Listening and Comprehension

Teachers and parents often have concerns about the listening and comprehension skills of their students.  Listening skills or receptive language and expressive language should develop simultaneously.  There are many reasons why a student may have difficulties with this beyond having a speech and language delay.  It can range from physical conditions of the teaching environment, health issues of the child, or cultural differences.  When a student is referred to Child Study Team, we collect information on these areas to see what corrections or changes may help them become more successful before we test for a communication disability.

Many school environments are less than ideal for students who have difficulty with listening skills.  The buildings may be bombarded by trains and highway noise just outside their doors.   The classrooms often have partitions rather than walls and doors.  Noise carries from one classroom to the next and from the hallways.   In addition, as the number of students in a classroom increases the background noises from students themselves.  Teachers do not have much control over the physical aspects of their buildings but may try some physical adjustments in the room arrangement.  A student may receive   preferential seating or work in small groups as a first intervention.  They may also need to be seated away from windows and doorways so there is less distraction.

Technology can make some improvements.   Some new schools have speakers and amplification systems built into the structures.  Some teachers use portable microphones and amplification systems to supplement their speaking voices.  A student may benefit from a personal fm system or earphones that have a direct link to the teacher’s microphone. Studies show that all students can benefit from amplification systems used in the classroom.

There are some drawbacks to amplification systems.   Microphones amplify only the speaker who has the microphone.  Unless a microphone is passed around, answers given from other students in the room will not be amplified.  The microphone may pick up or create distracting noises of its own.  The teacher needs to remember to shut the microphone off for personal conversations or unintended conversation may be broadcasted.  Students may not want to wear earphones if they look different from other students.  This is  less of a problem as earbuds  become more common.  Amplification systems tend to be fragile in a classroom environment and prone to breaking and missing parts.  Also someone needs to remember to plug the systems in for recharging.  They can be an expensive item for schools to buy and maintain with tight budgets.

Medical conditions can have a high impact on a student’s ability to listen and learn.  A young student develops vocabulary by exploring the world with their senses and attaching words and meaning to the information they receive.  Health issues can keep a student from exploring in a normal fashion and making these connections.  A young student learns vocabulary at a high rate during their speech development.  Even a short period of deprivation can cause a delay that may not be caught up by the time the student becomes school age.   Vocabulary and language is a student’s tool to manipulate information and reason.   This puts them at a disadvantage when most of the information in school is given verbally and they do not understand all the words or the language.

Hearing impairments, genetic conditions, poor nutrition, and inadequate exposure to life experiences can all make a difference. Some conditions may be long term and will continue for the life of the student.  There may need to be adjustments as the student grows.  Other medical conditions can be corrected with intervention.  For example, a student with a hearing impairment may hear better when wax is removed or an ear infection is cleared up.  Some students may benefit from adjustments in medication for such things as seizures.  A student may be falling asleep in class because of home conditions preventing them from sleeping.  A student that has poor nutrition may be lethargic and distracted.  Some of these conditions can be alleviated by working with the parents or guardians.

A student that is an English learner is often mistakenly referred for special education testing.  Although they may appear to have some of the same difficulties around following directions and understanding material presented in the classroom.  This is a temporary condition and the child will catch up over time.  A child with a second language has the advantage of having the concepts and vocabulary from the native language which they can transfer to their new language.  There may still be cultural differences that need to be considered.  For example some cultures do not encourage children to give eye contact to adults.  Languages have differences in word order or the importance of verb development over noun development.  These differences may reflect into the 2nd language.  The child may not have had the same exposure to life experiences and not have eaten some foods for example.  For this reason, the scores on language and cognitive tests, normed on an English speaking population are not considered valid and cannot be the only thing used to determine if a child qualifies for special education.  Tests in the child’s native language and normed with a peer population, a developmental history, and informal tests given by a translator are other options.  If a child has delays in their native language as well as their 2nd language, there is a good chance there is a learning disability.  Parents can be very helpful when determining this, because they can give the history of the child’s development.

If the child is still having difficulties after these conditions have been ruled out, they may be tested for a receptive language delay or auditory processing disorder.  Receptive language is made up of several components that correspond to expressive language.  The testing results indicate which areas the child is having difficulties.  The child may have difficulty understanding vocabulary, syntax, or sentence structure.  They need to be able to sequence the information.   Finally they must compile that information into the big picture forming the main idea and making inferences.  Memory is a big component as information becomes more complex and given in longer segments.

The Speech Pathologist uses the information from the test results to form a plan when helping a student.  Many of the activities used for developing expressive language are also used to develop receptive language.  The emphasis is switched to listening and understanding rather than expression.   I will put activities below that can be used to develop listening skills.  You will find some duplication from previous pages because activities can be used to enhance more than one area.

1.  Why questions :   Cards used to practice answering why questions, make inferences, and elicite sentences with “because”.  Pictures make this download take a little longer.

2.  When questions: Cards used to practice answering when questions.  They can be used to elicite complex sentences using temporal words. Pictures will increase the download time.

4.  Who questions:   Cards used to practice answering who questions, introduce ocupation vocabulary, and elicite adverbial phrases such as (   ________ is a person who___)

5 . What questions: Cards used to practice answering what questions and descriptive information.

6.  How questions: Cards used to answer how questions.  A student can also get practice  using because and or in sentences, looking at more than one perspective, and making comparisons.

7.  Comprehension of Complex Sentences: Cards to practice comprehension of connecting words such as instead of, either/or, neither/nor, until, while, except, and position.     It was updated  with pictures 3/13.   There is a free trial set of 9 cards here

A complete  updated version of the Comprehension of Complex sentences is at the TPT store.   There are 36 cards with picture cues.

8.  Antonym Sentences:  Read the sentences to the student and see if they can form a sentence back that means the opposite.

9.   Making Inferences and Drawing Conclusions:  4 stories that are somewhat vague so a student will need to draw conclusions from the clues.  The stories also contain vocabulary prominent in 3rd and 4th grade curriculum.

10.  Listening activities online:  A site that has interactive activities that require listening for details or directions.

© Cynthia Montalbano and In Spontaneous Speech, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material for commercial purposes without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cynthia Montalbano and In Spontaneous Speech with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Tips to Share with Teachers

Great list of tips for “How to get Students to Follow Directions:”


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