Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Can You Hear Me?: Encouraging Listening and Speaking in Your Classroom by Barbara Blackburn

By Barbara Blackburn

How important are speaking and listening in your classroom? The majority of our instruction requires students to speak and listen, either to the teacher or to other students. But I’ve found that many students don’t have strong skills in these areas. We don’t provide structured activities so that students learn how to speak and listen. Simply lecturing and expecting students to absorb what we say isn’t the best method of instruction.

First, we need to teach our students how to listen. I told my students there was a difference between hearing me and listening to me. If you don’t pay attention to what I’m saying and process it, then you aren’t listening to me. Our students today are so bombarded with sound from music videos and iPods that it’s difficult for them to focus and truly listen to what you or their classmates are saying. As is true with any important information, you need to share some guidelines and then provide positive reinforcement when your students follow through.

Guidelines for Effective LISTENing

L Look at the teacher or visuals

I Intently focus rather than multitasking

S  Sit up and pay attention

T  Take notes or draw pictures to help you remember

E Extend the information by making connections to what you know

N Navigate your way to new learning

Similarly we need to teach guidelines for effective speaking. I found that my students often talked about subjects that were not on topic, or they wandered in their conversation, eventually getting to the point (maybe!). Teaching them what good speech “looks like” and then allowing them to put it into practice will make a difference.

Guidelines for Effective Speaking

Support statements with examples and/or evidence.

Pause and reflect before speaking.

Engage your audience by making eye contact.

Ask questions as well as answering them.

Keep it short and simple.

Activities to Encourage Effective Speaking and Listening

There are a variety of activities you can use in your classroom to provide opportunities for students to practice effective speaking and listening skills. Let’s look at four examples.




Morning Meetings

Paideia or Socratic Seminars


You may already use pair-shares or think-pair shares in your classroom. In this activity, during your instruction you ask students to reflect on the content, turn to a partner, and share the answer to a question. Then, several students share their answers with the whole group.

There’s an easy way to switch this to make it more effective. When students share with the whole group, they share their partner’s answer, not their own. This encourages them to listen better, and it requires their partner to do a better job explaining their answer.


We also need to create other opportunities for our students to listen to each other. After students read a book or story, LaShana Burris at Cotton Belt Elementary School uses the “Fishbowl” activity to prompt discussion and encourage active listening. Three to five students are designated as fish, and they sit in a small circle. She gives the small group members a piece of “food”, which is a slip of paper with an in-depth question written on it. As a school of fish, they discuss the answer to that question while the rest of the students sit in a larger circle around them and listen to the discussion (thus the fishbowl).

As she explains, “The people who are in the larger circle act as observers only. They use clipboards and paper to document a chosen fish’s responses, behavior, and body language. After about five minutes of discussion, the observers share their notes with the fish they observed. After the last observer shares with the fish, the fish become observers and five of the observers become fish. The teacher gives the fish a different piece of fish food, or question to discuss. It encourages all students to actively read for comprehension, it is a vehicle for shy students to begin to participate, and it builds community.”

Morning Meetings That Spark Discussions

Jenny Johansson creates listening opportunities for her special education students through inquiry-based morning meetings. For the first 5–20 minutes of class, she focuses on independent inquiry. Students generate questions on a variety of subjects and read books and articles about their topics. “Then we get together in a circle on the floor for CPR [Circle of Power and Respect] for the actual meeting. During the independent inquiry time, they could sign up to actively participate in the meeting. The routine of the meeting includes a greeting, poetry, book recommendation, and inquiry sharing. During the greeting, they hear their name said in a positive light by their peers each day. During inquiry sharing students get to share with us what they are currently becoming an expert on. Student interests are really developed during this time.” During the discussions, she enhances the student’s listening through involvement and ownership. As she notes, “They are so motivated by their own voices being heard.”

Paideia Or Socratic Seminars

Another type of discussion is a Paideia, or Socratic seminars, which shift the role of the teacher to that of a facilitator and emphasizes each student’s contribution to the discussion. As Marcia Alexander, a high school teacher explains, “Paideia seminar has been the most successful teaching tool that I have used because it gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and concerns about an issue that they can relate to.

For example, I may have students read an excerpt written by Sojourner Truth, an African American ex-female slave, abolitionist, and speaker of women rights. The discussion topic is discrimination and I create open-ended questions, such as ‘Does being illiterate make a person less intelligent?’” In her role as a facilitator, Marcia ensures that every student speaks at least once before she poses an- other open-ended question. The nature of the discussion requires that students actively listen to each other in order to respond appropriately.

A Final Note

Whether you use pair-shares, discussions, small-group activities, or a blend of these activities, a basic element of success is that your students speak and listen. I learned early in my teaching career that my students didn’t always know how to do those things well, so I needed to teach them how. And then, I needed to provide multiple activities for them to practice the essential skill. Isn’t that the key to any good instruction? Teach your students what to do and give them plenty of opportunities to apply the skill.


Named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus for Education in 2016 and 2017, Barbara has written 18 books, including eight on instructional rigor. She regularly presents to schools and districts about student motivation, instruction, and rigor. She can be reached through her website at

Kathy, this material came from Classroom Instruction from A to Z. My publisher now has a landing page for all my books if you want to use it. Let me know. Thanks!



Comment on this article...

Next Article...
This entry was posted on Thursday, February 1st, 2018 and is filed under *ISSUES, Barbara Blackburn, February 2018. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
By State
AL   AK   AZ   AR   CA   CO   CT   DE   DC   FL   GA   HI   ID   IL   IN   IA   KS   KY   LA    ME   MD   MA   MI   MN   MS   MO   MT   NE   NV   NH   NJ   NM   NY   NC   ND   OH   OK   OR   PA   RI   SC   SD   TN   TX   UT   VT     VA   WA   WV   WI   WY