5 ESL Listening Lessons to Teach Students with Living, Breathing Language

Think about the last time you traveled abroad. What was the most important language skill you brought with you?

For most of us, being able to hear and make sense of the language is key—even more so than being able to speak.

At the same time, research shows us not only how important listening skills are, but also how often it is overlooked in language classrooms. But never fear, there are many ways to successfully teach our students to listen in the ESL classroom.

Below you’ll find the components a great listening-focused lesson, as well as 5 examples of different lessons which can inspire your own teaching.

What Makes a Great ESL Listening Lesson?

This is an important question to pause and consider. We need to know why some lessons fall flat and others get students excited to learn.

Active Listening

We’ve all had our off days, days when our lesson allowed our students to sit passively, staring blankly as we presented material to the class. And we all know how little actual listening happens at those times. This is the trick of teaching listening—it can’t just involve students sitting silent while the teacher works (after all, who is supposed to be doing the work in our classroom? I already know how to speak English!).

A successful listening lesson requires student participation and engagement even when (especially when!) our students are not speaking. Students should be moving, drawing, writing, filling in blanks. The goal is for students to continually demonstrate that they are hearing and understanding what is being said.

Easy to Assess Student Understanding

This goes hand-in-hand with the active listening described above. If students are continually demonstrating their understanding, we can be informally assessing their understanding throughout the lesson. The best lessons allow for this informal assessment, using movement, illustration, filling-in-blanks and writing to ensure that we are properly assessing their ability to understand what they are hearing, rather than assessing their speaking, reading or writing skills.

Building to Other Skills

A successful listening lesson should build from passive to active, and should allow for a progression of skills (moving through Bloom’s taxonomy, as most great lessons do). This means that the challenge level should increase over the course of the lesson. We should transition from a listening activity into an activity requiring the use of other language skills, whether speaking or reading or writing. This is a very natural progression—think about how babies learn to ask for what they want through their actions first, and then through language. A great listening lesson should leave our students eager to speak, and to apply the language they have been learning.


I wish this point could go without saying, but every lesson needs to grab our students, and an outstanding listening lesson is no different. In fact, because they may need to be acting, moving or drawing, a great listening lesson needs to push past our students’ self-consciousness so that we can all make fools of ourselves together over the course of the lesson.

Of course this means that you have to be having fun, ready to be loose, energetic, hopping around the classroom, singing loudly in your off-key voice and willing to do anything you ask of your students!

You can find more information about the components of successful listening lessons here.

5 ESL Listening Lessons to Teach Students with Living, Breathing Language

Lesson 1: The Basics of Total Physical Response (TPR)

What Is Total Physical Response?

As the name suggests, Total Physical Response is a teaching technique that links language learning to physical activity. At the most basic level, it involves giving commands to your students which they follow by taking action. As with the Direct Method of language instruction, only the language being taught is used in the classroom.

TPR is considered a “naturalistic” teaching method, which replicates the way children learn language. It was pioneered by Dr. James Asher, whose book is still the most important reference on the subject. And like any good technique for teaching a listening lesson, it is active, can be assessed, links to other skills and is fun!

How to Use TPR in Your Classroom

There are many ways to use TPR in your classroom, whether for warm-ups, short activities, or as the focus of an entire lesson. For example, you tell the class to “stand!” and using gestures indicate they should stand, until the entire class is standing. You then say “sit!” and again use gestures and actions to indicate they should sit.

You then repeat the commands until they can demonstrate that they understand the words without needing to see gestures or the actions of classmates – and thus they have proved that they have listened to and understood the words “stand” and “sit”!

Remember that we are building to other skills, so after teaching the commands you can teach students to read and write them, and can also have them use the commands themselves (maybe even let them boss you around!)

Sample TPR Lesson

Most TPR lessons follow the same basic template:

1. Select and list the target commands and language you wish to teach.

2. Gather any props, pictures or other aids you will need to teach these terms.

3. Choose two or more students to demonstrate. It is important to choose more than one to take the pressure off individual students, and after you demonstrate with a couple students you will ask the others to demonstrate as well.

