How To Teach Listening Skills To ESL Students


Know students’ current language proficiency

When working with ELLs, teachers need to know where their students are starting from. For schools in the U.S., students speaking a language other than English at home are tested for their English-language fluency before they’re enrolled in a public or charter school. If a student is not fluent, then an LEP (limited English proficiency) plan is created to help track their progress as they learn English. 

Students are assigned a level based on their language proficiency (p. 333) on a scale of 1-6 (least proficient to most proficient), with specific learning targets for:

  • interpretive communication, which includes
    • listening, 
    • reading, and
    • viewing; and
  • expressive communication, which includes
    • speaking, 
    • writing, and
    • representing. 

Teachers who are building skills in either communication mode should have some idea of where EL students are starting, so begin by gathering their LEP plans. EL teachers have the added benefit of being familiar with these fluency assessments to break down the various aspects for a fuller picture of individual students. 

However, offering a listening pre-assessment can help determine where to begin if fluency information isn’t available. For intermediate English speakers, Listenwise gives teachers the ability to quiz students on their listening comprehension skills to get a general idea of where to begin. Students listen to a short audio story and then answer questions based on that story. 

But students brand new to the language can listen to a short audio clip, work with a small vocabulary list, and identify specific words they hear. They can even draw a picture of what they hear to demonstrate the level of their understanding. 

Clarify listening learning targets

WIDA’s “can-dos” clarify listening goals for students at each grade level, as well as language proficiency level. For instance, in grades 2-3, students who are moving onto language proficiency level four should be “[illustrating] events in response to audio recordings of stories or poems.” 

A teacher targeting a student at that language and grade level could now find an audio clip that details a clear sequence of events and have the student draw pictures about what happened at each step in the story. If they can do more, they are getting more proficient with the language (and their listening skills). 

Knowing the target learning goal helps the teacher know to select an audio clip thinking about: 

  • length (keep it short)
  • genre (narrative)
  • complexity (simple sequence of events)
  • clarity (simple sentences and elementary vocabulary)

Robbi Holdreith, an EL teacher in Minnesota, explains a lesson she created to boost her students’ exposure to – and understanding of – authentic, academic language. With that goal in mind, she selected an interview with Sandra Cisneros from the Listenwise library that helped the class explore LatinX writers. She focused her students on listening strategies like listening again and metacognitive vocabulary identification. 

By knowing her goal before she began selecting audio clips, Holdreith was able to target a specific “can do” for her group of students and find an audio interview that perfectly suited her purpose. 

When teaching listening, track student progress

Once listening lessons become part of classroom practice, teachers need to keep them going and track student progress as they go. Tracking where students begin with their WIDA “can-dos” is an excellent place for teachers to start. Alternatively, looking to the state ELA standards provides a slightly less language-focused progression but a valuable one, especially for students nearing fluency. 

As listening goals are identified, taught, and assessed, teachers and students can track student progress on each learning target. Students should be encouraged to reflect on their progress and metacognitively assess what’s working and what’s not in their own learning. 

If students are successful overall, wonderful. Move on to the next skill. If students clearly need additional support, teaching specific listening comprehension skills helps support that learning target, reassess, and move on. 

One overlooked vital element to assessing listening comprehension skills is to note that while listening assessment mirrors reading assessment in a lot of ways, there are some differences. Listening to an audio story provides more information than reading the transcript, which can change a listener’s understanding of the main idea, for example. 

Not all classes are alike

While there is almost no way to cover all ideas, one further consideration of how to teach listening skills to ESL students is class type. While the tips above are aligned to most classes with ELLs, an ESL teacher will have more familiarity with language proficiency protocols and have a much stronger focus on listening comprehension skill support. 

It might be more prudent for a teacher in ELL classrooms to focus on grouping within the class. Small-group or individual listening activities to help students with specific instruction or additional scaffolding while intentional grouping – both heterogeneous and homogenous- by language level or interest can encourage students to work outside of their comfort zones. 

On the other hand, a regular classroom teacher may only have one or two EL students in her classroom. While grouping should always be on the list of strategies, classroom teachers can help EL students with the small extra step of adding a listening and speaking goal to the daily lesson. What word did they hear that they didn’t understand? Did they recognize when the teacher used a word on the vocabulary list? It can be as small as listening to their classmates and giving one solid response in English. 

Teachers tend to overestimate how significant an activity needs to be to have value, and especially when it comes to listening comprehension for ESL students, there is high value in the little things done intentionally. 

Watch Erin Reaves share how Listenwise has complemented her curriculum and gotten her students excited to be engaged in their learning. 


Difficulties and Strategies in Listening Comprehension

According to Yilmaz & Yavuz (2015), there are several difficulties in listening comprehension that teachers can help students with:

  1. Difficulty remembering what they listened to
  2. Understanding the speaker’s accent or rate of speed
  3. Limited listener vocabulary

Remembering the information

Many students struggle with listening comprehension assessments because they don’t remember the information they may have just listened to. There are many reasons that a student might have difficulty remembering something that they just listened to. They might have trouble because the clip is longer than they’re used to tracking, the student might be diagnosed with ADHD or an auditory processing difficulty, or they might have an underlying learning disorder.

For the most part, all these reasons come down to a single issue: lack of focus.

1. Start short and work your way to longer clips.

Listening comprehension requires a fair bit of stamina, but stamina is not built overnight. If students are struggling with longer audio clips, the natural response is to shorten them. Teachers could break longer clips into various pieces, or, alternatively, teachers could start with smaller clips and work their way up to longer ones.

2. Teach students active listening skills.

Teachers know when a student has parents who encourage active listening skills at home. They always seem to get directions on the first try, and they seem to be listening to everything that’s going on in the classroom.

Many students, though, haven’t had the reinforcement at home to get used to the assortment of actions and habits that make up active listening. Conditions like ADHD and auditory processing disorders can also disrupt students’ focus, causing them to miss important information or get distracted by thoughts, movements, or their environment.

The time spent teaching and practicing active listening strategies should never be denounced or overlooked. The time spent to teach and practice active listening strategies always pays dividends in increased listening comprehension.

3. Incorporate graphic organizers.

Teachers tend to assume that notetaking is a natural activity, but it’s another that needs some focused instructional attention in the classroom.

The benefit of graphic organizers is twofold: organizers can support students in choosing which information to write to be able to remember what was said, and they help students illustrate the relationships between the various story elements.

Teachers can begin by offering pre-designed graphic organizers that students can fill in as they listen. But taking time to help students analyze why a particular graphic organizer helps students understand a particular story builds students’ capacity to choose organizers that suit what they are listening to independently.

Speaker accent and rate of speed

One of the biggest challenges to overcome, especially for ELLs, is understanding the speaker’s delivery. A radio broadcast journalist from Atlanta is going to pronounce many words differently than a journalist from Nigeria, and this can often provide challenges for students who are still developing phonemic awareness in English.

1. Choose audio clips with a neutral American accent or an accent the students are used to.

Sometimes the best teaching strategies consist of choosing materials wisely. If students are new to a language or listening to comprehend, strong regional or foreign accents can throw them for a loop. Begin where they are and with what they already know.

As they listen to texts more and more often, begin slowly incorporating other voices.

Using class discussion or written reflections, the teacher can then guide students to an understanding of:

  • Second-language speakers and accents
  • How various languages are similar and different
  • Why people speak the same language differently in different parts of the country
  • Empathy and respect for difference

Students must be aware that people will speak differently in different places, and it helps to get them to think about the idea that everyone has an accent. Theirs is just very common for them to hear. A global education helps build empathy and understanding for others, showing students that “we don’t exist in isolation” and that our way is only one way.

