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Listen Up! 9 ELL Listening Activities for Students of Any Age and Level

ELL listening activities

If students want to become fluent in English, listening is an essential skill for them to master. No matter how well you speak a language, if you don’t understand what the other person is saying to you, your answer will be a little awkward – and sometimes a little bit embarrassing. Teachers can make it easier for students to gain fluency in English by using ELL listening activities that have been proven to work. Let’s take a look at some!

Learn new ways to implement games and online resources in the classroom with Specialized Certification in Teaching English to Young Learners.

How do I teach ESL listening?

ESL listening is a skill that involves much more than just hearing because the ultimate goal is for students to be able to listen to English with both confidence and understanding. There are many ESL listening activities teachers can use to achieve this. But, no matter which activity you’re using, you should keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t teach listening in a vacuum. For example, a secondary goal of any ESL listening activity can be maximizing student talking time – and reducing teacher talking time! Students can build conversational skills by practicing listening and speaking simultaneously. Essentially, you can create a more dynamic lesson by incorporating a variety of skills in any activity.
  • Be creative and think of new ways to engage students. Although listening is a passive skill, it can still be engaging! Use ESL listening games, lively media, props, realia, and other fun materials to make the lesson interactive.
  • Use supporting visuals. An effective ESL listening activity uses pictures, videos, and other visuals to go along with any audio. This not only helps students visualize what they’re hearing but helps them remember new vocabulary words by association.
  • Create context. Any activity, including those for teaching ESL listening, should be given proper context so that students understand the purpose of the lesson and why it’s important. Understanding the ‘why’ behind the activity will help motivate students to participate.

Check out 12 low-prep ESL games for teaching English online.

ESL listening activities for beginners (young learners)

Young learners are still trying to understand basic words like book, dog, desk, and chair. It is so important to show these objects as you say their names and to also give students sentences using the new words – and to repeat them often!

Below are some fun ESL listening activities for young learners that emphasize teamwork and vocabulary:

1. Obstacle Course

Following directions is one of the most important reasons to learn listening skills. In this activity, students will attempt to follow directions correctly. Create an obstacle course in the classroom, and verbally direct students through it, one step at a time with very clear directions. If you want to make it a competition, keep track of how many incorrect turns the student makes and divide the class into teams. Allow students to “phone a friend,” and encourage group problem-solving. The team with the fewest mistakes is the winner and can choose their victory song to play!

Get other ideas for ESL vocabulary games.

2. Steal the Chair

Similar to musical chairs, you can set up one less chair than there are students. Ask them a question and tell them to listen to an audio clip for the answer. If they hear it, they should sit down. You will then stop the audio and have the student tell you the answer. If he or she is correct, they remain sitting. A wrong answer means they must get up again. You can make this more difficult as you go along. This is a fun activity to do at the end of a concept-driven lesson as a way to get the students moving and create body-memory connections.

3. Missing Object

This game, which is great for teaching new vocabulary or reviewing words from a previous lesson, requires students to memorize a set of objects that are shown to them. Afterward, one object is removed, and students must guess which one was taken.

Students will have to listen carefully to you describe objects, but they’ll also have the visual aspect to help them better remember vocabulary. Lastly, if they get stuck and need a hint, they’ll need to listen carefully to the clues you provide to be able to figure out the answer.

Watch this game in action in the following video demonstration, from Bridge’s Micro-credential course in Games & Activities for the Online Classroom (Very Young Learners):

ESL listening activities for intermediate learners

An intermediate ESL student is one that understands conversational and academic English with decreased hesitancy. This student has developed reading comprehension and writing skills but still requires additional learning support.

Some ELL listening activities to support intermediate learners are as follows:

4. Telephone

In this activity, students are responsible for listening carefully to their peers in order to successfully relay a message. You can divide the class into teams and line them up. The first person whispers a message to the second person, and so forth. See which team’s final player gets the closest to the original sentence. This activity encourages students to determine similar-sounding words from one another and can be used as a warm-up activity to introduce any topic or even to review before a test.

5. Scenework

TV shows and movies make for exciting listening practice in the ESL classroom. Instead of watching an entire episode, find a short clip that introduces the topic or new vocabulary. The short video should be captioned to facilitate ELL listening skills. Have students watch the clip a few times, sharing what they remember with a partner, and then, finally, as a whole class.

