How To Speak So Students Listen

Smart Classroom Management: How To Speak So Students ListenIt’s common for teachers to bemoan the state of listening in their classroom.

Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself.”

I say it over and over again, and they still don’t get it.”

It’s almost as if they’ve completely tuned me out.”

But rarely will they point to themselves as the reason.

Rarely will they look inward and analyze their own practice.

They assume that students either listen well or they don’t, and that they have little to do about it.

But the truth is, you have a profound effect on listening.

Consistency, temperament, likability, clarity, presentation skills, and even tidiness are all important factors.

There are also strategies that can improve listening almost instantaneously, which you can find in our archive.

But one of the most important factors is how you speak when giving directions. What follows are three simple changes that can make a big difference.

1. Talk less.

Most teachers talk too much. Their voice is a looping soundtrack to every day—reminding, warning, micromanaging, and guiding students through every this and that.

If you cut the amount of talking you do by a third, and focus only on what your students need to know, then what you say will have greater impact.

Your words will reach their intended destination, and your students will begin tuning you in rather than tuning you out.

2. Lower your voice.

It’s common to increase your volume to get students to listen better. But a loud voice is unpleasant and too easy to hear. It causes them to look away and busy themselves with other things.

When you lower your voice, however, and speak just loud enough for students in the back of the room to hear, they instinctively lean in. They stop moving and rustling.

They read your lips, facial expressions, and body language. By requiring a small amount of effort, your students will listen more intently.

3. Stop repeating.

When you repeat the same directions over and over, you train your students not to listen to you the first time. You encourage apathy and lighten their load of responsibility.

Saying it once creates urgency. It motivates action and causes students to stay locked in to the sound of your voice.

It also invests them in their learning. They begin to understand that education isn’t something that is done to them. Rather, it’s something they go out and get for themselves.

Stay The Course

If you’re struggling with listening, the above strategies will do wonders. At first, however, they may cause things to get worse.

Because your students have grown accustomed to you taking on the burden for their listening, they may very well ignore you.

They may become even slower to action.

This is normal. It tells you how far learned helplessness has taken root in your classroom. But once they feel the shift in responsibility from you to them, they’ll begin to change.

They’ll begin looking at you, tracking your movements, and anticipating what you want them to do next.

They’ll begin nodding their heads and eagerly completing your directions.

They’ll become empowered to do for themselves because responsibility feels good. It’s important. It fills with pride.

It makes good listeners.

If you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving new-article updates in your email box every week.


33 Responses to How To Speak So Students Listen

  1. Nick January 23, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m a high school and jr. high music teacher, and I’ve been using your principles to great effect over the past two years. They’ve totally transformed my classroom. This post brings to mind a different struggle I’ve been having related to answering questions. I use popsicle sticks with names to call on non-volunteers, and some students often need the question repeated to them after I’ve called on them, which means the point of calling on non-volunteers is lost. I don’t want to lecture them on the importance of paying attention (we all know that does no good), but I also don’t want to make it okay to be zoned out. Any ideas? Enforce a consequence for breaking the “pay attention and follow directions” rule? Thanks, and keep up the great work!

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

      Hi Nick,

      I like the strategy and am planning on writing about it in the future. The key to making it work at the high school level is attaching a portion of their grade/daily credit to listening. I hope to cover this in detail in an ebook for high school teachers I’m planning to write this summer.


  2. Jessica Jungbluth January 23, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    Thank you Michael! This seems like a pretty simple but effective way to encourage listening! When applying this method at the beginning of a school year would you verbally state how you will communicate (ie. Warn your class that you will only give instructions once) or would you suggest to let the students figure it out themselves?

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      Hi Jessica,

      I think it’s always a good idea to be up front with students. So, yes, letting them know ahead of time is just good teaching.


  3. Amanda January 23, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    So what do you do instead of repeating yourself? If a student asks you about something you just said? Or if they clearly didn’t understand?

    Maybe stop everything and rephrase it or ask a reliable student to rephrase it? Or is there another technique?

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

      Hi Amanda,

      If a student asks a clarifying question, this is a good thing. It should be encouraged. It this case, yes, you can repeat yourself to that particular student or say it in another way. Asking a fellow student to rephrase the direction works also. There is more to this topic (what to do instead or if students don’t understand) that you can find in the Attentiveness category of the archive.