2. Use audio clips with built-in transcripts and speed controls.

When students struggle to keep up with a speaker, reinforcing the listening with closed captions or a transcript can support listeners when necessary.

Teachers need to understand their state and district tests to know whether students will be allowed the support of textual reinforcement of what they hear. However, even if students must listen without visual support on the exam, it is perfectly appropriate to build listening capacity with transcripts and slowly remove them through the year (or as appropriate).

Audio speed control can also slow down (or speed up) the audio clip for better listening comprehension, depending on the student or class. If a moderately proficient ESL student can slow down the text to increase processing time, they stand a far better chance of being successful on the assessment.

Listenwise offers teachers high-quality audio with assessments already created for teachers. It includes transcripts and listening speed controls to customize the experience for each student.

Limited listener vocabulary

For students with limited background knowledge and vocabulary, listening to a news story might be especially frustrating if they can’t understand most of the individual words used to relate events.

Young learners may not feel any shyness asking about words or ideas they don’t know about. However, older students often feel shame and embarrassment when they don’t know something that the students around them do.

1. Frontload challenging (and not-so-challenging) vocabulary.

The surest way to increase vocabulary is to provide words to look for before listening. But knowing what words to choose requires a solid understanding of their own students.

A general procedure for this kind of vocabulary building might look like this:

  • Give students a list of words with which the teacher thinks most students are unfamiliar.
  • Explain them before listening.
  • Have students raise their hands when they hear a word used.
  • Listen again, and have students use a thumbs up or down signal to indicate whether they understand the words when they occur in the clip.
  • Review troubling vocabulary afterward.

However, students who have more difficulties may benefit from common words being thrown into that vocabulary list. Teachers can have a specific student in mind when choosing vocabulary for the whole class–perhaps an ELL student, a student who has had an interrupted education, or even a student who was artificially promoted and is struggling to keep up with the class.

It doesn’t require them to speak or call out attention to themselves when they don’t know the words, but they learn them all the same.

2. Use leveled audio texts.

Recently, Lexile scores have expanded to level audio texts as well as written texts. Listenwise offers this information to teachers when they choose texts for their students. If all students are at around the same listening comprehension level, then selecting a clip with an appropriate Lexile score is easy.

For students with listening comprehension difficulties, the teacher could search for a closely related audio text with a lower level of complexity for that individual student. She could also provide a supplemental clip to provide individual students with essential background knowledge and vocabulary to participate more easily with the class.

Listenwise’s leveled audio assignments make it so easy to target individual learner needs that teachers can be assured that they’re not leaving students behind.


The Intersection of Listening and Reading Skills

Listening and reading skills are closely related, but how do they interact?

For years, schools have been chasing down the reasons behind dropping scores on the national assessment for educational progress (NAEP). In fact, in 2019, the NAEP reading assessment showed that two out of three students did not meet the standard for reading proficiency in either the fourth or the eighth grade.

Despite all of the intense focus on literacy instruction over the past two decades, Reading scores have not improved significantly overall.

But what if there is a missing piece of the literacy puzzle?

The literacy mindset

Interpretive communication consists of methods that allow a student to receive and interpret information. There has been much-focused attention on various forms of reading instruction to support students who aren’t reading on grade level.

The various literacy and reading instruction camps might find that incorporating listening strategies could be a missing link to helping students make strides in their reading comprehension since reading and listening skills are so deeply intertwined.

Think of structured reading classes with texts at a specific reading level and instruction that focuses on identifying the main idea or inferring information about a character. Students who listen to a story might try the same exercises with even more success and learn to apply those skills to their reading.

Even with this sustained focus on literacy skills, reading scores haven’t budged. Researchers are now finding that the answer may not be a sustained, isolated focus on reading comprehension of the recent past.

Where listening and reading comprehension meet

The simple view of reading, developed by Gough and Tumner in the 1980s, theorizes that students’ ability to understand what they read depends on both decoding and oral language comprehension.

In other words, a student must not only be able to look at a word and read it off the page. They must also have an understanding of the word’s meaning, its associations, and its context.

Surprisingly, many students who struggle with reading comprehension can easily comprehend a passage that they listened to and answer questions about it. When listening to a text, students don’t worry about what the word looks like on a page. They gather the information they need through listening.

Stitch and James (1984) find evidence strongly suggesting that children’s listening comprehension typically outpaces reading comprehension until the middle school years when students are mostly “reading to learn” rather than “learning to read.”

Monica Brady-Myerov, the founder of Listenwise, tells the story of listening to an NPR broadcast in the car with her seven-year-old daughter. She assumed that her daughter would be “tuning it out,“ but after listening to the piece about CIA torture, her daughter asked, “What is waterboarding?“

She had been listening the whole time and understanding it – at least mostly. What she lacked was background information and vocabulary. She probably would not have been able to comprehend a transcript of the same radio broadcast.

This is the case for many students who have been labeled struggling readers.

Boosting listening and reading comprehension

Luckily, improving listening comprehension is no more difficult than working with reading comprehension. Listenwise offers audio material paired with questions, graphic organizers, and quizzes that are intentionally similar to the tasks a reading comprehension assessment would ask of students. In fact, teachers who are new to deliberately including listening comprehension in their lessons might be surprised to see how closely their listening activities mirror reading activities.

Students listening to a podcast, for instance, would summarize the piece and identify the main idea, essential vocabulary, speaker’s purpose, point of view, et cetera. Once students begin to absorb information on the first listen, they’re really on their way toward improvement.

Suppose students can listen to and comprehend audio texts that are more advanced than they would be able to read. In that case, they are then exposed to more advanced vocabulary, ideas, and life situations that their lower reading level might afford if only reading printed texts.

study published in 2020 found that increasing time spent teaching generalized reading strategies did not improve reading ability, but increased instructional time focused on learning content knowledge in social studies did. Students need exposure to a broad range of vocabulary and background knowledge and understanding of the world to have an easier time making sense of advanced reading material.

A trifecta of literacy

Is content-area knowledge and a solid vocabulary base the key to better reading scores overall? Right now, the answer is we don’t know.

  • Listening opportunities offer access to a wider range of instructional texts;
  • A more comprehensive range of texts means more background knowledge and a more substantial vocabulary base;
  • A wider range of background knowledge and vocabulary improves reading comprehension.

Providing listening opportunities could be as simple as finding a radio broadcast or a podcast to replace a written news article or as involved as committing to using a monthly podcast in the classroom. Then follow up with a related written text.

Or combine them entirely! Listening while reading (LWR) is a strategy that has students read the text simultaneously along with an audio recording of the same text.

There are many benefits to having students listen to the text they’re reading while they’re reading it. For instance, ESL students increase their English fluency, and all students experience greater comprehension overall.  By meeting students with both skills combined, teachers are using listening to effectively support students’ cognitive load while reading complex texts.

With listening and reading skills so closely related, it makes sense to bring them together so that the skills can begin to augment one another.

Read more research-based strategies in Brady-Myerov’s book Listen Wise: Teach Students to be Better Listeners.


How To Improve Listening Comprehension Skills

Research on how to improve listening comprehension skills explains that listening, along with the ability to decode words, is one of the essential building blocks to excellent reading comprehension. Reading and listening are inherently linked, and they are developed in very similar ways, which is good news for students.

