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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

How to Foster Deep Listening

How to Foster Deep Listening- thumbnail
How teachers and students listen to one another during discussion matters. By listening, we mean deep listening—that is, listening as an active form of participation. This kind of listening enables us to make sense of content in our own way and to make sense of other's thinking. We engage with what we hear to reason about important ideas and concepts.
So what would it mean to approach classroom discussions mindful of the power of listening for understanding?

Listening and the Standards

Listening for understanding is valuable in its own right, but it's also essential for effectively implementing the teaching and learning advocated by the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). In English language arts, the speaking and listening standards state that kindergartners are expected to "participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups." Down the road, 12th graders are expected to build on this foundation by "initiating and participating effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively" as they
  • "Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussion and decision making."
  • "Pose and respond to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives."
  • "Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue."
Similarly, in mathematics, students are expected to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others." Such work includes making conjectures, as well as "justifying conclusions, communicating them to others, and responding to the arguments of others."
Although these may sound like expectations for what students say, it's interesting to consider what a student must hear to enact such standards. For example, "responding to the arguments of others" and "responding thoughtfully to diverse perspectives" start with hearing and seeking to understand another's ideas.

Five Talk Moves

Teachers and students can deepen their listening through commonly used talk moves (Chapin, O'Connor, & Anderson, 2013). Here we'll discuss five moves.

Move 1. Repeating

When a student says something that a teacher or student thinks is important, one way to highlight it is to repeat it. A teacher might ask, "Who can repeat what Mia just said?"
Repeating helps confirm that what the speaker said is what the listener heard, and it lets the speaker know that he or she was heard—and that it matters. It enables teachers to highlight an idea that's central to the discussion. Moreover, hearing the idea again, or multiple times, helps students learn to listen to one another's ideas. Repeating is often one of the first steps in building students' ability to, as the standards put it, "continue a conversation through multiple exchanges."
For example, in a literature discussion about Marcus Pfister's Rainbow Fish (North-South Books, 1999), a student might explain why he thinks the fish, at first so averse to sharing his beautiful scales, decides to share them in the end. To highlight the book's themes, the teacher might ask, "Who can repeat what Marco just told us about sharing and friendship?" Similarly, in a math class, the teacher might ask, "Who can repeat what Olivia just said about two groups of five?" After some practice, students may start to repeat key ideas without being prompted by their teacher, a first step in being able to enact the more sophisticated listening that the standards call for.

Move 2. Revoicing

Although revoicing may seem similar to repeating, there's an important distinction. Repeating involves saying again the words someone just said, whereas revoicing calls for listeners to say what they heard in their own words. Revoicing is a way for listeners to try on another person's thinking.
In a discussion about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (1963), revoicing might sound like this:
L<EMPH TYPE="5">eticia: I think that when Martin Luther King says, "their destiny is tied up with our destiny," he means that no one is free until everyone is free.N<EMPH TYPE="5">ate: What you're saying is that my freedom is tied to your freedom. Is that what you mean? Is that what King meant?
Revoicing enables students and the teacher to hear the idea again in another way. It also gives the sharer of the original idea a chance to confirm, change, or clarify what was said so others better understand his or her thinking. A teacher might use revoicing to tease out nuances in an idea, affirm a tentative student's participation, or direct the discussion a certain way. Hearing ideas multiple times in different ways also supports students who struggle with the text, idea, or language (Moschkovich, 1999).

Move 3. Offering Wait Time

Teaching and learning through discussion require wait time. Wait time is think time. Teachers can offer wait time to students by asking them to take a moment to reflect on what they just heard: "Maria's point about how the x axis and the y axis relate to the slope is really important. Let's take a moment to think about what she's telling us."
If a student is called on to respond in a discussion, the student can use wait time to collect his or her thoughts by saying, "I need a minute to collect my ideas." Sometimes the teacher might say, "OK, we'll come back to you"; at other times, the teacher might encourage all the students in the class to also collect their thoughts. Teachers can make wait time more formal by taking a few minutes before a discussion to ask students to write down their initial thoughts about the topic under consideration.
Wait time often means there will be silence in the classroom, which can be uncomfortable. However, quiet moments are valuable for helping students to think through their own and other's ideas. Wait time encourages students who tend to answer quickly to slow down, and it gives students who are hesitant to speak up time to gather their thoughts, which leads to broader participation (Shultz, 2009), another focus area in the new standards.

