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

How To Teach Listening Skills To ESL Students

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

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
    • viewing
  • Expressive communication, which includes
    • speaking,
    • writing
    • 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.

Watch this episode Listenwise Sticky Notes where we share a clip from our webinar with Tan K. Huynh. He shares his approach to teaching multilinguals using podcasts and video using comprehensible input.

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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.

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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.

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