Learn to listen

The ability to listen is fundamental to children’s learning, and even to their safety and survival. Yet there are so many media, including tablets and smartphones, competing for children’s attention that they rarely get the chance to just listen. So, what can we do at home and beyond to enhance our children’s listening skills?


Few parents today will remember a radio programme called Listen With Mother, but their parents certainly will. This daily radio broadcast ran for more than 30 years until it was eventually taken off air in 1982 and it was a lunchtime ritual for up to a million little listeners. It always began: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…’ It helped to develop good listening skills in generations of children.

In the days of Listen with Mother, the only electronic item competing for children’s attention was the television, providing a few hours of kids’ programmes squeezed in before the 6 o’clock news. But today, technology offers endless distraction for your child. Some or all of these media do have educational value, but the experience is essentially visual, rather than auditory. Opportunities for children to just listen are few and far between.

Almost all babies are born with the ability to hear, but ability to listen is learned rather than ingrained.

Today’s children have no such lunchtime treat. They are more likely to be immersed in a multi-sensorial trip on a parent’s smartphone or tablet. Of course, many of the colourful and fast-moving game apps available to small children do offer educational content, but they don’t focus on simple listening. And let’s face it, we all need to take learning to listen seriously. Whether it’s listening to teacher about how to sound out a word, or to mum about not stepping into the road, this is a crucial learning and life skill. And it’s not acquired without practice.

Almost all babies are born with the ability to hear, but ability to listen is learned rather than ingrained. So what’s the difference? Hearing happens whether we like it or not – we can’t avoid the noise from the dishwasher – while listening requires us to engage with what we can hear. It sounds simple, but the process is a complicated one. In conversation, for instance, we might simultaneously be listening and also formulating possible responses to the person we are listening to. Even if we’re listening passively, without responding – to the radio, for example – our minds are still busy processing, categorising and synthesising new material.

Learning to listen at school and at home

The importance of listening was summed up neatly by the Greek philosopher Epictetus when he said: ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ Research indicates that listening skills are a good predictor of reading performance, with a link between oral language skills such as vocabulary and listening comprehension, and parental input can make a real difference.

Think about how you engage your child in listening. A story at bedtime is still a daily routine for many families, but if you only read to your child at bedtime, when you (and they!) may be on the point of nodding off, you’ll find it much harder to engage them. Instead, try reading a story together earlier in the day when everyone if feeling more alert. Try to strike a balance between children retelling or reading stories to you and reading more challenging stories to them.

Also, try telling stories rather than reading them. Most of us can recall simple stories from our own childhood that we can retell from memory. A double act with mum and dad assuming the voices of various characters is a great way to keep kids enthralled!

...children become increasingly immune to the sound of their parents’ voices. Try to choose your battles and you may find your child listens more attentively. Remember, less is more!

Outside of storytelling, it can be challenging to teach your child to listen to what you, as a parent, have to say on a daily basis. Children tend to listen carefully for one of two reasons: one is when they’re interested and engaged in what’s being said. The other is when they can clearly see the benefits to be gained. The problem is that only a certain amount of what you have to say to your children fits either criteria: in fact, a lot of it is about doing things they don’t especially want to do. There is simply nothing in it for them to listen!

During a gradual escalation from gentle requests (‘Would you mind getting dressed) to exasperated ultimatums (‘Get dressed now or no tablet for you for a week!’) children become increasingly immune to the sound of their parents’ voices. Try to choose your battles and you may find your child listens more attentively. Remember, less is more!

Crucially, show children how it’s done. Our own listening habits inevitably influence our children’s. So model listening skills by paying attention to children when they are speaking, making eye contact and responding.

At school, getting children to listen in class is a key challenge but teachers have some useful strategies at their disposal that can be used by parents at home too. They will often pause in the middle of a story to ask children to summarise the plot so far or predict what might happen next. Knowing that, any minute now, they could be called upon to explain to the class the hidden motivations of the Gruffalo is a great way to keep children’s attention.

Teachers maximise eye contact by sitting at a similar level to the children when reading together. ‘Circle time,’ when children practice taking turns to speak, is an extension of this technique. It’s an opportunity for children to express their thoughts and opinions knowing that the whole class is listening with a sympathetic ear.

If you want your child to grow into a good little listener, aim for:

2-4 years Plenty of eye contact, exaggerated facial and verbal expression, lots of music, rhymes, songs, and stories.

5-6 years Sharing books, taking turns to speak, finding the balance between speaking and listening.

7 years + Structured conversations (less interrupting), musical instruments, role-playing games.


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