Supporting active listening through high expectations and scaffolding

by Amy Weerasekera, School 21

Research question

To what extent are high expectations for listening, used alongside scaffolds for response, an effective strategy for improving learning through talk?

Project rationale

I chose to focus on listening as an area of development following learning walks and discussions with colleagues. It was clear that although we had many confident speakers in our classes, they were not as proficient at listening. This had an impact on the quality of talk in lessons as students were not effectively listening or responding to their peers. In order for students to learn through talk they need to be able to listen and respond appropriately.

When looking for research on this area I found that listening-based research has mostly been carried out in relation to teaching Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). It’s interesting that listening is at the core of exploring new vocabulary, contexts and meaning in MFL, but the same isn’t always seen in other areas of learning. I wanted to investigate whether if we applied the same high expectations, planning and scaffolding to listening as we do to speaking, students would engage more deeply with the subject matter at hand and consequently make more progress.

I planned my impact project with David Nunan’s journal ‘New Ways in Teaching Listening’ (1995) in mind. In the journal, he states that “learners must interact to achieve understanding” and it is this interaction that I believe can be missing in my classroom. Talk-based tasks often involved multiple students stating their opinions without understanding and responding to each other’s contributions.

There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, many students lack the skills and awareness of how to listen effectively; and secondly, teachers do not intentionally plan for and support the role of the listener in their classrooms. Students therefore often become non-reciprocal listeners who “(often to his or her frustration), have no opportunity of answering back, clarifying understanding, or checking that he or she has comprehended correctly” (ibid). Nunan argues that “In the real-world, it is rare for the listener to be cast in the non-reciprocal ‘eavesdropper’ on a conversation”, and yet this is the role that so many students are given in a classroom setting.

The speaker’s role is clearly modelled and scaffolded and other students are expected to listen with no response required of them. In order for all participants to actively learn in talk-based tasks they need to instead become reciprocal listeners who are “also required to take part in the interaction” (ibid.).

The aim in the long term is for students to independently “alternate between the listener and the speaker” (ibid.) during exploratory talk. In order to reach this goal, I investigated how clear and increased expectations and scaffolds can boost the role of the listener in my year 1 class.

Intervention and impact

I wanted to evaluate the impact that raised expectations and increased scaffolding can have on a listener’s ability to comprehend, synthesise and respond to others in a talk-based task. The intended impact of this project was to improve the quality of listening in my classroom. Improved listening should be evident in the quality of responses given by listeners and would ensure that students are actively listening, can reflect on the quality of their listening and can learn from their peers effectively even when they are not the initial speakers.

Nunan suggests that “there are many different types of listening that can be classified according to a number of variables, including purpose for listening, the role of the listener, and the type of text being listened to” and that when designing listening tasks in MFL it is worth “holding the listening text constant… and getting learners to listen to the text several times, however, following different instructions each time” (ibid.).

I decided to follow a similar format when collecting data by repeating the same task, asking students to discuss their well-being using weather as a metaphor, while amending the expectations and modelling provided by the teacher, the listening focus and the sentence stems provided to scaffold the listeners’ responses. The listening focus and sentence stems varied between activities with some requiring more sophisticated responses than others.

As a control I carried out the same activity at the beginning of both data collections without expectations or scaffolds. I assessed responses for their frequency, accuracy and depth by recording the number of volunteered responses, whether their response was accurate (as verified by the speaker and its relevance to the task and expectations) and whether it demonstrated depth (an extended answer that went beyond straight re-call and/or used the sentence stem provided).

I also surveyed a group of students in my class before the first data collection and then again after the second, to garner an understanding of their perspective on the importance of listening and what they think inhibits and facilitates their own listening.

Baseline data

The first round of listening based activities acted as my baseline data collection. The students received no input on the expectations or reasons for listening prior to collecting this evidence. I repeated an activity seven times over seven weeks, and each time I asked the listener to feed back on their partner’s response to the task. For the first activity I provided no prior expectations or scaffolding for the listener’s response, to attain a “raw score”. In each case, I rated the students’ responses for a) whether they responded, b) depth and c) accuracy of response. Because the assessment of the accuracy and depth of responses was assessed only by the researcher, the results are somewhat subjective, depending on what I deem to be an answer of high quality. To combat this, I ensured that I sought confirmation from the speaker on the accuracy of a response and based the assessment of depth on the use of the sentence stem to aid a more detailed response or on an answer that provided more than just a straight summary of what was said. I attempted to keep this consistent throughout both data collections.

Alongside this baseline I carried out the first of two surveys of a group of six students. From this survey it was clear that most students thought of listening as something best demonstrated by physical cues such as ‘looking at someone’, maintaining ‘magnet eyes’ and ensuring that they ‘sit sharp’. In response to the question ‘What would happen if we didn’t listen to other people?’ pupils mostly cited the idea of ‘getting in trouble’ or others becoming ‘upset’ or ‘angry’. The students believed that listening to others is a way of being respectful but did not express what they could personally gain from listening.

Impact data

I repeated the same activities five months later. By this time, students had received input on a variety of listening skills, the importance of listening and were practicing their listening in talk-based tasks throughout the curriculum. The initial response to the task without expectations and scaffolds received more positive results than the baseline. I believe this is due to the additional and consistent input around listening in my classroom. Despite some fluctuations, the results followed a similar pattern to the baseline data. The number of responses remained high with encouraging levels of accuracy and depth until the sixth task when the complexity of the task correlated with a decline in the quantity and quality of responses.

After the listening input and increased expectation and scaffolds over the subsequent months pupils still held the idea of being respectful as an important reason for listening but also had a deeper understanding of its benefits for their learning. When asked ‘Why is it important to listen?’ one pupil answered ‘if you don’t listen then you can’t learn’ while another stated ‘people might tell you important stuff and if you don’t listen you won’t know the important stuff.’ Many students also valued listening in relation to building friendships with comments such as ‘my friends wouldn’t be friends with me anymore’ and ‘I need to listen to my friends and not ignore them’.


The first challenge I met was creating a task/s that would generate accurate data on the impact of expectations and scaffolds and as my area of research did not directly relate to attainment or attendance the route was not clear at first. To overcome this issue, I based my tasks on research by Nunan, Watson and Smeltzer. Despite some anomalies, the two data collections created a fairly clear picture that supported what I set out to investigate, that increased expectations, modelling and scaffolds help students to actively listen and respond appropriately leading to students becoming ‘reciprocal listeners’. It was interesting to note that the listening scores dropped off in both the baseline and impact assessments. This suggests that gains in listening skills can be undermined when the task is too complex. This underscores the importance of setting high expectations with regard to listening which are nevertheless achievable.


Nunan, D. and L. Miller. (1995) New ways in teaching listening. Washington DC: TESOL, p.51-66.

Watson, K. and L. Smeltzer. (1984) Barriers to listening: Comparison between students and practitioners. Communication Research Reports, 1, p.82-87.

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