Monday, September 21, 2009

How Can My Kid Succeed in School? Part Four: Improving Listening Skills

Editor's note: This is the fourth of a four part series from Dr. Pohlman's new book, How Can My Kid Succeed in School? which is now available at and will be in bookstores next week. Today, he shares ideas for parents who want too improve their child's listening skills.

Receptive language is the capacity to understand word sounds, word parts, whole words, sentences, and large chunks such as stories and lectures. It is not the same as reading comprehension. We use receptive language to understand when listening as well as when reading. The act of reading involves a lot of skills related to decoding text, making it a more complex activity than listening. On the other hand, listening is more closely aligned with receptive language in many ways.

If your child has limited receptive language, providing practice with listening skills may be necessary. Since listening doesn’t also require decoding printed text (which may also be problematic for your child), it provides more targeted practice with comprehending word meanings, sentence structures, and extended descriptions and arguments. You can provide listening comprehension practice for your child in a lot of ways, the most obvious being to read to him. You may need to pause after every paragraph or so to pose questions about what you just read, make predictions about what will come next, or contemplate how the material connects to other things (personal experience, other books read, movies, and so on). Audio books also provide great listening experiences; you (or somebody) should know enough about the content to converse with your child about it.

Television is a fact of life for most families, and fortunately it does provide a lot of educational programming about a range of topics. Also, high-quality entertainment shows, sports, and news can challenge your child’s receptive language (much of this content can also be accessed via DVDs or downloaded from the Internet). Many Web sites convey information via audio, but often with visual supports such as photos and diagrams which can help your child make connections (obviously supervision is necessary when kids are online).

Regardless of the form listening practice takes, here are some pointers for getting the most out of audio media for your child:

• Push the edge of the envelope in terms of difficulty. You don’t want to overwhelm your child with material that is too advanced, but you do want to make it a little challenging.

• If possible, leverage your child’s interests. If your child is into sports, suggest watching one of the many shows devoted to analysis of games and player profiles.

• Talk with your child about the material (before, during, and after). Stretch your child’s receptive language by asking questions (you might have to act na├»ve about the subject), modeling the forming of connections (“You know, this reminds me of . . .”), and asking for a summary (“So what were the main reasons they thought this happened?”).

• Expand expressive language at the same time. Take advantage of opportunities for your child to improve things such as summarizing, describing, explaining, and supporting an opinion.

• Be transparent about what you’re doing. You want your child to better understand his mind, and discussing the rationale behind the tactics you’re using will promote that understanding.

Dr. Pohlman conducts and supervises learning assessments for Southeast Psych and is available to present on learning issues. Feel free to contact him at 704-552-0116 or His new book is due out in stores Sept. 28th and can be ordered online now. Watch out for a special announcement about Dr. Pohlman's upcoming appearance at Joseph Beth Books in Charlotte.