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.

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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. 

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. 

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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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