Many kids in the digital age appear to have almost no attention span, especially when it comes to listening in class. It seems instruction or other relayed information no longer goes in one ear and out the other with students, but completely misses them entirely, dissipating in mid air without ever reaching its destination.
Even those who initially appear to listen often have trouble retaining what they have heard for more than fifteen minutes. This can be extremely frustrating for today’s classroom teacher. With limited time and resources, and a lot of information to impart, getting kids to listen and absorb what they hear is an important part of classroom management.
Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem. It’s easy to say “keep things interesting,” and everyone’s heard it before, but the truth is getting and keeping students engaged, and therefore listening attentively, to what the teacher has to say is largely rooted in how the material is being presented. It is important to connect whatever is being taught to something the students already relate to so that they can understand the material in context.
Lecturing in class, no matter if it is for five minutes or fifty, is no different than giving a speech to a civic group or making a professional presentation to a group of adults. If what you are saying isn’t interesting, and you do not connect with your audience, you will lose them and kids are no different. In other words, be sure to talk to students, not at them and be creative.
It is also important as you are talking to stop periodically with each new point or fact and make sure students are with you and that they understand what you have imparted thus far. It does no good to continue on with the next piece of information if students have not grasped what has already come before. Try to keep lecture time short; if the information you need to present will take more than twenty or thirty minutes, break it up into blocks and reinforce each with an activity.
Classroom management and daily classroom procedures will set the tone for student behaviors, particularly listening. Students regardless of grade level should know exactly what is expected of them from the time they enter the room to the time they exit. However, while structure is important, there should also be some room for flexibility.
Setting aside time for talking, such as five or ten minutes at the start and/or end of class time, allows students who are developing socially (and mimicking the adults in their lives, including their teachers) to share that all important, matter of life and death news about what happened with them since they last saw each other a mere twenty-four hours ago while helping to set the boundaries of talk time and listen time.
One important factor in classroom management that will help assure students are listening while you are speaking is to eliminate all distractions before you begin. Be sure all desks are clear and that students are sitting up in their seats in a pre-established listening position.
For K-3 students this may include sitting up straight with their hands clasped in front of them and resting on their desks while their eyes track the person who is speaking. For older students the teacher can employ a call to attention such as hand claps or another audio cue that lets students know it is time to pay attention.
Another common distraction that changes the focus of a lesson and contributes to attention being drawn in the wrong direction is questions being asked that have nothing to do with the lesson. This small act of sabotage has a domino effect that can quickly spread around the room like wildfire.
When a student raises their hand while you are explaining something important you can: a) Tell them to wait until you’re done; b) Ask if their question is directly related to what is happening at that moment; or c) Allow them to right down their question for later. This third option eliminates the “But if I don’t ask you know I’m going to forget” excuse.
Just as it is important to be sure desks are clear, it is equally important not to pass out materials until you have finished speaking. This is where breaking things up into blocks of time is useful. Begin with an introduction about what is about to take place. Then, in the next block, students can ask questions while you hand out materials. As you begin the lesson/lecture, reinforce the main points of the introduction to be sure everyone is ready to proceed and then begin.
Note taking can be a good way to help students learn how to listen and discern what the important points are in what is being said. Reading a short passage from a book can help students identify significant information they will want to remember later about the who, what, when, where and why of what was happening in what they heard.
Learning how to listen is also a matter of learning how to pay attention. Lesson plans for how to follow directions and cooperative activities in which detail and observation are important are other effective ways of helping students learn how to focus their attention and become better listeners.
Another effective tool may be to give listening quizzes. In oral tests, teachers will recite a question and students will have to write down the answer. A listening quiz operates the same way, only students write down what the teacher says. Start with short phrases that students write down in verbatim and then move up to complete paragraphs, pausing between each to allow students to jot down the gist of what is important.
It may sometimes seem tedious to have to spend time on procedure when there is already such limited time in the day as it is to impart the information from lesson plans, but kids aren’t born with the knowledge of how to listen. Short attention spans, boredom and restlessness can be managed by engaging students and helping them understand why listening is important. It may mean sacrificing time meant for something else, but in the long wrong students and teachers will be the better for it.