The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

Dyslexia is linked to voice recognition

Dyslexics have trouble recognizing voices, say MIT researchers in a study published in last week’s Science. That suggests the reading problem also is a “problem with how the brain processes speech and puts together words from smaller units of sound,” reports the New York Times.

Adults listened to recorded voices speaking English or an unfamiliar language, Mandarin.  Non-dyslexics matched voices to English-speaking avatars 70 percent of the time and to Mandarian-speaking avatars half the time.  Dyslexics matched voices half the time in both English and Mandarin.

(Cogntive scientist John) Gabrieli said the findings underscored a critical problem for dyslexic children learning to read: the ability of a child hearing, say, a parent or teacher speak to connect the auditory bits that make up words, called phonemes, with the sight of written words.

If a child has trouble grasping the sounds that make up language, he said, acquiring reading skills will be harder.

The research shows that spoken language deficiencies persist even when dyslexics learn to read well. The study subjects were mostly “high-functioning, high-I.Q. young adults who had overcome their reading difficulty,” Dr. Gabrieli said. “And yet when they had to distinguish voices, they were not one iota better with the English-language voices that they’ve heard all their life.”

Reading involves a “circuit, the ability to have all of those components integrated absolutely automatically,” said Maryanne Wolf, a dyslexia expert at Tufts University. “One of the great weaknesses in dyslexia is that the system is not able to integrate these phoneme-driven systems” with other aspects of language comprehension.