10 Ear-opening English Listening Exercises That Transform Hearing into Understanding

Google “English listening exercises.” Go ahead.

Now, sit back in awe at the quarter-of-a-million hits those three words get you.

To reiterate, that’s 250,000 places where you can find listening exercises for your English class. Amazing, right?

But be forewarned: Just because there are a ton of resources out there doesn’t mean English listening exercises are straightforward or easy.

Have you ever heard a “group groan” when you get the electronic listening device out? Have you ever wondered if students are really listening while that recording plays three times over?

How much guess-work do you think goes into answering those multiple-choice and true-false questions? Just how successful are those post-exercise discussions?

In my years as an ESL teacher, I found that standard English listening exercises—those that include a recording, followed by some questions and possibly a post-exercise activity—offer some pretty good content.

However, they’ll only get you so far.

The exercises on this list encourage students to become active listeners. They are designed to help students excel in real-world English-speaking situations. In order to help your students get the most out of these listening exercises, you must help students understand that listening is active.

And in order to do that, it’s helpful to first think about how listening works…

How do we listen?

Listening sometimes gets confused with hearing. The very format of most listening exercises sets teachers and students up for a passive activity. As teachers, we should get the students actively involved, push them (and ourselves!) beyond the passive hearing of a recording followed by the post-listening quiz or discussion.

The literary critic and semiotician Roland Barthes explains listening like this:

“Listening is the interpretive action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves.”

Barthes breaks listening down into three general activities:

  • Alerting: the physical perception and identification of the strings of sounds that have been heard.
  • Deciphering: a sorting-out of known and unknown sounds, combined with an effort to identify the meaning of those unknown.
  • Understanding: a mental reconstruction of the previous two activities, alerting and deciphering, leading the listener to comprehension as well as response.

So, how do these three activities play out in an ESL classroom?

Alerting: Listening is recognition

In this first step, listeners advance beyond the purely physical activity of “hearing” and begin the first steps of interpreting what they’ve heard, using a process of “recognition.”

Students will have an easier time understanding when they hear something familiar to them. They’ll recognize things that they already know. “Recognition,” rooted in “knowing again,” means that students will draw from personal knowledge while listening.

Deciphering: Listening is active code-breaking

When we engage in breaking the code, deciphering, a number of things will happen.

First, we unconsciously divide strings of sounds into two general categories: familiar and new. The “familiar” will be strings that we already know the meaning of, with or without context. The “new” will be those strings we don’t immediately recognize and that require some sort of identification.

This division into “familiar” and “new” will be based upon your students’ personal “Language Bank,” or the collection of sounds that they’ve learned to recognize and understand when heard, usually in certain situations. Context matters here—part of “deciphering” includes trying to figure out where an unfamiliar sound fits into a more familiar context in order to make sense of it.

Understanding: Listening is integral to communication

When a listener hears a meaningful string of sounds, has successfully identified what he or she knows and has figured out how the new material fits into the scheme, we can say that they have reached understanding.

Understanding should lead to a meaningful reaction. From a quick “hi!” to a longer “Good morning,” through a “where’s the library?” to an “it’s on the left,” to the more complex give-and-take of a conversation, a successful interaction is based on understanding and response.

That’s where these activities come into the limelight. Instead of settling for the usual protocol of three hearings and a multiple-choice quiz, you’re going to encourage your students to take an active, language-producing role in all three of these basic aspects of listening.

So, let’s get to the activities!

10 Ear-opening English Listening Exercises That Put the “Active” in “Activity”

These activities focus on those three stages in listening: Alerting, Deciphering and Understanding. The odd-numbered ones can serve either as warm-up activities for the even-numbered one that follows (Activity 1 warms up for Activity 2, and so on), or can stand alone.

What’s more, any of these activities can serve as hands-on practice before listening evaluations based on the traditional protocols. They can go a long way in improving student confidence and performance during tests and quizzes!

Activity 1: The sheep on the ship (Alerting)

Activity 1 focuses on how single sounds can change the meaning of not only a word, but of the entire message being conveyed. It’s also a great way to highlight minimal pairs (pairs of words that sound almost the same) without rote repetition.

