Listen Wise: How Listening Can Supercharge Learning
Listening is a critical part of learning to read, and studies suggest that reading is a function of two key components: decoding and listening comprehension
When my daughter was in the third grade, she was identified as a struggling reader. It was hard for me to understand and accept that my child couldn’t read on grade level because I was a journalist who made a living from reading and writing. But I knew she could understand difficult concepts, ask good questions and follow a story line. I knew that because we listened to NPR every morning; and much to my surprise, she was paying attention. But if I had given her the transcript of a typical NPR story, she would not have been able to read it.
It was because of her reading challenges that I thought she and other kids would benefit from learning more by listening. So, I left my career as a reporter and devoted myself to building a tool that would help K-12 teachers leverage good audio stories in the classroom. And in my new book Listen Wise: Teach Students to Be Better Listeners, I share all that I’ve learned since my daughter’s struggles with reading began.
Eighty percent of what we learn is through listening. Some skills will make you successful no matter who you are or what you’re doing, and the ability to listen well is unequivocally one of them. And yet, listening is the most overlooked skill for learning. It is not widely taught in the K-12 curriculum. We assume that because children come to school hearing, we don’t need to teach them how to listen well. Listening is often not considered a traditional skill, such as reading or multiplying. Yet, students do not get better at listening just by listening more. Listening is a key skill that needs attention.
Listening is a critical part of learning to read. The “simple view of reading” by Gough and Tunmer suggests that reading is a function of two key components: decoding and listening comprehension. Even though the “simple view of reading” theory has been supported by years of empirical research, relatively little attention has been given to improving listening comprehension in order to improve reading.
And yet, there are multiple studies that show better listeners are better readers. Listening skills have been linked to literacy at an early age. One study showed listening comprehension in first grade predicted reading comprehension by third grade, and the listening comprehension of an 8 1/2-year-old child predicted reading comprehension then and at age 13. One of the most often cited studies is by Stitch and James, which finds evidence strongly suggesting that children’s listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension until the middle school years. That means until at least the eighth grade, you are a better listener than a reader. With all the amazing audio content available now, the possibilities for learning are endless. But we have to start thinking more about how audio can be a central part of learning.
"...listening while reading helps kids recognize sounds and letters, learn new words, become better listeners, and understand how stories work."
When you pair listening and reading, the power of listening really kicks in. This was first discovered by a researcher in India. Brji Kothari knew that millions of Indians watched Bollywood movies every day and sang along with the catchy lyrics. If those lyrics were also on the screen every time the movie played, viewers would be getting incidental exposure to reading. Same language subtitling (or SLS) is now on many Bollywood movies on TV because of Kothari’s research. Kothari, who created the nonprofit Planet Read, has since confirmed his observations in multiple studies. One study at an Indian primary school found that 10-15 percent of the children who typically would not have read a grade 5-level text, were able to read it after two years of regular exposure to Bollywood movies with captioning.
Captioning TV might make sense, but we’ve typically discounted captioning for audio and the powerful influence it can have on reading. Typically, you are either listening to an audio book or reading a book. And for some, listening is considered cheating. But one study shows that when adults were divided into three groups—reading, listening, or reading and listening to the same passage of a book—they all recalled similar amounts of information. This was a study to register comprehension and retention of information among college-educated adults.
We know that the reading skills of young learners are not yet fully developed, so listening while reading helps kids recognize sounds and letters, learn new words, become better listeners, and understand how stories work. Every audio story we have on Listenwise has an interactive transcript to support readers.
Listening is also crucial to learning a new language. I discovered this firsthand when I lived as a reporter in Brazil. Even though I studied Portuguese in college, hearing and speaking the language were challenging. Every day, thousands of students who are designated English language learners by the school system are struggling to learn language and academic subjects. For English learners, receptive language, or understanding what is heard, comes more quickly and easily than expressive language, or producing speech. Everyday language (the basic interpersonal communication skills) are learned by watching TV, playing video games or talking with friends. Cognitive academic language proficiency is required to succeed academically. Academic language is more complex and develops more slowly, with students taking more time to become proficient; here, listening can play an important role.
Listen to any NPR story, and in the first minute you will hear dozens of words that are easy for you to understand but qualify as academic words that many students struggle with. Academic language is not just about vocabulary. It’s about grammar, syntax and other language elements. Jeff Zwiers, a senior researcher in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, says that while researchers believe reading is the number one way to build academic language, “listening can help build language facility and the sentence variety muscles.”
“When listening, you are not as hampered by the decoding process,” says Zwiers. Using podcasts can be powerful because students can listen to the academic language multiple times.
Listening can also transport you to another time and place, giving you the sense of what it’s like to be in someone else’s position. Have you ever had a “driveway moment”? It’s public radio lingo for a transfixing story that glues you to the story emotionally. You are listening to a story on your way home, but once you arrive in your driveway, you can’t get out of your car until you hear the end of the story.
Neuroscience explains why these “driveway moments” are so special. It’s a concept cognitive scientists call the “immersed experience view.” It means that understanding language is akin in some way to actually being there and experiencing the events the language describes. Multiple parts of your brain are engaged when listening to a story, and you are making a movie in your mind. You are activating systems in the brain that are responsible for sight, sound, motor control and olfaction while you are listening to language.
Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist from the University of California in San Diego says in his book Louder than Words, “we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”
Teachers should see audio storytelling as a powerful way to transport students out of the classroom (or their homes on Zoom) and into other places. By hearing the authentic stories of real people from other cultures, countries and viewpoints, you can build understanding and empathy. Listening to the emotional tone of voice in an audio story can bring people together. Emotion connects us to our community and helps us feel like we belong.
The belongingness theory states that people listen to “emotional information” (as in oral stories) out of a desire to experience a social connection. Listening decreases our social anxiety and increases our psychological safety, according to research.
For all these powerful reasons, I believe listening in education has immense potential. It’s the reason I decided to leave my 20-year reporting career and start Listenwise, a company devoted to building listening and literacy using audio stories. Listenwise is free for teachers and has a mission to inspire individuals to fulfill their potential through the power of listening. It was through my work as a journalist that I came to understand and appreciate the importance of listening as a way to build connection and understanding. My daughter showed me how essential listening skills are in learning.
Monica Brady-Myerov is an author, entrepreneur and journalist. Her book Listen Wise: Teach Students to be Better Listeners is published by Jossey-Bass and is available on Amazon. Learn more and access free resources on the Listenwise website and on her personal website.