Dr. Marion Blank: Attention, Listening and Reading: A Tight Linkage

“He really knows the answers. He just doesn’t like to wait for the instructions.” This may be not only one of the most common, but also one of the most accurate comments parents offer in discussing “errors” their children make. Typically, the observation is on target; the children do have the information or skill in question.

At the same time, key aspects of the situation are often overlooked. The parents are focused on the idea that their child’s ability is not in question and hence there is little need to be concerned. Indeed, in keeping with the fast high tech world, parents believe that the children should not be made to wait. They feel that the activities should be redesigned so that they accord with the children’s predisposition to respond quickly. In other words, situations that are not set up for fast action are seen as placing unfair or inappropriate demands on children.

This perspective has major implications for a range of skills, including a child’s mastery of reading skills. One key skill is decoding; that is, deciphering the words on a page. In the beginning stages, decoding is not instantaneous. The child has to apply slow, careful attention as he or she figures out just what the word is “saying.” Failure to do so generally leads to looking at the first letter and guessing what the rest of the word might be. This end result is that accurate reading becomes unattainable.

Comprehension is another reading skill that requires a slow, thoughtful, diligent approach. Comprehension can take place only when the reader is willing and able to “listen” to the message that the writer has put on the page. When a child adopts a mode of “not waiting to listen,” effective reading comprehension fades from view. So, tolerance for fast, inattentive patterns of responding has major adverse effects on a child’s academic success. Conversely, the development of effective “listening” skills has major positive effects on a child’s academic success.

Here are some suggestions as to what you can do to foster this essential skill.

1. Start early. The preschool years—starting at about three years of age—are ideal for starting on the path to effective listening and attention. What you want to achieve are short periods of sustained attention in listening and responding to others. (Attention to high tech devices does not count towards this goal). For three year olds, reasonable periods might be three to five minutes. These can be gradually extended so that by the time a child is six, he or she is able to maintain a listening mode of interaction for periods up to 20 minutes.

2. Offer appropriate activities. As you might imagine, story telling is a wonderful activity for helping to achieve the goal of effective listening. However, it is by no means the only activity that is effective. Slow paced, playful conversation is another great resource. When children are learning language, they love nothing more than discussing ideas with important people in their lives. The key is to make sure that they have the opportunity not simply to express their ideas, but also to listen to and process the ideas you are offering.

3. Structure everyday routines to foster listening skills. In the to and fro of daily living, parents often set out a whole range of ideas without realizing the complexity of what is being said. For example, bedtime routines often have parents telling a child that “you have five more minutes on the computer and then you have to go up and get undressed because it is bath time” etc. This flow of language tends to lead a child to tune out. It is far more effective to state one idea at a time (e.g., “computer time is over”). If your child seems to ignore you, simply take his or her hands and wait. Silence –or more accurately, long pauses, can be extraordinarily helpful in developing listening skills. Then when the first idea has been executed, you apply the same procedures with each of the next details. When the interchange is structured in this way, it develops not only listening skills, but also smoother behavioral routines. It’s a win-win situation.

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