Teachers are starting to get better about including explicit instruction on listening. While speaking and listening skills have been listed in state standards and the Common Core for over a decade, state testing of listening comprehension is only now beginning to catch up as more and more districts make the switch to digitally-delivered exams. Of course, there’s more information about how to – prepare for state listening exams here.

Why do we need to be good listeners? We know that listening is critical to effective human communication. It’s so essential that many believe listening develops naturally.

In some respects, this is true. When small children grow up in households that encourage demonstration of good listening, they tend to repeat those actions naturally while in school. Parents might ask a child to repeat back directions regularly. Or they might read stories out loud together. Maybe they’ll listen to the radio in the car and talk about things they heard.

Many students, however, do not come to school with the skills already in place. Therefore, teachers need to learn how to improve listening comprehension skills for kids who, for whatever reason, may need more instruction and practice.

Improving Listening Comprehension with Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are perfect for determining starting places. They don’t need to be intensive, and there are plenty of ready-made options to give teachers data to ascertain students’ listening comprehension levels.

They also provide an opportunity to assess why students might have lower listening comprehension skills. Listening is made up of three interconnected elements:

  • Hearing – the physical element of listening; the ability to discern sounds; phonemic awareness
  • Attention – the mental discipline and skills to focus on specific sounds and to block out other environmental stimuli
  • Comprehension – the ability to make sense of the ideas being related via others’ speech

Formative assessment can help identify areas students might need extra attention and identify specific students who might need a specialist’s help (low hearing ability, language delays, ADHD, etc.).

There is a lot of flexibility in teaching listening at different grade levels. It’s always surprising how much high school students enjoy the occasional game of Simon Says! But knowing which element of listening to focus on, teachers can focus on various strategies to help their students make better sense of information obtained by listening.

Listening for kids in grades K-5

The younger the student, the more the focus needs to be on hearing and processing language, and turning these exercises into games is a time-honored way to get kids on board.

Read a sentence. What do students hear? Can they identify word pieces? Teachers could also have students close their eyes while listening to a sound chosen by the teacher. Can they identify the sound?

Blending hearing with attention, a teacher might have a classroom procedure to say directions and have students repeat them back to make sure they both heard and paid attention. As students get older, teachers can encourage the responsibility of paying attention to spoken directions by not repeating directions for students on demand. Instead, students who missed directions the first time ask their classmates; the teacher is available if no classmates can help the student.

Games like Simon Says! and Red Light-Green Light are fun ways to get young kids on their feet and practice listening and paying attention. Find other excellent listening comprehension exercise ideas here.

Finally, offering students opportunities to listen and respond is the keenest way to encourage comprehension skills and attention. Students can listen to a radio broadcast or a podcast and have a class discussion afterward (Listenwise combines podcasts with ready-made listening comprehension quizzes). Or they can read a book out loud together and have students recall facts and details, discuss vocabulary in context, or even make inferences about the characters.

Listening for kids in grades 6-12

It’s tempting for middle and high school teachers to assume that all student impairments were caught in elementary school with their battery of testing and specialists. But some issues like dyslexia, ADHD, hearing loss, and certain specific learning disabilities can hide from classroom teachers and parents.

In upper grades, including specific listening material in lessons is the best way to incorporate listening comprehension instruction into the curriculum. If teachers notice that a student is really struggling, they shouldn’t shrug it off. Soliciting special education services can sometimes pinpoint an underlying reason that a student is having difficulties. Then additional supports can be arranged.

As students progress through middle and high school, they should be expanding their listening comprehension skills to determine the purpose of listening and the speaker’s reasoning, identify evidence (or a lack thereof), and draw conclusions.

And older kids still need support focusing their attention! Instruction and review of good note taking habits and listening behaviors (like when multitasking is or isn’t appropriate) can guide students toward better listening comprehension skills.

Improving listening comprehension takes practice.

Good listening comprehension supports good reading comprehension (and has proven to increase test scores). While using different strategies across age groups will always be a judgment call, there are some things to keep in mind for students of any age when working to improve their listening comprehension skills.

  • Start small. Meet students where they are. If they are younger or clearly behind, it might be a great idea to start with audio clips instead of complete broadcasts. Work up to longer audio texts.
  • Practice regularly. Regular practice will help improve listening comprehension skills for kids at any age. Make it part of the daily or weekly plan rather than an afterthought in the curriculum.
  • Make it authentic. Students know when they’re being given busy work. Make sure that the listening is valuable and relevant with audiobooks, radio broadcasts, and podcasts. Many students listen to these on their own outside of school and will often see more value in their use than a contrived “listening exercise.”

9 Listening Comprehension Exercises

Listening comprehension is fundamental to literacy. Research also shows that if you are not a good listener, you won’t be a good reader. 

At its core is the basic tenet that reading comprehension is the result of listening comprehension plus decoding (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). Now there is new research evidence concerning a growing number of children who fail to develop adequate reading comprehension skills primarily due to poor listening comprehension. (Hogan, 2014)

The activities below are a compilation of listening comprehension exercises for students grades 2-12. The following tactics are helpful for students of all literacy levels and can be adjusted for specific student needs. These listening exercises  have been specifically chosen to boost the listening skills of the majority of students who are neither “high” nor “low.” 

Listening Comprehension Exercises Elementary Students

Students in grades 2-5 are still building their foundational listening skills, so below are some options to help students see quick successes. 


Telephone Game

Remember the old sleepover game? It’s a great icebreaker or team-builder in the classroom, and in this version, there are prizes or points for getting the correct answer at the end. 

Students should be in teams (2-4, depending on the class size) that form lines ending at the whiteboard. The student furthest from the whiteboard is given a statement to pass on to the student next to them, who passes it to the next, and so on. 

The first team to write the correct statement on the board wins! 


Where Did You End Up?

There are two versions of this listening exercise — one driven by the teacher, while the other is more of a student game. In either version, the goal is that students can follow directions delivered verbally. 

In the first, students are given a piece of graph paper. The teacher tells the class that they will help a dog find his food bowl and gives them a starting point (perhaps ten boxes from the left side of the page and six boxes from the top). This is the point where the dog begins his journey. The teacher then gives the class directions – five boxes to the left, two boxes down, seven boxes to the right, and so on. Hopefully, students all end at the same place where the food bowl is located. 

In another version, students pair up, and one is blindfolded (or closes their eyes). The other student must guide them through verbal directions only to the other side of the classroom, ideally avoiding all the obstacles in their way. 


Replace Reading With Listening

Most teachers know exactly how to help students improve their reading comprehension, but reading is only one method of information acquisition. 

To help students improve their listening comprehension skills, replace an article reading with a podcast. Then have students perform the same tasks they might have performed with the reading assignment (comprehension questions, essays, et cetera). For instance, using podcasts as instructional texts is a proven way to support listening and comprehension skills

Listen to how educator Nichole Johns uses Listenwise podcasts to build student literacy and listening comprehension in the video below.

Listening comprehension tests sign up

Listening Comprehension Exercises for Middle & Secondary Students

While teachers can certainly modify the listening activities above for older students (they do still love a fun game!), sometimes students in grades 6-12 need a little extra work to improve listening comprehension skills. 



Creating study questions

This is a perfect exercise for teachers and students familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy or Costa’s levels of questioning. 

Choose a podcast that matches the current curricular topic. Play it for the class in 90-second to two-minute intervals. When the podcast  is paused, students should create one or two study questions from their understanding of the text to which they just listened. 

