5 Ways to Create Engaging EFL Listening Activities

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

I remember the dread I felt in high school when we had listening activities in Spanish class. I could conjugate verbs all day long and translate a reading, but once the language hit my ear I felt I had regressed to the mental capabilities of a toddler. The fact that I could know something but not understand it was demotivating, to say the least.

I’ve seen this sort of helplessness reflected in the eyes of my English students. As teachers, you can probably pinpoint that moment, when their eyes glaze over and they zone out, whether from frustration or boredom (and honestly, who can blame them with some of the course book listening texts). But, on this side of the language learning classroom, I’ve become much more enthusiastic about listening, in part because it’s crucial to effective communication. And in realizing that the more interesting an activity is, the more likely a student is to learn, I’ve attempted to find ways to make engaging EFL listening activities. Here are a few of my strategies, and I would love it if you left your own in the comments below!

1. Give the responsibility of creating the task to the students.

Having students create their own tasks can be motivating

In real life, we often go to conferences, meetings, movies – even time with friends – with some expectations about what we’re going to hear. It’s pre-listening work that we frequently don’t practice in the classroom, in part because the course books do half that work for students with pre-written tasks. However, doing more thinking work before a listening activity will make it more successful for students. So, how can we move beyond relying on textbook tasks and instead give responsibility to the students?

Well, often when I use TED Talks in the classroom, I ask students to create at least the initial task. It can be anything from predicting what the speaker will say to creating questions based on what the students want to know to brainstorming key words. Using the Cornell note-taking method or a graph might also be useful for students. Listening to a text for information that you want is much more motivating than listening to answer questions written down in a textbook.

You can take this even further by having students pick the listening texts themselves. Towards the end of a FCE course, I started assigning students the homework of making their own listening and reading tasks to give each other. Designing tasks and completing ones written by their classmates infused a new energy into class.

2. Emphasize active peer listening in the classroom.

Peer listening activities help with students' speaking, listening and overall language skills
The beauty of the student-centered integrated classroom — your speaking activities are naturally listening activities too!

In nearly every lesson, there are great – but missed – opportunities for active peer listening. There are many ways to encourage active peer listening as part of your classroom culture, whether you make it a formal part of an activity or just by creating a habit of asking about their partner’s ideas (no student should ever be off the hook when listening to their partner or group).

There are also specific activities you can do to practice active peer listening. One of my favorite EFL listening activities is making phone calls. If possible, I send the students to different parts of the room or building and have them actually phone each other. Otherwise, I put them back-to-back so they have to rely on their listening skills only to get all the information they need. Want to get even more authentic? Find help lines with automated menus or have students call businesses to ask questions about a product or service.

When students do class presentations or perform skits they’ve written, I’ll typically warn them that I will ask them questions based on what they’ve heard. Doing a little post-presentation pop quiz makes sure they’re actively listening to their classmates.

Students may complain that listening to each other isn’t very useful because they’re all language learners. Stop this negativity as soon as possible! Remind them that they are there to help each other improve, and that peer listening activities help with both speaking and listening skills.

3. Allow students to be physically active.

I know, usually we think of listening activities as quiet, still times. I remember learning on my CELTA course not to walk around or fiddle with papers during a listening activity – seems like common sense, but I hadn’t realized how distracting that is for students! That being said, sometimes making listening activities more physically active can help engage students. Skip the boring, note-taking activities. Get them moving – it’s possible without making too much noise! Here are just a couple of ideas for kinesthetic listening activities:

Making sure students are engaged is important when teaching language

– Give students information from the text, mixed up on different pieces of paper. It could be something like song lyrics or pictures depicting what happens in the text. Have them order the information as they listen.

– There’s a popular party game where the host reads a story and the guests pass around a present, handing it off when they hear the words ‘left’ and ‘right.’ You can do a similar activity by having students perform a certain action when they hear a specific word.

– Write words from the text on the board. Split students into two teams, and have them compete to identify words as they hear them. (I like to have them whack the words with a rolled up piece of paper. Ok, maybe a bit more “fun” than your typical activity, but it’s a good way to add some energy to your class!)

– Allow students to control the speed of the text by reading it aloud to them and slowing down, speeding up, stopping, and rewinding based on pre-determined hand signals from the students.

Bear in mind that students will create some noise when completing these tasks, so you may need to alter the activity a little.

4. Choose a provocative text.

I don’t mean something ragingly controversial, but something that will get students thinking and talking. Engage students’ critical thinking skills by having them analyze the validity of a text’s argument. Get their opinion on what the text said. If they are experts in the field (or have similar life experiences), have them draw connections to their own lives.

This is often pretty easy when you’re working with business English. My IT company students loved listening to and talking about technology advancements, and the film company I taught at was happy to listen to reviewers and experts, eager to debate the ideas afterwards. But even if you’re teaching general English, you can ask your students what they find interesting or relatable. Capitalizing on that will keep students engaged during the activity and jumpstart lively productive activities afterwards.

5. Use the transcript creatively.

English teachers can use transcript to assist students' listening exercise

Umm, what? I hear you thinking. Isn’t this supposed to be about listening, not reading? Of course. But when you’re teaching listening, not just testing it, often it’s incredibly useful to look at the transcript. Examples of common stumbling blocks like homophones and connected speech can be plucked from the text so that students can make connections between what they know and what they’re hearing.

Using the transcript after an especially difficult listening activity can also be a balm for students’ frustration – and a chance to shine as a teacher. Have students read the transcript and ask them if they’ve understood the text any better. If they come away with a better grasp of it, it’s the actual listening – the pronunciation or speed – that made the task difficulty. If they are still unsure after reading the transcript, then the grammar or vocabulary is probably what hindered comprehension. Once you’ve identified what made the listening difficult, it’s easier for students (and you) to tackle the problem. And it’s better to end an activity with an action point than a resignation that listening is just too tough.

BONUS TIP (because this one is kind of a given): Choose authentic listening texts!

There are countless of teaching resources available on the internet
I mean, it’s great to be able to ask for directions — but being able to understand the directions given is maybe more important.

Let’s all agree that the textbook listening activities can be a bit… dry. Perhaps even – unrealistic? And while they might fit seamlessly with the rest of the unit, are they really motivating to students? And how useful is a task if students are zoned out halfway through the first listen?

Luckily, teachers have a near-infinite library of listening texts. From movie clips to TED Talks to university lectures to podcasts, literally anything you want, the internet’s got it. One of my favorites for conversation is elllo.org. (Leave your favorite source of EFL listening texts in the comments below!) Want to kick it up a notch and totally delight your students? Record a conversation between you and your friends!

Listening activities don’t have to be solemn and serious. Hopefully these ideas will be a catalyst to try something new! What are your best strategies for engaging EFL listening activities?

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