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Whole-Body Listening Updated

Applications of this active-listening lesson for children often omit key points

It has been 23 years since “Whole-Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills” was published in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Since then, many applications of these listening lessons have emerged in classrooms and therapy rooms.

Books and materials – creative coloring pages, worksheets, diagrams and wall posters – on Whole-Body Listening have been published on educators’ and parenting websites and blogs.

These diagrams, unfortunately, often omit the most critical part of Whole-Body Listening, the brain. Correspondingly, the instruction to think about what the speaker is saying may be missing or too abbreviated.

When we ask someone to think about what we are saying, we are in essence asking for the listener’s brain to be connected, tuned-in, to the spoken message. In other words, we are asking the listener to put his or her mind to ours as we speak.

Linking the listener’s mind to the speaker’s words is a key to active listening.  This direct request guides a child to learn how to listen, and therefore, how to attend by developing and practicing active listening.  As children’s attention spans naturally increase with their development, their active listening skills have more opportunity for growth through the reinforcement of practice.

It is important to be clear and use the correct description of listening with the brain. Often we abbreviate sentences to form catchphrases that are easy to remember. It is best not to shorten this cue to “The brain is thinking,” as seen on many diagrams and in preset poems based on Whole-Body Listening.

Children need a careful, but simple explanation: “My brain is thinking about what the speaker is saying.”

This can help engage a child’s attention to listen, reducing daydreaming or thinking of things entirely disconnected from the speaker. Shortened to “My brain is thinking,” a child might assume that thinking about anything is listening with the brain, and delight in thinking of a new computer game, what the family dog is doing, and the list goes on.

Thinking as Tangible Action

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Susanne Poulette Truesdale, MS in Ed, CCC-SLP, visits first graders to review Whole-Body Listening. photo courtesy Matilda Barry

The point of Whole-Body Listening is for each body part to be tangible enough for a child to have some degree of control, even if for a short time.

A typical child can identify with his or her eyes, mouth, hands, feet, and seat. This gives them concrete, purposeful, doing behaviors in order to listen. The brain concept, the most important part of Whole-Body Listening, is less concrete, but provides a tool for listening and attending.

For example, if we ask a child to think of a dog, he or she would probably form some mental image or idea of a dog from previous experience. This presumes, of course, that a child has sufficient developmental ability to control what he or she is thinking.

Whole-Body Listening is meant to be simple enough for kindergarteners and first graders to understand. The lessons in the original article were developed with the ideas, comments, questions, and problem-solving of first semester, first-grade speech-and-language-impaired children working with the author. The children in this group demonstrated periods of control over their eyes, mouths, hands, feet, and seats.

With instruction and concrete cues, the children worked to manage what they thought about as they listened. Listening with the brain then provided a conscious doing behavior.

Difference between Listening & Hearing

The original Whole-Body Listening article did not include the heart as one of the parts of the body in learning how to listen. This was apparently added later as a creative proponent of Whole-Body Listening.

It has been explained that adding the heart signifies listening as a caring and polite act that teaches children to listen respectfully. Some professionals use this pleasant concept in teaching social language skills, which is a different goal. But as a listening goal, can we suppose that children have tangible control over their hearts? The heart doesn’t link to a doing behavior, such as thinking of a certain item, or managing the eyes, mouth, hands , and seat.

It is important to understand that when children use the Whole-Body Listening, as first described in 1990, then, they are listening respectfully. Bryant H. McGill wrote, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

If the goal is to teach to children listening skills – that is, how to listen – then it is advisable to begin with the tangible doing behaviors with corresponding parts of the body.

Similarly the original article did not include the ears as a part of Whole-Body Listening because children cannot carry out a physical action, or actively do something with their ears, unless they are very talented and can wiggle them.

The lesson in the original article states, “When we hear a sound, we use our ears. When we try very hard to listen, we need to use more than our ears. We also listen with our brain, eyes, mouth, hands, feet, and even our seat!” Thus, the difference between hearing and listening is introduced.

Cautions to Consider

There are two important cautions to consider when using Whole-Body Listening lessons with students.

First, we need to be cognizant of children’s developmental readiness in terms of attention span.  At any age, we do not expect full Whole-Body Listening for lengthy periods, although we would greatly appreciate it. Expectations should be carefully considered with a child’s developmental level in mind.

Second is the concern for children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. “Listening with the eyes,” which is essentially eye contact, should be modified or deleted depending on the child’s individual needs and goals. Sensitivity, application of current knowledge of ASD , and professional judgment govern this part of Whole-Body Listening.

Colleagues are encouraged to continue using the tools of Whole-Body Listening; to be creative and share their success with colleagues in order to enrich the lives of children with better listening in academic and social milieus.


Resources

Barrick, W. (2000). Whole-body listening: Throughout the elementary school years. ADVANCE for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 10 (24): 12.

Merkel-Piccini, R. (2001). Listening to Learn. Super Duper Handy Handouts, #16, http://www.superduperinc.com, Super Duper Publications.

Palacio, M. (2000). Whole-body listening: Simple approach to building preschool skills. ADVANCE for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 10 (12): 6-7.

Santore, F. (2006). Sounds in motion: Phonemic awareness. ADVANCE, 16 (34): 10-11, 42.

Truesdale, S. P. (1990). Whole-body listening: Developing active auditory skills. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 21: 183-184.

Wilson, Kristen, & Sautter, Elizabeth. (2011). Whole-body listening Larry at school. San Jose: Think Social Publishing Inc.

Zollner, K. (2003). Whole-body listening program benefits students. ADVANCE for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 13(30): 4.


Susanne Poulette Truedale, introduced Whole-Body Listening with her paper “Whole-Body Listening: Developing Active Auditory Skills” in 1990 in Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools. She is a retired school-based speech-language pathologist based in upstate New York.