Tip: We recommend that you  listen to it ahead of time to know where there might be good breaks in the story. 



As with debates, having students in perform skits and plays requires them to listen to each other and act upon what they hear. With scripted spoken words and actions, it can take the pressure off of having to figure out what to say while still needing to listen for cues to know when to talk or act. 

The collaborative act of deciding what and how to perform can also provide some stellar peer listening opportunities.


Classroom debates

Debates are a classic way of getting students to listen and respond to each other. Listenwise debate stories offer discussion and analysis of a variety of interesting contemporary issues that are well suited for honing listening skills.

For example, stories about social media and bullying, universal basic income, and e-cigarettes present multiple perspectives on issues that are relevant and engaging for tweens and teens. 

There are various ways to structure student debates, but as long as students must respond to their opponents’ assertions, the listening comprehension task is accomplished. 

Watch educator Valentina Gonzalez explain how using a T-Chart, Pair, Defend strategy can help students— especially English learners— form and develop their arguments:

Listening Comprehension Exercises for Intermediate EL Students

All of the above activities are wonderful for EL students. However, some activities are more suited to ELs than native English speakers. Here are three listening comprehension exercises that are specifically designed to help English learners develop their academic vocabulary.

Stronger and Clearer Each Time

(Zwiers, O’Hara, & Pritchard, 2014)

The goal of this activity is to give students an opportunity to strengthen and clarify their ideas. By engaging in this exercise, English learners practice listening skills and develop their academic vocabularies as they build and borrow the ideas and language of previous partners.

To begin, assign four different texts about a similar topic. In the example below, we focus on topics and issues related to immigration and the American Dream. Next, divide students into groups of four and assign them a letter A-D. Then, assign each student in the small groups their own podcast to listen to (for example, all As will listen to “New Immigrants and Ellis Island Today”). Instruct students to listen and then orally develop an original response after listening through conversation within their group. This response might be an opinion, idea, explanation, or the like. 

Message Relays

Message relays are a fun game paired with other classroom activities like puzzles or escape rooms. 

Students are placed in pairs with one student as the speaker and one student as the writer. The speaking student will race to a text on the other side of the room and relay the message to the writer without writing it down.  The writer then records the information they received. The speaking student needs to relay the correct information, but the listening student must also record it correctly.

The chosen text could be shortened or lengthened depending on the age and proficiency of the students. It should also be customized to the curriculum topic that students are working on in the classroom. Finally, other requirements could be in place, like the speaker must whisper or turn it into a race with multiple messages. 


Word slaps

In this activity, students listen to a sentence or phrase and identify when a specific word is used. 

The teacher identifies the words the students are meant to be acquiring, then puts them, individually, on different pieces of paper. The teacher then reads a sentence that contains a word, and when students hear and identify it in the spoken sentence, they slap the paper with the correct word. 

This could be done at a table in a small group or at the whole-class level with student teams. The farther students are from the words, the more competitive they get! 

The teacher could also use it as a way to help students understand: 

  • various forms of words (e.g., action, acting, acted),
  • parts of speech (e.g., nouns, verbs, adjectives),
  • a list of vocabulary words, 
  • or learning words in a new language 

Build a Classroom That Values Listening and Comprehension Skills

These listening and comprehension exercises for students make great ice-breakers, and they also add valuable opportunities for students to improve their listening skills continuously. 

With concrete examples of games and activities that can encourage more robust listening comprehension, teachers can begin to see other avenues for developing students’ capacity to listen to the teacher and each other. 


Developing Listening Skills for Kids

Elementary students often struggle to show that they are actively listening, an often-overlooked skill in the classroom. Taking time to teach listening skills for kids explicitly helps them understand the importance of that skill. 

Active listening is the act of intentionally listening to understand and respond. The listener is generally able to: 

  • Be engaged and interested in the conversation and may ask questions
  • Restate what the speaker has said
  • Maintain consistent eye contact
  • Use nonverbal communication, like nodding or facial expressions, that demonstrate that they are listening.

Active listening is a subset within the larger listening comprehension skill set. It can be broken down into discriminative listening, precise listening, strategic listening, and critical listening.



Active listening as a tool for student success

Students who can successfully use active listening skills can experience several benefits. Not only do students exhibit better comprehension, but they can become better problem-solvers and overall communicators. Other benefits may include:

  • Increased ability to complete assignments
  • Better understanding of curricular material
  • Increased autonomy
  • Better social relationships
  • Increased resourcefulness
  • Better collaborative skills

Creating space to teach listening skills for kids in the classroom explicitly encourages students to see the importance of listening – not only to their teachers but to their peers, as well. 

Explore other teaching activities for teaching listening comprehension skills for middle and high schoolers. Also explore these listening comprehension test ideas for formative assessments.


How to teach a child active listening skills

One of the best ways to teach listening skills for kids is to model them. Students do learn many foundational skills by watching others. Teachers can model active listening skills with their students to show what it looks like to be an active listener by making eye contact, participating in meaningful conversations with students, and asking follow-up questions.

On the flip side, a fun classroom activity could be to model what active listening is not. Teachers could act like poor listeners by looking around the room, glancing at their phones, or simply walking out of the classroom. The key to this activity is to make everything dramatized so that it is evident that the teacher is using poor listening skills.

Once teachers have demonstrated what it looks like to be a lousy listener (and hopefully had some fun with it), students could have a classroom discussion about what the teacher did wrong and how it likely impacted the speaker.

Teachers should also utilize the power of positive reinforcement by recognizing when kids use active listening skills. If students see that others are being acknowledged for their stellar active listening skills, they will be more likely to use these skills themselves!

While teaching active listening skills may work in isolated instances, students will benefit more from lessons scattered throughout the curriculum. For the most success, teachers should implement active listening activities across different settings. That way, students can generalize this skill across multiple subjects.

Active Listening Exercises for Elementary Kids

Storytelling and Prediction

Read to students (or listen to a story) and ask them to write down or discuss predictions in small groups. By completing this activity, students will learn to listen to detail to make accurate predictions. For older students, teachers could take this activity further by asking them to write the ending to the story.


Write Down Questions or Use “Exit Tickets”

During a lesson, have students write down questions or comments that came up while listening to the teacher talk. Alternatively, a teacher could use an age- and level-appropriate news broadcast or a related podcast and have students ask questions or create study questions. 

Students can either volunteer to share their questions with the group, drop their questions in a box at the end of class, or be asked to have a small-group discussion with other students.

This activity will likely vary depending on the age of the student. While the older elementary students might fill out questions on an exit ticket, younger students may do better by sharing out something they learned, a problem they had, or an interesting fact.

Sample lesson: Ask students to listen to the audio story “Woman Cooks 1,200 Lasagnas for Neighbors” and respond to the following question as an exit ticket:

  • What are some other interesting ways to help our neighbors or people close to us when times are hard?

This can also be a good way to support empathy and other social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Watch the video below for lesson ideas and teaching strategies shared by Dr. Scott Petri where he shares how he supports development of specific SEL competencies.

Simon Says

Many elementary school teachers use the Simon Says game in their classrooms, but fewer know the real benefit of this game. When playing Simon Says, students must listen carefully to follow the given directions, but they also have to listen for the name “Simon.”

To add some challenge to this game, try using other names that start with “s,” or make rules that students must follow, such as: “Simon says, everyone who is wearing red, jump three times.”