Move 4. Asking Genuine Questions

Genuine questions are born of curiosity—about the topic under study or about how another person thinks about or experiences something. In the best genuine questions, the answer is unknown to the questioner. A genuine question creates an opening for many possible directions (Gadamer, 1989), whereas a question with a known answer closes the discussion.
For example, if a teacher asks, "How could we find the area of our classroom?" a student might reply, "Area is length times width, so we multiply." If the discussion stops there, the teacher may not be able to determine what this student understands about area, length, and width.
To listen for understanding, a teacher might reply, "We hear you saying that to find the area, we can multiply length times width. Why does multiplying length times width measure area?" By asking this genuine question, the teacher signals that he's interested in what the student actually understands, not whether the student can parrot a formula. A student might respond by drawing an open array diagram that shows why multiplying the length of one side by the width of the other side represents the area.
By asking a genuine question, the teacher models listening for understanding to his entire class. He also presses the student to justify her conclusions, a skill called for in the Standards for Mathematical Practice: Students should be able to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others."
Or consider a class discussion following an experiment in which students observed ice turn into water and then to steam. Alex, a student, claims that "water, ice, and steam are the same thing."
In response, a classmate might say, "What do you mean, they're the same thing?" This question presses Alex and other classmates to develop further conjectures about how water, ice, and steam are the same or different.
As the conversation deepens, the teacher might ask, "I wonder whether someone could make a visual representation of this idea?" thereby prompting students to model their thinking. Even if the teacher has an image in mind, the question allows the students to develop the design on the basis of their current understanding of the subject.
Alternatively, if a student makes a conjecture that no one understands, a genuine question might be, "Can you say that in another way?" This question can be a powerful tool to support students during pair and share, a structure that helps students listen to and understand a classmate's thinking.

Move 5. Fostering Reasoning Skills

Once listeners understand what the speaker is saying, they have to determine how the information fits with what they already know and understand. At this point, the discussion shifts toward reasoning with and within the idea.
A teacher might ask the entire class to show, using a hand signal like thumbs up/thumbs down, whether they agree or disagree with the speaker. To deepen the conversation, the teacher should then ask several students who represent different sides of the issue to share their thinking about why they agree or disagree. This talk move requires students to justify their thinking, and it allows for multiple perspectives.
To take reasoning to the next level, the listener also needs to consider how someone else's thinking is similar to or different from one's own. This leads to deeper analysis than just categorizing an idea as right or wrong. This next level of reasoning gives listeners the opportunity to "clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions," which ultimately "promotes divergent and creative perspectives" to surface for the class to hear, consider, and respond to.
For example, when discussing the U.S. Civil War, a student, Julia, might claim that the war was fought for economic reasons. Another student might ask, "Why did you say that the Civil War was about economics?" At that point, the teacher might ask the class to indicate whether they agree or disagree with Julia's claim, inviting a few students to expand on their thinking. Once several arguments are on the table, the teacher might ask, "Does it make sense to say that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons? What about moral reasons?"
Reasoning helps students listen for understanding to their classmates' ideas, as well as to reconcile what they hear with their own thinking. As for teachers, by attending to reasoning, they're able to listen for students' understanding of a topic at more nuanced and sophisticated levels. Teachers will know they're on the right track when they find themselves reconciling their own understanding of a topic with a student's novel thoughts about the subject.

Teachers' Listening Matters

It's not just enough to tell students how to listen. Teachers have to model listening for understanding; they have to practice and explicitly support it over time. Teachers who are especially good at this work are insatiably curious about how their students make sense of a topic. They acknowledge students for having the courage to take a risk and share their thinking. These teachers listen to students in the same way that they themselves want to be heard.
The health of our society depends on our ability to engage others' perspectives and come to new understandings through dialogue (Parker &amp; Hess, 2001). To that end, the Common Core State Standards call on students to "work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making." This begins with listening—and deep, active listening needs to begin with teachers. Teachers need to make listening one of the most important things they do to support students' learning.

Chapin, S. H., O'Connor, C. &amp; Anderson, N. C. (2013). Classroom discussions in math: A teacher's guide for using talk moves to support the Common Core and more, Grades K–6: A multimedia professional learning resource (3rd ed.). Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.

Gadamer, H. G. (1989) Truth and method. Continuum, New York.

King, M. L. (1963). I have a dream. Retrieved from

Moschovich, J. (1999). Supporting the participation of English language learners in mathematical discussions. For the Learning of Mathematics, 19(1), 11–19.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices &amp; Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington DC: Authors.

Parker, W. C., &amp; Hess, D. (2001). Teaching with and for discussion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(3), 273–289.

Shultz, K. (2009). Rethinking classroom participation: Listening to silent voices. New York: Teachers College Press.

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