esl listening activities

The Essential Guide to Using Audio Effectively in Your ESL Class

The ESL classroom is always a practice in listening for our students, so we don’t really need to supplement listening practice, right?


As ESL teachers, we need to introduce other forms of listening exercises to our classes in order to improve student focus.

Students will never pay attention to every single word you say during a class period, nor should they.

Heck, native English speakers can’t even pay complete attention in their regular classes.

And since it takes longer for an ESL student to process information while listening, we wouldn’t expect them to understand everything we say.

So we need to provide more opportunities for students to hone their listening skills. While classroom conversations are beneficial for ESL students, they also need more focused activities with an academic component to improve.

Why Use Outside Audio Sources?

Let’s face it, students are tired of hearing their teacher’s voice every day; they need variety. Fortunately, there are numerous audio resources that teachers can use in class, depending on the technical capacity of the classroom (some teachers still lack basic technology in their classrooms). With some diverse audio content, your classroom will be more engaging for more of the students.

In addition to being more interesting, hearing a span of English voices and accents will better prepare your students for real-life situations. Since English is so widely studied and spoken by people all over the globe, no two English speakers sound alike. The exposure to various audio sources will get your students more comfortable hearing these assorted accents.

Finally, using outside audio sources also creates the opportunity to bring current events into the ESL classroom. Most news programs are available online, either as a podcast or a video. These news sources help involve the students in class, since their content is directly linked to students’ everyday lives and the society in which they live. You don’t need to restrict yourself to formal news, though; audio sources related to popular culture will create the same interest and engagement.

Where to Find ESL Audio Resources

Most ESL textbooks now come with CDs that are connected to exercises in the books. While ESL textbook audio components can be useful, many students also find them rather boring. In my experience, the material is a little dull and dated. If we’re supposed to teach students to understand the world around them, textbook CDs won’t help much.

Luckily for us, today there are tons of audio sources available online. In fact, there are so many that it can be daunting to sift through all of the sites to find the ones that are worthwhile. To save you from that grueling task, here are five of my favorite places to find audio samples online for ESL class.

Voice of America

The best audio resource available for higher-level ESL students is Voice of America (VOA). The VOA website offers a wide variety of topics to use in class, including current events, culture and history. The site has streaming audio as well as downloadable MP3s and a transcript.

National Public Radio (NPR)

If you want to challenge your students, you can also use NPR, which lets users download the MP3 files for later listening. Like VOA, NPR has streaming audio and transcripts, which can allow students to use the site on their own.

Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab

For lower-level students, Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab provides audio exercises with questions. If you have a classroom with a computer and projector attached, this is a useful resource. If you can have a class in a computer lab, this is more useful for individual work, since students can check their own answers. (Listen & Read Along)

There is also the Listen & Read Along page at, which has audio with text, as well as some sections of the website that provide downloadable MP3s. You will, however, need to make up your own questions to use these in class.

TED Talks

Similar in level to NPR, TED Talks are about “ideas worth spreading,” and cover a range of worthwhile topics. The talks have interactive transcripts, and you can download videos (MP4) with or without English subtitles. Talks can also be listened to from their downloadable podcast, and you can search videos on the site by topics or duration.


There is plenty of scaffolding so that learners are never overwhelmed. It’s a fantastic and rigorous way to engage students and teach them about culture, as they learn English at the same time.

How to Use Audio Effectively in Your ESL Class

Now that you have numerous places from which to find and select audio samples, here’s how you can use one of them in class.

Level: All
Type: Whole class
Time: 10-45 minutes, but can take longer depending on level
Materials Needed: MP3 or CD player, audio file, copies of worksheet with listening comprehension questions

Before starting this activity, you may want to review some vocabulary words that appear in the audio to better prepare the students. However, you might also want your students to figure out the vocabulary through context clues, in which case you’ll review the words at the end of the activity.

There are two ways to begin this classroom activity. You can either hand out the worksheet with questions before playing the audio, or hand out the worksheet after playing the audio for the second time. If you wait until the replay of the audio, ask the students to take notes as they listen the first time.

If you choose to hand out the listening worksheet before playing the audio, review the questions with the class first. This will allow students to ask questions and clarify what they need to answer during the listening exercise.

Tell the students that they will listen to the audio twice and that they should wait until they hear it for the second time before answering the questions. During the first listen, they should consider the questions and take notes.

Types of questions for the ESL listening comprehension worksheet

Lower-level ESL students – The questions you ask the class will depend on the level of ESL you are teaching. Generally, for lower-level ESL students, you should use mostly true/false questions and some multiple choice. If you want to challenge the students, you may include a few fill-in-the-blank questions.

Lower-intermediate students – With the lower-intermediate ESL students, most of the questions should be either multiple choice or fill in the blank. You can also include some simple short answer questions as a challenge.

Advanced ESL students – As the students reach the higher levels of ESL, the questions for listening exercises should move towards only short answers. At this level, students should be able to interpret what they hear and to discuss the audio. Open-ended questions should also be included with more advanced students to allow them the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Review the audio with your ESL class after listening

Any questions? – Before reviewing the answers to the questions, ask the class if anyone has questions about the audio. This is also an opportunity to review any vocabulary that isn’t on the worksheet.

Read the transcript – In the case of using audio from the VOA, NPR or TED, you can next provide the students with the transcript to read (some other websites may provide transcripts as well). Give the class some time to read through the transcript on their own. Then you could also read the transcript together, going around the room and helping students with pronunciation.

Let students change answers – Reading the transcript provides students with an opportunity to review their answers. Instruct the class that they can change their answers, but that they should mark which answers they changed (with a simple check mark, for example, or any other symbol). This gives you valuable feedback, letting you know which questions are more difficult, and what points could use more emphasis when you adjust for future lessons.

Review answers to the ESL listening comprehension questions

Review answers one by one – After the students have had a chance to read the transcript and review their answers, go over each one with the class. This is your opportunity to discover if a question was confusing or misleading, or if one particular point of the audio was too difficult for their level. In some classes this may also tell you if you need to find more challenging listening activities.

Discuss and replay – Be prepared to discuss the questions and answers, especially with the advanced students. Finally, if a specific question was difficult for most of the class, replay that portion of the audio or read through the transcript with the class.

Using this type of listening exercise at regular intervals in an ESL class will improve both the students’ listening skills and their understanding of the world around them, particularly when using material that covers current events. While many teachers are tied to the textbook through the set curriculum, adding an audio component with engaging content will better prepare ESL students for future courses and provide a more interesting point of discussion for your ESL classroom.

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