How to Teach Active Listening

Ginger Abbot

Feb 11, 2023
girl whispering in boy's ear

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Active listening is the art of not just hearing, but also understanding. A passive listener might hear what a speaker is saying, but when asked to repeat the information they just heard, they won’t be able to. An active listener, on the other hand, tunes in to the speaker’s words, tone of voice, body language, and speed of speech to paint a clear mental picture of what the speaker is talking about. It’s a critical skill for students of any age. Here’s how to teach active listening in the classroom. 

Understanding Active Listening

To teach students active listening, they must understand what it is first. These are the key components of being an active listener:

  • Paying attention to the message: Rather than trying to formulate what you’re going to say after the speaker finishes talking, pay close attention to their words and body language. Is there any subtext to what they’re saying?
  • Asking clarifying questions: You can ask questions such as, “When did this happen, again?” or “Remind me — who is Sarah?” while the speaker tells their story. 
  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s words: This isn’t the same as parroting the speaker’s words exactly. Instead, you can summarize what they just said to show that you understand it. 

Activities That Teach Active Listening 

Often, the best way to learn a new subject is to practice it for yourself. Here are some games students can play to make learning more fun and effective:

  1. Reading a Book About Listening

Have students gather around for story time and read them a book on the subject of active listening. Afterward, tell your students to write down the key details of the story, such as the main character’s name, major plot points, and how the conflict was resolved. 

  1. Partnering Up

Group students into pairs, with one being the listener and the other assigned the role of speaker. Tell the speakers to talk about a certain topic. When they finish speaking, the listener must repeat the speaker’s main points and give them at least one compliment. For example, they might say, “I liked how you described your favorite vacation so vividly.” Then, the students switch roles and repeat the exercise. 

  1. Listening for Lyrics

Tell students to stand up and listen closely for a certain word, and to sit down when they hear it. Then, play a song that contains the word. Students can dance to the music until they hear the word and have to sit down.

This activity serves as both an energy release for active students and a form of practicing listening skills. 

  1. The Telephone Game

Students sit in a circle and one of them comes up with a phrase. They whisper the phrase to the student sitting next to them, and then that student has to pass the message along to the next person by whispering it in their ear. 

By the time the message makes it all the way around the circle, it’s often lost in translation. Students who manage to keep the original message intact win the game!

  1. Simon Says

This classic game is both fun and useful for practicing active listening. One person stands in front of the classroom and gives the group commands, such as telling them to jump in place or stick out their tongue. The catch is that the listeners can only perform the action if the speaker says, “Simon says…” before issuing the command. 

Students must listen carefully for the magic “Simon says” phrase before obeying — otherwise, they’re out of the game. 

  1. The Drawing Game

Pair students up and have them sit back to back. Give one student a photo and the other a piece of paper and markers. One student must describe the photo as best they can, and the other student has to replicate it based on the description. 

You can also frame this as a police sketch game where one student tries to draw a picture of a celebrity or cartoon character based on the other student’s description. Hilarity ensues when the drawings are compared to the original photos. 

An Important Life Skill

Teaching active listening doesn’t just make your job as an educator easier. It’s also a valuable skill that students will be able to apply in other areas of their life, such as in relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and other teachers. By playing games that hone students’ listening skills, you’ll be setting them up for success throughout their life. 

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