ESL Listening Comprehension Exercises

Instructor: Benjamin Blanchard

Ben has taught ESL and web programming and has a M.S. in education.

In this lesson, we'll learn some techniques for generating fun and appropriate exercises that will help your students improve their listening comprehension. We'll go over ways to select listening material and how to structure a listening lesson.

Making a Listening Lesson

If you're at a loss as to how to prepare a lesson to help your students improve their listening, or you just want ideas to help you put such a lesson together, help is below. There's so much digital audio available these days, it can be an overwhelming task to select the right thing. You'll be guided through the process of selecting what type of material to use for your lesson. So now you've selected a good bit of audio, how do you put it to use? That's where the exercises come in. Well-designed and well-selected exercises can help guide students to understanding. Are they at a beginning level? Have them listening for single words. Have you got advanced students? Set up a mock debate. These and other ideas will be discussed in the following sections.

Turning Noise into Content

Listening lessons can be some of the most fun you have with your students. It's very satisfying -- over the course of a single lesson, they will turn a stream of noise into something they can understand and even enjoy. If you've ever heard the radio or watched a video in a language you don't understand, you've had the experience of hearing human speech as noise. A good listening lesson will turn noise into language.

Components of a Good Listening Assignment

There are a few things to take into consideration when choosing what to use for a listening lesson.

First of all, it should be something that your students will actually want to listen to. If you have a class full of doctoral students, they may not want to hear an interview with a teen pop star. It's important that they be motivated to understand what they are listening to.


Another thing to take into consideration is how challenging it is for your students. It shouldn't be close to completely understandable, because then there won't be much to learn. If it would just take one listening and a few questions, you should probably step up the difficulty. But it shouldn't be too tough, either. We want students to be able to improve their understanding by the end of the lesson. However, the goal might not be complete understanding. If it's a particularly challenging bit of listening, getting closer could be motivating for students. After all, do you understand everything you hear in your native language?

Finally, it's important to choose a piece that is of a good length for your lesson. Your students will probably hear this bit of audio a few times over the course of the lesson. A good rule of thumb is to choose something that's about 1/6 the length of the lesson. So, for a 30 minute lesson, a five-minute listening selection works well. Podcasts, content from radio stations, and online lectures are all good resources to check out.


In a lesson featuring repeated listenings of the same material, you should have a variety of exercises prepared. Each time through, approach the listening from a different perspective. In a good lesson, you ought to be able to guide students through attaining a holistic understanding - getting the gist of what's being talked about - to taking the opportunity to learn new vocabulary or idioms, to practicing hearing tricky pronunciations that might trip them up in the flow of normal speech.

Someone in an interview might say something like 'We're going to get down to brass tacks,' which could be incomprehensible to your students for at least a couple reasons. During one listening you could discuss what the idiom 'getting down to brass tacks' means, and on another pass you could slow down the phrase, which at normal speed might sound like 'wrrgunnagadoundabrasstax.'

Before a first listening, you may or may not want to give your students a general idea about what they're going to hear. With an introduction, students may be primed to listen for ideas on the specific topic, so initial comprehension may be stronger. But there can be benefits to going with the cold turkey first pass (i.e. no introduction at all). It can be motivating and empowering for students to go from a state of complete incomprehension to 'getting it' by the end of the lesson. That's strong magic!

After the first listening, ask a few general questions to assess understanding and answer any that the students might have. It's a good idea to prepare five to ten general comprehension questions for students to answer after the second listening. It can be helpful to have them read them beforehand, so they have targets to listen for.

After the first couple times, you can really start to vary the activities. Here are some ideas:

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