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IDEAS

Good listening boosts kids’ literacy? We’re all ears.

Listening helps children harness the skills they need to become strong readers, so why aren’t we teaching how to listen in schools?

Pre-K teacher Kristen Hovey reads to students at the Children's Village at the Mill in Lowell.
Pre-K teacher Kristen Hovey reads to students at the Children's Village at the Mill in Lowell.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Listening will make you successful no matter who you are or what you do for work, argues Monica Brady-Myerov, author of the forthcoming book “Listen Wise: Teach Students to Be Better Listeners.” “The majority of what we learn comes via listening,” Brady-Myerov says, “so why don’t we teach it in school?”

Brady-Myerov set out to answer that question eight years ago, when she left her job as a public radio reporter to investigate the power of audio narrative in building listening and literacy skills for K-12 students.

Ideas caught up with Brady-Myerov and asked her what studying listening has taught her about its importance in education. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Why do kids need specific training in how to listen?

Active, critical listening should be taught, just like we teach reading or math. There’s abundant scientific evidence to support this. As educators focus increasingly on developing a variety of students’ skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and self-control, listening is integral to that mix. Just because students hear doesn’t mean they listen, and just because they listen every day doesn’t mean they’re good at it.

Not only can better listening enhance a student’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but multiple studies show that better listeners are also better readers. In fact, studies show that listening comprehension is the dominating influence on reading comprehension, starting in the fourth grade.

In addition, children who are not reading proficiently by the third grade are more likely to drop out of high school. At least until the eighth grade, most children are better at listening than they are at reading. And when educators pair listening and reading, the former acts as a booster for the latter.

Do you mean pairing an audiobook with reading or having an adult read aloud while a child reads along?

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Exactly. Whereas with adults there is no difference in comprehension whether we listen to a book passage, read it, or listen while reading, for young learners, the combination of listening while reading enhances the ability to recognize sounds and letters, learn new words, and understand how stories work narratively.

Your background is in public radio. What do so-called “driveway moments,” when you just can’t get out of the car until you hear the end of a story, tell us about the power of listening?

There is neuroscientific research that explains why these moments are so special. It’s a concept cognitive scientists call the “immersed experience view.” It’s like making a movie in our mind. The parts of our brain that control sight, sound, motor response, olfaction, and other areas are activated when we listen.

In this way, listening fosters empathy and creates a sense of belonging. Listening to someone else’s voice, their perspective, in their own words, is powerful. Sound is the most powerful stimulus for emotion. There’s a lot of science around this idea that hearing emotion can bring people together, enhance a desire for social connection, decrease social anxiety, and increase a sense of safety. That’s why I think it’s so important that teachers harness the power of audio storytelling in the classroom.


Kelly Horan can be reached at kelly.horan@globe.com.