Level:             Intermediate

Students:        All ages

Purpose:         Develop inferencing ability; develop use of background knowledge to fill in missing information or imagine scenes

Text type:  Audio file of sound effects or live produced sound effects

In this activity…

Students listen to a sequence of two to four sounds (e.g. sound of footsteps, a package falling to the ground,  someone singing a tune), only one of which has words in it.  The students try to imagine a setting and characters that fit the sounds.  This activity helps the students build up visualization skills for listening to English.


1.  Prepare a dubbed tape of  various sequences of sound effects  (e.g. footsteps, door opening,  tap water running ).

2.  Prepare some empty cartoon strips, with one square for each step in each sequence.  Provide a few visual cues in the squares.

Sample tape segment 

1.  Elevator door opening.  “Oh, it’s you.”  (with surprise or with disappointment)

2.  Cat meowing, vase breaking.  “I’m so sorry.” ( sincerely or sarcastically) 

In class

1.  Distribute the cartoon strips.  Explain the purpose of the activity:  to make a possible story from the sounds.  Play the tape and have the students, individually or in pairs, complete each sequence, using simple line drawings.

2.  After playing several sequences, and noting the differences among the students’ drawings, go back to the first one.  Replay the sequence.  Ask questions to bring out the different interpretations:  Is the speaker a man or a woman?  About how old is she or he?  What is the setting?  Is this at an office building?  at an apartment house?  What did she see when the elevator doors opened?    Emphasize that the different interpretations are valid if they are based on the actual cues. 

VARIATION 2.1:  SOUND SKIT.  Ask two or three students to prepare a “sound skit” (with voices and sound effects) that they can perform in the classroom.  Other students close their eyes (put their heads down or face the back of the room) while the skit is performed.  Which of the listeners can reconstruct the scene (including remembering whose voice said which lines)?

VARIATION 2.2:    SOUND BINGO.   If you have compiled a large number of sound effects, you can play a game  (usually popular among children) in which learners have grids with differing patterns of pictures representing different sounds (e.g. shoes representing the sound of footsteps).  As they hear a sound, they cover the picture on their grid with a marker.  The first person to cover all of the pictures or a line of them wins. 

VARIATION 2.3:  SOUND TRACK.  Play a recording of the sound track from a scene in a film.  Ask the students to list the sights that will be in the picture:  characters (age, physical appearance, posture, clothing, distance between characters) and setting (surrounding view, visible objects).  Compile the lists by having the students write their guesses on the blackboard.  Now watch the video portion of the scene (with or without the sound).  What parts of the scene were easy to predict?  What parts of the scene was no one able to predict?

Follow-up options

1.  Let students prepare their own recordings of sound sequences.  For each sequence, they must prepare a cartoon strip which is the “correct” answer. The other students try to put the pictures in order as they listen.

2.  Ask the students to write short stories, using one of the sound sequences as the initial setting for the story. 

3.  Have members of the class go on expeditions to specific sites to record sounds:  train stations, supermarkets, restaurants.  What sounds can be heard? 

Teacher’s Diary

Which of the variations and follow-up options did you try?  Which did you avoid?  Why? 

About The Author

, Selective listening task: Sound Sequences, 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.