Listening Skills

According to Ruth Colvin in I Speak English, we spend about 70% of our time communicating and about 45% of this time involves listening (p.9). When people hear and understand, they are receiving information they can use to do things like:

  • make decisions or choices (fill this subscription because the doctor says it will make me feel better)
  • plan (avoid the freeway since the traffic report announced there is a sig-alert),
  • respond (“Yes, I can work on Saturday.” )
  • enjoy (my granddaughter just said “Hi Grandma!”)

Building and practicing listening comprehension is essential for language learners of all levels and listening comprehension activities can be a fun aspect of your lessons. Listening comprehension activities work best if a learner can demonstrate comprehension in some way, rather than a tutor asking “Do you understand?” We’ll give you lots of ideas below and in our training manual.

There are many reasons that listening comprehension is challenging. The video below (although in Australian accented English) demonstrates how the way in which English is spoken makes it difficult for learners to understand what they’re hearing and connect it to words they might already know. As you watch this video, focus on the examples of how spoken English sounds versus the written words and the point that learners don’t hear what they’re expecting.  We include this video to raise your awareness of how challenging listening comprehension can be.  Do not worry about in the terminology presented (top-down and bottom-up) and watch up to around 4:20.

Listening Comprehension Activities to Try!

Listen to new vocabulary and phrases – Say a new word or phrase several times before asking your learner(s) to repeat it. Whenever possible, use a picture, an object or act words out. The same applies to groups of words like phrases or idioms.

Listen and Point or Select – After teaching vocabulary words, how several objects or pictures of the words. Say a one of the words and ask your students to point to the correct object or picture. On zoom, you can put together a word document or slide with the pictures numbered. Say a vocabulary word aloud and Learners can tell you what number/letter is the correct one. Also try activities like “circle the letter I say.”  You can choose more complex pictures and say a sentence to go along with each picture. Have the learners decide which picture best matches the sentence. 

Look at this example of a listen and point used on zoom to review previously taught vocabulary from a story (dangerous, branch, estimate, neighbor, neighborhood, smile). The tutor said each word and the students said which picture corresponded. The second slide shows an example of sentences based on a story with pictures to check comprehension. 

Listen and point example video

This video shows how listening and pointing can be done in person and also how to use basic questioning techniques to practice comprehension using a picture – stop at 3:27

Listen and point using a picture video

Listen and Do (TPR) – “Simon Says” or following oral commands. The tutor says the command and models the command several times, then gestures for learners to listen and do the action. Teaching Adults, An ESL Resource Book, p. 43 explains TPR in detail.  There are a variety of exercises like this including drawing exercises: for example, tell your learner draw a circle in the middle of the page, draw a triangle above the circle, draw a square under the circle, etc. When you are done, compare pictures.

Example of Listen and Do/TPR video

Listen and write (great way to review vocabulary) – Dictate ABC’s, numbers, sight words, vocabulary words, phrases or sentences you have practiced. 

 Listen to the story/paragraph/sentence (before having your learner read it) – If possible, show a picture from the “story” or an image that relates to what the story is about. Set the context briefly: this is a story about Jack who owns a landscaping business and a problem he had with his neighbor, Sam. Let the student listen as you read a few sentences, a paragraph or a few paragraphs of the story. For very beginning students, you might only be reading a sentence or two as the “story.” Repeat, then talk about the story with your learner. Ask a few basic comprehension questions focusing on main ideas rather than small details. Finally, show your learner the sentence(s) or paragraph(s) and read them together, discuss unknown vocabulary, expressions or grammar. Over time, help learners use strategies like anticipating what the story might be about using the picture, title or the oral context you provide or listening for known words to guess as meaning. You can also teach key words from the story after the first listening attempt, then read it aloud again to learners to see how their comprehension improved.

Listen to the story/paragraph/sentence: Another idea for listening to a text before reading it is to have students “focus” on an aspect of what they are hearing.  LIke listen to how the person feels in the story or listen for where the family decides to go on Saturday.  You are setting the context and having them focus on one aspect of the text.  This video shows how you can use the idea of “focus” to help learners focus on certain things when listening to a story – stop around minute 2:30 in the video.

Focus before listening video

 Homework Ideas:  Ask your students to listen to the radio, their children, and people in the community, or watch TV in English a little everyday. Choose a song that has relatively clear pronunciation and send a link to a youtube video for learners to listen to at home. 

Checking Comprehension

Remember, some people are good at repeating words, phrases or sentences, answering recall questions or even reading words aloud without understanding anything! Make sure you do activities to check your students’ understanding. Activities such as those above are great ways to check comprehension in a low-stress way.