What, exactly, do you hear?

In 'listening clubs,' German students concentrate on sounds, and record their own interviews and dramas

Human beings first learn to listen, then to speak, read, and write. It's the natural order of business.

Of these skills, listening is the one we use the most in our daily lives, studies show. But primary educators around the world often assume students know how to listen and skip straight to reading and writing.

For the past several decades, though, advocates have been promoting the idea that people can be taught to use their ears better. The movement showed up in Germany three years ago in the form of the country's first "listening clubs."

Some 50 extracurricular clubs now meet regularly in the states of Hesse, Bavaria, and Thuringia, and teachers and students say they are reaping positive results.

Hildegard Desch-Selzer, who works with a group of elementary school students before and after class at the Friedrich Fröbel School in Frankfurt, says the children's self-confidence has improved remarkably.

One child, Hannah, even applied her new aptitude by improving her reading skills as well.

The skill of paying attention

The Listening Club, a group of about eight 10-year-old students, kicked off a recent session with a concentration exercise. Frau Desch-Selzer passed a sheet of white paper around the circle, and each child had to grasp the sheet on its edge and pass it without letting the paper drop.

Then Desch-Selzer lit a scented candle and gave the students colored pencils and paper. She switched on a cassette recording of Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Nightingale," and they began to visualize and sketch what they were hearing.

After the emperor was found alive and well in his chamber, the students discussed what they had drawn.

Desch-Selzer's group has also produced its own radio play. Last summer, the students collected sounds on tape and wrote and performed a script about a horse that didn't want to stay in its stall.

Radio plays were first produced in Germany in 1924 and were used as a medium for political propaganda during the Nazi period. In the 1950s, a great variety of radio genres emerged, including satires, didactic parables, and psychological monologues - all of which can be heard today. The kids say mysteries are their favorite.

The International Listening Association (ILA), founded in 1979 in the United States (www.listen.org), originated the concept.

"Listening is a very important prerequisite for all human interaction," says Klaus Berg, one of the founders of Stiftung Zuhören (the Listening Foundation).

The German group is a member of the ILA and offers a curriculum to schools free of charge.

Margarete Imhof, a psychologist at Frankfurt University who introduced the ILA to Germany, says she became interested in the idea after studying attention and concentration.

She realized that much was known about how visual stimulation is processed, but little research is devoted to the audio side.

Dr. Imhof also observed some cultural differences in listening practices. Americans tend to give higher priority to communication training and to pay more attention to nonverbal signals than Germans, she says. Germans, however, are better able to grasp the aesthetic pleasures of listening, and they realize that listening takes time and isn't always an efficient endeavor.

Sound environments

Other club activities include taking walks through different sound environments, sound "hunting," and producing radio spots and interviews.

During an interview exercise, a child considers how to listen to the interview partner, what questions to ask, the state of the acoustic environment, and which sounds can best be made into pictures, says Marion Glueck-Levi, head of the Listening Foundation and also head of the family and society department of Bayerischer Rundfunk, a public radio and television station in Bavaria.

The exercises help youngsters distinguish different sounds and listen for the direction of a sound.

Some students have begun to focus on their own listening habits. If a child can't solve a math problem, for instance, he or she might realize that a distracting noise needs to be eliminated or avoided.

Others are paying more attention to volume levels and deciding more often to turn down a blaring TV or radio.

Jakob Bickeboeller is a member of the Friedrich Fröbel School listening club. His mother, Christiane, says one year of listening training has improved the boy's concentration and memory. "When we listen to the radio in the morning, he remembers lyrics and sayings and can repeat them in the evening," she says.

Proponents of listening clubs see potential for helping immigrant children integrate into German society, something that schools have not done well so far. They are writing a cross-cultural curriculum with playful ways for these students to learn German.

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