Memory circles

Having students repeat what was said before is a clever way to reinforce active listening. 

Have students sit in a circle, either as a whole class or split into two circles, depending on the class size. The traditional way to play the game is something along the lines of “We’re going on a picnic, and so we brought….” 

The first student would say a food that begins with the letter “A” (apple, for instance). The following student would repeat and add a food that starts with the letter “B” (e.g., bread), and so on. 

The third child would say, “We’re going on a picnic, and we brought an apple, bread, and a car full of ants.” 

The game can be modified to be items they saw in a picture book the class read, or the alphabet requirement could be removed to support fewer items or a more restricted topic. 



Active Listening Exercises for Older Students

Collaborative Argument Dr Jeff Zwiers

Collaborative Argument

(Zwiers, O’Hara, & Pritchard, 2014)

This listening comprehension tool asks teachers to use podcasts to provide content for students to develop a collaborative argument. Just as with “Stronger Clearer Each Time,” this activity serves to build academic vocabulary and listening skills. 

First, provide students with a text to listen to and ask them to develop an opinion on the subject of the podcast. Instruct them that their opinion must be supported by reasons and evidence found in the text. Next, divide students into pairs and ask them to work together to complete a collaborative argument chart like the one seen below for “Debate: Should Kids Have Smartphones.” 

To complete the chart, students should place the strongest/heaviest arguments in support on one side, and do the same for the “against” side. 

T-Chart Pair Defend

(Perryman and Seidlitz, 2011)

This activity gives ELs an opportunity to practice building arguments through conversation. Not only does this require active engagement from students, but it also builds listening comprehension and critical listening skills. 

Valentina Gonzalez recommends using “T-Chart, Pair, Defend” in combination with Listenwise’s weekly debate podcasts

“The debate podcasts are fun for me because they’re really compelling to students,” explained Gonzalez, “They are about things that kids are going to be really interested in and want to hear.”

First, choose a debate podcast for students to listen to and take notes about on a t-chart that represents opposing positions. Next, brainstorm ideas on the t-chart as a class. Gonzalez recommends that teachers write out the t-chart by hand while students dictate their responses out loud. 

Then, pair students and have them take turns role-playing each side of the t-chart. Ask one student to start off their mini-debate using their starter sentence from the t-chart. For example, Student A says: “Student B, I think that podcasts should be regulated because… some are spreading misinformation.” In response, Student B might say: “Student A, I see your point, however… podcasts should not be regulated because… the government should not regulate free speech.” In this example, students are reading directly from the content in the T-Chart, however some students may want to elaborate their answers.

Finally, partners switch sides and are asked to take the opposing point of view. If you have time, you may want to finish the lesson by having students complete a writing assignment where they get to choose a side and write out their personal opinion.


What is Listening Comprehension?

When discussing listening comprehension, education professionals often think of it as a single skill. In reality, however, it makes more sense to think of listening as related skill sets:

  • Passive listening or appreciative listening – oral reading, theater, music
  • Discriminative listening – distinguishing sounds, phonemes, and non-verbal cues
  • Informational or precise listening – finding details, retelling, sequencing
  • Strategic listening – finding the main idea, summarizing, inferring
  • Critical listening – analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating

Those skills need to be explicitly taught and practiced in multiple ways throughout a student’s school experience for them to really grasp the nuances. Four of the five skills are grouped in what some people may call active listening. We will explore the five different listening categories below.

Defining listening comprehension

When teachers and administrators discuss developing student listening comprehension skills, they tend to lump all listening skills together. However, Dr. Sophie Haroutunian-Gordan (2011) at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy explains that there are four elements to which listening comprehension can be attributed:

  • the goal of the listener in that specific situation
  • the situation in which the listening is happening
  • the role the listener takes, and
  • the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

Generally, listening can be broken down into a few types.

Appreciative or passive listening comprehension

Passive listening – sometimes called appreciative listening – gets a bad rap amongst educators, but it’s what most of us do while we listen to a podcast while we’re driving or an audiobook while we walk the dog. Passive doesn’t mean not listening – it’s just listening with a different purpose. Perhaps strictly for entertainment, perhaps to learn informally, maybe even to reduce the number of outside distractions.

Passive listening is generally motivated by the listener’s personal, informal interest. It’s important to note that passive listening usually still results in some comprehension and learning.

There also seem to be benefits to passive listening in language learning. Dr. Paul Sultzberger ran a study out of Victoria University in New Zealand that explains that passively listening to a spoken language – even if you don’t understand the word meanings – creates connections between sound patterns and words that are critical to learning and fluency.

Active listening comprehension

Active listening is generally where most teachers focus their attention when working with students. The listener is often expected to do something with the information they’re listening to, and so it must be processed differently than just hearing it in the background.

To comprehend and incorporate information gathered through listening, teachers need to encourage students to make listening the primary activity – not something they’re doing while they’re doing something else.

While there are many ways to break down the various types of listening (e.g., Opitz & Zbaracki’s Listen Hear! framework ), active listening can be broken down into the following categories:

Discriminative listening

Discriminative listening is when the listener determines and defines both auditory and visual information. It involves distinguishing among sounds, identifying their sources, and using nonverbal communication to contextualize them.

If a child is playing on a busy playground and hears someone yell her name, she will look up to see if her mother called her. Discriminative listening encompasses:

  • hearing her name (determining that a sound applies to her),
  • looking around to see her mother was sitting on a bench reading (visual cue indicating the sound does not apply to her), and
  • seeing another parent nearby calling their child with the same name (defining the sound and using visual information to confirm its applicability).

Discriminative listening also incorporates how a message is delivered. For instance, a student who speaks only Romanian attending an English-speaking classroom in the U.S. might pay attention to the teacher’s facial expressions and body language to determine what is happening and what they should be doing.

With so many schools increasing their focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), defining and teaching discriminative listening comprehension is an underused avenue toward helping students navigate social situations, such as those involving intent and irony.

Precise listening or informational listening

Generally employed when students listen but defer any critical analysis or processing, precise listening is simply information gathering.

Students might be listening to a lecture or podcast in the classroom, attending a classmate’s speech, or even watching a group of classmates perform. Note taking is often an activity that demonstrates informational listening comprehension because it preserves thoughts and ideas to be analyzed at a later time.

However, after informational listening, students should be able to define what they listened to, perhaps even paraphrasing some of it. The key indicator is that students haven’t had the time or need to analyze the information.

Strategic listening

When students are listening strategically, they actively look for connections to their own knowledge and try to make sense of the information. They can generally summarize, identify the main idea, make inferences and connections, as well as compare and contrast the information against what they know.

In a classroom, a teacher might be reading a story to the students and asking them questions along the way:

  • What did the main character look like?
  • Why did the main character make that decision?
  • Do you know another story like this one?
  • Describe the story in one sentence.

All of these tasks make sure the students actually understood and could make sense of what they were listening to.

Critical listening

Critical listening is evaluative in nature. The listener is making judgments and measuring new information against current information to make decisions or ask the next question.

Students are often critically listening when they engage in classroom or group discussions, project planning with other students, or engaged in debate because they must not only listen, but respond with the delivered information in mind.

If you’re trying to teach active listening skills to kids, this is a great place to start.

Eight key listening comprehension skills

To promote student proficiency in listening comprehension, Listenwise has identified eight key listening comprehension skills, which align with Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessment evidence statements.