  4. Emily January 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    Michael, I’ve used these techniques effectively, yet I see schools and even individual classrooms boasting speaker and microphone systems at elementary levels, declaring they make the teachers louder and thus getting the kids to listen and thus learn. To me these almost defeat the purpose of getting kids to listen. What are your thoughts on such sound systems?

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

      I agree, Emily. Although, I think they can be helpful for teachers who experience voice strain. They may also actually encourage some teachers to soften their voice.


  5. Sharon January 23, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    Do you think these strategies can work on students in Early Childhood Education…say grades prek 3 and up to 1st grade?

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

      Hi Sharon,

      Yes, I do.


  6. Amanda January 23, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

    Thank you! Your emails and archives have been very helpful for me!

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

      You’re welcome, Amanda! It’s my pleasure.


  7. Cs January 23, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    Hi, I also use the popsticle idea for my first grade students, who would not readily voluntair, what will be a good way to make them accountable for not knowing what was asked? I.e. not listening/participating

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 7:09 pm #

      Hi Cs,

      I’ll include the answer to your question when I write about the topic in the future. Stay tuned. 🙂


  8. Princess January 23, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

    Hi Michael! I’m in my first year of teaching and I literally struggled to get through my first three months in terms of classroom management and student discipline.

    Students even tell me that I’m too kind hence their behavior towards me. Am I to be blamed of their behavior? A part of my thinks that they’re right. I’m planning on changing my strategy next school year because, like what you’ve pointed out, they’ve grown accustomed to it (the loud voice — though I also call the attention of the inattentive students during recitations and it’s effective, so far) and I’ve also found a way to manage the stress I’m getting from their behavior.

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m definitely going to try them next school year. Too kind is as bad as too strict. I’m still trying to improve my teaching methods as I am really new to this. I’m definitely going to read more of your posts after having read this one.

    Again, thank you for sharing. Very, very helpful.

    • Michael Linsin January 24, 2016 at 8:42 am #

      You’re welcome, Princess. You’ll get there. 🙂


  9. Laura January 25, 2016 at 11:48 am #

    I am a first year middle school teacher and have really struggled with classroom management, especially with my 8th graders who constantly misbehave and test me by their disrespectful and defiant behaviors. I read your book, which was really helpful, but I still have a question. I have one boy who tests me everyday. I discipline him and give him consequences. I have emailed home dozens of times and his parents never respond to me. My administrators support me but don’t do anything else to discipline him. (I think he should have all school privileges taken away, and I think he should have been suspended for something he did a few months ago.) This boy doesn’t care about the consequences and doesn’t seem to have any motivation to change his ways. It is so difficult and makes it impossible to teach sometimes. Do you have any advice?

    • Michael Linsin January 26, 2016 at 7:45 am #

      Hi Laura,

      This is a topic I hope to cover in a future ebook for middle and high school teachers. There are just to many moving parts to address it here. It does involve, however, tying his behavior into his academic grade, as well as a few other strategies.


  10. Adriana January 25, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m an elementary school music teacher in the Bronx and I started using your techniques in about October. I’ve had a huge improvement in behavior across the board but I have one 5th grade class that has remained a constant battle. There are 4 or 5 students with severe behavior issues (ignore teacher directions, scream and swear at each other and teachers) and this class in particular is a huge problem for every teacher that works with them. Because of that, they are screamed at all day long and so when I choose to not scream and use a calmer voice, enforce consequences, etc, it doesn’t seem to register since they aren’t being screamed at.

    Of course theres the challenge of only seeing them twice a week, but any other suggestions on how to make that class calmer and more functional?

    So grateful for your website and resources!

    • Michael Linsin January 26, 2016 at 7:54 am #

      Hi Adriana,

      This is a tough one to answer without more details. I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction. Typically, if you’re following the guidelines in Classroom Management for Art, Music, and PE Teachers, and I were coaching you, I’d advise you to attack the problem in a way that curbs their behavior one student at a time. It’s their misbehavior collectively that feeds each individually. As for how to do that, I don’t have the time or space to explain it here. It may not even fit in an article, but I’ll keep it in mind for the future.


