4 Reality-based Exercises for ESL Listening Comprehension Success

Real-world experiences have got to be part of every ESL classroom.

They’re absolutely necessary—the world beyond the classroom is full of language.

Everywhere you go you’re bombarded with sounds and voices.

People speak quickly, using slang and dialects in unfamiliar accents. It can be overwhelming to be an ESL student in such a diverse and fast-paced world.

Many ESL students credit videos and movies as the secrets to their success. These authentic materials, made by native speakers for native speakers, help them become more comfortable with listening to English in more realistic contexts.

Well, we ESL teachers are experts at creating great exercises for students to practice listening comprehension in the classroom. But students who are comfortable listening to their teachers and to other students may still struggle with listening outside of the classroom.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a few ideas for you to bring authentic listening comprehension practice to your ESL students.

The Real World ESL: 4 Listening Comprehension Exercises That Simulate Real-life Scenarios

1. Audiobook Exercises

Audiobooks will help listening comprehension as students try to zero in on what’s being read and how the words work together to form a story.

Audiobooks offer your ESL students a variety of options. If one student likes classics and another likes science fiction, it’s not hard to appeal to all of the different tastes in the classroom. Audiobooks are sometimes read by women and sometimes by men, meaning they offer a variety of reading models. Depending on what books they listen to, your students might get to hear readers use different voices for different characters, or even read in dialects and accents.

Audiobooks are available in different reading levels—everything from elementary children’s books to dense old world classics. You can play audiobooks on a variety of devices like CD players, MP3 players, tablets and smartphones, making it easier for students to listen to audiobooks outside of class. Tell your students that they should listen while in the car or riding the bus. Audiobooks are a great way to pass the time on a long commute or trip.

In Class

You probably already have reading groups in class or have specific assigned readings for some lessons. Consider providing extra support for those assigned readings by letting students use audio recordings of the text during the lesson or for review later on. This could be great for your ESL students that need some listening comprehension help as well.

Reading for pleasure is an authentic activity that many people enjoy. Why not incorporate independent reading time into your lessons to further encourage the love of reading? During this time, students can use audiobooks to listen to a variety of texts. When they find a story they like, they can keep listening or read the actual book itself.

Resources for Audiobooks

Audible is a downloadable audiobook company owned by Amazon. You’ll find just about any book you’re looking for, from classics to new releases. The first book you download is free, and after that you pay a monthly membership fee for 1-2 books per month.

esl listening comprehension exercises

Librivox provides free recordings of public domain books. You won’t find new books on the site, but you’ll find clear recordings of classics.

esl listening comprehension exercises

Your local library may have an agreement with Overdrive, which allows people with library accounts to check out downloadable audiobooks for free.

The library is a great place for audiobooks. You’ll find CDs, and sometimes even cassette tapes, of these books available to check out.

2. Voicemail and Automated Phone Message Exercises

Listening to voicemail is something most modern people do. When we’re busy and can’t answer the phone, we expect that the caller will leave a message. In addition, listening to and following through with automated phones messages for business interactions is something that happens frequently.

Voicemail messages require you to understand what the caller needs from you. When you call a customer service line or business number, an automated message may require you to follow a series of directions in order to get the information you need or to speak to a live person.

Practicing listening to voicemail and automated messages allows your ESL students to listen to content in small chunks and for an authentic reason—to get a message or to conduct business. Both types of activities are very task-oriented: In order to complete the communication cycle the listener has to be able to understand what’s being said and do something about it.

ESL teachers can have students practice recording multi-step automated answering messages as a prior speaking lesson.

In Class

After students have recorded messages, have different students listen to the messages and choose the proper menus to complete the task (for example, wanting to hear your checking account balance by calling the bank, listening to menu options and following along to get to the right menu).

Be sure to hold a reflection discussion afterwards to see where students had difficulty following along. They may need more help understanding business-specific jargon in the recordings, or they may need more practice listening carefully and following along when someone is speaking quickly.

Resources for Voicemail

ESL-Lab offers several answering machine related recordings and associated listening comprehension exercises.

Web-ESL has this lesson on taking phone messages that offers 7 different voicemail recordings.

3. Eavesdropping Exercises

Take students on a field trip to a coffee shop or small restaurant, any place that people frequently gather and talk to each other. Have them eavesdrop on conversations and see how much information they can report back to the class.

If you can’t get out of the classroom, set up the situation—ask two students to hold a conversation in front of the class or invite another English-speaking friend to class to stage a mock conversation with you. Have students listen in, take notes and report back later.

Eavesdropping lets students practice listening to more conversational, casual styles of speech. Casual conversations between friends often wander from topic to topic. Listening to this less linear style of conversation is a great way for students to challenge themselves.

In Class

Ask students to recreate the dialogue they heard in writing. Encourage them to incorporate the things they overheard in their writing later on. Read sample dialogues from books they’re familiar with out loud. Ask students to identify the qualities that make a conversation between friends casual and intimate, as opposed to a more formal conversation between coworkers and bosses.

Resources for Conversations

esl listening comprehension exercises

The Learn English Conversation channel on YouTube has videos with conversations between people in various situations. It’s not as authentic as real-life eavesdropping, but could be helpful for beginning and intermediate ESL students.

Have students listen to clips of this conversation between J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe about the Harry Potter movies.

YouTube and TeacherTube offer tons of great English conversation videos for students to listen to.

4. Sportscaster Exercises

It’s very likely that the majority of your students like watching sports. For those that don’t, it’s possible that they’ll still get sucked into watching the Olympic Games and Word Cup every few years. Listening to audio clips of sporting events can be an engaging way for students to practice listening comprehension.

Sportscasters talk about a lot more than what’s happening on the field or course. They also discuss players, teams and sports history. Listening to sporting event narration and discussion requires a lot of effort. It’s often rather fast-paced. Students really need to focus on the details in order to picture what’s happening at the event.

In Class

Find YouTube or audio clips of sporting events and play the commentary (or snippets of it) to the class. Have them describe the game. To check their accuracy, have students check the scores online or watch part of the game after having them explain what they heard.

Resources for Sports Clips

esl listening comprehension exercises

The Guardian put together this list of the 10 greatest bits of commentary of all time. You can read them aloud or find recordings of them online.

The official YouTube channel of the Olympic Games offers highlight clips with commentary.


Students learning English must be able to apply their classroom skills to real-world situations.

Finding authentic ways to incorporate listening comprehension exercises in your lessons is very important to their skill development.

Doing this shows students how they’ll use and engage with English on a regular basis. By catering to student interest, whether through books, sports, social activity or technology, you can immerse your students in the vast world of authentic English.

These experiences will motivate students as they become aware of how important it is to be able to listen to and respond appropriately to what they hear all around them.

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