Listening can be tricky for our learners, especially if there aren’t any visual clues to help with the meaning or if there are several speakers, background noises or different accents to contend with. However, there are activities we can do and strategies we can develop in order to enable our learners to become better listeners.

Samantha Lewis

The Listening skills section on LearnEnglish Teens helps teenagers to improve their listening skills for their school studies and English exams. There are activities for a range of levels from A1 to C1. Find out more about CEF levels here:

Here are some classroom tips and ideas to help your teenage learners to improve their listening skills.

Before listening
We can help our learners with listening activities by activating their schemata or background knowledge, arousing their interest in the topic or preparing them linguistically before they listen.

1. Mini whiteboard word roses
We can prepare learners linguistically with an activity like this one. Write the topic on the board in a circle. Each group has a mini whiteboard and makes a word rose by writing down words around the circle that are connected to the topic. They can try and group the words according to meaning. Then they pass their word rose to another group who adds words to it or writes synonyms next to words. It’s useful for learners to focus on synonyms as speakers will often use synonyms so as not to repeat the same word. If you don’t have mini whiteboards a big piece of paper will work just as well.

2. Pre-teach key words
If there are some unknown key words in the listening text it can be useful to pre-teach them. There are different ways of doing this. You could give a few words to each group of students and they use a dictionary to write definitions and find out the pronunciation before teaching the words to their peers. Or you could put the definitions around the classroom and students have to go and find the definitions for their group’s words.

Another way is to put the key words on the board (I also include key words that may be familiar but have tricky pronunciation to prepare students to listen out for them). Write the key words with the part of speech, word stress and any tricky sounds. Then give definitions of the words in random order. Students listen to the definitions and say the word.

You could also prepare students for familiar words with tricky pronunciation with a game of taboo. Write the words on cards and they have to define the word using synonyms or definitions but without using the word itself.

3. Talk, talk, talk
Before listening, students could carry out a speaking activity (roleplay, questionnaire or discussion) based on the topic of the listening text. If there are opinions given in the text, the speaking activity will give them an opportunity to come up with some of the language in the text before they listen. If you tell them the topic, students could even write their own questions for a questionnaire. Pictures related to the topic can also be used to generate discussion.

4. Word clouds
Word clouds are a fun, visual way to design a prediction activity. There are several word cloud generators available online such as or One possibility is to put the complete audio text into a word cloud generator, although it can be more effective to take out all the non-content words such as articles, prepositions and pronouns. The more frequently the word appears in the text, the bigger it appears in the word cloud, so students can see immediately which words are important in the text and can start to make predictions. Then, they can look at the smaller words and make predictions about their relevance in the text or write questions about them they’d like answering. Another option is to select a few key words and put them into the generator. Students predict the significance of the words in the text or discuss what they already know about them.

5. Task tips from the teacher
As listening activities can be tricky for students, there are a few tips and pointers we can give our students to help them concentrate all their energy on listening and understanding, for example:

  • Tell students how many speakers there are and how many times they’ll hear the audio.
  • If you’re creating your own listening tasks, make sure the tasks follow the same order that the information is delivered in the audio. Also, make the completion of the task as simple as possible so that the students concentrate on what they’re listening to rather than getting bogged down in the task itself. Tasks such as circling or ticking the correct answer, matching information, putting pictures or statements into order or completing simple tables is easier than making lots of notes or writing long sentences while listening.
  • Give students time to read the task before they listen so they know what information to listen for and can start making predictions about the language.
  • If there are dates, times or big numbers in the task, encourage students to say them to themselves before they listen to mentally prepare themselves for this type of information.
  • Most importantly, encourage your students to stay calm and to continue listening. There may be parts of the text they don’t understand, but they shouldn’t stop and worry about the parts they don’t understand. They should carry on listening and continue with the next part of the task.

While listening
Listening effectively in another language involves using both top-down and bottom-up listening strategies appropriately. We often use top-down listening strategies the first time we listen to get a general idea of the text. Activating schemata and making predictions about the text prior to listening (see ideas in ‘Before listening’ section) will help learners develop their top-down listening strategies as they listen to confirm their predictions and expectations about the text. Bottom-up listening strategies involve a closer understanding of the text, so activities that encourage our listeners to understand specific details or focus on specific sounds or language will help them develop these strategies.

1. Songs
Songs are a very motivating way of encouraging students to listen. Make a playlist at the start of term of your students’ favourite songs that you can then use in class over the school year. There are hundreds of activities you can design to use with songs, for example give students a word cloud of the lyrics and get them to predict the content of the song. Then, they listen and circle the words they hear in the word cloud and afterwards you could ask them to join words together that appear in the word cloud to make complete lines from the lyrics. Or how about getting your students to design their own listening tasks for their chosen song?

2. Clips
Short clips from films or TV series are very motivating for teens and can form the basis for a number of viewing activities for both bottom-up and top-down listening activities. You can use subtitles to help reinforce the sound–spelling relationship or design activities where first the students listen with the screen covered or watch without sound and predict the content. The visual aspect also allows you to focus on body language or paralinguistic features that convey meaning.

3. Dictation
As well as audio or video recordings, the teacher is a valuable listening source in the classroom. Different types of dictation activity can be used to help learners develop their bottom-up listening skills. It helps them to break down chunks of language into individual words and reinforces the sound–spelling relationship.