Eight key listening comprehension skills assessed through Listenwise quizzes:

  • Recognizing literal meaning. Questions about facts, details, or information explicitly stated in the audio story.
  • Understanding vocabulary. Questions about the meanings of words as they are used in the context of the audio story.
  • Making inferences. Questions asking students to make inferences as they listen to audio stories, interpreting what is said by going beyond the literal meaning.
  • Identifying the main idea. Questions asking students to identify the central idea or gist of an audio story.
  • Determining purpose. Questions asking students to determine the purpose of an audio story.
  • Drawing conclusions. Questions asking students to draw conclusions by synthesizing information in an audio story.
  • Analyzing reasoning. Questions asking students to analyze reasoning supporting a claim in an audio story.
  • Finding evidence. Questions asking students to identify statements or details in an audio story that provide evidence to support claims or conclusions.

There’s value in building active listening comprehension skills

Listening skills are increasingly crucial to success in college and careers. The 2017 GMAC survey of 1,000 employers indicated that listening is the 2nd highest skill employers want from new hires. However, knowing that student listening needs to be improved and going about it are two very different things.

For years, it’s been challenging to find specific strategies that teachers can employ in the classroom to increase student listening comprehension. Teachers might create individual listening exercises for their students on a given day, but there’s often little opportunity to reinforce any skills developed (or demonstrated).

One of the challenges to teaching listening, especially at the higher grade levels, is the insistence that teachers “don’t grade behavior.” When listening is seen as a behavior, it’s challenging to incorporate lessons to improve it in the same way a teacher might approach reading comprehension.

One way to deal with this mindset is for teachers to set specific listening goals for their lessons; then, it becomes a standards measurement.

And with the proliferation of online exams, many states have begun to add listening comprehension to their end-of-year state tests.

All of this means more schools and districts are looking for tools to support the development of their students’ listening comprehension skills.

So what next?

Need some quick instructional strategies to get students’ listening ears on?

Try bringing podcasts into your teaching using Listenwise, an online platform that supports equitable learning with easy-to-use podcast lessons and comprehension quizzes for grades 2-12.


Critical Listening Exercises

Critical listening and strategic listening are vital pieces to building active listening comprehension – and are especially crucial to both success on listening exams and in the classroom, generally.
Strategic listening asks students to listen to identify and process what they’ve heard, while critical listening asks the listener not only for comprehension of the message but also for evaluation.

Using critical thinking in listening might include analyzing a message to identify gaps in logic and reasoning, identifying and analyzing speaker bias, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and detecting propaganda techniques.

Why is teaching critical listening so challenging?

Haroutunian-Gordan’s (2011) identified four interrelated elements of listening (the listener’s goal, the situation, the role the listener takes, and the relationship between the speaker and listener), and there can often be a disconnect between teachers’ expectations and students’ beliefs about each.

Consider this pairing during a whole-class discussion:

Teacher’s expectations for students’ beliefs Student’s actual beliefs
Goal Participate in the discussion; listen to classmates and the teacher to offer a thoughtful response. Avoid having the teacher call on them; listening to the teacher to answer if called on.
Situation Whole class, teacher-led discussion Whole class, teacher-led discussion
Listener’s Role/Actions Taking notes, paying attention; analyzing what classmates have said, considering teacher responses, responding to teacher prompts Answering the teacher’s questions.
Relationship Congenial and warm Hierarchical; wants to please the teacher

Even though we tend to believe that listening is one of the most important foundational skills, it is very often neglected within school curriculums (although at least 22 states now test listening). Teachers talk of curriculums that are so tightly packed with other content that they rarely have time to teach soft skills like critical thinking in listening. However, there is also a lack of concrete, applicable strategies that teachers can use to improve students’ critical listening skills (Erkek & Batur, 2019).

Paired with the current prevalent idea that teachers “shouldn’t grade behavior,” listening becomes an activity that happens by chance rather than a deliberate skill to be planned and practiced, especially at the higher grade levels.

Strategic and critical listening skills exercises

It can be challenging for teachers to find specific activities to focus on these components. There are many lists of tips to improve cognitive listening comprehension, but few include clearly-defined student exercises to accomplish critical listening goals in the classroom.

Below are several specific listening skills exercises suggestions to improve comprehension, paired with classroom activities.

Distinguish between facts and opinions

One of the essential individual components of critical listening is the ability to recognize the difference between assertions of fact and assertions of opinion. It is also important to recognize when our own views might be clouding our understanding or reception.

Erkek & Batur (2019), Turkish researchers who identified specific classroom exercises to boost critical listening comprehension, suggest that guided student government activities might provide excellent critical listening examples for students.

Student government provides the perfect opportunity for students to listen critically to campaign platforms and student speeches. Teachers, then, can engage the voting student population to recall and analyze each candidate’s assertions and campaign promises. Students can write statements they remember on the board, then sort them in a t-chart: which are fact-based assertions, and which are assertions of opinion?

Then, the teacher can model critical thinking by guiding the class through what is possible given school rules. Are the campaign promises based on factual information, or are they based on the students’ feelings and opinions? Students can then discuss in small groups or cast ballots based on their improved understanding.

The goal here is both analysis and evaluation of the stated assertions through critical thinking in listening. So if students have shown that they understand the speaker’s role and can distinguish between the speaker’s factual statements and assertions of opinion, then the activity was successful.

Understanding bias and assumptions

Assumptions are gaps in logical reasoning that lead to feeling a certain way about a topic or group. We might look at a student who sleeps during class and assume that they are unmotivated without having all the facts that lead to this action in the classroom. Spotting the assumptions of others can help us communicate more clearly, ourselves.

One way to enhance students’ critical thinking in listening is to present them with oral stories or roleplay scenarios featuring one person’s assumptions. For instance, to introduce the plot of Othello to students, a pair of students is given a scenario to perform for the class where one friend tries to convince the other that his girlfriend might not be loyal. Then another pair performs an improv skit where one tries to convince the other that their significant other has been “checking out” another guy (Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Twelfth Night and Othello. Folgers Shakespeare Library. 1995) .

Then the class discusses the various assumptions and implications of the different parties – of course, driving to a preview of what they’ll be studying in Othello. But allowing students to listen to the scenarios allows for practice with acquiring information to process critically apart from reading.

Improving logic and reasoning skills

One of the more challenging skills to teach is reasoning. Even adults have trouble identifying the logic and reasoning of various statements. But if we can get students to at least consider and question supporting details, then we’re off to a good start.

So, how is listening connected to critical thinking? Erkek and Batur (2019) offer an exercise that presents a situation for students to listen to: an eight-year-old boy describes his morning preparing to sell bagels while watching other children go to school (p. 643). The boy is sweet and honest while explaining what is clearly a typical morning for him.

Students applying critical listening should be able to identify the problem with the story, which is, of course, that an eight-year-old boy is working instead of going to school.

Offering situations that allow students to identify a line of reasoning or identify gaps or problems within a presented sequence gives them opportunities to practice acquiring information through listening but holding it long enough to analyze it.

Hold up new ideas next to old ones.

Being able to relate new information to ideas students already hold – essentially, making comparisons – is the hallmark of a good teacher and a good reporter. Students who are practicing critical listening can use recorded material like an NPR radio news story to gather information and then clearly explain it to another student (or in a recorded video) in terms that they understand.

Alternatively, a teacher might present two radio news stories on the same topic. Students could identify why they might accept one as more believable than another (considering tone, word choice, assertions, etc.)

Be receptive to new ideas and perspectives.

