Create a listening atmosphere

Everyone knows how to listen ... don't they?

Well, yes and no. We live in a society dominated by the visual image. Children and young people in particular are used to receiving and interpreting the world through images, thanks to TV, DVD and computer games. Even an aural medium like pop and rock music is incomplete without the accompanying video. Perhaps we are losing the habit of listening well?

As many teachers will testify, it can be difficult to get a class to focus on listening. No wonder the Government has made "listening skills" a national priority.

What about visuals?

When concentration levels are low and your class is restless, something visual - whether it's a photograph, a sketch, a diagram on the whiteboard - can help support learning.

But when it's a poem you're listening to, pictures can be a distraction. Poetry calls for a special, intense kind of listening, and when you're listening like this you make your own pictures in your imagination, and the beauty of them is that they are different from the pictures in your friend's head even though you're sitting together and listening to the same words.

We could have provided all sorts of images and illustrations to go with the poems on the Archive. We make no apology for our decision not to do this. We offer the most relevant visual information: the text of the poem, some background information, a photograph of the poet. If you or your pupils want to look at other context material, we know you'll track down suitable images elsewhere on the internet. But our mission is to get you listening.

Getting ready to listen

Here are a few tips for creating a good listening atmosphere in your classroom:

  • Don't rush - this is an activity that requires a change of pace. Allow enough time to establish proper stillness and quiet before you play the recording.
  • Put notebooks and pens away so that nobody's fiddling. Making notes while listening to a poem - at least on the first listen - is not a good idea.
  • People can't stay still if they're not comfortable. Take time to move chairs or to get young children sitting on the carpet.
  • Ask for silence and play a listening game. Can your class get quiet enough to hear a pin drop? How many different sounds can they hear in the room? Elsewhere in the school? In the street outside? Beyond?
  • Try this meditation technique: spend a few minutes sitting very still with your eyes closed and listening to your own breathing. Notice how it sounds when you breathe in, and when you breathe out. Don't change it or force it, just listen. If your mind wanders, don't get annoyed, just bring it back to your breathing.
  • Suggest pupils close their eyes as they listen.
  • Listen more than once. You may want to set a specific task (eg "listen out for the rhymes"), but don't rush at this, and don't do it on the first listen. Most poems are short - you can afford to hear them several times, and you'll get much more out of them that way.
  • Try preceding or follow the poem with music... but choose carefully: music creates a mood which may be at odds with the poem.
  • Build up a listening habit: start or finish each lesson by listening to a poem.
  • Let pupils choose: take it in turns to explore the Archive and select a poem to play to classmates.
  • Listen just for pleasure. Listening does not always have to be followed by a task.

Things to listen for

On the second or third listen, you might sometimes want to ask your pupils to identify specific features of the poem. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Is there rhyme in the poem? Does it occur in a predictable pattern? If you can't hear full rhyme, try listening out for half-rhyme or assonance.
  • What other sound-effects can you hear? If there's alliteration or onomatopoeia, why do you think the poet chose to put it there?
  • Is there repetition? A kind of chorus or refrain? What effect does this have? 
  • See if you can hear where the line-breaks or the stanza-breaks are.
  • Pick out any words which are unfamiliar to you. Can you guess the meaning from their context?
  • Whose voice is speaking in the poem? Who is being addressed?
  • What tense is used in the poem? Do you notice any changes of tense?
  • What would you say is the mood or tone of the poem? How does it make you feel?


Term of the day

Increase your wordpower!


a unit of metre, consisting of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables.


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