Woman in a red and white top listening to headphones

Top 8 ESL Listening Exercises for Adults to Boost Their Comprehension Skills

We know that listening practice is vital when learning any language.

But let’s be honest, the CDs that come with ESL textbooks absolutely need supplements.

Hearing the same voices over and over can get boring, and the topics could be more current.

So how can we liven it up for our adult students?

We need to mix some spirited creativity into our ESL listening activities!

Especially for adults, where it sometimes takes more to entertain while teaching them, original English listening activities will go a long way. Just like children, adults learn better when they’re interested and engaged.


Types of Listening

There are three key types of listening, and knowing what they are will help you target each one through these listening exercises for adults.

  • Attentive listening — This type of listening involves giving your undivided attention to the speaker, focusing on their body language, tone and what it is they’re actually saying. It requires concentration and a degree of empathy to understand their message fully.
  • Responsive listening — This refers to situations where you are providing verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker while they are talking, indicating your understanding and/or level of agreement. It encourages engagement and communication between the speaker and the listener.
  • Active listening — This listening style entails fully absorbing what the speaker is saying, seeking clarification where needed and asking relevant questions at appropriate moments. The listener may paraphrase and summarize to ensure accurate comprehension, demonstrating genuine interest in the speaker’s point of view.

ESL Listening Exercises for Adults

1. Watch Clips from Movies and TV Shows

Everyone loves a good movie and a little television, and both can be used for many different ESL activities in the classroom. You can always write out some comprehension questions for your students to answer during a full-length film, but what else could we do?

A great way to incorporate this type of media into class is to pick short clips of movies that fit with the lesson you are teaching that day.

Watching these clips at the start of class is not only great for reinforcing curriculum, but it also helps students get a feel for American culture and everyday conversational language. It’s really entertaining too!

If you’re not sure which shows to start with, here are some ’90s sitcoms that work really well for English learners.

Here’s another English listening activity using one of these clips: Show a list of names of the main characters that are in the clip you’re going to watch. Have all of the students pick one character to pay a special amount of attention to. At the end of the movie or video clip, have students fill out a questionnaire or do a miniature report on their chosen character.

Questions can include: What is his/her name? What is his/her job? What was he/she trying to say? Describe how he/she looked. What was his/her personality like?

2. Encourage Students to Watch the News at Home for Fun, In-class Activities

Assigning students homework that involves watching the news in English is beneficial in more ways than one. Not only does it give students another medium of listening to English, but it also gives them something to talk about with other English speakers. This will help students engage in the culture, which is so vital to the English language learning process.

Here’s an extension: Have students do current event presentations in the classroom to report on the information they learned from watching the news.

This way, not only are students listening, but they are also retaining information and getting tons of speaking practice, too.

A fun group project students can do after watching the news at home is to be news reporters in the classroom.

Students can take highlights from the news, write them down, practice and finally report the news in groups to the class. Add a cool news channel logo to project on the screen behind them for an extra flare that students will love!

3. Use Music: Write Songs and Sing in Class

People of all ages and cultural backgrounds appreciate music.

Listening to music in the classroom helps with vocabulary memorization and word pronunciation. It also helps students to get a deeper grasp of word meanings and is a great way to explain rhyming words.

A cool way to incorporate music in the classroom is to have students split into groups and write simple songs using vocabulary words that they learned that week. Using a familiar tune and just writing new words for the song is a good idea for the less-creative folks.

Have students perform the songs for the classroom and encourage everyone to sing along!

Here’s a twist on your classic fill-in-the-blanks listening activity: Give students song lyric sheets with some of the lyrics missing. Listen to the song a couple of times, and instruct the students to fill in the blanks.

To check for the correct answers, go around the room and have each person sing out a line. They have to sing it, or it doesn’t count!

4. Use Authentic Content from FluentU

One of the challenges of using movies, TV shows, news and music with students is that it’s authentic content, and the natural speech in native English speech can be too difficult for English learners to keep up with.

FluentU was designed to overcome the obstacles of teaching with authentic content.

The program introduces English vocab and grammar naturally, through clips and short videos like movie trailers, music videos, vlogs, news segments, funny commercials and more. All videos have interactive transcripts and subtitles that allow students to click on words to see their meaning.

