How to Teach Listening Skills to ESL Adult Students

Teaching English Listening to ESL Adult Students

When it comes to teaching ESL listening skills to adult students, there’s a lot to consider and it can be intimidating!

I remember how challenging it was for me when I was just starting as an ESL teacher to adult students. There was so much to think about: How do I plan lesson plans that keep them engaged? How do I make sure that I’m teaching them useful vocabulary? How can I help them develop English listening skills? And, probably one of the most important questions was: What ESL materials can I use to teach listening skills and where do I find them?

When I talked to my students, a lot of them struggled with listening in English, particularly with understanding native English speakers. To practice, they sometimes watched TV series or listened to podcasts, but a lot of them did not know how to practice English listening effectively – they were only listening passively instead of actively.


So, how can you help your adult students improve their listening skills in an effective, challenging, and engaging way?

You can do it by using real, authentic materials combined with exercises that help them train their listening, memory, and language retention in the right way. From my experience, using authentic videos and audios is one of the best ways to practice listening skills in English.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this post. We’ll talk about:

  • Teaching active English listening skills

  • How to figure out your teaching objectives

  • Choosing the right content for your ESL listening lesson

  • What to do before listening

  • What to do during listening

  • What do to after listening

  • What kind of listening practice to give

So, if you’re an ESL teacher who wants to help their students improve their listening skills, grab a cup of coffee or tea, a pen and paper for taking notes, and let’s get started!

Teaching Active Listening Skills

Listening is considered a receptive skill because it requires input–i.e. receiving information–rather than output, or producing information.

That makes listening sound like a passive, easy skill, but it certainly isn’t! Listening is an active process, and there are five stages to listening: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding. 

That’s why, when we teach listening, it would help to prepare and guide students through every stage of the listening process.

The importance of active listening

With active listening, English learners have to process, understand, and create meaning from what they hear. But passive listening, while it’s still important, doesn’t require as much of a cognitive process in the brain.

Passive listening is great for helping students immerse themselves in English, but they need to make time for active listening, too, because the brain actually does a lot of work even when we’re not paying attention.

So why do some teachers forget to focus on listening?

Well I can say from personal experience that I’ve made the mistake of assuming that students can do most of their English listening practice outside of the classroom. 

And before I learned more about pedagogy–the theory and practice of teaching–and gained more experience and training, I didn’t understand the way people receive input through listening. I didn’t understand the difference between passive and active listening.

That’s why it’s important to understand how much listening matters so that you can choose the right materials for your ESL students.

Plan Your ESL Teaching Objectives

Before you start looking for the right listening materials, you need to figure out what your objective is.

Just like reading, speaking, and writing, it’s not enough to just teach listening as a skill. It helps to have goals and objectives to accomplish as a result of listening practice.

Do you want to teach a grammar point? Some vocabulary words? Functional language? Are you teaching Business English or English for Specific Purposes?

If want to save time on lesson planning, be sure to take a look at our free worksheet that’s perfect for teaching ESL listening skills (pictured below). We’ve created this lesson plan for ESL teachers to use online or offline, and our students love it!

And if you want to use audio or video content to teach or expand on a grammar point, be sure to teach the grammar point first so that the students aren’t completely lost when they’re listening.

You can also use a short piece of content as a warm-up to a grammar point, but even so, you should give the students some target phrases or structures to listen for when you play the video or audio.

Choosing the Right Content for Your ESL Listening Lesson

Teaching listening can be challenging because there’s so much content out there. How do you choose? 

Keep this in mind: There is plenty of listening content created and designed for English learners, and this can be really useful for beginners.

But at some point, it’s important to shift to using real, authentic videos and articles in English instead of things designed for learners because this kind of content is often too easy for learners at an intermediate level, and it doesn’t help prepare them with the language that English speakers actually use in the real world.

So, how do you choose the right content for your ESL lesson?

First, consider their needs, interests, and English goals. Do they need English for work, study, or travel? Do they enjoy learning about current events, business, culture, or interesting people or places?

Then, consider your student’s particular level and English ability. This can be a bit easier if you’re teaching an individual student, but it’s definitely possible with a small group or larger class of English students.

What grammar and vocabulary do they already know? What is their language of origin? If, for example, they speak a Romance language, it’s important to choose vocabulary words that don’t directly translate or closely resemble another word in their own language. 

For an even closer example, let’s take the word “delicious.” This word looks and sounds really similar to its direct translation in Italian, French, and Spanish. But the word “tasty,” on the other hand, doesn’t resemble it’s direct translations in those languages at all, so it might be totally new and important for students to learn.

Don’t forget to call attention to phrasal verbs and idioms

It’s also important to use content that includes phrasal verbs and idioms that students may not have learned in grammar textbooks or in a previous academic English course.