What you need

  • minimal pair flashcards (one word on each side)
  • egg timer
  • scoring tokens (poker chips or fake money)

How to proceed

Make sure students are familiar with both words of the minimal pair before doing this activity.

Set up four chairs in the front of the classroom, two facing each other to the left of center and two to the right. Stand in the center as the master of ceremonies. Explain to students that they’ll be playing Password with words that sound almost the same but are just a little different.

Show one side of the first minimal pair card to the student farthest to your right (make sure his partner can’t see it!) He’ll need to elicit, with words or gestures or sounds, the word he sees. Time one minute.

If his partner gets the word, give the team a token and move on to the team to your left with a new pair. If, after a minute, there’s no correct answer, show the other side of that minimal pair card to the student farthest to your left. Again, time one minute.

In the case there’s no answer, move on to round two. Now you give the card to the first player and he can try to elicit either of the two words on the card. Repeat for the other team if no answer is received. Time only 30 seconds for this round.

After two turns in this manner, reveal the two words to the audience, have the pairs change seats and repeat the game.

Change participants after each two-word round so that everyone gets a chance to play.

Activity 2: Was it a sheep or was it a ship? (Alerting)

This can be used as a stand-alone activity, but it also makes a great follow-up to Activity 1. Here, students will continue to work on differentiating between sounds, as well as expand into how those differences change the meaning of the string they’re contained in.

What you’ll need

  • A basic listening exercise (here’s an example)
  • A list of key words found in that exercise that can be replaced with similar, rhyming words with a different meaning
  • A fill-in-the-blank quiz focused on those words

How to proceed

Prepare a list of at least ten key words from the exercise. Beside these words, list very similar, rhyming words that mean something totally different, for example, “throat / goat” or “four / pour.”

Prepare a short fill-in-the-blank quiz comparing these words. Hand your list out to the students and work through the meanings and pronunciation of each of the pairs.

Tell your students that they’ll need to identify all of the words on the list that they hear in the recording.

Play the recording, pausing at the end of any sentence that contains one of the words.

Write the rhyming pair on the board and ask if they heard “throat” or “goat.” Tally their answer on the board, but don’t tell them which word is right. Continue this process through the rest of the recording.

Play the entire recording and give them the quiz you’ve prepared.

The next day in class, run through this activity again, playing it just once. Give them the standard quiz provided with the listening exercise.

Activity 3: Opposites attract (Deciphering)

In Activity 3, your students will be working with their language bank, identifying adjectives through listening and trying to locate word pairs with opposite meanings.

What you need

  • Opposite adjective flashcards
  • Score tokens
  • Egg timer

How to proceed

Before class, prepare flashcards in pairs of opposite adjectives: black / white; big / small; easy / hard, etc. Make enough so that you’ll have four or five cards per student.

Get everyone on their feet. Shuffle, then deal out the flashcards until you have no more. Give your students a moment to get familiar with the cards they have.

Start your timer and give students one minute to walk around, calling out any of their adjectives with the purpose of finding someone with an opposite. As they call out their own words, they’ll have to be attentive to the various words their classmates are saying.

When two students find an adjective pair, they bring the cards to you, you collect the pair and give each of them a token and send them back into the fray.

When time is up, stop them, collect all of the remaining cards, shuffle them briskly and deal them out again.

Continue for three or four more one-minute rounds, count the tokens and applaud the “winners.”

Activity 4: What didn’t he mean? (Deciphering)

This one should help your students to both practice descriptive adjectives and learn to identify them in their proper positions in spoken language.

What you need

  • A listening exercise heavy on descriptive adjectives (here’s an example)
  • A list of those adjectives along with their opposites
  • A contextual fill-in-the-blank quiz based upon those adjectives

How to proceed

Hand out the adjective list you’ve prepared for your students. Review the list and teach new vocabulary. Make sure to practice all the words orally with your students.

Play the listening exercise through without any introduction. Then, ask your students if they recognized any of the words on the list. Write those words on the board for everyone to see.

Start the recording again. Pause after any sentence containing a word from your list. Ask any student to make the same sentence using the opposite adjective. Continue sentence-by-sentence until you’ve come to the end of the recording. Add adjectives and their opposites to the list on the board as they come up in the activity.

