0 to 2

by Carla Poole 

Anna's fussing begins to quiet when her caregiver, Pauline, leans over and softly croons, "What's the matter, Anna? Is something bothering you?" The two-month-old looks up, arms and legs poised in mid-air as she listens to the interesting sound of her caregiver's voice. Pauline slowly asks again, "What's up, Anna?" and the baby gradually begins to coo and gurgle. Pauline imitates her coo and the conversational dance begins.

Caring for babies takes patience. They need time to listen and respond when they are first learning to vocalize and babble. Born with fully developed hearing and a preference for human voices, babies quickly learn to turn toward voices and other interesting sounds, like soft rattles or a music box. At the same time, they are also capable of imitating the myriad of sounds existing in all human languages.

By seven to eight months, infants begin to drop the sounds they do not hear on a daily basis and practice the ones they do, gradually developing a repertoire that imitates the language spoken in their world. Background noise, like the constant drone of a radio or television, makes it more difficult to hear the important voices around them and to practice their own vocalizations.

Meaningful Conversation

Toddlers are more likely to listen when they are addressed by name and the conversation is about things they're interested in. Sixteen month-old Max, for example, is dumping blocks in and out of the shape sorter. He tilts his head to listen when his favorite caregiver, Paul, sits down, saying "Hey, Max, look at all those blocks! You sure are busy dumping them!" Later, when it's time to clean up, Max will be more willing to listen if the request is short "Max, please put the blocks on the shelf" and followed by an appreciative "Thank you" or "Good helping!" for the toddler's efforts.

Another way to help toddlers develop listening skills is to ask them questions, remembering that children are most likely to respond when they feel their answers will make a difference. Ask questions that allow toddlers to make meaningful choices: Would you like to hear this story again? Would you like to play inside or outside? Which is your favorite snack? Should we have it again soon?

Listening to Reason

In a twos class, a tussle erupts between two children over a fire truck. A group gathers as their teacher rushes over. The "audience" listens closely as the teacher asks questions about what happened and helps the children resolve their conflict. During this period of tremendous language acquisition, twos can be avid listeners, especially when adults use language that helps them navigate new social experiences.

Encouraging open communication, where everyone involved has a time to listen and to speak, helps toddlers feel secure. Enabling children to participate in this kind of conversation helps them feel capable and experience the power of communication.

What You Care Do

The tone of your voice, the words you choose, and the ways you interact and communicate can help children become willing listeners and comfortable speakers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Help infants focus on your voice. Share simple picture books filled with photographs and bright colors. Playfully vary the pitch and rhythm of your voice while you talk about the pictures.
  • Find ways to involve young children in sounds that "take turns." Reciprocal interactions are one of the first steps toward conversation and communication. Games like peek-a-boo or taking turns making sounds and clapping hands are playful ways to help babies learn that listening can be fun. Engaging infants in listening games means offering them opportunities to imitate sounds and complete turn-taking circles.
  • Use a variety of tones and rhythms. Many babies love games in which familiar sounds speed up or a rhyme has a fun unexpected ending. Two-year-olds can be captivated by a sudden change in your voice. For instance, if you suddenly start whispering, children will turn to investigate this quiet surprise!
  • Remember, when toddlers become engrossed in their own activities, they don't always hear a voice from across the room. You will have much more success communicating if you are nearby and at children's eye level.

3 to 4

by Susan A. Miller EdD

Three-year-olds have fun with language, delighting in simple nursery rhymes and making up their own. As they listen to repeat familiar rhymes and create their own word plays, children develop an ear for sounds, discovering they can be manipulated and changed.

Talk to Me

This is also an age when children engage in conversation - listening to simple questions, responding with appropriate answers, and contributing to what has already been said. When not distracted, threes are able to clearly demonstrate active listening skills, focusing eyes, bodies, and attention on the person speaking. Four-year-olds can use their listening skills to understand and follow a three-step direction. When asked to do so, Marcus can put away his book, get his hat and line up at the door.

Listening plays still another role, as three-and four-year-olds carry on conversations with themselves during play. They become involved in listening to the own comments and questions as they act out the role of Mom or talk about containers, spills and overflows as they dump and fill at the water table.