  11. eli February 1, 2016 at 4:15 am #

    Hello Michael,

    I have been reading your page for half a year. I am a young teacher on my first year and I am encountering most if not all of the problems you say related to bad classroom management. My case is a bit strange: I am teaching a mother-language to kids who live permanently in another country. I have in my 3 classrooms children from different ages (6 and 8, 10 and 12) and levels of learning, who are also highly unmotivated, come to the lesson basically only because their parents want them to (and begrudgingly) and have been badly behaving in all previous years. I am separating every classroom in two groups and explain what they have to do, but when I go to the other group they raise their hands for questions and talk with each other. I am running up and down all the time and telling them to wait. The whole time gets wasted in telling people to be quiet so that I can do some lesson with the other group. Some of them can barely speak, and some others know the language better and get bored when I attempt to do something with the whole class, and they overwhelm the less-good students.
    I have made a bad start by being complacent, not enforcing consequences and not being too strict with them. Now I am stressed out and start feeling indifferent towards the students, which is not good. Is there a way to reverse the situation in the classroom, in the middle of the year? Would you have some tips on such “multigrade” classrooms?

    Your suggestions and articles are all very helpful for teachers! Thank you so much!

    • Michael Linsin February 1, 2016 at 7:56 am #

      Hi Eli,

      My best advice is to start over from the beginning by reintroducing your classroom management, explaining and practicing routines (which include what they are to expect while being in a multi-grade classroom), and committing to being consistent. As for motivation, this is a topic I’m covering completely in my new book, The Happy Teacher Habits, which will be out in May 2016.


  12. Janell Chang February 5, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Hi Micael,

    I have been teaching for 14 years, and I have been using these techniques for a while now. It is amazing to see what happens when I stay calm in the classroom and I expect them to listen the first time I give directions. My teaching strategies have also evolved over the years, and now I do less talking and do not micromanage the class. I allow my students to figure things out for themselves more often than not, and they usually do. All these changes to my teaching strategies has impacted my classroom. I feel I have more responsible students because I am allowing them to take ownership of their education. The techniques you have given in this article are proven ways to do just that.

    • Michael Linsin February 6, 2016 at 9:01 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Janell. It’s great to hear about your improvement.


  13. Gav February 7, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

    The problem I encounter with not repeating is that I am teaching ESL in China and j think that not repeating is inevitable. The children will all say they don’t understand. So do you think that this is still applicable for ESL students?

    • Michael Linsin February 8, 2016 at 7:47 am #

      Hi Gav,

      If they ask you to repeat yourself because they don’t understand due to a language issue, then no. Repeating yourself is a smart thing to do.


  14. Stacia March 2, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    I agree with this method. I teach first grade and I only give drections one time. I have assignned jobs for the week and one of them is the repeater. They must repeat the directions for students who did not hear them the first time.

  15. Deborah April 16, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

    Something unexpected happened in my classroom. I teach elementary art and the day of our art show I got laryngitis. The day after I had to teach classes. I did so through body language, silently mouthing words writing on board and paper notes I would hold up and grand gesturing. What happened is that the kids had to work hard to know what I was communicating. It was like a game and they loved it. My classes were never so attentive and quiet from K-5. I am still unable to speak, but when I am better, I wonder how I could capitalize on this happy accident. Any ideas?

    • Michael Linsin April 16, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

      Hi Deborah,

      I’ve written about this to some degree. (See articles on silent modeling, talking less, speaking softer, and pausing.) I’ll be sure to cover it more–including ideas on your experience–in the future.


  16. Hadi May 21, 2016 at 1:38 am #

    Hi dear Michael
    I’m really honored to be familiar with you and your informative articles. They are really beneficial for me as I am an English teacher I apply them in my classroom. I wanna request you to send me a copy of your book (Class Management) in pdf format because in our country (Iran) we don’t have facility of credit card to buy it through internet.
    Best regard

  17. Carrie Devine October 21, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    I need help desperately! I have been trying your ideas however, I don’t have just one or two students that are disrespectful and don’t care to listen….I have 16 out of the 21 students in my class. They encourage each other to be rude, disrespectful and disruptive. I can ask for their attention all day long and they will ignore me, make comments or yell out inappropriate things. I am ready to quit my job and I have been teaching 23 years! i have never had a class like this. Ignoring their behavior is NOT an option, giving time out would mean sending them out every 5 minutes because they don’t care, sending notes home is useless: the parents don’t care either. The administration offers no support other than having the kids sit our of specials for a day or two, which they could care less about.
    How is it possible to change 16 students behavior at one time?

    • Michael Linsin October 22, 2016 at 7:51 am #

      Hi Carrie,

      You’ve lost control of your class and must start over from the beginning. We do have articles on this topic on the website. You may also want to consider personal coaching. Click the link along the menu bar for more information.