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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

The Student With
Poor Listening Skills

Good listening ability is an essential learning tool. Indeed, most of what children learn in elementary school is acquired through the auditory channel. Some students, however, have a problem in their ability to listen. They might have what is called an auditory processing problem, namely, a difficulty in understanding spoken language.

A student who has problems processing auditory information typically hears normally. She hears the sounds, but her brain has difficulty making sense of what she is hearing. Just as a child with a reading disability typically has good visual acuity, but a problem interpreting visual symbols, a child with poor listening skills usually has good hearing, but difficulty interpreting auditory signals.

Simply telling a student with poor listening skills to "pay attention" is not sufficient to solve the problem. Teachers can, however, promote good listening skills by varying the ways in which they communicate, and by making subtle changes in the classroom setting. The following strategies might help you deal more effectively with a student with poor listening skills -- and also help foster understanding in your entire class.


Investigate possible reasons for the listening difficulty. A student's processing problem might signal the presence of another problem. For example, the child might have an ear infection, a hearing problem, or an attention deficit. Also, consider whether she might be bored, distressed, or oppositional. If you suspect the possibility of a hearing problem, ask the nurse to screen the student's hearing. Bear in mind, however, that such screening is a limited diagnostic tool, and the student will require additional testing by an audiologist to definitively rule out a hearing problem. You also might want to request an evaluation from the school's speech-language specialist to further pinpoint any difficulties.

Seat the student to optimize understanding. Place the student near where you typically stand, and away from the hallway door or window. In that way, she will be better able to understand your instructions and less vulnerable to distraction. When talking to your class on a sunny day, avoid standing in front of the window; it will be harder for students to see your face clearly.

Gain the student's attention before speaking with her. That is particularly important when giving assignments or directions or introducing new ideas. Consider alerting the student that you are about to begin speaking by gently tapping her on the shoulder or calling her name. Face her, and make sure she has eye contact with you. Varying your tone and volume also might help keep her attention.

Monitor student understanding. You might do that by having the student repeat back your directions, or by asking her questions to assess her grasp of what you have said. Make sure that she really understands and is not parroting back what she has heard. If she has not understood, restate your instructions, but simplify the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. Consider asking another student to regularly monitor the student's understanding of directions and assignments.

Encourage the student to tell you when she is confused. A student might be reluctant to ask you for clarification for fear of your reaction. Let her know you expect her to tell you when she's unclear about directions or assignments. At the same time, you want to make sure she doesn't take advantage of the opportunity by not paying attention the first time you give instructions.

Provide a longer "wait time" with the student. The student with an auditory processing problem might take somewhat longer to understand orally-presented information. If so, wait a little longer than normal for a response after asking the student a question.

Prepare the student when changing topics. When moving from one subject to another, make it clear that you are changing topics by saying, for example, "That ends our discussion of (name of topic). Now, let's move on to talk about (new topic)." In discussing the new topic, begin by summarizing the main points. When finished with your lesson, review the main ideas and perhaps previously learned material. That will be helpful for all students.

Enhance the student's understanding. Try the following strategies to help the student understand and remember what you have said:

  • Speak in short sentences and talk relatively slowly.
  • Repeat what you have said or have the student repeat it to you. If necessary, rephrase what you said rather than repeating it word for word.
  • Have the student write down the information.
  • When posing questions in class, give the student three or four possible answers to choose from -- or ask questions with a number of correct answers.
  • Supplement orally presented information with written information.
  • Reinforce what you are saying with gestures.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.