Listening for Basic Comprehension

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

The basic level of listening is not difficult, but it takes some skill. Developing listening skills is important for many different people from virtually all walks of life.


Have you ever caught yourself listening to someone and realized you've lost track of what they're saying? Don't you hate that? Listening skills are important in an increasingly complex world. Many of the instructions here will sound like they are for students, but anybody who communicates for any reason needs listening skills. The type of listening we will discuss here is the most basic level of understanding the main point of a speaker's topic, as well as information related to that main point.

Listening and Comprehending

At its most basic level, comprehension represents understanding. For the purposes of this lesson, it represents a solid grasp of a speaker's main points. Listening seems like the natural act of hearing someone speak - or otherwise communicate. However, that is 'hearing'. Listening is a skill that goes beyond simply being able to receive communication. The ability to listen is the ability to engage one's mind as well as one's physical senses. Let's look at the act of listening in a little more detail.

Passive Listening vs. Active Listening

When one thinks of listening to music to relax, one gets a sense of passively absorbing the music, allowing it to soothe away one's cares and worries. This manner of listening to music approximates what is called passive listening. The mind of the individual isn't focused upon what the ear is hearing. Rather, one's mind is relaxed and may be thinking about something else. Passive listening is fairly ineffective; passive listeners can miss half or more of what a speaker is saying.

Compare this to active listening, where the mind is digging out the meaning in each word or phrase that a speaker utters. People often take notes in order to help them recall the content of what they hear while engaged in active listening. The listener often maintains eye contact and is giving the speaker undivided attention. This type of listening is closest to what one uses in a classroom while trying to learn something entirely new or complex.

Active listening requires a lot of focus, while passive listening requires very little. Neither passive listening nor active listening really address the needs of a person listening for basic comprehension, but we can find a kind of focus that's in between that works better for our purposes.

Engagement and Listening

Engagement is a conscious process that goes on in the listener's head. While engaged with the material, the listener is constantly asking, 'What does this have to do with the topic?' or 'Why is the speaker talking about this?' Engagement helps the listener to focus on the overall message of the speaker as well as the main points of the speech. Engagement also helps tune out distractions or other factors that may use some of the brain's processing power.

Much engagement can come from within, asking oneself questions about the place of the speaker's thoughts in the overall conversation, however, one can also ask the speaker questions. It is up to the listener to ask questions to clarify the points made.

Distractions can often make engagement difficult. Distractions are things going on in the environment that make it hard to pay attention, like a nearby cell phone conversation. At the level of listening for comprehension, it is possible that some distractions may be acceptable, but too many and the listener can miss key words or entire thoughts.

Some types of engagement, like emotional engagement, can become distractions themselves. This is particularly true if the subject matter is controversial or personal. Angry people simply don't listen well. People can hear things colored by their emotions and miss a lot of what the speaker is saying.

Distractions can prove disastrous to your productivity.
A flashbang grenade labeled distraction device.

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