Tell Me a Story

Threes also enjoy listening to books - talking about the pictures and discussing what's happening. And, as most of us know all to well, three-year-olds particularly love listening to the same story over and over again. This kind of listening helps young children rehearse specific words and begin to repeat lines as they "read" their favorites along with us.

Growing With Language

In addition to spouting spontaneous rhymes, songs, and finger-plays, four-year-olds love to listen to jokes and riddles. They like to hear and use silly names and also enjoy devising silly language for daily events, like having "crackers-wackers" for snack.

On a more serious side, four-year-olds feel very competent when they dictate stories about their artwork; they listen intently while their words are read back to them during this highly meaningful experience.

What You Can Do

Although teachers and parents spend most of the day talking to children, listening is not a skill adults actively teach. Furthermore, only 20-30% of young children actually learn best through listening. Here are some ways you can help all children enhance these vital skills.

  • Make sure you can be heard. Eliminate noise and surrounding distraction. Speak clearly - not too fast or too soft.
  • Help children focus on what you are saying. Check to see that children are looking at you. Reflect on what you are asking them to listen to: Is what I'm saying interesting? Important? Is my voice pleasant? Exciting?
  • Model good listening skills. Give children your full attention when they speak. Make sure you're at their level and make eye contact. Smile or nod to let children know you are listening.
  • Combine words and actions. If possible, use actions or props as you speak, so children can see what you are doing as well as hear. For instance, if you want to know: "Which color marker would you like to use to write your story?" pick up the markers while you are asking.
  • Play listening games. Help develop sound awareness. Involve children in clapping and tapping patterns. Tape-record sounds in your environment to listen to and talk about later.
  • Read books every day. Find stories to share that involve children in listening to and repeating rhymes, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. (Henry Holt & Co., Inc.).
  • Sing songs with interesting patterns and rhymes. Eentsy, Weentsy Spider by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson (Morrow) is filled with exciting songs.
  • Plan pleasant conversational experiences. Taking time to chat quietly at snack or on a cozy couch will help children learn about the positive reasons for listening.

5 to 6

by Ellen Booth Church

In the active world of the kindergarten classroom, there is an abundance of sounds to listen to and plenty to distract. Because of this, listening becomes not only an important language skill, but also a vital technique for group integration, individualization, and self-esteem.

At five and six years of age, children are acutely aware of the power of listening to others and being listened to themselves. They already know that they are expected to listen and they also know that not listening can be a useful tool. However, like people of all ages, five- and six-year-olds want to be listened to with attention and respect.

Hearing and Listening

Difference in children's ability to listen can be developmentally based. Some children begin the year with a strong facility for attending or with well-developed phonemic awareness. Others take longer to "tune in" to listening or realize the connection between rhyming words, because their auditory "filtration system" needs more practice in discernment. Some five- and six-year-olds engage in learning through kinesthetic or visual channels before they develop listening skills. Those who are innately auditory are the most likely to use their listening skills as a major tool for learning and navigating through the day.

The range of children's listening skills can also have an environmental and/or emotional base. Some children come to us with a "backpack of experiences," moments when it was safer not to listen, when it was more comfortable to tune out. These children learned to ignore or to pretend not to understand. As teachers, we need to look at the whole child - at the reasons for individual behaviors. Then by being developmentally and culturally sensitive, we can give each child reasons to listen and the satisfying experience of being heard.

What You Can Do

Here are some tips that can help children develop listening skills that can contribute to lifelong success.

  • Model active listening. Whenever possible, verbally reflect back what you hear a child saying. During group time, invite children to restate what they heard you or another group member say.
  • Focus on individuals. It's easy to be distracted by an active class. Make your actions model individual focus rather than divided attention.
  • Practice listening for understanding. Pause in the middle of a story and invite children to tell what they think has happened so far. Give a direction and ask children to repeat it before they follow it.
  • Involve children in aesthetically pleasing listening experiences. A gentle wind chime, beautiful music, a flowing fountain can all be antidotes to the harsh sounds children encounter and to the habit of tuning sounds out. Set aside time to listen just for enjoyment.
  • Play with three- and four part directions. On the way to outdoor play, give individual children sets of silly directions. You might tell one child: "Stand up, go to the sand table, wiggle your arms, and then line up at the door."
  • Respect each child's voice. Encourage children to speak and listen to each other without criticism.
This article originally appeared in the October, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.