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