17 Engaging ESL Listening Activities for Your Next Class

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If you ask any ESL teacher who has worked in the field, they will probably tell you that a huge portion of their classroom time is spent on developing the listening skills of their students.

Because of the unique phonics of the English language (especially compared to Asian and African languages), listening is often a particularly difficult skill for non-native English learners to acquire – one that requires extra attention from the instructor.

As an ESL teacher, you will often find that a student may have a remarkable writing and reading ability but poor listening and speaking skills due to the relative difficulty of the latter.

As such, your employer will likely expect you to include a large variety and volume of ESL listening activities regularly in your lesson plans. Let this article be your guide for mastering lesson plans that have an emphasis on listening!  

How to Use ESL Listening Activities

Any comprehensive ESL lesson, regardless of the age or level of students, should include at least some listening.

ESL listening activities are useful for:

  • Instilling fluency and confidence in conversation skills.
  • Building social bonds between the teacher and students and between learners and their peers.
  • Preparing for standardized English exams, many of which contain sections that specifically test listening skills.
  • Breaking the monotony of long lessons with interactive listening activities.

When to Use ESL Listening Activities

Listening activities can have a place at any point in the lesson – as a warm-up to generate excitement for the upcoming lesson, in the middle of a lesson, or at the conclusion of a lesson to wrap things up.

Most ESL textbooks and course materials include plenty of focus on listening and speaking, so you’ll have lots of opportunities to include listening work in your lesson plans.

Setup for ESL Listening Activities

Some activities require more setup than others. In classic, simple examples such as “Simon Says,” no setup or extra materials are required.

For others, a microphone, sound system, multimedia player, or other technological implements are needed.

You will need ESL flashcards and a “sticky ball” for one of the listening activities with younger learners discussed here.

Also, to play the Bingo activity here, you will need access to the internet and a printer.

ESL Listening Activities For Young Learners

Simon Says

As a time-tested staple of ESL classrooms around the world, young learners go crazy for Simon Says. Even better for teachers in a pinch for time, Simon Says requires virtually no preparation and the rules are extremely easy to understand, even for the youngest learners.

To play, first explain to your students (with the help of a translator, if need be) the rules:  the students must follow your commands to perform basic physical actions like “touch your nose” or “stand on one foot” – provided that you preface your command with “Simon says.”

Students who either fail to perform a command preceded by “Simon says” or who perform a command not preceded by “Simon says” are out. The last student standing wins.

In addition to promoting active listening skills, Simon Says is a blast for young students as they struggle to keep up in their minds with the appropriate action.

Ramp up the intensity as needed by speeding up the activity or devising more difficult tasks for the students.

Telephone

Telephone is another classic listening activity that carries the added benefit of requiring no prior preparation.

To play, select a vocabulary term or phrase either from the lesson at hand or from a previous lesson. Whisper the term into the ear of the first student. He or she, in turn, whispers the term into the ear of a nearby student and so on until the term has been passed through the whole class.

It’s downright amazing – and often entertaining for the students — how thoroughly even single-syllable words can be butchered in the course of the telephone game.

Increase the enthusiasm by breaking the class up into teams to compete in a telephone relay race.

Bonus: After playing the telephone game, — if you believe such a lesson is necessary/appropriate — take the time for a quick social mini-lesson. Explain in simple terms the dangers of spreading unsubstantiated gossip as fact, which is perfectly illustrated in an easy-to-understand example here.

Sticky Ball With Flashcards

Combining visual cues with listening is a great way to keep young students’ attention and to accommodate your students who learn better visually than aurally. Some studies indicate that visual aids increase the effectiveness of a lesson by up to 400% for students who have a visual learning style!

There are several options to work with flashcards in listening activities, but the most effective may be the “sticky ball” game.

For setup, you need a set of flashcards with relevant vocabulary and a “sticky ball” that is capable of sticking to surfaces (many language schools and primary schools have these materials already).

Place the flashcards against the whiteboard at the front of the class. Divide the students into teams. A pair of students at a time (one from each team) steps up to the “throwing line” a couple of meters from the whiteboard.

When you say a vocabulary term, the listening students throw their balls at the correct image. If they hit the appropriate flashcard, they are awarded a point for their team.

Bingo

Bingo is an eternal winner with young learners. This activity is a great way to practice listening for vocabulary and phrases while keeping up the focus and enthusiasm of your students.

Preparation is minimal but does require that you visit the link above and print out an appropriate number of bingo cards to distribute to the class.

ESL Listening Activities For Adults

Role Play

Your adult students are never too old for classic role-play. To prompt the activity, select a scenario that your students will act out in front of the class as a pair, a trio, or a quartet.

You can seamlessly work a role-playing activity into your lesson plan by choosing a scenario related to the current lesson – for example, if the lesson is about the workplace, you might consider an interaction between a boss and an employee.

For added engagement from students, depending on their personalities, you can create ludicrous scenarios that are sure to entertain and educate at the same time.

Podcast Listening

Podcasting is a hip new medium for English-language programming that spans nearly every conceivable topic – if there is a subject of interest to your students, chances are a podcast in English is already up and available for free on the web.

The major advantage to this type of activity is that you can tailor it to suit your students’ interests – for example, if they are a group of software engineers or students of the hard sciences, you might want to find a podcast about artificial intelligence.

The only drawback to this activity is that some of your students are liable to “space out” at points due to the lengthy format. In addition to choosing your topic wisely to avoid this issue, further incentivize active listening by devising a worksheet that asks either general questions about the significance of the material covered or specific questions about what was said when. This will keep your students on their toes.

Following Directions

Learning how to take and follow directions is a critical skill that your students may need if/when they make it to a foreign English-speaking land.

Hone this skill by incorporating a direction-following activity into your lesson plan.

As the teacher, you have a plethora of options for how to conduct this listening activity. You can create a worksheet for handout with landmarks and various roads and offer directions to reach a certain destination.

Alternatively, you can create a more interactive (and elaborate) environment in the classroom by creating a physical roadmap – perhaps by arranging the desks to form “roads” with specific items in the classroom as “landmarks.”

ESL Listening Activities for Beginners

Personal Descriptions

Humans are social creatures; we are wired to look for distinguishing features in our peers whom we interact with. Beginners and younger students will enjoy the opportunity offered in this activity to describe their fellow classmates.

To play this game, call a student volunteer to the front of the class. Ask them to privately communicate the name of a classmate of their choice to be the subject of the activity.

Then, ask the student questions about their subject. What are they wearing? Do they have glasses? What color is their hair?

The rest of the class must then guess who the student is.

You can modify this activity by allowing your students to freely describe their subject without being prompted by your questions as the teacher – however, in this iteration of the activity, you risk losing control and potentially causing embarrassment for one or more participants.

Pick the Word

Understanding – much less participating in — a full-fledged English conversation might be a tall task for beginners, but you can prime their listening skills by having them listen for specific sounds and simple words.

To conduct this activity, read a passage of basic text. Ask them to mark down the number of times they hear a particular word or phrase. Start off with easy targets like “you” or “and,” moving on to more complex/less common words to increase the difficulty as appropriate.

The Counting Game

Numbers are essential for beginners to master. The counting game is a fun way to help your students along in both their understanding of English numbers and their listening skills.

To play, Gather your students in a circle if the physical layout of the classroom allows. Start off with the easiest iteration, requiring your students to say a “buzzword” at every multiple of third. For example, if the word is apple, the students should count off one-by-one: 1, 2, apple, 4, 5, apple, etc. If a student does not say the buzzword at the right time or says it at the wrong time, they are out.

Ratchet up the difficulty as necessary by switching to multiples of 4, 5, 6, etc. This game requires strong focus and attentive listening, especially at more advanced levels.

Unmusical Chairs

In this version of musical chairs with a twist, students listen to a simple conversation while looking for a specific piece of information.

For example, begin by asking them “Where is Sheena going?” In the course of the conversation, Sheena will reveal where she is headed. This is the cue for the students who hear the answer to sit down.

If the seated students can correctly answer the question based on the information provided, they are allowed to continue and the party goes on until a winner is found.

ESL Listening Activities for Intermediate Students

Songs With Lyrics Worksheet

Western pop music is popular throughout the world (think Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, One Direction, etc.) You can use this interest to your advantage in the classroom by incorporating some of the best-known English-language pop songs into listening activities.

The web is full of pre-made lyrics worksheets like the one linked above from Maroon 5. Or, if you have the time, you can make your own.

You can encourage active participation by allowing your students to select the songs for upcoming lessons.

Guess the Accent

The ability to differentiate between different English accents is a sign of an advanced understanding of the nuances of the language. Early on in their English education, many students are unable to distinguish between American, British, or Australian accents. It’s even harder for them to tell apart accents that are closely linked, such as Australian vs. New Zealand or American vs. Canadian.

The accent guessing game is engaging, fun, and useful for building a greater appreciation for the many varieties of English spoken throughout the world.

Make it a competition by dividing students up into teams and assigning time limits for each guess, with points awarded for correct answers.

Distinguishing Between Commonly Confused Words

As students move from the beginner to the intermediate level, this is a good stage to develop their “ear” for English by instilling in their minds the distinctions between commonly confused words – for example, affect vs. effect, desert vs. dessert, etc.

For maximum benefit to your students, teach them how to look for meaning in context by listening to sentences or paragraphs with incorrect uses of these words. Ask students to catch your errors and correct them.

ESL Listening Activities for Advanced Students

Mock Interview

For advanced students who are serious about taking their English education to the next level in higher education or hope to land a job related to English-speaking, chances are that they are interested in how to prepare for an interview with a potential school or employer.

Let your students prepare briefly by explaining what kinds of information they will be expected to share in an interview – but not giving them the verbatim questions beforehand.

You can interview students individually or allow students to interview each other. Facilitate the involvement of the whole class by asking the observing students questions about what the candidate said in his or her answers.

There are many variations of this activity, but to recreate the pressure felt in a real-life interview, it’s best to have the students perform theirs in front of the entire class.

In addition to gaining nimble listening skills, this activity will instill confidence leading up to the day that your students have an actual interview.

Dictations

Although dictations should be used sparingly because they can be less-than-stimulating even for devoted learners, they are a powerful tool for increasing the speed and accuracy of listening skills.

This practice is particularly beneficial for learning to differentiate between commonly used homophones, such as “write” and right” and “read” and “red.”

Listen for the Mistake

Because of the complexity of English grammar, even non-native-English-speaking students who are advanced in their development often have difficulty catching more nuanced mistakes that are commonly (and understandably) made in everyday speech.

To correct these issues, prepare a spoken essay (about a page long or so) that is riddled with subtle mistakes such as subject-verb agreement flaws or tense mistakes. Ask your students to correct you as you move along, highlighting any that they missed and explaining them at the end of the essay.

Through this activity, you can help your students understand what small but important errors they might routinely make in everyday speech that often go uncorrected. 

Where to Start as an ESL Teacher

In terms of devising effective listening activities and skillfully incorporating them into a broader lesson plan, knowing where to start as an ESL teacher — especially a new one — can be hard.

Fortunately, the web is full of great resources to help you maximize your classroom time to deliver high-quality listening instruction to your students.Check our list of free lesson plans. The instruction strategies and tools found here are time-tested to deliver practical and worthwhile ESL listening instruction to your students.

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