Often, students get especially invested in their own perceptions of situations, but good critical listening requires an open mind. One way to practice seeing alternative perspectives is to explore them through familiar stories.

Students could listen to a familiar story like “Little Red Riding Hood,” then retell the story from various other characters’ perspectives. Students might tell the story from the wolf’s perspective or the woodsman’s.

When students listen to their classmates’ stories, the teacher could have them evaluate the authenticity of the stories in relation to the original story. They could also consider the variations in stories written by all the students who chose to write from the grandmother’s point of view, for instance.

Students should be encouraged to reflect on what surprised them about their classmates’ retellings.

The relationship between critical thinking and critical listening

At this point, we could be forgiven for thinking that there’s no difference between critical thinking and critical listening – and in some respects, we’d be right. In developing critical listening comprehension, what we’re really doing is building critical thinking.

However, what most of us think of as critical thinking is actually critical reading. Whether critically reading or listening, we are taking information from the outside and bringing it in to analyze it against what we already know.

Rather than always relying on critical reading, teachers have a clear opportunity to integrate more listening practice, and these listening skills exercises are a wonderful place to start. Teachers can then begin finding additional opportunities to shift critical thinking exercises from reading to listening to ensure more equal distribution.

Focusing on helping students acquire information from listening as well as reading results in more balanced skill development and students who understand that their own actions can dictate their learning.


Preparing for Listening Comprehension Tests

Listening comprehension has long been a part of ELA curriculums and ELL/ESL exams. Still, many teachers might be surprised to find that listening comprehension is getting more attention on state-mandated tests for all students. 

The Listening Comprehension Test Landscape

Some listening comprehension tests have been around for years. For example, ACCESS tests delivered by the WIDA Consortium have been around since 2003. Designed for English learners, they include items that assess English listening comprehension for all grades and language levels with an emphasis on assessing and prioritizing academic language development.

WIDA Aligned Podcast Lesson

ELD teachers have been preparing their students for listening comprehension tests for over two decades. K-12 classroom teachers, however, are just recently becoming more accustomed to the idea of state exams that measure all students’ listening abilities.

Over 20 states now have some form of a listening comprehension test on their ELA exams. With the proliferation of online and computer-based state exams, that number will only continue to grow. 

California tests listening comprehension on both the CAASPP (all students) and the ELPAC (EL students only). Many schools we are working with are seeing that listening is a skill that still needs significant instructional focus in the classroom. Just 43% of 8th and 11th graders met listening standards in 2019 across California.

In Texas, listening is woven into the TEKS, although not specifically tested as a separate skill at the moment; we hear that it is under consideration. The introduction for all core ELA courses from Kindergarten to 12th grade include this note about being “read to on a daily basis with opportunities for cross-curricular content and student choice.” 

Furthermore, in the TELPAS test the domains of literacy are equally weighted for testing academic language. Students must have a score of advanced high in all four domains in order to be reclassified. 


Learn more about how Listenwise is TEKS and ELPS aligned:

The shift we are seeing toward teaching and assessing listening makes sense because it is in line with the research on listening and learning which asserts that better listeners are better learners.


So how can teachers and students prepare for these listening comprehension test portions?

How to Prepare for a Listening Comprehension Test

The absolute best way for teachers to prepare students for a listening comprehension test is to ensure that they have opportunities to listen actively. Practice with quality materials has proven to improve student test scores

While that sounds simple, teachers who haven’t had to prepare students for these assessments may feel at a loss when faced with deciding how to approach them. So what to do? 


Learn the exam format

Most states offer professional development for teachers required to give standardized exams, which should include information about the passage length, genre, how many questions, and what kind. Many times, these training seminars even offer tips to prepare students. 

This type of training may not always be available, however. Teachers can then search out information on state testing websites and sites that specialize in delivering test-prep information (like this sample breakdown for California listening tests). Teachers need to be confident when looking at unofficial information that the info is up-to-date. Test information should always be verified through official channels. 


Teachers can look for information on test elements like: 

  • Audio content – Are students listening to articles, stories, conversations, presentations, picture descriptions, etc., 
  • Content length – How long are the audio clips?
  • Student listening procedure – Are students listening through headphones on a computer or device? Is the teacher reading to the student? Can the audio be repeated? Are there subtitles or transcripts?
  • Question formats – Multiple choice, matching, discussion 
  • Complexity – Do the audio clips get longer/more complex as students progress through the exam? 

Most state listening tests are not using a transcript to go along with the audio, and not all tests allow students to listen more than one time, although most tests do allow note-taking on a sheet of paper while students listen.

Once teachers are familiar with the test format, they can design opportunities for students to practice with those formats in the classroom.  Providing students with the opportunity to “practice how they play” is a great way to set up students’ confidence and familiarity with listening to just the audio and answering questions afterward.

Using programs like Listenwise, which has interactive transcripts for students to read along as they listen, is a great way to scaffold and practice the skill of listening. Slowly take away the interactive transcript so that students first get comfortable and then are ready to just listen without any support as they will be expected to do on the high stakes test.


Include listening opportunities in the curriculum 

Most listening comprehension tests (except those designed for newcomer or emergent English learners) have questions designed much like traditional reading comprehension questions. They are geared toward identifying a central idea or inferring information about a topic. 

All that changes is the information gathering mode – students practice listening to gather the information to answer the questions (see #4 below for more about this). 

A service like Listenwise is a great way to provide students an opportunity to practice their listening comprehension skills. Listenwise offers multimodal lessons with curriculum supports like transcripts and quizzes and even provides a free pre-assessment to help teachers determine at what levels their students are starting. 

However, not all curriculum opportunities need to be digital. Offering brief quizzes based on what the teacher reads or says to the class is a great way to support students’ skills — as long as they know they are practicing and being assessed on their listening skills. 


Use rubrics to encourage student responsibility for listening

Making listening part of formal assessments can encourage students to take listening seriously in preparation for a listening comprehension test. For instance, whole-class discussion models are natural assignments with which to assess students’ listening comprehension. 

Taking the active view of reading approach and applying it to multimodal lessons makes listening part of the assignment. Now you can add listening expectations into the rubric to assess comprehension. Students may be encouraged to repeat especially salient points or acknowledge another student’s contribution before offering an alternate viewpoint. Formal discussion formats like T-Chart, Pair, Defend, or Stronger Clearer Each Time also demonstrate students listening and responding responsibly to their peers. 

For more on how to use podcast lessons to jumpstart class discussions— particularly with English learners— check out our webinar with Dr. Jeff Zwiers:

Empower Students to Support Their Own Listening Comprehension Development

Some students are naturally good listeners. They can listen to a podcast once and relate the critical details while offering their own commentary. 

Other students struggle. They need multiple listens and prompting to be able to answer the most straightforward questions. 

Teachers that spend time showing students strategies to support their own listening comprehension will see those efforts returned in improved student performance. 

Starting students off with graphic organizers is a great place to begin, but they need explanations and examples for organizers to be of use. For example, elementary teachers might give students a t-chart for an audio story that contrasts two sides of a debate (see T-Chart, Pair, Defend). But kids need to learn why using a t-chart makes sense for that story. Is that the best way to organize the information for this particular story? 

Giving students organizers at the beginning and progressively teaching them to make their own choices based on what they’re hearing is crucial to encourage strong listening comprehension skills. 


