top of page

Helping Students Become Better Listeners During Math Class:

A Conversation with Kathy Seckington, Poway Teacher

Why is listening an important habit in math class? I recently posed this question to my friend and colleague Kathy Seckington. Kathy is currently teaching fifth grade in the Poway Unified School District and was one of the district’s math coaches a few years back. Kathy and her grade level partners use Sean Covey’s (son of Stephen Covey) The 7 Habits of Happy Kids (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2008) and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens (Touchstone Books, 1998) as models for teaching their students how to become better listeners.

Kathy had lots to say about the importance of listening skills, and her ideas really resonated with me as a math teacher. “Careful listening”, Kathy said, “is key to understanding math concepts. To critique the reasoning of others, students need to be good listeners.” Kathy also mentioned how important listening is to teachers in their efforts to assess their students and understand their reasoning when solving problems.

Because listening is so important in math class, and because listening is so difficult for students (and adults!), Kathy and her colleagues explicitly teach their students how to be good listeners. They begin by sharing the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Fifth Graders. The seven habits are part of a larger unit of study, but here we’ll focus on habit 5, which is all about listening.

Focusing on Habit 5: Listening to People Sincerely

Kathy starts by asking her students why listening is important. Then she shows them a slide titled, “5 Poor Listening Styles” and the class discusses what they are and what they sound and look like. The kids come up with their own definitions because they know and have engaged in poor listening themselves. “Word listening” was one I couldn’t figure out, and Kathy explained that it’s when we just focus on a few words that someone is saying without really paying attention to anything else.

Listening Activity

To give students practice listening to others, Kathy models for the class the following activity with a student:


•Partner with someone near you

•One of you will be the speaker, the other the artist (then switch roles)

•Speaker: Do not tell the listener what they will be drawing, only provide directions on what kinds of lines to draw

•Speaker: Select one of the following drawings to describe:

You can also do this activity using Pattern Blocks. One student builds a shape with some blocks, and then gives oral directions (or signs if students are deaf or hard of hearing) so their partner can reproduce the shape.

Mirroring Activity

One of her students’ favorite listening activity is called “Mirroring.” Kathy uses the following slide to lead a discussion on what “mirroring” is:

Kathy then models the activity with a student while the class looks on:

Kathy: So how did math class go today?

Partner: Well, the lesson was pretty hard for me and I felt a little lost.

Kathy: It sounds like you were feeling confused by the math.

Partner: Yeah. I wish the problems were a little easier for me.

Kathy: So, what you’re saying is that doing easier problems might have helped you.

Partner: Yes! Like if I could have done some of the fraction problems that we did yesterday it would have been easier.

After modeling, Kathy asks the class what they notice. Students notice that Kathy rephrases what her partner says, but not exactly with the same words. They also notice that Kathy is kind and maintains good eye contact. They also notice that Kathy nods as her partner speaks. The mirroring exercise helps students focus on what their partner is saying. This form of active listening also gives students practice showing empathy.

Next, Kathy has her students partner up and practice mirroring. She provides the following sentence starters to help the listener mirror their partner.

Kathy told me that her students love to do the mirroring activity. The students like being listened to, and it gives them time to express their ideas in detail without feeling rushed, judged, or corrected.

Levels of Listening

According to Stephen Covey, there are 5 levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring listening

  2. Pretending listening

  3. Selective listening

  4. Attentive listening

  5. Empathic listening

For a more in-depth look at the levels, go to:

Kathy helps her students understand the different levels and has them come up with their own definitions, sort of like a rubric. Throughout the year, as she circulates and observes her students at work during math class, she’ll find herself asking them, “What level of listening should we be practicing now?” Kathy will often hear students rephrase one another during their class conversations, practicing the skills they’ve learned. With a laugh, Kathy also shared that her students will occasionally remind her when she’s not really listening attentively to them. Careful what we wish for!

Kathy finds that different activities during math class require different levels of listening. Group work, she says, requires listening at a level 4 or 5. On the other hand, there really isn’t any place in math class for ignoring listening or pretending listening.

Learning to Listen is Key to Learning Mathematics

Listening skills serve students during math class in many different ways. Most importantly, listening can provide students with a window into the thinking and reasoning of others. If our students have examined and practiced good listening, it no doubt will help them in their academic work as well as improve their social skills.

Thanks, Kathy for sharing your expertise and experience with us!

740 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page