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I'm Listening, But I Don't Understand"(1)

by Dr. Marion Blank

A dedicated teacher had set aside some invaluable, individual tutoring time with one of her junior high students who was struggling with social studies. She structured the session by presenting relatively short segments of information and then immediately checking by asking the student some questions aimed at seeing if he understood what she had said.

The teenager always responded but his answers were variable. At times, they were correct; at other times, they were totally off the mark. Finally, the teacher said, "You have to listen!" At that point, the student looked up and plaintively said, "I'm listening but I don't understand." With those seven words, this youngster summed up the days and lives of so many, many students. They are not resisting the system; they are trying the best they know how --only to find their efforts resulting in total confusion.

What can we do to help?

Problems of "not understanding," are at their heart, problems in language. The language of many subjects--history, biology, mathematics, chemistry, and on and on--involve levels of words and meaning that exist nowhere else in the students' lives. And typically, it doesn't matter if it is spoken or written. Essentially it is a foreign language--with no one offering the keys to uncover the code.

There is no simple solution to a problem of this scope. But there are lots of things that can be done to make a difference. What I am planning to do is to offer, over a range of entries, a variety of remedies. This entry offers the first recommendation -- hence, the (1) in the title.

A key skill that the children need is what might be termed "attentive listening." By this, I mean, being precisely aware of the words that we are using--as opposed to simply using the words. You can get a sense of the difference between "using" and "awareness" by considering the following question--What is the sixth word in the Happy Birthday song? There you have it! You have probably sung and heard that songs dozens, if not hundreds, of times. The words flow easily from your tongue. But being fully aware of the words is another matter altogether.

To help your youngster develop this awareness, you might try the following: Create a sentence that is fairly long (relative to your child's ability). Let's say the sentence is, "This month is November and we are going to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday." (The words in bold are ones that you are going to ask your child is fill in. You do this by saying the words up to the first fill-in (i.e., This month is ) and then pause and wait for your child to fill in the blank. Then you go on and give the next segment and so on until it is completed. Then say to your child, "Now say the whole thing." If he or she cannot--and this means recalling each and every word perfectly, start again from the beginning.

Remember, you are doing this activity precisely because your child has some problems in this area. So it is only to be expected that things will not go perfectly. For example, if your child cannot come up with a word, what can you do? The answer is "Supply it," but then have your child repeat what you have said before proceeding on. On the other hand, your child may come up with a word that fits even though it is not the one you had thought of. For example, your child may use have instead of celebrate. That is fine. If the word fits the meaning, accept it and move on.

You should expect each sentence to take several tries before totally complete, accurate recall takes place. If that many tries are not needed, it's likely that the level is too easy and no real progress will be made. So keep in mind that it will take some time to find the right length of sentence for your child. And remember to write down all your sentences in advance --so that the session moves as smoothly as possible.

Aim for about three to four sessions a week with each session containing about five sentences. The entire "exercise" should not take more than about ten minutes. You can also make the content more appealing by including some jokes or puns among the sentences to be recalled. There are lots of other questions that may come up and if they do, feel free to write and ask about them.

The technique is remarkably age-friendly. You can use if with children from four years on up. Children that young, of course, are not facing the rigors of the history and science. But by starting at this age, you are laying the foundation that will prevent the "I'm listening but I don't understand" syndrome from every taking hold.

If you make this a regular part of your "quality time" with your child, you will be amazed at the improvements that you will see taking place in your child's speaking and listening abilities. .

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned authority on how children learn to read with over 40 years experience in the field. She is the creator of the Phonics Plus Five reading & wrting program available for sale on her site. To read more articles by Dr. Blank, please visit her blog and join her newsletter.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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