6 Ways to Ace Your Next ESL Listening Assessment

Want to hear a secret?

I don’t like taking tests.

In my 20 years of teaching, I’ve yet to run into anyone passionate about taking tests. Why? Because they can be stressful.

Students spend all week studying material, only to blank out when it’s actually time to answer questions.

And when it comes to listening assessments, there’s even more pressure as students are expected to understand various English accents—usually in real time.

Which is precisely why I try to make my listening assessments as painless as possible for my students. That way, they’re able to feel relaxed and confident when it comes time to test their English listening and understanding.

Over and Out: 6 Creative ESL Listening Assessment Ideas

Done the wrong way, assessments can destroy students’ self-esteem. They’ll start to doubt their language proficiency and become reluctant to participate in class exercises.

But done right, assessments can be one of the most effective ways to build up your students’ confidence and motivation.

Listening assessments are great for determining students’ comprehension or their ability to communicate. What’s more, the way your students perform on their listening assessments can help you look at how to improve lesson plans and address the needs your learners more closely.

Sounds good, right? So, how do you give a listening assessment that empowers your students?

Here are some activities that can be used to evaluate listening at all levels.

1. Assessing the Listening of Absolute Beginners

Activity: Total Physical Response (TPR)

Listening activities can be especially difficult for beginners who’ve yet to get a complete grasp of the English language. For this reason, the TPR method is a great way to test their listening, as it doesn’t require students to produce any language. Here’s how you can do it.

  • Pre-activity: The teacher will show pictures of verbs which have been taught in class. Both teacher and students will go through the motions for each verb.
  • Activity: The teacher will call out each verb. Students will be asked to mimic each verb called out. This time, the teacher won’t participate in the activity.
  • Post-activity: The teacher will remove all visuals and only call out each action. Students will then mimic each action the mentions. As this is happening, the teacher should take note to make sure students mimic each verb correctly.

What’s more, this activity can be turned into a game. Simply call out verbs for students to mimic. Every student that does the wrong action is out until there is a winner.

2. Assessing the Listening of Elementary-level Students

Activity: Blending Boards

This activity consists of building boards with pictures which tell a story or have a logical sequence. This is a great activity for evaluating the concrete vocabulary elementary-level learners know, such as the rooms in a house, parts of the body, food or any other vocabulary which can be represented visually.

  • Pre-activity: The teacher will show a board with nine images. Students will then identify the objects seen in each picture. These images should be centered around the topics covered in class.
  • Activity: The teacher will provide the students with a sheet containing the same images introduced in the pre-activity. Students will hear individual words, sentences or short conversations and indicate the picture that corresponds to the audio being played.
  • Post-activity: Students can write a sentence or short paragraph about one of the pictures seen on the board.

At the end of class, have your learners read their sentences and have their classmates identify which images they’re talking about.

3. Assessing the Listening of Pre-intermediate Students

Activity: Cloze exercises

This assessment can range from fill-in-the-blank exercises to more complex information-gathering activities (also known as information gap actvities). Preferably, conversations at regular speed should be utilized. If you’re looking for conversations online, YouTube is a great place to start. I like to use this mock job interview video when assessing my students.

Once you’ve found a conversation you want to use, it’s time to set up the exercise.

  • Pre-activity: Students will look over an information sheet and discuss the details required for filling a job application. It’s important to make sure that students are clear on what information students need to know in order to complete this sheet.
  • Activity: Students will listen to a conversation and fill in the personal information provided by the speakers using the information sheet given to them. Then, the learners will work together in pairs to check if their information is correct. The audio will be played again to confirm information.
  • Post-Activity: Have students fill in their own job application, using personal information rather than details from the video.

If you have time after the assessment, have your students role play a job interview in pairs using the answers from their information sheets.


Also, if you’re looking for more engaging material to help boost students’ English skills, try adding FluentU to your classroom curriculum.

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

This helps your students learn how to communicate like a native English speaker—all while gaining a deeper appreciation for the culture.

4. Assessing the Listening of Intermediate Students

Activity: Minimal pairs

Minimal pairs are great for isolating troublesome sounds, especially when focusing on listening comprehension and accent reduction. If you’d like to learn more about minimal pairs, this article provides plenty of examples you can use in your assessment. Once you’ve got a list of minimal pairs you want to introduce, begin the activity.

  • Pre-activity: Students will look over two sentences containing the target sound. They will identify similar-sounding words (for example, bear and beer), by underlining them, or a TPR-like activity such as raising their hands every time they hear the correct sound.
  • Activity: Students will listen, either to an audio or a reading by the teacher, and identify each minimal pair by writing on a sheet of paper. Then they’ll practice producing that target sound. Students will “judge” each other to make sure they’re getting the right sound.
  • Post-activity: Students will produce a dialog using all of the target vocabulary within the context of the topic being discussed.

At the end of the lesson, go over the answers with your students and look at which sounds they had the most trouble identifying. This will help you when preparing the class for future listening exercises.

5. Assessing the Listening of Upper-intermediate Students

Activity: Paraphrasing

Upper-intermediate students need to learn how to paraphrase what they’ve been listening to, and here’s how you can challenge them to do so.

  • Pre-activity: Students will discuss an image displayed on the board. This could be a single photograph of a situation, a sequence or even a short video accompanied by audio. Students will speculate what they think this image is about.
  • Activity: Students will listen to a short audio clip that corresponds to the pre-activity, and then, in pairs, repeat what they heard in their own words. Afterwards, students should work in pairs and discuss what they listened to, comparing and contrasting their answers.
  • Post-activity: The teacher can then display a transcript of the audio in order for students to compare their understanding. They can then compare their impressions on the activity.

Finally, once the assessment is over, hold an in-class discussion where everyone gives feedback on the listening clip.

6. Assessing the Listening of Advanced Students

Activity: Debates

Being able to express opinions is required on the speaking portion of most major English tests, especially for advanced learners. This is a higher-order skill that can enhance students’ critical thinking capabilities. In addition, debates are fun activities where students can express their ideas and opinions on a number of topics and issues. So, why not use this as part of your listening assessment?

  • Pre-activity: The teacher will present a topic, and discussion should be encouraged in order to activate background knowledge. This can be done through a short reading, quick video or even a slide presentation with pictures of vocabulary words that students should know for your main activity.
  • Activity: Students will watch a short speech or presentation on the subject presented in the previous activity (I love this TED Talks video because it’s short, sweet and informative). Students are required to take notes that support their arguments.

  • Post-Activity: Students will have five minutes to go over their notes and then present their opinion on the topic. After all students have spoken, give your learners the opportunity for rebuttals.

The great thing about this assessment is that it doesn’t only test your students’ listening capabilities, it also gives them an opportunity to practice their speaking as well. And if you’re planning on giving a more comprehensive assessment, you can even have them write a short essay on the debate topic after the assessment is over.


As you can see, listening assessments don’t have to follow the same listen-and-answer format that students are accustomed to. With a little bit of planning and creativity, you can turn your listening assessments into a fun and engaging exercises that students enjoy.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe