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Boy cupping hand to ear listening

Despite legitimate claims that EAL students devote over half of their time to listening when functioning in English (Nunan, 1998), this is often not reflected in the time that we dedicate to the four main skills in the classroom. In fact, Nation (2009) states that listening is arguably the least understood and most overlooked of the four skills in language teaching.

In this article I offer a range of ideas for different listening activities, each of which research and personal experience has proven to be effective. Before we look at the suggestions though, here is some general advice for facilitating listening activities in the classroom:

  1. Use authentic listening materials often: Materials such as songs, podcasts and videos are an excellent way to expose students to real-world language use. You know your learners better than any course book, so choose listening material based on this knowledge in order to maintain their attention and motivation.
  2. Provide clear instructions: Set clear expectations for what students should be listening for and what they should be doing while they are listening. Using visual aids, such as pictures and diagrams can help.
  3. Incorporate repetition: Repetition is key for building students’ listening skills. Give your learners ample opportunities to practise, whether it be through repeated listening of the same material or through different listening exercises with similar structures.
  4. Focus on comprehension over transcription: While it is important for students to develop their ability to transcribe what they hear, it is more important for them to develop their ability to comprehend what they hear. Encouraging students to focus on the meaning of what they hear, rather than on the exact words, can help them to develop stronger listening skills.
  5. Incorporate multi-sensory activities: These might include the use of pictures or props, and can help students to better understand and retain what they hear. This is because the brain processes information in a variety of ways, and using multi-sensory activities can help to reinforce what students are hearing.
  6. Provide feedback and support: This is crucial and can include providing opportunities for students to check their understanding, correcting misunderstandings and offering praise and encouragement for progress.


By incorporating the following activity types into your programme you will provide your learners with opportunities to develop a range of necessary listening skills.

Listening for specific information

This helps students to develop their ability to focus their attention and filter out irrelevant information, which is critical for language processing. Neuroscience research has shown that attention and focus play a critical role in language processing.

Example: Provide students with a short audio or video clip and ask them to listen for specific information (such as numbers, dates, or key vocabulary words). You could, for instance, provide a short audio clip of a weather report and ask students to listen for the temperature and weather conditions for three different areas.

Listening for gist

This assists learners in developing their ability to process spoken language at a higher level and to extract meaning from context. We know that successful language comprehension involves complex cognitive processes, including the integration of linguistic and non-linguistic information so students can benefit from opportunities to practise using and discussing these.

Example: Play a longer audio or video clip and ask students to listen for the main idea or theme. Get them to identify the key phrases and non-linguistic cues that helped them in this task.

Follow-along activities 

These help lower-level students to develop their ability to match sounds with written symbols, which is an essential skill for both reading and listening comprehension. Neuroscience research has shown that the brain processes written and spoken language in similar ways, and activities that help learners to connect spoken language with written text can improve their overall language skills.

Example: Provide students with a transcript of a short audio or video clip and ask them to listen while following along with the text.

Note-taking activities

These allow learners to develop their ability to filter and organise information. Working memory plays a critical role in language processing, and activities that help learners to develop their ability to store and retrieve information from working memory can improve their listening skills.

Example: Provide students with a short audio or video clip and ask them to take notes on the most important information.

Storytelling activities

These activities can help to develop learners’ ability to process narrative information and to listen for clues and context to infer meaning that is not explicitly stated in the spoken text. Research indicates that the brain is wired to process stories, and activities that help learners to engage with stories can improve their listening and comprehension skills. 

Example: Tell a short story or read a children’s book out loud and ask students to listen and answer a combination of literal and inferential comprehension questions. 

Listening for attitude and opinion 

By getting learners to listen for the speaker’s attitude or opinion (such as disagreement or uncertainty) and then infer the speaker’s intentions, we can promote their ability to identify the nuances of spoken language and understand the speaker’s perspective.

Example: Play a series of short news reports about controversial issues and ask the learners to listen for the reporter’s attitude or opinion. After listening, the learners could share their interpretations, and consider how the speaker’s attitude or opinion might influence the way people respond to the news.

Role-play activities: 

These help students develop their ability to process spoken language in real-world contexts, and use language to achieve specific goals. In the past, listening was mainly viewed as a way to receive information, which is known as one-way listening. This is evident in older listening materials that heavily rely on monologues. While this approach is suitable for academic listening, it falls short in representing the complexity and interactive nature of listening in our daily lives, which involves two-way communication. Research has shown that language processing involves many of the same cognitive processes that are involved in other types of goal-directed behaviour, and activities that help learners to engage with language in a purposeful way can improve their listening and speaking skills.

Example: Provide students with a scenario and ask them to role-play a conversation based on the scenario. This type of activity helps students to develop their listening and speaking skills, as well as their ability to understand and use spoken language in real-world situations.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, you know your learners’ needs and interests, so try to incorporate a wide variety of listening activities into your teaching based around this knowledge. This will allow you to maintain student engagement and ensure that your learners develop a wide range of listening skills.

If you work with beginner-level learners, check out the downloadable resource below.


Nunan, D. 1998. Approaches to teaching listening in the language classroom. In Proceedings of the 1997 Korea TESOL Conference. Taejon, Korea

Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York: Routledge.

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