4. Model the first command as you give it. For example, you could sit on the floor, say “stand up!” and then stand up.)

5. Continue modeling alongside the student demonstrators several times, then stop demonstrating yourself and let students do the actions. You can always model more if they are having trouble.

6. Repeat these steps for each new command you introduce. At first you should review individual commands in the order you taught them, and then you should shuffle them.

For a first TPR lesson, focus on the following commands. As an added bonus, they can all be taught without any props or images!

First commands: stand up, sit down, walk, turn around

Second commands: touch the, point to, pick up, put down, give me

TPR is often used with younger language learners, but can be useful in any language classroom. Lesson 2 on this list, which is a TPR lesson aimed at higher-level students, will demonstrate this. Because it is so useful for gauging listening comprehension, it is worth teaching a TPR lesson on basic commands in any classroom, or at least doing a refresher with higher-level students.

Lesson 2: Total Physical Response for Advanced Students

How to Use TPR with Advanced Students

While many teachers use TPR with beginning students, it can be very useful for teaching vocabulary and assessing learning with all language students. Even the basic commands listed in the last lesson can be great tools to help your students demonstrate understanding.

With the right visual aids, simple commands like “point to” or “touch” can help your students learn about tourist destinations, prices (“touch the most expensive item”) or almost any other subject.

Sample Advanced TPR Lesson

This lesson is designed to support ESL students who are also studying Biology and have been learning the parts of the cell. Here is a link to a page with sample images of animal and plant cells.

For this activity, you will need to create a version of the plant cell image with only the cell wall present, as well as cut-outs of each part of the cell. You may want to label all of these, or could leave labels off some (e.g. chloroplasts are recognizable if you color them green).

1. Give each student an image of the cell with only the cell wall present. Also give each student a set of cut-out components of the cell (e.g. give each student a nucleus, nucleolus, etc).

2. Direct the students where to place each component. You can do this by name: “put the nucleolus inside the nucleus,” or by describing functions: “put the part of the cell that generates energy in the bottom left corner.”

3. Once the parts of the cell are placed, you can give other commands as well: “circle the part of the cell that creates oxygen.”

4. Let students compare their filled-in cells, listen again and make any necessary corrections.

As you can see, there are many ways to use TPR to gauge your students’ listening ability and mastery of English vocabulary!

Lesson 3: The Sound of Music

Everyone loves music, and using the right song at the right time can add a dash of energy to your classroom, grab your students’ attention (even those who claim not to like the song) and give you another way to assess your students’ listening abilities.

How to Use Songs in Your Classroom

At the most basic level, we can use songs in our classroom to gauge whether students recognize vocabulary as they hear it. But we need to be sure to introduce the song properly before beginning the activity, otherwise our students can lose sight of the forest for the trees. If they are too focused on trying to understand every line of the song, they won’t be able to focus on listening for the key vocabulary.

A cloze activity is a type of listening activity in which students are given a transcript of what they will hear with particular words removed, and asked to fill in the missing words. For example, if I was teaching numbers I could hand my students the following:

Hello! My name is Mr. Keidan. I have been teaching for ______ years. I am ______ years old, and have two children. My older daughter is ______ years old, and my younger daughter is ______ years old.

Then I would say the following out loud:

“Hello! My name is Mr. Keidan. I have been teaching for 21 years. I am 40 years old, and have two children. My older daughter is 14 years old, and my younger daughter is 11 years old.”

I might then have the students compare their answers with one another while I read the script again, allowing them to make corrections (of course if I was using this activity as a formal assessment I wouldn’t let them make those corrections).

Sample Cloze Song Lesson

Now that we have a sense of what “cloze” activities are, let’s see how you might use a cloze activity with a song for a fun listening lesson. In this case, here is a lesson that is part of a unit about feelings, in which students are learning words like “happy” and “sad.”

