Are you listening?

Active listening

Listening plays a huge role in communication and is one of the building blocks in learning to talk.


Being able to focus on what someone is saying happens as part of talking with friends and learning in the classroom. Listening is vital for knowing what someone else is saying and also so you can take turns in a conversation.

However, this ability to tune in, focus and block out distractions doesn't happen all at once.

As with other aspects of speech, language and communication, children learn to do this from the time they are born and go through different stages:

Birth to 12 months

Babies focus on something but very quickly move on to another object - flitting between things. They're most interested in 'exciting sounds' like noises animals make, outside noises. They enjoy silly sounds and songs.

Age 1-2

Your child focuses on what they are interested in and can listen to and understand words on their own and two words together (e.g. 'big car', 'more juice'). They enjoy actions songs they can join in with.

Age 2-3

Children can only focus on one thing at a time and will need help from an adult to shift their attention to something else. They can listen to short stories and still enjoy action songs.

Age 3-4

Your child may still focus on one thing at a time (e.g. playing with cars, then turning to look at you). Children are more able to shift their attention but may still need help to focus. They can listen to longer stories and understand when you use longer sentences.

Age 4-5

Your child is developing their ability to carry on what they are doing while listening to you. Although if it's a difficult job they may need to focus on this fully (think of what happens when you're counting something and get distracted!)

Age 5+

Your child should be able to sit and listen for longer periods of time and to longer stories.


How to help children to listen

  • When you want children to focus you need to gain their full attention – say their name and wait to see if they respond. They will usually turn towards you and look at you; if they don't you can try repeating their name and touching them lightly.

  • Wait – you may need to give children time to focus and respond to you.

  • Think about background noise - if it's noisy and there's lots going on your child may find it harder to listen to you.
  • Try some listening games like going for a listening walk (inside or outside) to see what you can hear. You can take pictures of all these things and try to make the sounds.

  • Be a listener and show them how to do it. You can also talk about it (e.g. 'we have to use our ears', 'we have to look at the person talking'). If you’re listening you’re usually at your child’s eye level, watching what they’re doing and listening to what they’re saying.

You can find out more by going to the Talking Point website. You can also see how your child is doing using the Progress Checker.

If you’re worried about a child’s speaking, why not get in touch with the I CAN Help enquiry service. Their speech and language therapists are happy to help with any questions or queries and can give you information and advice on how to help a child.

More to read


Ideas to help your child’s talking

Try these tips for building communication into your everyday activities with your little one.

Any time is talking time

Fun listening games

Listening will help your child to learn the difference between speech and other sounds.

Games to help your toddler listen

Make talking fun by sharing books

Sharing stories and books with young children really helps their language to develop well.

Sharing stories and books with young children