Flying High: 5 Engaging ESL Listening Activities for Kids

“Open up, here comes the airplane!”

Sometimes it takes a lot to get young kids’ attentions.

And even once they’re way past the food-disguised-as-airplane stage, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to sit and listen for long periods of time.

Make kids listen in a second language, and you’ve got an even tougher situation for them—at times even stressful.

So to ease all anxiety or frustration, listening practice should be made interactive and exciting at an early age.

With the help of technology, it’s easy to make this component of language learning a lot of fun. There are plenty of ways to spice up listening practice through the use of videos or songs, for example.

But for those who don’t have access to these technologies in class, that’s okay! There are still tons of interactive listening activities that’ll grab your kids’ attentions and boost their skills.

I’ve got five of these ESL activities for you below, but first let’s make sure your students are comfortable with listening activities.

How to Make Kids Comfortable with ESL Listening Activities

Make listening a daily practice

A great way to decrease the stress that listening activities can cause students is by incorporating listening into their daily practice. Use an activity or game at the beginning or end of class that involves a lot of listening, but is interactive enough that the students won’t notice.

Break away from audiobooks and CDs

Stepping away from more traditional listening activities will create a positive and fun atmosphere that students will learn to embrace. Rather than typical audiobooks and CDs, try to stimulate your students’ imaginations!

An option could be to choose a story at the beginning of the semester and read parts of it every day. Make it a special treat and not part of the usual lesson plan so students look forward to it. Then, instead of asking questions at the end of the passage, ask questions at the beginning so students know what to listen for.

Step down as the leader to allow peer leadership

A way to further facilitate this idea is by stepping down as the leader. Peer leadership is a powerful tool in the classroom which not only empowers students, but helps them to learn new concepts.

There are multiple ways of using peer leadership in your classroom, such as:

  • Leading warm-up exercises
  • Reviewing homework
  • Explaining worksheet directions
  • Dictating words or stories during activities

5 Engaging ESL Listening Activities for Kids

1. Draw Me a Story

Break out the crayons and color pencils! In this activity, students have the chance to express their inner artist as they listen to a story that you tell. The story could be a book chosen ahead of time, or merely a short narrative that includes some keywords and phrases from the lesson.

The idea is to have the students draw what they are hearing. This is a great activity to use with a mixed-level class because high-level learners will be able to pick out more details, while low-level learners won’t feel the pressure of having to answer questions.

If your whole class is at a higher or lower level, here are two variations to try:

  • Low-level option: If you are working with a low-level class, it might be easier to start with simple phrases that are not necessarily a story. After you have read all of the phrases and the students are done drawing, try to create a story about the images together. For example, perhaps you had them draw a smiling blue mouse, two sad dogs, and a broken cup. You can now ask them questions about the phrases to connect them together. Why are the dogs sad? Why is the cup broken? Why is the mouse smiling?
  • High-level option: If you are working with an advanced class, start with a very open-ended narrative and have your students create the story with you. This gives students the option to speak while giving the rest of the class a chance to listen to their peers.

2. Who Am I?

For this activity, break students into two teams. Ahead of time, you’ll need to prepare a list of descriptions of famous people, animals or everyday objects for yourself. Each list item needs 5-8 details, starting from very vague and becoming more exact as the game progresses.

To incorporate peer leadership, choose students to read off the description details to their teams—starting with the most vague. Teams then receive points according to how fast they guess the answer. Again, here are two variations based on your class’s level:

  • Low-level option: When working with a low-level class you will have to keep this activity in its most basic form. Choose themes such as food, animals, or holidays to help make this a success. To increase the difficulty, ask teams bonus questions about the word if they get it right.
  • High-level option: With an advanced class you can allow the students to write the descriptions themselves. If you take this route, plan to have a longer activity session. In the beginning, give teams the vocabulary words you will be using. Allow 5-10 minutes for the students to write descriptions for each word. Be sure to proofread and make sure that the descriptions are logical and correct. Then move on to the game and allow students to say their own descriptions to the other teams for them to guess.

3. Whiteboard Race

This one can turn into a very lively game because it gets students up out of their seats and moving. The class should be broken down into two teams. One student from each team will come to the front and take a marker. The students should stand a good distance away from the whiteboard so they have a small ways to run.

You’ll then dictate a word, phrase or short sentence. The student who gets to the board and correctly writes what you said scores a point for their team. The marker is then passed to the next student and the process is repeated.

  • Low-level option: If you are working with a low-level class you’ll most likely have to stick with vocabulary words. This does not mean it’s where the lesson has to end though. Use this as a chance to review some basic phonics. Have them circle the vowels or underline the prefix/suffix.
  • High-level option: For more advanced classes, the sky is the limit with this game. If you would like to stick with vocabulary words but make it a little more difficult, dictate the word but have your students write it in a sentence. If you are looking for something even more challenging, dictate small sentences and require your kids to use the correct punctuation.

4. Touch and Go

This activity will require a little bit of preparation and is good as a warm-up for both high and low-level learners. You’ll need a story that includes essential vocabulary, and your students will need flashcards with these words on them.

Pair up your students or put them in small groups. Give each group 2-3 flashcards with vocabulary words on them. As you’re reading the story, your students must raise the card with the correct vocabulary word when they hear it in the story.

  • Low-level option: If you are working with a low-level class, peer leadership can be used with this activity. As you are reading the story to the class, have another student help you. This can be done by allowing them to read sections of the passage or just by you pointing to specific vocabulary words you want the student to say.
  • High-level option: For high-level learners, read the story three times. Each time, students should rotate their vocabulary cards so they are not listening for the same words. Then, increase your reading speed each round—start off very slow and end with the pace you would use with another native speaker.

5. Chain Reaction Spelling

Chain Reaction is a combination of the whiteboard race game (#3) mixed with telephone. Divide your class into two teams and line them up opposite of each other. Each round a leader and runner is chosen from each team.

The leader receives a card with a spelling word on it. Their responsibility is to whisper the word one letter at a time to the person in front of them. The letter is then whispered down the line until it reaches the runner. Once the runner has the letter, they run to the whiteboard and write it down. This process continues until the whole word is written correctly on the board.

  • Low-level option: For a low-level class you will want to keep this game very basic, but there is still an opportunity for peer leadership. In addition to your leader and runner, choose a writer. This time, you show the flashcard to the leader instead of giving it to them. They then have to quietly dictate the word to the writer. The writer writes the word down on a blank flashcard and then continues to whisper the word letter-by-letter down the line until it gets to the runner.
  • High-level option: If you’ve got an advanced class and want to make the game just a little bit harder, require the runner to use the word in a sentence. You can also have them write the sentence on the board for extra writing practice.


The use of interactive activities in the classroom allows for kids to engage with all aspects of learning a new language without the pressure of a traditional classroom setting. By making listening fun, students won’t even have the chance to fear it. Their worries will effortlessly fly away, as their listening skills soar high!

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