Listening, language and speech are three closely related skills that are picked up in childhood to allow interaction and communication with wider society. Listening is as important a part in communication as speaking, due to communication being a two-way process. Two-way communication cannot be achieved by only one person talking and not listening to his partner. Adults spend only 30 percent of their time asleep, leaving much time for communicative activity of one form or another. Around 45 percent of time spent in communication is listening, compared to 30 percent speaking, 16 percent reading and 9 percent writing.
Listening as opposed to hearing is an active process where we hear and then understand what is said. The actual process of listening takes several steps:
1. Sound waves carry the sound of spoken words towards our ears.
2. The sound waves need to travel through the outer ear canals without being obstructed.
3. The sound waves then pass through the eardrum and the middle ear without any distortions that may be caused by fluid from colds, infections or an allergy.
4. The sound waves then need to travel through the inner ear, which also needs to be working.
5. The sound waves then travel via the auditory nerve to the brain.
6. The brain then compares the received sound waves to its memory of sounds that it has previously stored in order to understand the message.
If the brain cannot do this then the person has a listening disorder. For example, if the brain cannot focus on the activity of listening for a long enough time then the person may be suffering from an auditory memory problem. If the brain works on too many projects at once and therefore cannot focus on deciphering sound waves received and therefore is not able to comprehend the message then the person can be suffering from an attention deficit disorder. If the brain cannot store information or has difficulty doing so, it will be unable to understand the sound waves that it is receiving, and then the brain could be suffering from an auditory comprehension or auditory processing problem. This is only a small list of several listening disorders.
Without a firm foundation and development in listening skills children may struggle with language and speech; it is also more than likely that they will struggle at school. It is estimated that 80 percent of what a child learns is through listening. It is the first language skill that most children develop and it serves as the building block for additional language skills. Spoken or oral language skills and therefore listening as its natural partner are absolutely necessary in order for literacy skills as a whole to develop. However, even taking into account the importance of listening, the teaching of listening as a skill of its own merits has become somewhat of a forgotten art, and this has been the case for more than 50 years, especially within elementary schools. One of the reasons for the state of listening education is that many teachers feel it is not something that can be taught or evaluated.
In order to boost listening skills the body needs to be prepared along with the brain for learning. Also listening as a skill needs to be stressed, as listening is incredibly crucial to help children learn how to read and spell. Strategies to improve listening need to start at the beginning of the year in order to lay the foundations for progress later. For example, if teachers only need to repeat their instructions one less time than they currently do, due an increase in listening skills, then the productivity of the class would increase by several factors, especially in speech and literacy – the other elements of the triad of language skills. For example, more time could be used on silent reading, directed language instruction, reading comprehension and literacy circles.