Listening looks easy, but it is not simple. Every head is a world.
Researchers have studied the physiology of listening and speaking. One of the things they discovered is that it’s much harder to listen than it is to speak. Listeners’ heart rates and body temperatures go up slightly as they lean in and try to make sense of what the speaker is saying.
Listening to individual children in active writing workshops is especially challenging, and understanding the words of students who speak a different first language than yours can be downright daunting. Here are some tips for mastering the art of listening in conferences with English language learners:
- Repeat what the child says to you. We unconsciously and automatically translate any speaker’s words into the idioms of our language and culture, and this often means we lose the meaning the child is trying to create. By repeating the words, we can ensure we’ve got them right, as well as the ideas the child is attempting to convey.
- Try to establish eye contact. Some cultures discourage children from making eye contact with adults, so this can be a difficult task. But eye contact allows you to communicate a lot nonverbally with any child—that they have your attention, respect, and interest. When a child turns away from you, either from distraction or shyness, a gentle touch on the arm or back will often bring them back to eye contact with you.
- If you are having trouble establishing eye contact, point to words or images on the page and prompt the child with “Tell me about this” or “What’s this?” English language learners will sometimes be more comfortable at the start of a conference by talking at the page they have written, rather than directly to you.
- Pull up a chair and watch as the child writes or reads. You might narrate the “action” as they write, guessing what they’re drawing or the word they’re attempting. But letting the child work at their pace, while you sit on the side and listen, sends a strong signal that you respect the student’s process and are ready to listen when they have something to say to you.
- Avoid asking yes/no questions. If your questions require only a one-word response, you’ll spend far more time talking than the child. Open-ended questions also encourage more reflection for both you and your students. The exception, of course, is for children in the silent period, who can make their meaning known by nodding “yes” or shaking their head “no” to your guesses, and can work toward one- or two-word responses that way.
- Respect silence. When you ask a question, wait till the child is ready to answer. And then wait some more. Give your students time to sort through what you’ve asked in their native tongue and English, and let them take all the time they need to formulate a response. It feels unnatural to break the hectic, noisy pace of many writing workshops by encouraging these long pauses in conferences, but they are vital for children to sort through their thoughts and develop a reflective stance.
- Celebrate approximations. It’s tempting when a child writes an F for a P sound to launch into a lesson on sounds and symbols. But with young writers and readers, it’s often more important to get them writing and comfortable with taking risks. If you teach them that you must approve the correctness of every letter, they will be hesitant to experiment, instead relying on your presence or copying words off the walls or from books.
- Don’t allow other children in the classroom to distract you. Send any child who interrupts with a quick, kind word that conveys the importance of giving the child you are working with your full attention.
- Take good notes. Pausing to write down what you are noticing the child accomplish verbally and nonverbally will open up more time for the child to speak in the conference, and it will give you wonderful fodder to refer to in launching the next conference with the child.