Screenshot showing Adele's 'Easy on Me' in FluentU

Students will, more specifically, get contextual definitions, audio pronunciations, example sentences, clips from other FluentU videos where the word is used and the option to add the word as a flashcard. Flashcard decks can then be reviewed by students at their pace—the program adapts to their learning and presents them with personalized questions.

On the iOS and Android apps, students can even speak their answers to quiz questions for some speaking practice.

Screenshot showing FluentU quiz

FluentU is a robust learning experience that’s easy for you to set up and maintain, and entertaining for students to use.

5. Act Out Scenarios in Role Play

Come up with scenarios for students to act out in front of the classroom. For example, if the lesson for that day is on “Introductions,” consider the following brief script:

Student 1: “Hello, my name is Jacob”

Student 2: “Nice to meet you, I am Mary.”

Student 1: “Nice to meet you too.”

After having two students volunteer to act out the scene in front of the class, ask the rest of the class comprehension questions. This activity works well with a wide range of lessons such as restaurant etiquette, job interviews and food/cooking.

6. Read Aloud in Class: Partner Gap-fill Activity

Reading aloud is an oldie but a goodie.

Reading in front of the class can encourage students to feel confident about reading, speaking and listening to English. This is often practiced with popcorn reading, where students pop in and out, taking turns reading in a random order. 

Another way to give students fantastic listening practice while reading aloud is a partner gap-fill activity. Have students sit in pairs, and then give each partner their own copy of the text sample, either A or B (A pair is comprised of one A and one B).

Although the text sample is the same, the A and B worksheets are not. Each worksheet has blanks in different places. Where A has a blank, B does not.

Pairs take turns reading aloud their full sentences, so that their partner can fill in their blanks. The students should continue doing this until they have no more blanks!

Note: This is also a great activity to practice spelling. Before starting, make sure students know how to ask questions like,  “How do you spell ~?” and “Could you say that again?”

If you’re in need of a text to read aloud, there are tons of resources online that are available for little or no cost at all. Don’t be afraid to do your research and use what is out there! Here are some great places to start looking:

7. Embed Questions into TED Talks or YouTube Videos

Podcasts like TED Talks are a great resource for advanced listening exercises for adults in the classroom, but how can we spice it up a notch?

If your students are ready for more content-filled material, use TED-Ed to create a listening activity/lesson around a TED Talk. TED-Ed allows you to embed questions (multiple choice, open-ended and discussion) into the TED Talk of your choice.

Browse through public TED-Ed lessons or follow these step-by-step instructions to make one of your own! These can be used in front of the class in a big group, or for individual practice in a computer lab.

8. Play with ESL Listening Apps

In addition to podcasts and YouTube clips, phone apps are a revolutionary tool in the world of learning. There are so many new listening resources that are readily available at the touch of a finger.

Here are two ESL apps that are great for listening activities – both inside and outside of the classroom.

Speech Tutor – by Synapse Apps

Speech Tutor app logo

Cost: $24.99

One of the greatest challenges ESL students face is learning how to pronounce words correctly. Because different languages use different parts of the mouth to speak, it can be hard to get used to making English consonant and vowel sounds.

In this phenomenal app, students can listen to and see exactly how the sound is made by watching a virtual mouth say it. This app helps with improving the clarity of sounds and fluency of words while developing a natural English accent.

Learn English with Hello-Hello

Learn English with Hello Hello logo

iTunes | Google Play
Cost: $0.00

Learn English is great for listening to conversational English. The app functions by showing the student animated videos of scenarios and checking for comprehension.

One of the coolest features of this app is the talkback-recording feature. After each scenario, the student is encouraged to record him or herself repeating the dialogue they just listened to on the video. The student can then listen to the recording and be able to identify the words they said correctly and the words that need improvement.


Listening activities are necessary when learning a new language, and luckily they’re also a great way to introduce new topics, reinforce curriculum or check for understanding.

Using any of these ESL listening activities for adults is a sure way to grab ahold of their interest and propel their English skills up and along on the road to English fluency!

For more tips on teaching ESL to adults, visit this post next: 

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