Get our tips on how to use Listenwise's multimodal lessons to teach listening skills to ESL/ELL students. Perfect for English learners at all levels.
teach listening
Teaching listening to middle and high school students is an underutilized avenue to improving student outcomes.

How to Teach Listening Comprehension Skills

Teaching listening to middle and high school students is an underutilized avenue to improving student outcomes.

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.

Listening comprehension tests sign up

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. 

Listening comprehension tests sign up

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.”

 Listenwise makes it easier than ever to teach listening

teach listening with a free trial of Listenwise