Play the recording again without pausing.

Ask your students which of the adjectives make more sense in the context of the recording, or which opposites simply don’t fit in.

Now, play the recording one more time and give them the quiz you’ve prepared.

Remember to come back to this same exercise in the next class to refresh their memory.

Activity 5: Eavesdropping (Deciphering)

The focus in Activity 5 obliges your students to pay attention to, repeat and add on to what others have said.

What you’ll need

  • Information question flashcards: “Where are you from?”What is your favorite kind of food?”
  • Score tokens

How to proceed

Have students sit in a large circle. Hand a question flashcard to a student. She must ask anyone, except the person to her immediate right or left, the question on the card.

That student answers and returns the same question to the first student, who also answers.

Then, you choose any random student and ask him the answers given by those two students to the question. A conversation might look like this:

Student A: Pablo, what is your favorite kind of food?

Student B: I like French food. What is your favorite kind of food, Sylvia?

Student A: I like Mexican food.

Teacher: María, what kind of food do Pablo and Sylvia like?

Student C: Sylvia likes Mexican and Pablo likes French.

Reward each correct reply from these three students with a token.

Hand the third student a question flashcard and do another round. Continue until you’ve run out of time or flashcards. Be careful to call on everyone at least once to answer your question!

Activity 6: What did she say? (Deciphering)

This activity requires students to both figure out the context to a one-sided phone call and imagine what’s being said on the other end. They’ll be imagining and producing language at the same time in a day-to-day context.

What you’ll need

How you proceed

Using a sound editing software like “Audacity,” divide the recording into two parts, one side of the conversation on one recording and the other side on a different recording. Make sure to leave yourself pauses to stop and start the recording during the activity.

In class, tell your students that they’ll be listening in on one side of a telephone conversation.

Play the first utterance. Stop the recording and ask your students how they think the other person will reply. Note general ideas on the board.

Play the second utterance and ask your students again what they think was the answer on the other end. Continue in this fashion until you’ve reached the end of the call.

Now play the other side of the call in the same way, utterance-by-utterance, asking the students to remember what they’ve already heard in the first recording.

Finally, you can do the entire listening exercise with its traditional quizzes or fill-ins to check on overall comprehension.

Activity 7: The picture worth 1,000 words (Deciphering)

This activity should help students become more agile in identifying important contextual cues. While it’s a visual exercise on the surface, the oral questioning and rapid answering will put the language into their ears and mouths for future recognition: you’re making deposits into their language bank!

What you’ll need

  • Dozens of pictures with “who”what” and “where” content (two boys talking about sports on the bus, for example)
  • Score tokens of three different colors

How to proceed

Put all the score tokens in a bag or a hat. You need three colors, one for each of the question words. For example:

  • red = who
  • blue = what
  • white = where

Have students line up. Show a picture to the first in line. That student reaches into the bag and pulls out a colored token. Quickly ask the student the context question represented by the color of his token:

  • “Who is the woman in the picture?”
  • “What is the woman doing?”
  • “Where was this picture taken?”

Give the student two seconds to produce a short answer, for example “where”—one, two—“on the bus.” Any reasonable answer is accepted and you send the student to the end of the line with the earned token.

If no answer is given in time, take the token back and send that student quickly to the end of the line. Change the picture and repeat the process with the next student in line. Keep this game as agile as possible! You want fast movement, fast answers. Don’t give them a lot of time to think.

Once you’ve run out of tokens in the bag, count up tokens and applaud the “winner.”

Activity 8: Who, what and where! (Deciphering)

You’re going to get your students thinking out of the box with this one. They really don’t expect to watch a video without the sound. This can help ease a natural anxiety students feel when looking at a video and trying to understand what’s being said: here you get the images and their meanings out of the way so that the listening can be the focus when you turn the sound back on.

What you’ll need

  • Several short, contextual video clips with no more than three people talking.


If you’re looking for good videos to use in English class, look no further than FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Its huge selection of authentic English-language content means you’re sure to find something that’ll work for your students’ skill level.

FluentU’s videos will work great as part of Activity 8, and after you finish with the activity, you can also make use of each video’s built-in comprehension quiz and vocabulary review features.

