For me, the discovery of “selective listening” was a breakthrough in understanding how to teach oral language. I began to see that learning to listen involved the ability to “extract” information – selectively – from what you hear. Of course! It was Joan Morley at University of Michigan who was my first mentor in this area. She had written a book called “Improving Aural Comprehension”, which consisted of maybe a hundred listening extracts – essentially lists of information of various sorts (like the 10 longest rivers in the world, location and length) – with very controlled “information extraction” exercises, often with a graphic component, like a map or chart, to be filled in.

Here’s a sample selective listening activity from my book Listening in Action. Notice that the activity template is a type of “recipe”: understanding the overview or shape of the activity, preparation, in class “action”, and follow up and variations.


Selective Listening Task 1.

Cues game

Level: Elementary and above, depending on the input

Students: Children and young adults

Purpose: Develop inferencing skills; use known words and ideas to infer missing information

Text type: Teacher reads text, question cuers

In this activity…

The students listen to cues and try to guess the target word. This activity helps the students build up their inferencing skills in English.


1. Select a theme such as countries, export products, machines, famous people, sports, exotic foods, emotions, colors. Make a list of related vocabulary items, and some cues for each vocabulary item. The cues need not be complete sentences.

2. Order your cues. Keep the cues which might give away the answer until last. For example, if the theme is “animals” and the target word is elephant, order your cues as follows: is found in Africa, is an endangered species, is large, runs slowly, has thick skin, has ivory tusks.

In class

1. Set the theme for the game. If you have prepared several topic areas, let the students select the topic they want.

2. Read the cues, pausing after each one to allow for guessing.

VARIATION 1.1: TEAMS. This can be played as a “cooperative learning” endeavor in a team format, with one cue offered at a time to each team. Points are awarded based on the number of cues required to make a correct guess.


Lateral Communications

Optimize Teaching and Learning

Follow-Up Options

1. Present some vocabulary items to the students, working in groups. Ask them to write “cues” for the next game.

2. Present an unordered list of cues for each of the vocabulary items you used. Ask the students to order the cues according to some criterion, such as how obvious the cue is.

Teacher’s Diary

Did the game format stimulate the students to participate more than they usually do? How


would you revise this activity in order to help the students guess more often or more quickly?


About The Author

, Selective Listening Task: Cues Game, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.