Top ESL Listening Classroom Activities!

Following on from the success of Top ESL Reading Classroom Activities, I’ve finally got some free time from the DELTA to do a blog on listening classroom activities. My 2nd LSA was on Listening so I’ve done a fair bit of reading and research. Here’s a list of ideas for warmers, gist ideas, detail ideas, using your own voice, and activities with the transcript to help your students improve and practise their listening skills. Most can be used with any listening from the course books.

Why would you do that?
Photo by keela84


  • Take a few key words from the listening and write them up on the board. Students have to discuss what they think the listening is about.
  • Tell the students the topic of the listening and they have to brainstorm a few words that they think will be in the listening. When they listen they tick off any words they have.
  • For higher levels write up a few conversation questions related with the topic of the listening. For example, if the listening is about two people talking about problems they have with their parents, then get your students to discuss possible problems they have with their parents. You can also write their answers on the board and students tick off the ones they hear in the listening.
  • Show students a few photos related to the topic and get them to discuss what they think it’s about (good for visual learners.)
  • Write a couple of questions based on the listening and students have to predict the answers.
Hot tip – Something that came out of the DELTA input sessions is that we should spend less time on warmers and pre listening tasks and more time on going over why students got questions wrong. I’ve started doing that now, a very quick warmer or gist question – see below – and then spend more time looking at reasons for why students made their mistakes, looking at the transcript and highlighting problems areas for example synonyms, distractors, and aspects of connected speech that might have caused them to get the wrong answer. If you think about the exam classes, like PET or FCE, they don’t get any warmers or gist questions beforehand.
Gist ideas
  • Don’t give any information and just ask students what the listening is about and play the first 30 seconds.
  • Tell students the topic of the listening. For example, “You’re going to listen to a conversation between a man and a woman.” Then ask “What are they talking about?” They listen, discuss what they heard in pairs and then do some class feedback.
  • Write up a few gist true or false statements based on the listening – for example, they are going to a park, they are talking about the past of the future, the man is happy, the woman is disappointed.
  • Ask students a couple of general questions about the listening, similar to above, and read the first few sentences of the transcript out loud. Making voices if necessary – kids love that one.
  • For the stories in the young learner’s books I give the class a gist multiple choice question, for example; Who wins the race? A- John, B-Jim, C-The dog. I collect the votes for the class on the white board and then we listen once. This is just to get the kids involved in the story.
Detail ideas 
  • True or false statements are a great way to test whether students have really been paying attention – but always make sure they explain their answers.
  • Ask students more specific questions based on the listening, for example, what time does John have breakfast? How many hours do they spend playing tennis? Why doesn’t Olive like spinach?
  • Give students a copy of the transcript with certain words or phrases cut out. I did this in a couple of my LSA’s when I wanted students to focus on language for active listening, and also aspects of connected speech. You take out chunks of language so they have to listen to the phrases. Just make sure there aren’t too many, about 6 or 7 per dialogue. This is great for highlighting grammar too.
How do you do that?
Photo by ganesha_isis

Using your own voice

I’ve started doing this a lot more. Mainly to give students an opportunity to hear my voice more, but also for them to notice my body language. It’s also more realistic than listening to a CD and not being able to see the person talking.  Here are a few ideas where you can give students exposure to your own voice.

  • Make your own recordings – I’ve done this with 3 of my LSA’s. It’s a good laugh and you can focus on whatever area you want. I used it to teach a
    ctive listening expressions, for example, “Right,” “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” “Really,” “That’s amazing,” and now my students use the expressions regularly. I also used it to show coalescent assimilation, weak forms, and linking.  
  • Instead of listening to stories or conversations from the course book then just read it out. We’ve been doing a book project with a group of teenagers this year. They get a book a month and have to read it at home. The main idea to provide them with more exposure to vocabulary and encourage extensive learning. Anyway, I normally introduce the book by reading the back cover and first few pages and then ask a few questions. One day I changed the story and included a couple of the students names, which they loved. They were a bit gutted when they saw their names weren’t in the story though.
  • Anecdotes are a great way to provide exposure to authentic listening. You can use them to introduce certain grammar points if you want. I did one recently to show the difference between usually and used to. I told an anecdote about what I used to do in the past. Students then had to recreate the text in pairs, I helped them by eliciting a few key words. Then they compared their text to the original, hardly anyone wrote used to. Then I taught the meaning, did a bit of drilling, and they wrote their own anecdotes.
  • I’ve also started doing conversations with individual students at the front of the class. This is normally as a warmer to a topic or before any speaking activity to show them how it’s meant to be done. Works best by demonstrating with the stronger students. 
  • Reading dialogues with the class too is a laugh as well. The class are one person and you are the other.
  • I’d still like to try more live-listening. This is where you get another teacher in the class and have a conversation in front of the class. This can be useful to show conversation strategies, useful expressions for discussions, or any aspect you want to provide your students exposure to.
  • You can sing to your students too. Just make sure none of the other teachers are walking past.

If only our students were…
Photo by Tyler Merbler

Activities with the transcript

After the DELTA input sessions it’s become obvious that the transcript is an extremely useful tool at helping to students to improve their listening. It’s vital that they can see the difference between spoken and written form. Here are a few ideas on how you can use the transcript.
    • Simply let students read the transcript as they listen. They can highlight words that were difficult to understand, words that are very different to the written form, words that join together.
    • Make your own gap fills from the transcript. You can do this on the board too with a few key phrases.
    • Get students to read the dialogues before or after they listen.
    • Cut the transcript up and give a section to each student. They then practise their part, focussing on stress of important words, pauses, intonation. Then read the transcript as a class. 
    • While students listen they underline the words that are stressed (generally verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs). You can do this in a two part activity. Students listen and underline the first part of the transcript. You do some feedback and highlight which type of words are stressed. Then they predict which words will be stressed in the second part of the transcript. Once they’ve listened, they can then practise saying certain sections.
    That’s all for now. Have a look at another blog I did about A fun way to improve your students listening skills. If you have any more tips then just drop a comment below. Next week I’ll be posting a blog on tricks for helping FCE and PET students improve their listening.

    One thought on “Top ESL Listening Classroom Activities!

    1. Good advice! I’ve been teaching English to adults here in Germany for the past 45 years (and counting), and I do a lot of the activities you have mentioned here.

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