How to proceed

Tell the students that you’re going to show three or four short video clips and that you want them to figure out some information from them.

The first information will be “who.” Show the video clip without sound. Ask the students to speculate on who the people are. Ask them to be specific:

  • How old are they?
  • Are they friends, family, strangers?
  • What are their names?
  • What do they do for a living?

The second information will be “where.” Show the video clip again without sound. Ask the students to elaborate on where the conversation is taking place, again insisting on details, time of day, neighborhood, city, country and so on.

The final information will be “what.” Before showing the video with sound, ask your students to imagine what the people are talking about.

Lead them to be as specific as possible. List their ideas on the board.

Finally, play the video with sound.

Ask the students to fine-tune, from the ideas on the board, what the conversation was about. Repeat this exercise with a new video in the next class.

Remember that you’re not looking for “right” or “wrong” answers! You want your students to first brainstorm from visual context, and then use that context to help them recognize language in the video.

Activity 9: Advertising agency (Understanding)

In Activities 9 and 10, we’re looking at long-term, multiple-class exercises that you can bring to life regularly. In both of these activities, the objective isn’t finding the “right” answers, but rather helping students to:

  • identify information in their language bank
  • recognize what’s important to listen for
  • figure out what’s missing in their understanding

What you’ll need

  • Picture advertisements or photos of products
  • An egg timer
  • Score tokens

How to proceed

Set up by telling students that they’re brainstorming for an important publicity firm and that they need to help prepare new ads for five new products.

Show them a generic product from among your pictures. (For example, a tube of toothpaste.) Brainstorm for exactly three minutes a name for the product, and list each name on the board. Students should say the first name that comes to mind—the crazier the better!

Take and tally a vote on each name on the board and the name with the most votes is the winner.

Now, give students exactly two minutes to note down, in silence, all of the possible positive words or phrases that they can imagine that’ll make someone want to buy the product (white, bright, clean, dentist-approved, etc.)

Ask the students to read their lists one at a time. If any other student has the same word, ask them to raise their hand. Any unique word that no other student has on their list is rewarded with a token.

Repeat the process with the second product.

The student with the most tokens at the end gets promoted to “Advertising Executive!”

Activity 10: Commercial time (Understanding)

This is a multi-day activity that’s designed to work students’ ability to interpret and understand spoken English, enough that they can generate meaningful responses.

What you’ll need

How to proceed

Day One:

Tell students that they’ll be hearing five commercials from the “good old days” before television and pop-up ads on YouTube. These commercials may include music, rhymes, exaggerated dialogues and unbelievable claims.

Tell them that they’ll get to listen a couple of times to each commercial and that they only have to figure out what the product is.

Play the first commercial. Stop. Ask students what they think the product is, and list all of the offered answers on the board. Then, repeat the commercial. Ask if anyone has a clearer or different idea.

Move on to the next commercial and repeat. Go through all of the commercials and stop the exercise for the day. Don’t tell the students whether or not they guessed the products correctly!

Make sure to note all the ideas from the board. (Take a quick snapshot with your phone!)

Day Two:

The students still don’t know what the products from the commercials are. Tell them that this time, they need to identify why the listener should buy the product. Follow the same procedure as on the first day: listen to each commercial only twice, list answers on the board and move on to the next.

Day Three:

You will, in the third class, move on to trying to figure out who the commercial is aimed at. You can give the students some suggestions like “housewives” or “young people” to get the ball rolling. Repeat the procedure as on the first two days.

Day Four:

Now, in the fourth and final class, you’re going to write the product name for each of the commercials on the board. Without further instructions, play the commercials and give the students a quick comprehension quiz at the end.

This activity can be repeated throughout the course, maybe once a semester. You can vary tasks for each day. For example, instead of asking why the listener should buy the product, you can ask if the product still exists today, or why the product in the advertisement is better than its competitors.


Listening exercises are an important part of any English learning experience, no matter what level your students are at. You can modify any of these exercises to adapt to any proficiency level, either to keep it easy or to stretch the listening abilities of your students.

The important thing to keep in mind is to get your students to participate actively in the listening experience. No matter how much they wiggle their ears, their listening won’t improve until they begin using the language they’re listening to and adding sounds, words and expressions to their Language Bank.

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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