When students decode printed text into spoken words, some call that reading. Educators know that saying the words doesn’t always mean that comprehension of the written text has actually taken place. To truly be a reader, one must say the words and know what they mean. 

Reading comprehension is dependent not only on word recognition but on listening skills as well. While vocabulary development has long been taught as a stepping stone to becoming a good reader, listening is a key piece of the literacy puzzle which has been overlooked.

Back in 1986, Gough and Tunmer’s “simple model” of reading claimed that reading comprehension is a product of word recognition and listening comprehension. Translating printed text into pronounceable words is critical for vocabulary development and comprehension. 

Difficulties with decoding have been researched and interventions have been designed. Word recognition and vocabulary development have been an important component of reading curriculum development but even this is insufficient for making reading comprehension gains. 

According to Listenwise, an online program to enhance students’ listening abilities, fourth graders are only 36% proficient at reading. In the last 20 years this percentage has barely risen which indicates that reading scores are stagnant. 

Understanding text that is heard instead of read is another critical attribute of reading that is intended to move readers to higher proficiency. Listening comprehension has lagged behind word recognition in research and curricular development, but studies are showing it’s strongly correlated with reading comprehension especially at the upper elementary and middle school levels.

According to Tiffany Hogan, “as text complexity increases in upper elementary grades, listening comprehension becomes the dominating influence for successful reading.” When teachers focus on building critical listening skills, they can make a difference in students’ literacy. 

In fact, listening while reading increases accuracy by 52% and comprehension by 75%. Audio versions of books allow students exposure to text that is above their independent reading level which provides access to material beyond what they could reach by reading.

While most people spend most of their day listening, this communication activity receives the least amount of instruction in school. Addressing deficiencies in listening with interventions help students who have poor comprehension. Listening comprehension is a complex skill involving many cognitive and linguistic processes. 

Accessing background knowledge before listening is a helpful intervention to improve comprehension. The ability to retell and make inferences also helps. Each is tested in a variety of ways depending on the assessment. 

In 2004, Opitz and Zbaracki said, “Hearing is a sound. Listening is a thought.” Students need to be taught that listening is an active process that they can control. Listening involves paying attention to the words being articulated and processing that information by actively thinking about its meaning. 

State and national assessments are starting to include listening items. Listening skills have underperformed all other literacy scores on the CAASPP standardized test. Finding ways to incorporate listening comprehension practice into lessons is expected to enhance their test scores.

Before listening, teachers can build background knowledge and help students connect to the content by asking questions. They can give a reason for listening such as noticing certain vocabulary words or the sequence of events. 

While listening, students can be directed to focus on understanding by stopping to check comprehension and taking notes. Brief breaks for classroom discussions during a lecture also increase student comprehension (Hollingsworth, 1995).

After listening, the opportunity to reflect on new learning should tie back to the purpose for listening and ask them to note interesting or surprising facts. Listening multiple times with a new purpose each time can increases student stamina.

When teachers focus on enhancing listening comprehension, it promotes gains in reading comprehension. Helping students become active listeners not only increases their reading abilities but their ability to be hired.

Employers who seek entry-level employees state that listening is one of the top skills they look for. In fact, listening is one of the top skills that results in being promoted. 

Larry King’s daily reminder is, “Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at educationallyspeaking@gmail.com.

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