Active listening activities

Some students find listening the most challenging part of learning a foreign language. In his Ted-talk 5 ways to listen better Julian Treasure defines listening as “making meaning from sound”, and according to him, we are getting worse and worse at it. At school children are taught to read and write, but listening usually remains untaught and unpractised. Similarly, in an elt classroom students are taught to read, write, speak and listen, but how often do they practice real-life listening, the one that requires a listener to concentrate and respond? Students are often asked to listen to tapes or to their teacher talking, but it can be even more useful to listen in a more active way.

Active listening means listening and concentrating fully on what is being said rather than passively hearing the ideas of the speaker. Active listening is a must-have skill, as it helps to build relationships, gain knowledge and attain mutual understanding.

When do we need active listening?

  • When we buy something in a shop and talk to a shop assistant.
  • When we ask for directions while travelling.
  • When we have a conversation with our friends, etc.

How to become an active listener?

In order to demonstrate active listening skills, it is necessary to respond appropriately to what is being said. Appropriate responses to listening can be both verbal (asking questions, clarification, summarisation, etc.) and non-verbal (smile, eye contact, mirroring, etc.).

Julian Treasure uses the acronym RASA as a tool for active listening.

  • Receive = pay attention to the person you’re having a conversation with.
  • Appreciate = make little noises like “hmm”, “okay”, etc. 
  • Summarize = use words like “so” to summarize and evaluate what was said.
  • Ask = ask questions afterwards. 

How to practise active listening in the classroom?

The following activities can be used in order to get students to concentrate more and to remember information better:

1. Chain story

Give your students a story prompt and have them make a chain story. Ask one student to add one sentence to the given prompt. The next student will have to add one more sentence to the story, and so on. The students will be encouraged to listen to each other’s sentences attentively so they could continue the story in a logical way.

2. Remember the way

This activity is similar to the telephone game. Students must sit in a circle or stand in a straight line. The first person in the line or circle whispers a phrase into the ear of the person sitting or standing to their right. Students whisper the phrase to their neighbors until it reaches the last player in the line. The last student says the phrase out loud so everyone can hear how much it has changed from the first student at the beginning of the circle or line.

To make the game more complicated, you can ask one student to give the student sitting next to him the directions to his home (school, nearest mall, etc.).The students will then be passing the directions on to each other in the same way. The last player will also say the directions aloud to see whether they’ve changed much. 

3. The same or different?

Divide the group in pairs and give them worksheets with several questions to discuss. Students have to ask each other questions in turns in order to find out what they have in common and what they do differently. After they’ve interviewed each other, they will have to share this information with other students, e.g.:

  • What we have in common is …
  • Maria doesn’t … but I do.
  • Elena can’t … but I can, etc.

4. Memory quiz

Ask several students to go to the front of the class. Ask the rest of the class to ask them questions. Make notes of the students’ responses. When all of the students have been interviewed, get others into small teams and ask them to put their hand up if they know the answer to a question.

  • Which student likes pizza?
  • Who lives in the city center?
  • Which two students would like to be lawyers?

The team that answers most questions correctly wins the game. 

5. Spot a lie

This game also requires students to listen carefully and encourages them to remember important information and details in order to spot a lie.

Students ask each other “Have you ever..?” questions, e. g.:

  • Have you ever slept in a tent?
  • Have you ever been to Berlin?
  • Have you ever taken driving lessons?

Students must answer all questions with “Yes” regardless of whether it’s true or not. Then their partners can then ask them 3 clarifying questions in the Simple Past and try to guess from their answers and body language if they are lying. 

6. Tag questions

This activity will be helpful if the students need to revise tag questions. Divide the class into pairs and explain that they will have to ask each other questions in turns and remember the answers. After one student has been interviewed, the interviewer has to repeat the information using tag questions, e.g.:

Questions to ask:

  1. Do you live with your parents?
  2. Have you ever been to Japan?
  3. Do you like sushi?
  4. Do you have any pets?
  5. Do you speak French?

After the interview:

  1. You live with your parents, don’t you?
  2. You haven’t been to Japan, have you?
  3. You don’t like sushi, do you?
  4. You have a turtle, don’t you?
  5. You can speak French very well, can’t you?

Then the students can swap roles. 

7. If I understand you correctly …

Ask one student to express their point of view on a certain topic. Set a time limit or a limit on a number of the sentences the speaker has to make. Ask another student to paraphrase what the speaker has said using phrases like.:

  • If I understand you correctly …
  • So, what you’re saying is …
  • If I got it right …
  • So, you mean …
  • Let me get this straight …

All (or almost all) of the above-mentioned activities can be easily adapted and used in one-on-one and online lessons. It goes without saying that active listening is a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice and must be practiced in English lessons. 

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