Listening Comprehension Matters

This week I have committed myself to reading at least one shift we can make in our literacy instruction from Jan Burkins and Kari Yates book, Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.

Burkins and Yates share that one shift we need to make is to provide more opportunities for children to use and develop oral language. This makes so much sense as we think about the importance of storytelling in the early literacy classroom as well as providing opportunities for talk to happen in order for language skills to grow. Listening comprehension consists of 3 of the 4 processing systems in the brain: phonological, meaning, and context processing systems. Therefore, strong listening comprehension does affect reading comprehension and should be a focus in our classrooms. The fourth processing system, orthographic, is the added layer for reading comprehension which includes children being able to decode print in order to read it back and make meaning. Therefore, for the ultimate goal of reading comprehension to exist we must have both word reading and listening comprehension – this equals the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). By 8th grade most comprehension problems are due to limited language skills, not decoding. Therefore an emphasis on listening comprehension, beyond the some of the beginning texts kids read in grades K-2 is essential. In beginning level text, comprehension may seem fine, yet when entering into more complex texts in grades 3 and above, we may see a noticeable difference and a problem that we didn’t see previously emerges.

So, what does this mean?


As I think about their suggestions, I am left thinking about what experiences are we utilizing in the classroom currently where we can enhance oral language development. A few thoughts…

  1. Listening comprehension goes beyond following two step directions – it is more than procedural.
  2. Oral storytelling and use of oral language should be a part of early literacy assessments and observed/assessed over time.
  3. Stop treating science and social studies as secondary to learning to read and write. Science and Social Studies give us content language to develop oral language and listening comprehension. Including a content focus builds background knowledge and strong vocabulary.
  4. Classroom structures such as community circle are a key time to develop oral language – specifically a time to repeat and expand on what kids are saying.
  5. The interactive read aloud is a powerful tool to introduce more complex text to students and provide time to talk to develop listening comprehension.
  6. Children need to have BOTH rich text exposure and decodable texts at a young age. Knowing listening comprehension is developed at a young age and is a part of the four part processing system a balance of texts needs to be included in a child’s reading diet.
  7. Utilizing independent reading in ways that our youngest readers are talking to each other is important. How are we developing oral language during independent reading? What do partnerships look like? What role do es storytelling play? How might we use puppets and role play during this time?
  8. Be intentional with the language we use – utilizing the academic vocabulary and what something is called is important. Do not water down the language.
  9. Small shifts can happen to be more intentional about language use and it doesn’t have to take a lot of resources.

Intentionally supporting oral language development will help with reading comprehension. It is just a piece to the puzzle but a very important one if a child is going to be able to read. It is a part of the Simple View of Reading and the components are further defined in Scarborough’s Reading Rope when thinking about what lies under comprehension: background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Yet, adding the orthographic processing system is just as equally important.

So when you hear the “Science of Reading” proponents and the “Balanced Literacy” proponents argue the importance of word reading and making meaning (typically science of reading lean more towards word reading and balanced literacy more towards meaning making) – both are right. Both of these are important. The dichotomy that you either do word recognition or comprehension instruction is a false choice. Let’s not treat it as an either/or but as a both/and. Let’s recognize what we know about how the brain learns to read and use that in the classroom.

I look forward to writing more over the next few days as I continue to learn about shifts we can make in our classrooms to align more with how the brain learns to read.

3 thoughts on “Listening Comprehension Matters

  1. Thank you for sharing this post! I am also a believer in oral storytelling as a form of writing. When students use the speech to text function on their phone, their words magically appear in print! That’s a great place to build a writer! 😊

  2. Thank you for sharing this slice. I am a proponent of oral storytelling to build writers as well. Students who use the function on their cell phone that converts speech to text magically see their words appear in print and this is a great way to build writers!

  3. Thank you for this post. I JUST finished reading the book and was debating using it for a grad class this summer….I think it fuels some good discussion and debate!

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