5 ESL Listening Exercises to Sharpen Your Students’ Ears

All we hear defines the world around us.

Whether you’re hearing a child’s laughter, a babbling book or a frat boy belching in your ear — sounds shape our world.

Listening is a major part of life experience.

Unfortunately, lots of people are so wrapped up in the speaking part that they forget this.

Sounds give us clues about our surroundings, while stimulating our thoughts with new feelings.

In the linguistic world, the phonemes and phonological structures of individual words, phrases and sentences serve to enrich our communication. They all add a colorful layer of meanings and emotions to our speech. Because sound plays such an important role in our experience, sharpening your ESL students’ listening skills will help them to enjoy and apply English comfortably and interactively.

Why ESL Listening Exercises Are Critical

While sadly neglected in many ESL classrooms, listening is every bit as important as speaking. In fact, appropriate and accurate interpretation of a communicated message will encourage even your shyest ESL learners to participate more vigorously in communicative situations.

Why? Because listening goes beyond the mere act of hearing something. Listening is an art, a way we connect with others.

Becoming efficient listeners is especially critical for ESL students because:

  • ESL students spend most of their class time listening as opposed to reading or writing.
  • Efficient listening promotes healthy communication.
  • Having proficient listening skills enables ESL students to understand instructions and information, allowing them to follow or respond appropriately.

According to Frankfurt International School, “Listening is NOT a passive process; it is an active skill of interpreting the verbal and non-verbal output of the speaker in order to understand the message.”

Communication Is a Two-Way Street

Because there’s a speaker and a listener in every interaction, an efficient conversation is promoted when the speaker can communicate a thought clearly, while the listener can competently receive the communicated message, understand the words and their meaning in the associated context, evaluate the intent of the speaker and respond with socially and culturally appropriate verbal and non-verbal forms.

To help your ESL students develop the confidence and competence to listen, respond and interact in a conversation, let’s nourish them with some entertaining ESL listening activities!

5 ESL Listening Activities to Sharpen Your Students’ Ears

1. Listen and Read Along

Your students may be able to recognize words individually. However, when words are put into a set of related sentences, the time it takes to recognize and process them may cause your ESL students to feel overwhelmed. To give your students the full experience of how words are used in real life, try to have them listen and read along with you.

Audio books are great because they allow students to follow an accompanying text while listening. This way they can familiarize themselves with the sounds of English. I also recommend nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss because they have lots of repetitive chunks of text. Not to mention, the reading is fun and relaxing.

2. Story Dictation: Say Sentences, Not Words

I am a big fan of applying language in social contexts. While dictation is definitely a part of my lesson plan, I like to give this seemingly daunting “test” an innovative twist. Instead of saying the vocabulary right up front, I like to hide my vocabulary within a few strung-together sentences. Students are supposed to identify the vocabulary and spell it out. This exercise challenges students to focus on what’s being said, while listening for the vocabulary as sentences are dictated to them.

For example, the vocabulary word given to students in this round is beautiful.

I say: “It was a great day to take a walk. So Jenny decided to put on a beautiful dress and visit the Rose Garden.”

Challenge for teachers: Use your vocabulary and sentences to tell a story so your students aren’t just sharpening their listening skills, but also hearing a great story!

3. Blindfolding: Learning in the Dark

Have you ever wondered how the world would be if one of your highly relied-upon senses was taken away? The game “blindfolding” does exactly that by taking away your sight.

The Game Plan

1. Divide your students into two teams.

2. Each teammate is supposed to find a partner from the team and decide who would be the “Leader” and who would be the “Follower.”

3. The “Follower” will be blindfolded and will need to accomplish an easy transfer task, such as take a pencil and put it on a certain person’s desk.

4. The “Leader” will be given a task card and is responsible to help the “Follower” get to the destination successfully.

5. When the “Follower” successfully accomplishes the task, the next pairing of “Leader” and “Follower” sets off to accomplish a new, different task.

6. The team that successfully completes all tasks wins.

4. Telephone

Telephone is an easy and timeless game in the schoolyard. While the traditional method of passing messages down a row of students is certainly entertaining, I like to play telephone a little differently to incorporate the spirit of treasure hunting.


  • 20 treasures (I like to use cards)
  • 20 notes (each describing the location of the card)

The Game Plan

1. Hide 20 cards in 20 different places around the classroom. You can use poker cards or even make some all on your own. I like to use cards because they’re so easy to be buried and hidden, but you’re free to use any toys or other materials you wish.

2. Depending on the size of your class, divide your students into groups of two or three.

3. Divide the cards into two or three separate piles. If the numbers don’t add up, separate a card and use it as a bonus card.

4. Have the first person pick a card from their container and whisper the message to the second person in line. The message is then passed down to the last person. This person is responsible for finding the card.

5. If the last person is successful, he’ll bring the card back and earn a point for his team. The last person will then become the first person to pick out another note from the pile.

6. If the message is lost in the middle, the last person can request to redial and have the message repeated and passed down again. Depending on the level of your students, you can offer up to three chances for redial per person. If redials are used up, the card is returned to you. The last person becomes the first person and will need to pick up a new card to continue the game.

7. Points are earned as the students collects the treasures. The game grows exciting because teams who finish their piles first can steal notes from other teams to earn additional points.

8. At the end of the game, tally up the points and announce the winner.

5. Light, Camera, Action: the Joy of Learning Through Media

Learning through media helps your students to learn and practice everyday English as spoken by normal people!

Media emulates the interaction you experience from your real world. Videos and movies capture not only the verbal, but also the non-verbal cues in the context. This turns a listening exercise into a more engaging and interesting experience.

Have your students watch movies and short clips and listen to songs. Supplement with worksheets to evaluate how much your students manage to capture.

As your students develop their listening confidence, you can also invite them to create media of their own. Depending on the level of your students, you can make this a personal or group project. Encourage your students to be creative and experiment with English by recording a story, video or song. Ask them also to craft 5 questions related to the medium they created, so their peers can reap the full benefits of fun and learning.

Great Places to Start Gathering English Video Material

If you’re looking for ideas or ways to diversify your media selection, YouTube is a great place to start. The site offers a wide variety of videos and clips that captures genres that range from humor to standard news reports. There are songs and even allegories to stretch your ESL students’ imagination, while exposing them to the rich American culture.

Another great website is LearnEnglishFeelGood.com. It contains snippets of movies that are typically 2-3 minutes long. What’s better is that the site also offers a list of questions at the end of every movie that can be used to quiz your students.

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


Using games and media in your ESL listening lessons will enable your students to experience “language in real action” firsthand. Enrich your ESL students’ listening skills with these fun games and watch them play and grow simultaneously.

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

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe