Skip Navigation
Download as PDF

The Look of Listening

By Paul Madaule

Imagine a rabbit in a meadow on a quiet evening; its posture is rounded; the ears are down.  Suddenly a branch cracks nearby. Both its body and ears perk up. At first, the rabbit was hearing; now it is listening! The rabbit illustrates that not only the ear but the whole body are involved in the act of listening.

While rabbits, dogs, cats and many mammals illustrate quite graphically what listening ‘looks like’, this look is not as obvious in humans. The general impression is that, unlike in vision, where one clearly knows if a person looks at you or not, listening is not ‘visible’.  However, seasoned educators know at first glance who is listening and who is ‘not in the classroom’. They may or may not be aware of it, but this is how they recognize the ‘look’ of listening. 

From Bunnies to Children

Posture. Much like the rabbit, a child who listens is a child who sits straight, a position which conveys openness, presence and alertness. A slouching posture is definitely an obstacle to quality listening and a child whose back and shoulders are constantly hunched most likely suffers from a listening deficiency. We know that asking a child to sit straight is like talking to a deaf ear. Within a minute or so, he will be all deflated again. His body image, which is the mental representation of his body, is poorly developed, an indication that his vestibular and proprioceptive systems are not sending enough messages to the brain, resulting in low muscle tone and poor body awareness. The weight of gravity makes him feel heavier and than he is; he is literally crushed.  Any physical activity, starting with sitting straight, requires tremendous effort which quickly drains his energy and sucks the zest for life out of him as well as his desire to do things and to explore. His ‘ear of the body’ is not listening.

Issues related to low energy such as poor motivation, boredom, slow response, short attention span and concentration are commonly observed when the ear of the body is not working well. Inability to stand still and fidgety behavior are even further wasting what little energy he has left.

Eye Contact. Unlike the rabbit, a child doesn’t perk up her ears when she listens. Our ears move but it is hardly noticeable because our ‘perking up’ mechanism is buried well inside the middle ear, behind the eardrum. There is, however, an easy and straight forward way to find out if a child is listening: eye contact. The quality of eye contact is the very first change that we observe at the beginning a listening training program. With autistic children, eye contact, which was virtually non-existent, suddenly becomes noticeable. More often, the child’s eyes ‘fill up’ with sparks as if to convey ‘I am here now’, ‘I am with you’, ‘got it!’ triggering comments from the parents or teachers such as “he looks smarter” or “she is so much a part of our life now!”. The link between eye contact and listening is so striking that eye contact truly is ‘listening with the eyes’. To be sure that the child is listening to you when you talk, make sure that she is looking at your eyes and not at your lips. Lip reading is an attempt to process speech when listening is not working properly. It can also be an indicator of an attempt to compensate for a partial hearing loss.   

Saying that eye contact is the child’s equivalent of the rabbit’s perked up ears is not just a metaphor; it corresponds to a neuro-physiological reality. There are links between the vestibular system of the inner ear, the cerebellum (this part of the brain specialized in the control of fine movements) and the ocular nerves of the eyes which are responsible for tracking. This link between the ear of the body and the eyes explains, in part, why a listening training program facilitates the child’s ability to read. In listening, as well as reading, the eye becomes an extension of the ear.

Facial Expression.  Another sign of listening that the experienced teacher’s quick glance over his class won’t miss is facial expression. A ‘blank’ stare, a set smile, a slightly open mouth, are sure signs that the child is not listening. A good listener’s face looks thoughtful and engaged as if the facial muscles were actively involved in absorbing the message. As the matter of fact, they are actively involved! There are two muscles in the middle ear which play a part in the ‘perking up’ mechanism I was referring to before. We can call them the ‘listening muscles’. One of these muscles is controlled by the facial nerve, which, as its name indicates, also controls the muscles of the face and lips. This is the link between the ear and facial expression. When a child looks ‘too’ serious while listening, or when his face gets distorted by a grin, these are signs that he is trying hard to compensate for a listening function which is failing him. I have seen children working so hard at it that they develop wrinkles on the forehead way too prematurely.

The other listening muscle is controlled by the trigeminal nerve which is also involved in the opening and closing of the mouth. The most graphic expression of non-listening is yawning, which often happens when we tell a child something she doesn’t want to hear. Do some teenagers come to mind?

The Sound of Listening  

Talking. Listening doesn’t only have a ‘look, it does have a sound as well, the sound of the voice. Being the first listener of what we say, the way we talk is a reflection of how we listen. Therefore, the most effective way to know what a child’s listening sounds like, is to listen to her voice.  A voice rich in timbre, clearly articulated, with good intonation is a voice which indicates that listening is good! As a general rule, speech clarity and a vocabulary ‘speak for’ a proper functioning of the auditory ear while speech flow and sentence structure (syntax) give indications on the functioning of the ear of the body.

A poor listener’s voice may take many forms. It may sound flat, monotone, choppy, hard to understand, with little expression, lots of hesitations and repeats, poor vocabulary, unelaborated sentence structure. It also may be riddled with ‘ready made’ filler phrases such as ‘stuff like that’, ‘you know what I mean’, ‘and so on and so on’. In an attempt to compensate for a listening deficit, one may concentrate all her energy trying to formulate what she wants to say, attempting to find the words, hesitating, losing her train of thought and soon giving up, exhausted and frustrated. Another child may opt for talking ‘for talking’s sake’ at the expense of content. His sentences may be convoluted and stuffed with generalizations, leaving you with the impression of a lot of words to say little. As a rule, when talking, a poor listener has a hard time handling both formulation and content at the same time.

Singing.  Singing comes naturally to young children because it suits their spontaneous nature and sense of playfulness. At a deeper level, singing is an answer for their need to express emotions and affect. It is pre-language for children to use before there know how to put their thoughts into words and phrases. This is why singing is the perfect catalyst for language acquisition. Children need to sing! From the perspective of listening, singing works on the fine tuning of  intonation,  rhythm and articulation, all the ingredients which make up speech (with the exception of the semantic content). Singing offers the child the very best natural listening training. Singing activities should be paramount in early education. Children need to sing!

The singing voice of a good listener should be clear, colorful and melodious. In your children, it may also be slightly – and delightfully - out of tune since auditory discrimination is not fully mastered until 5 or 6 years old.

Playing  Music.  Many musicians will tell you that they didn’t choose the instrument they play, they were chosen by it. Early on in life, their listening ear was already attuned to the specific sounds of the instrument. There was a sound chemistry which determined the choice. If she chose a clarinet, it is likely that her listening ‘sounds like’ a clarinet. If your child shows an affinity for, let’s say, the saxophone, go for it even if there is a piano at home and a piano teacher next door. Not all children may be as clear in their choice. If this is the case, let him explore a variety of instruments and go with his pick. If none turn him on and he keeps going back to the soccer ball, do not insist. Not all of us have a ‘musician within’, or, more to the point, a natural musical ear.     

Listening Beyond the Visible

Constantly asking for repetition, responding after a lengthy time delay, having a tough time with multiple instructions while it is clear that hearing is within normal range, are also many signs that listening is not up to the task. Many facets of listening are difficult to detect because listening often ‘hides’ behind other skills such as focus and attention span, auditory processing ability, motor functions, co-ordination, organizational skills, reading, writing as well as regulation of energy. Phonological awareness, the ability to spell out words that we hear which is critical in the acquisition of written language, is also listening-related.

A listening checklist can help parents and teachers identify possible listening issues. In my next article, I will make some suggestions on what can be done to maximize your child’s listening. I will also describe a user-friendly listening fitness program that we have devised to help children in the school. 


© Paul Madaule 2007