Use the song “Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver. The complete lyrics can be found here, and the audio here. Before you give your students a copy of the lyrics, you should prepare the handout in several ways:

  • First, remove the vocabulary words, like “happy,” “cry,” “smile,” “feel.” Remove other words they already know and could fill in, such as “lovely,” “make me” and so on. Note that when a line is repeated, you can remove a different word the second time around to challenge your students.
  • Second, add a word bank at the top or bottom of the page with words they should be listening for and filling in.
  • Third, add images (drawn or copied in) to help illustrate the lyrics and clarify their meaning. For the first line of this song, put in pictures of “sunshine,” “shoulders” and “eyes.”

Now you are ready to teach the lesson. Here’s how to get moving:

1. Introduce the activity and give each student a copy of the cloze lyrics. It can be helpful to introduce or clarify any strange words or phrases they might encounter in the song. Take questions at this stage. Alternatively, you could provide some bilingual annotation on the handout and let the students connect the dots on their own.

2. Play the first line of the song and model how to fill in the blanks. You may want to go through the word bank with the students too, letting them read the words aloud and remind themselves of their meanings.

3. Play the rest of the song, and monitor to be sure that your students are filling in blanks as they go. Play the song several times if necessary.

Lesson 4: Picture This

How to Use Pictures and Drawing in Your Classroom 

Images are one of the most valuable tools for an ESL teacher. And drawing is a great method for having students demonstrate active listening and understanding. In fact, there is an entire post with several sample drawing lessons you can look at here. 

Sample Picture-based Lesson

As with the other sample lessons, preparation is key here. It can be useful to create sets of laminated images to use with your students, and also to create a set of online images which you draw on regularly (of course, Google Images is a great place to start).

Here are directions to teach about giving directions (left, right, straight) and places (library, bank, school).

1. Introduce the vocabulary with images and actions.

2. As part of your review of vocabulary, have students post pictures around the room of the various places.

3. Have a student stand up and give him directions to go somewhere. You can either ask him to go directly there (“Go to the school.”) or, without telling him where he is going, just give him directions for how to get there (“Turn right, take three steps, turn left, take five steps…”).

A lesson like this is easy to extend. You can have students direct one another after they have gotten comfortable with the activity. If you are very brave, put a blindfold on and ask your students to direct you to a particular place—can they do it?

Lesson 5: You Won’t Believe Your Ears!

We have already seen one example of a lesson using an audio resource—the cloze song lesson above. And as with that lesson, the trick of any effective lesson using an audio clip is giving the audio some contextualization. You need to be sure that students know exactly what they are listening to, why they are listening to it and what they are listening for.

To illustrate the importance of contextualizing your students’ listening (or for that matter, their reading), here is an activity you can do, and could have your students do, if their English is good enough.

For this activity, you’ll need a listing from a website like Airbnb, like this one.

1. Print a copy of the listing (students could do this singly or in pairs). You will also need 3 different colors of pen / pencil.

2. Read through the handout, marking whatever you find interesting. Then think about what you marked and why.

3. Read it again, with the following direction: “You are a real estate agent, in charge of selling this house. Read through the handout and mark the information that is important for you to know as you sell the house.”

4. Again, reflect on what you marked and why (with students this reflection should happen in conversation).

5. Finally read the handout a third time, with these directions: “You are a thief, and you plan on robbing this house. Mark the things that are important for you to know.”

6. Again, review what you marked and why.

The point here is that the second and third read-throughs were much more productive than the first. This is why I tell my students that they should never read anything for school without knowing what they should be looking for, or what the point of the assignment is (yes, some of my colleagues have gotten mad at me because of this!).

Sample Real Audio Lesson

The beauty of real audio lessons is that there are so many resources available online. Here are a few audio selections from FluentU, complete with outlined lessons to accompany them.

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

You could also opt to create a free teacher account and access many audio clips with all the resources you need. For advanced students, there are some high-quality lessons available to you through TED Talks—they offer selected TED Talks complete with lesson plans for ESL classrooms.

Remember that context is key. You must contextualize the audio clip before your students listen and make clear to them what their purpose is while listening. You must also know the piece well enough that you can anticipate where they will run into problems or difficulties, so that you can head off this trouble before it rears its head.

The goal of these sample lessons and links is to give you a sense of the range of ways you can push your students to listen actively, and the many ways you can evaluate their English listening skills.

Have fun using and adapting some of these techniques for your own classroom!

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