A Simple Way To Improve Listening

It’s a common complaint.

You give a direction and . . . nothing happens. Your students just sit there—like they didn’t hear a word you said. A few begin moving, perhaps, but slowly, even grudgingly. Others look at each other like, “Oh, are we supposed to do something?”

It can feel like you’re speaking a different language.

And once they do start inching and sighing their way toward doing what you asked, you have to cheer them on like a helicopter parent at a peewee soccer game.

You walk—or jog—alongside, cajoling, gesturing, clapping. You ramp up your energy and enthusiasm. You repeat yourself a half dozen times.

Troy! Troy! Get your head in the game! Troy! Troy! Hey Troy! Troy! Look over here! You can do it! You can do it, superstar! Just run up and kick . . . the . . . ball!

You get the picture.

Do this all day and you’ll be ready for a sofa and a cool washcloth over your eyes. Indeed, giving directions to an unresponsive class can make teaching remarkably, exasperatingly stressful.

But the solution isn’t so difficult. In fact, with just a few simple steps you can teach your students to listen and follow your directions the first—and only—time they’re given.

Here’s how:

Stand in one place.

Find a spot in your room where your students can see you without turning in their seats. Pause there a moment and ask for their attention. You’ll not only give your directions from here, but you’ll stay in this spot until they’re finished following them.

Give your directions once.

After receiving their quiet attention, give the directions you want them to follow one time—which is the key the strategy. Speak in a normal voice, erring on the side of too softly than too loudly.

Let them flounder.

The first time you use this strategy your students may struggle. How much they struggle will be an indicator of how bad things have gotten and how readily they disregard the sound of your voice. Go ahead and let them be confused and unsure of what to do.

Remain motionless.

Resist the urge to jump in and repeat yourself, cajole, or talk them through what you want them to do. Just stand in place and observe. Reveal nothing in terms of what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.

Let your leaders take over.

Slowly, leaders will emerge to either model for the others what to do or speak up and do the cajoling and repeating for you. This is good. Allow them to take on this responsibility.


Don’t move or say anything until they’re finished following your directions and quiet. Pause for 30 seconds or so to let the lesson sink in.

Give the next direction.

When you’re satisfied that all of the science folders are out on their desks, or whatever direction was given, give your next direction. The second time should be noticeably better—faster, sharper, and needing fewer leaders.

Continue giving directions once.

If the second direction went better than the first, then you’re on the right track. Go ahead and give another. Eventually, and as long as you’re giving directions only one time, you’ll be able to increase the complexity.

Make it practice in the beginning.

You may want your first foray into this directions-only-once strategy to be practice. Start slow. Ask your students to do one simple thing—like clear their desks. In time, your students will be able to follow multiple step directions with ease.

If the first time is a disaster . . .

If the first time you try this strategy your students are unable to get it completed (arguing, confusion, disharmony), that’s okay. All hope isn’t lost. Simply ask for and wait for their attention, then start over from the beginning. They’ll get it.

Why It Works

Students become poor listeners when they know they don’t have to listen.

You see, when they know you’ll repeat yourself and hold their hand through every direction and every lesson, they have no reason to listen.

When they haven’t been forced—or even allowed—to think for themselves, when they’re unburdened by any responsibility to pay attention, they tune out. They daydream. They let life happen to them.

It’s human nature.

But when you give directions only one time, and your students know that that’s all they’re getting, then they learn quite naturally, automatically even, to tune in to the sound of your voice.

They learn to listen for what you want.

And each time you use this strategy, which isn’t so much a strategy as the way things ought to be, more and more students will come on board. More and more students will become less dependent on you and more dependent on themselves.

Habits will change.

Maturity and independence will grow.

And listening will become a matter of routine.

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12 Responses to A Simple Way To Improve Listening

  1. Lawrence Brennan October 29, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Great strategy!

    • Michael Linsin October 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      Thanks Lawrence!


  2. Ryan November 1, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    “When they haven’t been forced—or even allowed—to think for themselves, when they’re unburdened by any responsibility to pay attention, they tune out. They daydream. They let life happen to them.”

    Yes, yes, yes!. Well put. Thanks for a helpful blog, Michael.

    • Michael Linsin November 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      You’re welcome, Ryan! And thanks for the compliment.


  3. Greg November 1, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    Another great article. I have read and reread Dream Class and it really is a blueprint for having a dream class. Your emails always come at just the right time. I am a veteran teacher and get so much out of your emails that I aplply the next day.However, I stopped getting them and when I tried to register it again it said I
    already have an account. Any advice? Also, what other educations books inspired you?

    • Michael Linsin November 2, 2012 at 6:41 am #

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for your kind words about Dream Class. I’m so glad you like the book. I tried responding to your email a few days ago and your email filter wouldn’t let it go through. I suspect that this is why you’re having problems receiving the newsletter. This isn’t unusual with a school district email account. I recommend changing the security settings, if possible, or signing up again using a personal email address. As for educational books I recommend, I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask. In order to keep the weekly articles pure and authentic, and to keep from muddling my thinking, I avoid reading professional books.


  4. Melody November 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    This is so true! It is a disaster at first, but it does get better when they realize you’re not going to repeat yourself. It takes time, and you have to be very consistent, but NOT listening the first time is the learned behavior!

  5. Ila March 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your
    weblog? My website is in the exact same area of interest
    as yours and my visitors would truly benefit from a lot of the information
    you present here. Please let me know if this okay with you.

    • Michael Linsin March 21, 2013 at 7:01 am #

      Hi lla,

      You may quote from articles, but not reprint them in their entirety. 🙂


  6. Shane August 29, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    This is Envoy. Every teacher should spend time with Envoy and invest in classroom management.

  7. Nancy Gesshel February 21, 2015 at 11:39 pm #

    My favorite strategy is the lining up and waiting in line. I see other teachers yelling at their students to get in line and of course, the students are not listening. I applied your technique. I just wait very calmly for my students to get it together. I think that my students take less time to get in line than the other classes. Of course, there is always the one child who will do anything for any kind of attention. I let the leaders take care of the situation. Sometimes peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

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