Helping Disadvantaged Learners Build Effective Listening Skills

By Thompson, Franklin T.; Grandgenett, Donald J. et al. | Education, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Helping Disadvantaged Learners Build Effective Listening Skills


Thompson, Franklin T., Grandgenett, Donald J., Grandgenett, Neal F., Education


A Brief Overview of the Problem

The definition of an at-risk student is broad and varied. A review of the literature (Zill, 1992) reveals that students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can be at risk for school failure for various reasons. Major factors that put today's students at risk include changing societal values, boredom with school, the media and other extraneous distractions, poverty, teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem, truancy, child abuse and neglect, suicide, alcohol & drug abuse, gang violence, and other childhood safety issues.

The "at-risk" label was initially applied to students who experienced school failure. National concern for the improvement of the education for our youth was greatly stimulated by the Nation At-Risk Report of 1983, published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. One of the report's recommendations was that American students be required to take harder classes, do more homework, and increase their study habits, note taking and classroom listening skills. During the late 1980's and the 1990's, the term "at-risk" took on a much broader scope when educators began to concede the fact that student performance in the classroom was highly correlated with family and other environmental factors (Bruckner, 1995; Drazen, 1992; Levine & Havighurst, 1992; Levine & Levine, 1996, White, et al., 1993), and that kids with behavioral problems constituted a large part of disadvantaged learners. A large portion of the literature identified a rising problem among youth with conflict resolution, communication, and attention span deficits.

Conclusions drawn from an early pioneering work in urban education, The 1966 Coleman Report, suggesting that children bring their academic disadvantage with them to school from home, has long been a source of bitter debate among educators and policy makers throughout the years. The question of the role schools should play in stemming the tide of academic disadvantage has been written about many times over. Although we know that school reform without family intervention only addresses a small part of the problem, few educators find themselves refusing to look at new ways to help children in need.

In regards to minority and inner-city youth in particular, we also understand that family socioeconomic status, environmental factors, and community conditions impact classroom performance much more than does race per se (Drazen, 1992; Levine & Havighurst, 1992; McCartin & Meyer, 1988; Ricciuti et al., 1993; Spencer, Kim & Marshall, 1987; Thompson, 1996). The complicated interplay between race, poverty, family and neighborhood conditions, peer pressure, and so-called "learned helplessness" has yet to be fully understood. Still, we are quite aware that educators have the potential to do both harm or good to students through the classroom practices they institute.

Children attending inner-city schools appear to be especially vulnerable. For example, the practice among some districts to send the least qualified educators to tougher areas of town, as well as the practice of "dummying-down" the curriculum has not served disadvantaged kids well (Levine & Levine, 1996; Levine & Lezotte; Peng, et al., 1995; Thompson, 1997; Sue & Sue, 1990). Because the topic of academic disadvantage and subsequent remediation steps requires more time and space than what can be provided here, this article will concentrate on one limited aspect of the problem: The promotion of improved listening skills for at-risk students and disadvantaged youth.

Listening - A Skill That Can Be Taught

Unfortunately, very few people are good listeners. Research claims that 60-75% of oral communication is either ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten (Bolton, 1986; Nichols & Stevens, 1957). In general, humans listen at one of five levels: (1) Tuning out what is being said, (2) Pretending to hear the message, (3) Selectively hearing only parts of a conversation, (4) Attentive listening, and (5) Empathetic listening - listening with the intent to understand (Covey, 1990; Walker & Brokaw, 1998). …

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