Listen Up! A Guide to Simple ESL Listening Activities for Beginners

The key to learning English is to develop killer listening skills, but this is often the most challenging step for new English language learners.

That’s why we’ve created this quick guide to English listening activities for beginners.

To start everyone off on the right foot, take a look at the following tips, tricks, notes and tried-and-true activities!


Media in the Classroom: Video and Audio Clips for Listening Comprehension

The first step in learning English is hearing and repeating words. While many people will recognize words on paper, they may not pick them up audibly. This is particularly true if the speaker is speaking quickly. Unless you can understand what you’re hearing in another language, it’s impossible to learn to converse in it.

That’s why listening skills are essential and should be developed right from the very beginning.

Videos and audio clips are the perfect ESL listening activities and you don’t even have to make your own. There are tons of YouTube channels specially-crafted for English learners.

Not to mention, FluentU has hundreds of real-world English language videos available for you and your students. There’s even a special “newbie” category which is perfectly suited to the needs of beginning ESL students!

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

While you do need to screen any video before showing it to your students, video sites can be a wonderful resource for ESL teachers.

Choosing Appropriate Listening Clips for Your Class

Whether you opt for video or just audio (keep in mind that audio with no visual references can be more difficult to understand), the clips need to be appropriate for your class. It does not matter if you pick radio segments, music videos or even goofy, sweater-filled 90’s sitcoms — just be sure to select clips that are age-appropriate, as well as easy enough for beginning ESL students.

The video and audio that you select for your students should contain vocabulary that your class already knows. It’s fine to have some new vocabulary, but it’ll be easier for them to understand the clip if they already know some of the words being used.

The speakers should speak at a normal rate as opposed to very quickly. Additionally, it’s best to stick to an accent similar to your own. If you’re American, pick out some of your favorite American movies that will reinforce this accent for your students. When you select a video, you should be confident that the majority of the class will get the gist of most of the clip.

For beginning students, the clips should be fairly short — no longer than five minutes. One or two minutes is usually more than enough.

Get the Most Out of Media Listening Activities

It’s never a good idea to simply turn on the media clip and play it without any explanation. Students will find themselves struggling to understand the context and will often miss out on the subtler parts of the conversation.

Here are some other tips for making media listening activities a success in your classroom:

  • Play it twice. Make sure you let students listen to the clip twice. The first time orients them and the second time allows them to really focus on the details.
  • Set listening goals. Before you start the clip, tell the students what they’ll be listening to. Give them some context (“This is an argument between two brothers.”) and ask them to listen for something specific, such as what the brothers are fighting about or another pertinent piece of information revealed in the clip.
  • Limit new vocabulary. ESL students that are just starting out will have a very limited vocabulary, so having them watch a piece of Shakespeare won’t accomplish much. Stick to media that’s fairly simple and covers words and phrases they should already know.

Top ESL Listening Activities for Beginners

You have many options when it comes to listening activities, apart from watching YouTube. Games and fun, fast-moving activities are often a welcome change of pace that can help your students practice their listening skills. Try out some of the following listening activities to kick your classroom’s level of enthusiasm up a notch or two:

1. Find Your Way

Following directions is one of the most important reasons to learn listening skills. In this activity, students will attempt to follow directions correctly. You can either have them trace a path on a city map, or you can create an obstacle course in the classroom and verbally direct them through it.

Each student will have a separate turn. If you want to make it a competition, keep track of how many wrong turns the student makes. The person with the fewest mistakes is the winner.

2. Telephone

You may remember this game from your childhood. Everyone sits in a row or a circle and one person is given a sentence, whispered in their ear. They then whisper it to the next person who tells the next person and so on. The last student will repeat what they heard. The end result can be quite muddled and very different from the original sentence! To make this competitive, divide the class into teams and see who can get the closest to the original sentence.

3. Which Word Did I Say?

On the board, write two words that are commonly confused by ESL students. Say one word and see how many students can figure out which of the two words you said.

Similar sounding words include:

  • feel/fill
  • sheep/ship
  • bat/bad
  • tin/ten
  • worse/worth
  • rot/lot
  • hour/are
  • cat/cut

To make this a little more difficult, try using the word in a sentence. This makes it tougher, since the listeners will have to pay very close attention to both context and vocabulary.

4. Listen for the Answer

This game is similar to musical chairs. Set up one less chair than there are students. Ask them a question and tell them to listen to the audio 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 stay sitting. A wrong answer means they must get up again. You can queue up several clips and ask multiple questions for each so that students must listen for something specific.

A fun twist is to play music with clear lyrics and ask students to find the answer to the question in it.

5. Pick a Word

If you have very early beginners, it can be difficult for them to pick up much of a conversation. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them listening assignments, though. Try this activity out. Give each student a word to listen for and have them mark it down every time they hear it in an audio or video clip. Make sure you’ve counted the words ahead of time so you can check their work! While this activity may seem overly simplistic, it prepares students by having them listen for specific sounds.

How to Help Students Listen Better

Eliminate bad habits. Let students know that asking questions or talking during the listening activity is discouraged. If you have a student that tends to ask questions while the audio is playing, tell them to wait or devise a signal to let them know that you will not tolerate interruptions.

Watch the accents. When listening to audio clips, try to stick with ones that use the same English accent that you have. While students will learn to distinguish between yours and other accents, it can be very difficult to understand two drastically different pronunciations of the same word early on.

Give the context. Make sure students understand what the scene is about if you’re showing them a video clip. It will allow the class to focus on the actual conversation.

Reduce distractions. In real life, conversations do not take place in a vacuum. However, to help your beginner ESL students get started you will want to cut back on distractions wherever possible. Keep students focused by erasing unnecessary content from the board, banning phones in class and keeping the sound level down.

Keep it simple. Beginners shouldn’t be expected to understand everything. If you aren’t sure if a clip is too complicated for your students, it’s usually best to opt for something simpler. You will find that shorter, easy-to-understand media will be the simplest for listening exercises. After some practice, the class will be ready for more advanced activities.

You don’t have to hold off on the ESL listening activities just because your students are beginners. Listening games and exercises can help them improve their English that much faster, if you use appropriate ones.

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