4. The teacher is an MP3 player
This is a very simple dictation activity that enables the speed of a dictation to go at the students’ pace. Choose a short text to dictate (perhaps the introduction to a reading text or even a set of listening comprehension questions) and the students give you instructions; ‘play’, ‘stop’ and ‘go back’. When they say ‘play’ you begin dictating and they write down what you say. Carry on speaking until they say ‘stop’ and ‘go back’. Then you repeat the last part and continue until they say ‘stop’ again.

5. Telephone
A fun way of encouraging students to listen for specific detail and to listen to each other is through a game of Telephone. Prepare some sentences; these could be a series of requests or even a set of discussion questions. Students are divided into groups of about five or six and stand in a long line, one behind the other – there should be the same number of students in each team, so if one team is uneven, rotate a student to stand out of each round. The teacher shows the students at the back of the line a sentence which is written down. They whisper it to the next student, who whispers it to the next and so on until it reaches the student at the front. If the sentence is a request, the student at the front could carry out the request and the first one to do so correctly wins a point. Or the first student to write the sentence correctly on the board wins a point for their team. Then the student at the front moves to the back and you repeat the process until all students have had a turn being at the front of the line.

6. Growing story chains
Everyone has a story to tell about something. Getting students to share their own stories is a great way of personalising a topic, encouraging them to listen to each other and developing their speaking skills. In this activity students work in groups of four or five. Before they begin telling their stories, elicit examples of adjectives, adverbs and time references and write them on the board. These will help students add extra details when retelling the stories. All students jot down a very basic true story with minimal detail which should be no longer than three sentences. Then, one student tells their basic story to the group. The next student retells this story, but adds some extra detail. The third student retells the story including the extra detail, but adds even more detail, and so on until the last student tells the final version of the story with the most detail. They have to listen to each other to make sure none of the details are missed out. At the end they can compare the final version with the first version and see how much the story has changed. Then the whole process is repeated with the next student’s basic story.

7. Break it up – How many words?
The nature of speech means that we often use contractions and weak forms when speaking and sometimes it can be difficult for learners to decipher the exact words in these chunks of language. However, sometimes it is important to employ our bottom-up listening skills to identify these details and to be able to break down the continuous flow of speech into individual words. Select some sentences that include contractions or weak forms. Say the sentences at natural speed one by one or play the recording. Students listen and decide how many words are in each sentence and hold up the corresponding number of fingers. This also gives you an idea as to which students are able to hear the exact number of words and which aren’t. Follow up by eliciting the words onto the board. If they can’t hear some words, leave a gap on the board, replay or say the sentence again until you elicit the missing word.

8. Correct the teacher
If there’s one thing teenagers love doing, it’s correcting the teacher. Once students are familiar with the content of a story they have read or listened to, retell the story with mistakes. They shout ‘stop’ when they hear a mistake and have to correct you.

9. Active listening – Information gap
Learners can also develop their bottom-up listening skills by listening to each other. We can encourage active listening between our learners by carrying out information gap activities such as picture differences where they look at different pictures without showing each other, and communicate the information they have to each other and find the differences. Learners will need to use active listening strategies such as asking for repetition, clarification or indicating when they don’t understand.

After listening
After listening we can focus on specific language or pronunciation or integrate the skills with follow-up activities.

1. Shadow reading
This is a fun activity that helps learners develop their intonation. Choose a short dialogue or a short section from a longer dialogue they have listened to. Once learners understand the content of the dialogue, they can focus on the intonation patterns. If there are two speakers, divide the class into As and Bs. Play the recording - As speak along with speaker 1 and Bs speak along with speaker 2. By speaking at the same time as the speakers on the recording, learners mimic the same intonation patterns, stress and rhythm exactly. Then repeat the process twice more, but turn the volume down each time. Finally learners say the dialogue without the recording and you should find that they copy the intonation.

2. Content and non-content words
A useful activity to highlight learners’ awareness of which words are the important words to listen out for is to give them a copy of the audio transcript. Select a section and learners divide the words into two groups: content and non-content words. To help them do this, elicit the kinds of words that tend to be content words (nouns, adjectives, main verbs, etc.) and those that tend to be non-content or grammatical words, the words that glue the conversation together (articles, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, etc.). They could also look at the transcript and identify the words that enabled them to answer the listening tasks. This will also highlight the fact that sometimes a more ‘grammatical’ word could be a content word, for example a negative construction that informs us that someone doesn’t do something or doesn’t like something. Follow up by playing the dialogue again and listening for the stressed words, which should largely coincide with the content words.

3. Spoken language features
Give learners a copy of the audio transcript and get them to identify and highlight features of spoken language such as hesitations, e.g. err..., um ...; exclamations, e.g. ‘Really?’, ‘No way!’; and examples of ellipsis or words that are missed out of natural speech, e.g. ‘You going now?’ instead of ‘Are you going now?’

4. Roleplay
Choose two or three of the characters from the listening text and students continue the dialogue, imagining what they would say to each other. This is a good way of developing creativity and imagination as the dialogue goes beyond what is in the text.

Extensive listening outside classroom
As well as developing listening strategies in class, we can encourage our learners to develop their extensive listening outside the classroom by listening to songs, watching their favourite TV series or films with the subtitles in English or listening to podcasts.


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