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The Ultimate Guide to Using Audiobooks in Your ESL Class

A pack of trained wolf-like creatures are chasing a man in the forest.

The man is trying to cross the border illegally.

Suddenly they stop and refuse to attack him.

But they’ve never let anyone pass before. So why this man?

This interesting story comes from the audiobook “Easy Reading for ESL Students” by the Canadian Language School, which captures and holds the attention of ESL learners.

Hear no English, speak no English.

It’s no secret that listening is a vital part of learning English.

Listening activities help your students improve pronunciation, grow their vocabulary and increase their English comprehension.

While you’ve probably used podcasts and music for listening activities before, have you ever considered audiobooks?

Audiobooks are actually a wonderful way to help your ESL students improve their listening skills, and we’ll show you how to use them effectively for the greatest benefits.

Why Use Audiobooks in ESL Classes?

A good piece of audio can go a long way in grabbing someone’s attention. Just take the global phenomenon of the popular podcast “Serial,” for example, which attracted millions of listeners around the world!

When you have a good piece of audio, your students will want to listen and follow along with the plot.

By hearing the proper pronunciation of words in an audiobook, students are able to better comprehend and retain the English language.

Often, students are given reading assignments to complete on their own, and it’s difficult for them to grasp the pronunciation of words they might not know. But by listening and reading at the same time, students can improve their vocabulary and build confidence, which all help to build their English fluency.

And, not only does it increase fluency and build vocabulary, but audiobooks are interesting! Students get tired of listening to their teacher’s voice all the time, so these books provide them with a new voice, in addition to an engaging story.

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How to Use Audiobooks in the ESL Classroom

Many ESL teachers find that starting their class with a listening exercise is a great way to warm up the students and get their ears tuned into the language. Using an audiobook excerpt and exercise is a great way to do this. You can do a short excerpt or long, depending on the amount of time you want to devote to listening and reading.

Listening exercises can be tricky for ESL students. Depending on their level, the students can feel overwhelmed or lost if the audio is too fast or too colloquial. So when using audiobooks, one of the best ways to ensure success is to provide the transcript of the audio.

By providing a transcript for the students to follow along, they’ll be able to listen to the story and see the words at the same time, providing a new level of understanding and reachable success.

Another important practice to implement when using audiobooks is to proceed slowly. Consider your students: Do they need to listen to a section two or three times? Should you repeat any portions of the audio? Be sure to stop often and check in with your students. It’s important they can hear and comprehend the story.

If you’re after a resource with exciting clips featuring native audio be sure to check out FluentU.

You can explore the platform further by requesting a free trial to see all of the fantastic ways FluentU can help your students learn with authentic materials. 

So we have ideas about how to best use audiobooks in the ESL classroom, but which books should you use?

4 Captivating and Free ESL Audiobooks

1. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald  esl-audio-books

This famous novel is widely considered to be the Great American Novel. It’s a perfect choice for ESL students (high school or older) who want to learn more about American culture—specifically, the colorful era of The Roaring ’20s. It’s a cautionary tale about the American dream, and can be a great starting point for classroom discussions on money, greed, cruelty and despair.

2. “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls  esl-audio-books

This is another great American story, featuring a boy and his hunting dogs. It is yet another glimpse of American life, but this time a look at rural country life. This story is perfect for middle and high school ESL learners as well as adults. Conversation topics can highlight this bygone American way of life, and a boy’s coming of age.

3. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

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This novel centers around Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old prep school student who is dealing with the death of his younger brother. This book is a high school classic, and is often listed as a favorite book for many young students. ESL learners can benefit from the use of slang in the novel, and high school learners can talk about similar experiences—do they have much in common with Holden? How are their lives the same, or different?

4. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon esl-audio-books

This novel is an ESL favorite. The simple language used in the book is easy for ESL learners to understand, but the plot—the story of Christopher Boone and how he perceives the entire world literally—makes for an entertaining and heart-wrenching story. ESL learners can discuss such topics as autism, human emotions, lying and much more.

ESL Audiobook Lesson Plan: Introduce the Book

You’ve now decided to take the plunge and introduce an audiobook in your ESL classroom. Congratulations on taking your students to a new level of English comprehension and listening! You won’t be sorry!

Now, how do you get started? Books typically aren’t short, so where should you even begin? Follow the lesson below to introduce the book and listening project to your class.

1. Show a visual.

Show your students the book cover and read a description or summary of the book. After providing the visual, ask some questions about their impression. What does the cover look like? Who typically reads this book? How has it been rated? Have any of your students read the book?

2. Provide a character family tree or outline.

I once had a university professor provide my English literature class with a complete family tree of the characters in a William Faulkner book, an author who can make you feel like you’re reading a book in a second language! I kept this handy outline in my book and was able to better follow the plot and understand the characters from the beginning, ensuring a much better success rate of comprehending the novel.

This will also greatly help your ESL students understand the players in the book. Who is who and how are they related? Chart it out for your students and discuss.

3. Discuss the plot and guess the ending.

After reading the summary, have the students break into small groups and come up with a possible ending. Does the good guy get the girl? Does the dog die? Have your students discuss the possibilities, which will provide them with a better understanding of what the book is about, and where it could lead.

But, of course, don’t provide any spoilers! Leave them curious as to what will happen!

ESL Audiobook Lesson Plan: A Typical Listening Exercise

It might take your students a whole semester or even a whole year to finish a regular-length novel, especially if you only meet once a week or the audiobook is only a small portion of your class.

The following exercise is a typical day of reading and comprehension. It includes listening, reading, speaking and writing.

1. Listen with a transcript.

Listen to the reading (length will be determined based on your schedule and reading plan). Provide a printed transcript for your students to follow along as they listen. Stop occasionally to discuss any difficult topics or vocabulary to make sure the students understand the story.

2. Practice reading excerpts in small groups.

Have students break into groups of at least two. Choose an excerpt of the reading and have them practicing reading to each other. Have students underline any words on the transcript that they don’t know or understand. Go over any confusing words or phrases as a class.

3. Write a short summary.

Have students write a short summary of the excerpt or the day’s reading. What happened? Who was involved? Then have your students read their summaries aloud.

And One More Thing...

If you're looking for creative ways to teach English, then you'll love using FluentU in your classroom!

It's got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch regularly. There are tons of great choices there when you're looking for songs for in-class activities.

You'll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids' singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

teach-english-with-interactive-videos

On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.

Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

teach-english-with-subtitled-television-clips

For example, if a student taps on the word "searching," they'll see this:

practice-english-with-captioned-dialogue

Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like "fill in the blank."

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It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it's guaranteed to get your students excited about learning English!

Sign up for a free trial and bring FluentU to your classroom today.


Lindsay Nash is a freelance writer and photographer living in Daegu, South Korea. She is a former ESL teacher.

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