Finally, do students need help practicing their pronunciation? Keep that in mind when you’re choosing content that focuses on specific vocabulary words. There may be certain words that they already know but that they might be pronouncing wrong or may need a bit more practice with.

Recommendations for video content

If you need some recommendations for video content to use for English listening practice, here are some places to start:

Also, check out this free worksheet we created based on the video below to help students practice their English listening skills.

An example of a video to use in your ESL lesson for teaching listening skills

Teach Vocabulary Before Listening 

In my experience, it helps students immensely to pre-teach the vocabulary the they will need in order to understand the audio or video content. This makes their listening practice more effective and less overwhelming.

Our brain actually has a limit of information it can store in our short-term memory. It turns out that we’re actually only capable of processing and remembering around seven (or five to nine) pieces of information at one time.

So it would make sense that we don’t confuse students with a long list of 20+ words or expressions at the same time. Unfortunately, this is what we often find in traditional English materials and textbooks. 

So, I mentioned a few guiding principles to help you choose the right, level-appropriate vocabulary before, but here they are again in a list:

  • Consider their mother tongue 

  • Choose expressions and phrasal verbs they may not know

  • Choose words that have a challenging pronunciation

Once you’ve got a vocabulary list of five to nine words, it would help to go over them with students before watching the video. Instead of just going through a list with the students, think about how you can present the words in a more engaging way.

Teaching Listening Skills to ESL Students

During Listening

When you’re finally ready to introduce the students to the video or audio content, it’s really important to do it the first time without subtitles or a transcript. Why? Because transcripts and subtitles, while helpful, will shift the student’s focus on reading rather than listening. Also, many students become dependent on them and struggle to understand videos without subtitles.

If you’re working with low-intermediate English students and you want to ease them in to listening a bit more, you could always introduce the listening exercise slowly. 

For example, you could give them a gap-fill exercise that they have to do while they listen to the first minute of the audio just to warm the students up to the content, then have them listen to the whole thing.

If you feel that the student needs to listen again, you could play it a second time and have the student follow the transcript or subtitles.

You should also check out: How to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students


After Listening

After you’ve had the students listen to the English video or audio content, check in with them to see if they have any questions about any expressions or phrases they didn’t understand. You can also ask them what they thought of the video so they get a chance to practice sharing their opinions in English.

After that, it’s time to go over some discussion questions to target the vocabulary and get your students talking.

You could include a few comprehension questions in this list, but that shouldn’t be the only focus of discussion. 

Making time for free class discussion is so important because the truth is that so many learners feel that they can’t really be themselves or fully express themselves in English, which is essential for building confidence.

What to do after listening in an ESL class

Give Your Students Listening Assignments

Not all students have time for assignments, but in my experience, students that dedicate even a little bit of time outside of class on English homework tend to make a lot more progress than the ones that don’t.

And assignments don’t have to be boring or a chore. Here are some simple ideas:


Have your student choose any podcast that’s interesting to them, listen to it, and briefly summarize it to you at the beginning of your next ESL class.

If you’re in a group setting, you can ask a few of your students to take just a few minutes to talk about a podcast they listened to. Here are some great podcasts for students:

  • Planet Money

  • Code Switch

  • Rough Translation

  • The Atlas Obscura Podcast

  • BBC’s Deeply Human

  • Revisionist History

TV shows

Have your students watch an episode English TV series without subtitles and ask them to talk about what happens in it at the beginning of class. Here are some suggestions for English TV shows you can recommend to your students.

  • How I Met Your Mother

  • Suits

  • Stranger Things

  • How to Get Away with Murder

  • The Crown

Be sure to give them parameters. Whatever they choose, they should make sure it’s level appropriate because they’re going to listen or watch it for the first time without reading the subtitles or the transcript.

Check out our downloadable teaching materials on Teachers Pay Teachers!

We know that it can be hard and time-consuming to find and create your own materials, and we know, as working teachers, that you don’t have a lot of time.

That’s why we’ve created ESL materials that you can download and use in your classes online or offline.

Our lessons cover a variety of interesting topics for adult English learners and focus on teaching the language that English speakers actually use every day. 

We’ve personally tried and tested these materials on our own ESL students, and we have found that these materials not only made it easier for them to learn and retain the language, but also helped them break free from their language limitations and enter a more confident and exciting phase of their language learning journey.

Students love our materials, but teachers love them, too! Teachers who have tried them have found that they make English classes much more engaging, and our lessons work perfectly for distance learning.

Final Thoughts

Remember that teaching requires patience and trying new things. It’s not an exact science! It’s okay to try new things and see what works best for you and your students!

English Lesson Plans for Adults

About the Writer

Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.

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Designed to help adult learners build fluency and confidence in English.

Perfect for learning online or in class!