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Learning To Listen
Somewhere along the line, literacy has become reduced to how well a child performs on a standardized reading test. However, literacy is more than learning how to decode words on a page, it’s also about how a child acquires and uses information, and how they interact with and construct meaning from their world.
For the young child, this usually means that language and literacy need to grow through interaction with people and knowledge tends to be acquired both experientially and aurally (through listening).
Research suggests that children spend up to 75 percent of their day engaged in listening activities. However, as Lois Heymann suggests, in her book The Sound of Hope, children are never taught this essential skill of listening. Ms. Heymann states, “Children need years of practice to develop the ability to listen to instructions, absorb and make sense of spoken and heard information, and follow directions. They are expected to enter kindergarten already able to use these skills.”
So how can parents and educators help young children learn how to listen?
First of all, there needs to be an understanding of the differences between hearing and listening. Hearing is a passive activity. It is simply the act of perceiving sound, and if you have typical hearing, you don’t have to do anything. It just happens.
Listening, on the other hand, is an active activity. It is something that you need to make a conscious effort to engage in so that your brain is able to process, and distinguish, between sounds, words, and sentences.
The good news is that you don’t have to rush out and buy a prepackaged program to help young children learn to listen. You most likely already have all the materials you need either at home, or in your program.
Shake Up Story Time. Reading to young children is one of the best activities to build vocabulary and gain an understanding of story language and structure. However, relying on picture books allows them to tune out for awhile and then “catch up” by looking at the pictures.
To help develop active listening skills, try listening to books on CD. Vicki Parker, Ph.D, SLP, cautions that active listening is a skill that needs to be developed in many young children. “Take your time when you are first starting out. Watch to see if the children are engaged with the story. If they’re not, simply turn off the CD and try again another time.” The first listening session might only last five minutes, but the next time might be longer.
Play Your Way to Bigger Words. Research shows a strong link between vocabulary and successful readers and writers.
When you think about vocabulary building, forget about reaching for those flash cards. Make it fun for young children. Use words they already understand and go from there.
If you come across a new word during story time, don’t hesitate to stop and explain the word (you might want to plan where to stop in advance). Try using the word a couple of times during the day, and the next day, as well. This gives young children the opportunity to hear the word in different contexts, which helps “deepen the use and meaning of these words.”
Don’t be afraid of using big words. Children often comprehend a new word before they try it themselves. Besides, young children love learning big words.
Mind the Gap. The more children know about their world, the more background knowledge they will have to access. A knowledge gap begins to grow between those children who understand basic concepts and those who have not had prior exposure. The more opportunities they have to explore using all five senses – touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell- the more familiarity they will have with the world around them.
“It’s all about exploration at this stage,” says Darla Hutson and Tracy Hitchins, co-directors of the Preschool Toolbox, in Illinois. “And the best thing is you don’t even need fancy materials to provide these opportunities.” Think funnels and strainers for water or sand play, or going on nature walks to collect materials such as leaves and stones that can be sorted.
Help children label their discoveries. Describe how objects look and feel. Compare differences in size, shape, color, and texture. Talk about the steps that are involved in an activity so they gain a better understanding of sequencing and organization.
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Krystyann Krywko specializes in education research, and focuses on literacy, and on hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. She holds an Ed. D in International Education Development from Teachers College, Columbia University; where she was a Spencer Fellow for the 2005 cohort. She has more than 10 years of early childhood teaching experience.