Listening Activities for Any Lesson

For the last two weeks, we have talked about what makes listening to academic language so difficult, and how teachers can plan lessons that focus on developing students’ listening abilities. This week, I want to share a few listening activities that can be included in lessons, regardless of the content area or grade level.

If you have been a member of the Dear Dr. Mooney community for a while, you may remember the review I wrote of Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning by Pauline Gibbons. 

It’s a very well written book that provides a rich description of scaffolding for English learners, but my favorite part is the large number of practical activities that are included. The activities are divided into the four language domains – reading, writing, listening, and speaking – but many naturally address more than one area. 

Summarized below are descriptions of three activities from the book that I think are particularly useful to focus on listening. Consider how you might include them in an upcoming lesson.

Picture Dictation

Provide students with a series of pictures printed on small pieces of paper. These can be simple line drawings; nothing elaborate is necessary. For older or more advanced students, you could give them words or phrases on the slips of paper, instead of pictures.

As you read a text, students are required to listen and put the pictures (or words/phrases) in order as they hear them. The text could be a fictional story, with the pictures representing events that occur. It could also be a process, such as a food chain or the water cycle, or a series of events such as the famous battles of a war they are studying. 

At the end of the text, have students discuss their order with a partner, trying to resolve any discrepancies. You can read the text again so students can check their work. A follow-up activity could include students writing their own text that matches the order of the pictures.

Hands Up

Before reading a text or showing an instructional video, give students a list of items to listen for. Read through the list to make sure everyone understands the required information.

As you read the text or play the video, students should raise their hands every time they hear an answer to one of the provided questions. They do not say, or write, the answer at this point. They are simply acknowledging when they have heard what they were listening for. If you have students who need to release some restlessness, you could have them stand up/sit down every time they hear the answer to a question. (It would be a little like that old camp song activity: standing up or sitting down for every B you hear in the “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” song.)

Older or more advanced students could be required to write down the answers to the questions as they hear the information. In this case, I would give them the opportunity to listen to the text at least twice. This activity is important practice for older students who are often required to listen to class lectures. One difficulty with lectures for English learners is that they hear so much language that they don’t know what’s important or what’s not. This activity helps improve that skill.

What Did You Say?

Interactional, or two-way, listening is when the listener is also a speaker. They have the opportunity to ask questions of the primary speaker in order to clarify their understanding. Many teachers assume that all students know how to do this, but when you consider the cultural differences involved, English learners will likely need some support. In some cultures, it is not polite for children to interrupt adults to ask for clarification. You may need to reassure students that all speakers—adults and other children—want to be understood, and it is expected they will speak up if they don’t understand. 

Gibbons (p. 189) suggests explicit teaching of these phrases:

  • Excuse me. I’d like to ask something.
  • I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?
  • I’m sorry. I didn’t hear that. Can you say it again, please?
  • Did you say…?
  • Sorry for interrupting, but would you mind repeating that?

Once students have had the opportunity to learn about and practice pronouncing these phrases, they can utilize them in activities like the one below. It is adapted from “Map Games” (Gibbons, p. 190). The basic premise is that one student has a drawing that the other student needs to construct. Student A describes their drawing to Student B who replicates it based upon what they’ve heard. The goal is to have drawings that are as similar as possible.

Here’s an example:

During a unit of study about plants, Student A draws a plant of their choice. This could be a flower, a tree, a carrot growing in the ground, etc. They keep their drawing hidden from Student B. 

Then, sitting back to back, Student A describes their plant to Student B, using academic language they have learned. “The stem grows out of the ground about halfway up the paper. There are 5 leaves that are shaped like an oval, but pointed at one end. Three are on the left side of the stem and two are on the right. There are four roots that…”

During the description, Student B can interrupt using phrases similar to those above in order to clarify their understanding. When the students are finished, they compare the similarity of their drawings. 

This activity gives students an opportunity to use lesson vocabulary, but also to practice academic listening and using the clarification statements that are needed in real-life conversations. Students could be required to construct drawings related to any content area. 

Alternatively, you could provide maps of towns or countries that are similar, yet different. Students have to talk with their partner in order to find the differences between their maps, or to direct their partner from one location on the map to another, using lesson vocabulary such as the directions on the compass rose.


Listening is a language domain that is vitally important, but often pushed aside for the more prominent domains of reading and writing in school. Consider how you could include occasional, explicit listening lessons in to your curriculum, as well as the regular implicit listening activities described above.

And add this book to your professional library, or at least to your wishlist…

Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning:
Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom
Pauline Gibbons
ISBN:  978-0325056647
Amazon

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