Next, pass out scripts or send the PDF versions to students if teaching online. Select students to play each role and have them try to imitate the actors as they read aloud. You can do this a few times until everyone has had a chance to act. This fun activity gets students listening to the actors’ intonation and pronunciation before then trying to replicate the speech themselves!

Learn more about using drama as an ESL teaching method.

Using ESL Songs with Young Learners
A teacher incorporates a song in an ESL class with young learners.

6. Fill-in-the-Blank Song Lyrics

A great way to incorporate pop culture is to use a popular radio song and give each individual or pair of students the song lyrics with some words missing for them to fill in. To make it easier, you can put the missing words in a box at the top of the page. Play the song, pausing if necessary while students fill out the sheet. At the end of the song, go through the answers to see which student or pair got the most answers correct. Encourage students to recommend songs they like, and then use these in this activity.

Check out more ESL activities with songs!

ESL listening activities for adults and advanced learners

An advanced English Language Learner (ELL) speaks and understands conversational and academic English at an acceptable level and is able to succeed in academic tasks. Even though they are advanced, it is important for ELLs to continue to improve their listening and speaking abilities. ESL listening games and online listening activities for adult ESL students will be beneficial to their continued growth.

Some suggested activities are as follows:

7. News Radio

Use a relevant news podcast and play it several times for students. Once you have picked the news story to listen to, isolate a short portion (less than five minutes) for an in-class listening essay. Start things off by asking a general comprehension question about the story. Letting students know the question ahead of time helps them concentrate on understanding, which is a very important component of any listening activity for ESL learners. They can then write a short essay to answer the prompt.

After listening to the audio clip a few times, give learners a sheet of questions. Make sure that the questions are in the same order that their answers appear in the audio. Multiple-choice or yes/no questions are the best for this activity. Let students listen to the clip two times before asking them to check their answers in pairs and, finally, as a group. You can encourage students to try this at home using YouTube videos or podcasts on a topic they are interested in.

Take a Micro-credential course in Teaching English Using Podcasts for more ideas!

8. Virtual Vacation

Have students pick a place they would like to visit. Explain that they will be learning all they can about this place and that they will make a travel brochure at the end. Encourage them to watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and look for online travel brochures to help them. Before starting this class activity, make a list of what students should learn about their virtual vacation destinations. Your list should have links and pictures to go along with each topic you choose.

For example, one topic could be food, and you could give the student a link to a page with that nation’s culinary specials and pictures of these foods. This can be a fun way to learn about other places, practice research skills, and get plenty of listening practice through hearing videos and audio about the destinations and then also listening to classmates’ final presentations.

Explore new ways to use media in your classroom in the Micro-credential course in Teaching English Using Video!

adults learning English with games
Even adults can enjoy learning with games and interactive activities.

9. If I Had a Million Dollars…

Taking turns, have each student complete the sentence, “If I had a million dollars, I would…” Write down some of their answers. Tell students they will each write a story, which will go in a class book entitled “If I Had a Million Dollars.” The book will include their written pieces as well as illustrations. Have students find online resources that will help them “spend their money” to include in their written assignments. They can then read their stories aloud to their classmates. To ensure that students are really practicing their listening skills and paying attention to their fellow students, consider giving an oral quiz at the end of the presentations.

There are so many ways to make ESL listening activities engaging for the different levels of students you will encounter in your teaching career. By incorporating a variety of games and media, you can help students improve this important English skill while having a bit of fun at the same time.

Want more ideas for your classroom? Take a Micro-credential course in Games & Activities for the Online Classroom!

I am a retired elementary educator with over 25 years of experience including TESOl co-teaching for 20 years. Currently, I write curriculum for education companies such as Edovate Learning, Toddle App and APass Education. In addition, I create teaching resources for my store, Elly Elementary, which is featured on TeachersPayTeachers, AmpedUpLearning, Classful and MadeByTeachers. I enjoy freelance writing and have written for Vocal Media as well as other blogs. You can see some of my writing at egallagher.contently.com and on my blog, Elly Elementary (https://ellyelementary.wordpress.com/). In m spare time, I enjoy Zumba, reading and traveling.