What Does Listening Capacity Tell Us about Reading?

  • listening comprehension
  • 09 December, 2017

Teacher question:

I was wondering if you are able to provide me with a clearer understanding of what a “silent Reading and Listening Capacity Test” is all about. 

Shanahan responds:

The whole idea of administering silent reading and listening capacity tests is two-fold. A silent reading test would be used to determine how well a student can comprehend text when reading silently. Typically, such a test would be administered using graded or leveled passages. Thus, if the student could read the fourth-grade passages with 75% or higher comprehension, but could only read the fifth-grade passages with 50% comprehension, we might say something like, “Henry can read at a fourth-grade level.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends. It depends on, for instance, on what grade Henry is in. If he is in third-grade but reads like a fourth-grader, you might be impressed and pleased by that performance. But what if Henry is in high school? The inability to handle fourth-grade text would likely be discouraging.

Or, what if Henry were in fifth-grade, but was not very smart (a low IQ)? We might conclude that he is doing great—perhaps not reading quite as well as his classmates, but better than we might have expected.

That’s where a listening capacity test comes in. Such a test is supposed to allow us to evaluate Henry’s capacity to understand—with reading taken out of the equation. Thus, a listening test usually will look like a silent reading comprehension test… a series of graded text passages with some questions about the texts. However, in this case, the teacher reads the material to the student and the student only has to listen (that way decoding problems can’t disrupt comprehension).

Since Henry was able to read and answer questions at the fourth-grade level quite well, there is no reason to test his listening capacity there… we already know he comprehends fourth-grade material just fine, even when he has the task of reading that material himself.

So let’s try his listening at a fifth-grade level… if Henry can understand the fifth-grade texts well (the kinds of texts he wasn’t able to read well), then it seems safe to conclude that Henry’s intellectual capacity to interpret text is higher than his reading ability. And, that means that if you can increase his decoding skills sufficiently, there should be no barrier to his reading more complex texts.

However, while that is kind of reasonable, you must be careful to avoid the opposite inference.

Let’s say, Henry is in fifth-grade and he reads at a fourth-grade level and his listening capacity is that of a fourth grader. That would seem to mean that Henry is doing as well as possible—he reads as well as he listens—so improving his reading skills wouldn’t be expected to help very much.

However, that puts an awful lot of trust in that listening test and it neglects the fact that there are things that you could teach Henry that may improve both his listening and his reading comprehension (things like vocabulary or text structure).

This idea of testing capacity through listening is an old one. We know more about comprehension tests than we did then.

Comprehension is certainly impacted by decoding skills and language (vocabulary, grammar, cohesion), but it also is linked to knowledge. I’ve used terms like fourth- and fifth-grade passages, but what content is appropriate for such tests? If I test reading comprehension with a passage on Adelie penguins and I test listening comprehension with a passage on a story about boys playing basketball, do students do better with one than another because of the skills differences or because they are more familiar with one topic than another?

Comprehension tests—listening or reading—usually employ multiple passages on multiple topics to balance out knowledge differences, but let’s face it, it would be rare that there would be enough passages to truly balance out. That means that when a student’s listening capacity is higher than his/her reading comprehension, it could mean that improvements in decoding skill will lead to the ability to comprehend harder texts. But it also could simply mean that the student was more familiar with the topics of the listening texts than the reading texts.

This comparison of listening and reading is an interesting one, but don’t read (or listen) too much into it.

Hope that helps.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sandy Joseph Jan 09, 2018 02:45 AM

I think reading comprehension is effected by the student's interest in the topic. High interest topics can result in good comprehension. Likewise, a topic that is of little or no interest to a student might result in poor comprehension.Students stop listening to a boring topic. The same goes for experience. If a student has been exposed to the topic that is discussed, then he may show better comprehension that in an unfamiliar topic.

Students who have been exposed to the arts, travel, vacations and social activities may understand the content of stories better than students who have been isolated into one region. Students who have not been privileged to have reading material such as newspapers, magazines, computers, etc. in their homes may be at a disadvantage when expected to read and comprehend.

Laurie Sep 14, 2018 07:16 PM

My district requires teachers to give listening comprehension tests and reading comprehension tests (alternating) throughout the year (grades 1-5). During the listening assessment the teacher reads the passage, but not the questions. Students are not permitted to see the passage, but they do have the questions in front of them and are encouraged to take notes or highlight while listening. The students can request to have the passage reread. I am just wondering if I am missing something here...what information can we hope to get from these assessments and why can the teacher read the passage, but not the questions to the students? These assessments are given every 4-6 weeks and count towards ELA report card grades. I'm hoping to gain a better understanding of why such assessments would be performed and what is really being measured. THANKS!

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What Does Listening Capacity Tell Us about Reading?


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