Understanding Auditory Learning: Integrating Listening into the K–12 Classroom

Guest blogger Monica Brady-Myerov is a 25-year veteran public radio journalist and the founder and host of Listen Current, an online instructional resource that uses radio stories to foster students’ listening skills. Before founding Listen Current, Monica was a senior reporter and assistant managing editor at WBUR in Boston, and her reports have aired on NPR, Marketplace, and many other outlets nationally and internationally. She won two Edward R. Murrow Awards for her stories on closing the achievement gap. On February 24 (3:00-4:00 ET), Monica was the featured presenter for EDC's EdTech Leaders Online free interactive webinar “Listen to Learn: Building Critical Listening Skills Using Online Tools” (access the archived webinar here). In this post, originally published on the Listen Current Blog, Monica reflects on the important role that strong listening skills play in students’ learning and school, college, and career success.

Listening offers exciting possibilities for meeting the needs of the Common Core State Standards and 21st century learners. The use of listening instruction can significantly enhance student learning if properly designed and implemented. This paper describes the latest research on listening and the principles behind effective listening instruction.

Overview: Today’s K-12 students are different from even their recently graduated peers. These students are digital natives, a term attributed to futurist Marc Prensky to distinguish between those who have grown up with technology and those who have adapted to it. They live in a world in which digital technology is part of their daily lives; it’s their “native language” and they expect to use technology in school. In fact, use of technology by 5-18 year olds is at its highest level and is projected to increase. This increased reliance on technology, combined with what we know about brain processing, offers enormous potential for instruction. Research has shown us that the brain processes information using two channels—visual and auditory. By taking advantage of the auditory processing capability and technology-based tools, we can dramatically enhance student learning through auditory instruction.

While listening plays an important role in people’s lives—between 65%-90% of one’s time is spent listening (p. 20)—it is a skill that is often neglected or omitted entirely from classroom instruction. The purpose of this paper is to highlight how the brain processes auditory information and its potential for use in classroom learning.

Hearing is Visual: How the Brain Processes Information: As Albert Feng (2000) notes, language and hearing are interconnected to the visual. So much so that the brain “sees” what it hears. This is called “auditory scene analysis.” Every time a person hears something, the brain visually simulates what it hears, which even results in eye-tracking movement. For example, when someone listens to a story about people on different floors in a tall building, their eyes track upwards to follow the story with each rising level. They are mentally simulating the scenes as they process the stories (p. 63). In addition, there is visual stimulation underlying language. When people listen to stories about a ball moving towards or away from them, their eyes track the movement. Understanding meaning, at least in part, happens in the mind’s eye (p. 66). This makes listening an extremely visual medium with great potential for use in teaching and learning.

A number of researchers believe in a concept called “immersed experience view.” It means that understanding language is akin in some way to actually being there and experiencing the events the language describes. There is compelling evidence that people are simulating what it would be like to “be there” in a scene, according to research. Even when using metaphorical language, people sometimes perform embodied simulations (p. 68 and 206).

How Hearing Becomes Understanding; Sounds are processed at different regions in the brain as information ascends all the way to the auditory cortex, where higher order processing is thought to occur. People use their idiosyncratic mental resources to construct meaning. When engaging a visual system to understand language, a person does so creatively and constructively. Hearing something many times causes the brain to respond not only synchronously, but rewire the synapse in the auditory system to improve the efficiency of responding to those specific traits as well (p. 107). In other words, there is neural learning, and thus people can be taught to be better listeners. Neurons will grow new processes so they can change their wiring pattern (p. 107).

What does Effective Listening Look Like? Approximately 10% of the population listens effectively. There is a small body of research exploring what effective listening looks like. Listed below are some of the most important principles of auditory learning and what the research says about how they contribute to student learning.

Effective listening includes:

  • Problem Solving: Using the general idea of what’s heard to guess the meaning of new words
  • Planning-Evaluation: Planning ahead to listening, making notes, setting a goal for listening
  • Focusing Attention: The more focused the listening, the better the learning

Stories provide much more than entertainment: they also help us understand ourselves and the world around us (pp. 16–25). Researchers recognize that stories are central to communication and trained story listeners are more cognitively focused (p. 23). Although storytelling is important, scholars are beginning to emphasize the need to refocus on story listening (pp. 23–24). Thus, great potential exists to build classroom instruction off of stories to improve students’ listening skills and overall comprehension.

Individual Learner Differences and Auditory Learning: As with any instructional tool, listening-only tools may work better for some students than others. There is a growing body of research showing that students learn in different ways and that information should be presented in a variety of ways to engage students with different learning styles.

Howard Gardner and his colleagues at Harvard University suggest that individuals can exhibit a wide range of abilities, and that intelligence is best thought of as multiple areas of expertise, or as multiple intelligences. Gardner suggests that there are eight distinct intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

According to Gardner, “Students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive. The broad spectrum of students would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a number of ways, and learning could be accessed through a variety of means.” Research suggests that information should be presented in different ways to engage different learning styles and strengths. Auditory learning is particularly effective for auditory learners.

The Potential for Listening Instruction: Research shows “you can improve your listening skills by practicing…techniques and principles.” However, to close this gap, there needs to be quality listening instruction. Researchers lament that recourses for listening instruction are simply lacking. In addition, researchers would like to develop a listening instrument for first language speakers, as it would be the basis for developing curriculum for listening. As Laura Janusik notes, the curriculum would be a welcome addition for easing the tension between theory and application in teaching listening (pp. 193-224).

Research shows that speaking and listening are crucial to a child’s success in school and their college and career readiness. That is the basis of why Speaking and Listening are a strand in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.

Early literacy development and long-term school success hinge on a child’s acquisition of speaking and listening skills. Schools must determine how best to teach listening skills effectively, including pairing listening with reading, writing and speaking, teaching students to modify listening for a variety of purposes, and providing multiples opportunities to model and practice effective listening.

Conclusion: Research has shown that listening skills are key to students’ college and career readiness. Few people listen well, but the skill can be improved with targeted instruction. The new emphasis on Speaking and Listening in the Common Core underscores the importance of developing and using tools that focus on listening. Thus, including listening-only tools as part of instruction can significantly enhance student learning.