I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. – Larry King

Teachers often assume that students – regardless of their age – know how to listen.

That is not a good assumption.

How often does one begin instruction on technical materials, only to realize that the group is lost, not understanding what is being said? At that point, the choice is to proceed and leave some students behind, or back up and master the basics. Either choice is costly.

Teaching students to listen effectively needs to start early, with specific, explicit, strategic methods that allow practice and feedback. The skills need to be reinforced during middle and high school years as a student skill set so that precious time is not lost later retrenching material that should have been mastered earlier. For Latino students, learning specific listening skills is key to academic success, particularly when English is a second language. But even when English is not an issue, listening skills can mean the difference between succeeding or struggling in an educational system that relies upon conveying information primarily via lecture.

Start with “top-down strategies.” With these listener-based tactics, the student approaches new information by first orienting himself according to what he already knows about the topic, anchoring himself with what is familiar, then interpreting and building new information upon that base. With this approach, the student can listen for the main idea, predict what will come next, draw inferences to generalize and expand what is being learned, and summarize to pull the material together meaningfully. Adult learners and Hispanic students are often most comfortable with top-down approaches since context is key to anchoring learning and new experiences.

Bottom-up strategies are more commonly used in traditional classroom instruction, with the student relying on the text or language to create meaning. Instead of beginning with what they know as the base of new learning, the student must develop new concepts by listening for details, recognizing relationships between words and organizing the information meaningfully. These approaches more readily lose students for whom language or listening are challenges. Overwhelmed by the language or listening alone, building the constructs becomes increasingly harder and more discouraging, resulting in a student’s low performance or dropping out.

Teaching Latino students to use both top-down and bottom-up strategies is key to helping them function in traditional higher education while making new information meaningful to what they already know. An overview, for example, will provide the student with a general map of what is being covered in either an entire course or a specific lesson. Given that orientation, a student who also knows bottom-up strategies can then build a technical vocabulary and acquire new facts and concepts from the text or lecture. This practical, strategic approach uses context first, then content. A skilled instructor working with Latino and adult or other nontraditional students can switch between the two approaches, assuring that people feel anchored in what they know, then checking if the new material gained via text and lecture is being retained. With testing and feedback, teacher and student alike will know what areas require strengthening and which approach to use to master them.

Regardless of one’s grade or academic level, four steps can help students strengthen classroom listening skills. First, determine the purpose for listening. Gaining an overview requires one strategy, and learning specific details requires another. Figure out which strategy to use at the outset for any given lecture or assignment requiring listening. Listen for relevant points given the purpose. If acquiring broad concepts is the goal, minimize attention to detail. If vocabulary and technical specificity are the goals, hone in on the details and check back on the “big picture” occasionally to make sure the material remains anchored in learning. Move between top-down and bottom-up strategies flexibly, listening for the big picture and small details interchangeably, depending on the focus and purpose of the lecture or assignments. Discussion and quizzes can provide ongoing feedback to determine whether the strategies are working and which adjustments in approach are needed.

Teaching Latino students specific, structured listening skills prepares them to succeed in the classroom or boardroom, personally and professionally. It is a fundamental skill that is key to the many others we expect them to learn.