interesting. The second time I heard the same story, I put those skills into practice consciously. The third time I heard the story, I probably overdid it a bit in terms of the active listening but the thing is, she kept on telling me the story as if it was the first time she had related it to me. And I certainly didn´t reach for my phone.

The bottom line is, we need to find some way of replicating this in the classroom.


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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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