Make Listening a Habit

Listening comprehension needs space in the day, much in the way that reading comprehension is spread throughout the curriculum. It might be tempting to have a “listening unit” where students are taught listening strategies and practice them in a confined unit of study, but there are two strong arguments for spreading out listening instruction. Here is how we recommend preparing students for an upcoming listening comprehension test


  • Listening well is a habit that must be built. Habits are not formed in 4-week units. Teachers who know how to prepare students for listening comprehension tests know that regular practice with these skills is key to good performance. Replace some reading assignments with a listening task. Ask colleagues in other subject areas to do the same! If students read a short story in ELA and listen to a related audio podcast in social studies, the skills begin to complement each other naturally. 
  • Strong listening comprehension skills are echoed in reading comprehension skills. Students who have focused instruction on listening comprehension tend to perform better in other areas of instruction (and state exams), as well. Because the intersection between listening and reading comprehension is so marked, gains in one tend to increase gains in the other. 

Use Listenwise to prepare your students for listening comprehension tests.


How to Teach Listening Comprehension Skills

Though it is one of the key strands in most standards compilations, fewer than half of the states assess upper-level students’ listening skills unless they happen to be in an ESL program. Many middle and high school students miss out on opportunities to improve their active listening comprehension skills, partly because teachers assume they already have them. This leaves  upper grade teachers at a disadvantage since they don’t have a firm grasp on how to teach listening skills to these older students. 

The landscape is changing, especially as more exams move to computer-based formats that allow assessment of the full range of tasks. 

We know that there are many reasons to teach listening. So, where do middle and high school teachers start? 

Teacher behaviors that encourage listening

While the following are examples of implicit strategies to teach listening, their deliberate implementation can reap real rewards in improving listening comprehension with tweens and teens. 

Connect and Listen

It can be hard for students to see their teachers as as “real people.” However,they need to be able to get to know their teachers in order to connect with them. Authentic interactions happen when both parties have a sense of who the other is. 

It’s natural for teachers to listen to students solely to provide a response. But older students are better at picking up the more minor nonverbal cues that indicate listening purpose. It’s pretty obvious to students when teachers are just trying to respond rather than listening with intent or care. 

Taking the time to actually listen to a student — a form of informational listening —helps to form excellent teacher-student relationships as well as to provide a model for students to follow. If they feel valued in their interactions with their teachers, they are more likely to employ some of those same strategies in their own exchanges. 

In order to demonstrate your listening skills as an example for your students is to get them talking. Selecting podcasts that touch on socioemotional competencies encourages students to share about their lives and experiences. Learn more about how to find Listenwise podcasts that provide great opportunities for dialogue.

Encourage listening responsibility

Some teachers find it helpful to set their expectations for listening comprehension early. With an effort to be as clear as possible with directions and explanations, commit to only saying them once. It encourages students to take responsibility for paying attention. 

This doesn’t mean leaving them with no guidance, however. Some teachers have found success with a strategy called “three before me,” which tells students to rely on and listen to each other before going to the teacher. If a student missed a direction, they’re encouraged to ask a classmate (or three) to help each other with this responsibility before asking the teacher. 

In a virtual classroom, this might be assigning a student (or even a pair of students) to monitor the chat bar and answer procedural questions that classmates are posing. Another option might be creating semi-permanent learning groups that students grow comfortable with where they can ask questions and gain clarification. 

Students’ ability to be accountable for the information they receive increases independence and self-sufficiency, often making classrooms – even virtual ones – run more smoothly. 

teach listening with a free trial of Listenwise

Classroom activities that teach listening

Teens really do pick up on skills that are modeled for them, so teachers who include implicit listening opportunities, like those above, will definitely see improvements. However, planning specific opportunities to teach listening comprehension skills explicitly is where teachers will see the most substantial returns. 

Incorporate conversation & debate

When students are asked to listen critically, they can visually demonstrate their thoughts as they’re listening. In a traditional classroom, students could go to a particular area of the classroom based on their stance or answer choice to a given question. Groups in each area could then have a quick discussion about their choice.

For instance, a class listening to a debate podcast about whether or not social media is a reliable source of news might have students voice their opinion in reaction to the article by going to different corners assigned beforehand: fully agree, kind-of agree, kind-of disagree, fully disagree. Student groups could then have discussions to present their ideas or to set up a debate. 

Watch this excerpt from a webinar we hosted with educator and multilingual thought leader Valentina Gonzalez where she discusses using “T-Chart Pair Defend” with debate stories.

Providing real-time opportunities for students to show their listening comprehension in ways other than writing responses encourages student engagement exponentially. 

Another example of a strategy that you can use with students to teach listening skills while encouraging conversation and debate is by using collaborative argument. This activity is also great for building academic vocabulary and listening skills.

Let students talk to each other

Not just to the teacher, but to each other. Collaborative groups allow students to interact with each other to complete tasks. In a remote class, breakout rooms enable students to talk with each other (and listen). 

Teachers often think of whole-class or partial-class discussions as avenues for students speaking, but the flip side of speaking is listening. These exercises should be designed to encourage students to demonstrate that they listened critically to their classmates. 

But even small, purposeful discussion tasks like turn-and-talk offer the advantage of providing authentic opportunities to demonstrate listening. 

In this Abby Osborn explains how she has students speak and listen to each other in breakout rooms to build on their ideas after listening to an audio story. 


“Don’t take notes. Make notes.”

Re-structuring assignments can increase student listening engagement, too. For instance, many teachers offer guided notes. Formerly mainly a support for struggling students, they’ve become a staple of many classrooms because teachers have bemoaned that students don’t take notes well. 

But scaffolds like guided notes are only helpful in increasing student capacity if they are gradually withdrawn. 

Note-taking is an informational listening skill that rarely gets taught explicitly, but it’s an easy modification to include this vital skill in other content lessons. 

Helping students “make notes” of their own instead of always “taking notes” in graphic organizers encourages the students to take responsibility for listening to the teacher (or video, podcast, or broadcast) and their note-taking decisions. Listenwise provides listening organizers and other supports that encourages close listening while teaching language and content together.

But students shouldn’t be left entirely to their own devices! It’s essential to go over those student note-taking decisions and talk about why some might be great choices, and some might be not-so-great. Students who chose the wrong main idea, for example, might find it valuable to review not only what the teacher intended as the main idea but also why they chose something different. 

Use technology tools 

There are some fantastic tech tools that support teachers’ efforts to include more listening instruction. 

Peardeck and Poll Everywhere are great ways to make lectures and class discussions more engaging with student input and quick data. 

Flipgrid allows students to post videos of themselves for asynchronous discussions or presentations that require listening. 

And online services like EdPuzzle (for video listening) and Listenwise (for podcasts and radio broadcasts) offer supplemental curriculum options to improve students’ listening comprehension skills.

Listenwise has even made a list of creative ways to blend classroom apps to encourage further student engagement. 

Final Points To Consider

There are two specific points for teachers to keep in mind as they bring student listening comprehension activities into the classroom. 

Encourage good listening habits

Students are often tempted to do other things while they’re listening — as if listening is always a secondary activity. For instance, they may have music playing in the background or be fussing with their notes. But encouraging students to listen with no distractions before completing assignments is a great way to help build good listening habits. 

This teacher makes that distraction-free listening part of the lesson. 

Teachers can also structure lessons to build listening stamina within their daily instructional practices. Begin with shorter passages and work up to longer audio pieces. Scott Petri, a California teacher who uses Listenwise in the classroom, explains that “kids don’t really have the idea that they can manage their attention spans and that they can focus in order to listen to something.”

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