This is the third section from my (Michael Rost’s) book, Listening in Action, in which I explore classroom approaches and activities for teaching listening.

            Selective listening activities address two separate, yet equally important goals in language development.  The first goal concerns listening as an active process of predicting information and then selecting “cues” that surround this information; the second goal concerns becoming familiar with the organization of different types of discourse.

            Because listening is an active process, it goes without saying that learners have to participate actively in order to improve their listening ability. Learners can experience how their listening ability is developing when they have opportunities to test the consequences  of their attempts to listen.  This means that to evaluate how well  they  have understood,  learners need to develop their own goals for listening and to evaluate their efforts at reaching these goals.

Because development of listening ability involves increasing our learners’ access to different kinds of listening situations, it is important for us to expose our learners to a range of authentic types of spoken language. However, since most of our learners will initially  find authentic listening rather frustrating, we can introduce them to authentic language through selective listening tasks.  Selective listening tasks focus the learners’ attention on  key parts  of the discourse.  By noticing key parts of the discourse, the learners can build up their understanding of the overall meaning by inferring, or “filling in”, what they have missed.

The activities in this section are designed to address both of these purposes.  The activities aim to develop students’ listening ability by:

  1. promoting attempts to listen to a range of authentic spoken language (that is, to a range of speakers, topics, and situations)
  2. focusing expectations on understanding the main ideas of a text and on completing a specific task
  3. providing pre-listening work which helps the learner understand the overall function and organization of the listening extract

The key features of the activities in this section are :

  • the learners focus on selected information as they listen
  • the learners have the opportunity for a second listening to check their understanding
  • the teacher makes frequent use of recorded materials
  • the teacher provides warm-up activities prior to listening
  • the teacher helps students set a purpose before listening
  • the teacher requires minimal use of written language during the activity
  • the teacher gives immediate feedback following the activity

There are twelve basic activity outlines in this section.  Once again, with each activity there are suggestions for variations in which the learners can work toward the same instructional goals

1. Cues game


2. Sound sequences




3. That’s not right!



4. Images



5. Recorded messages


6. Facts and figures


7. Story maps



8. Talk show



9. In order


10. Topic listening



11. Conversation clues



12. Episode


Some of the activities in this section, particularly Cues Game, Sound Sequences, That’s Not Right!  and In Order, will be enjoyable for most learners because of their game-like format. However, as they play these games, the learners are very much practicing selective listening.

Other activities, most notably Recorded Messagesand Facts and Figures, have a more “serious” character to them in that they are primarily information-gathering tasks.  Nevertheless,  these activities too are intended to generate a high level of learner involvement.

There are several “real-world links” for the activities in this section:

  • listening to announcements for specific information
  • listening to news reports to update your knowledge of a situation
  • listening to speeches or lectures
  • listening to recorded messages to note important information
  • listening to stories to understand the main points
  • listening to songs for appreciation of the lyrics
  • listening for specific information in service encounters

When you are doing the activities in this section,  it is helpful to point out to the learners these important links. When possible, provide introductory or follow-up activities that actually utilize “real world” discourse samples.

Another point to note concerns promoting listening practice outside the classroom. Since many, if not most,  students will have access to sources of spoken English outside the classroom, particularly English-language media (television, video films, radio) and will be motivated to take advantage of these sources,  it is sensible to develop a link between classroom learning and out-of-class learning.

The last part of this section on selective listening, which is a variation of the activity called Episode, is entitledSelf-Access.  Consider ways in which you might help your learners set up — and maintain — a self-access listening program.   Most learners will appreciate knowing how get more out of self-access listening opportunities.  By providing standard  listening guides, which are usable for different types of recorded materials, and by organizing report forms, you can assist your students in developing listening and learning skills.

Selective Listening #1

                                             Cues game    

, Selective Listening, Lateral Communications

Level:            Elementary and above, depending on input

Students:       Children and young adults

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

Text type:       Teacher’s prepared question cues

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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Follow-Up Options

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


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Biography 

Intensive Listening        Replacements   

Attentive Listening       Blip!

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? 

Selective listening  #2

                                           Sound sequences  

, Selective Listening, Lateral Communications

Level:            Intermediate

Students:       All ages

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

Text type:  Audio tape; 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 ofvarious sequences of sound effects  (e.g. footsteps, door opening,  tap water running ).
  1. 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)
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Ask the students to write short stories, using one of the sound sequences as the initial setting for the story.
  1. Have members of the class go on expeditions to specific sites to record sounds:train stations, supermarkets, restaurants.  What sounds can be heard?


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Assemble the script, Project journalist

Attentive Listening       Music images, Scenes

Teacher’s Diary

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

Selective Listening  #3

                                         That’s not right!

, Selective Listening, Lateral Communications

Level:            Elementary

Students:       All ages

Purpose:         Develop ability to identify  inconsistency and contradiction in                           information heard

Text type:   Teacher’s prepared presentation; visual aids

In this activity…

Students look at a picture as they listen to a description. They verify the statements by saying “that’s right!” or “that’s not right!”.


  1. Find a picture (photograph or illustration) that is large enough for all the students to see,or make copies for individuals or small  groups.   Use a picture that contains vocabulary items that you wish the students to learn.
  1. Prepare a list of statements about the picture, some true and some false.Start with statements that are very simple. Gradually introduce compound sentences (with use of “and”, “or”, “but”) which are more difficult to verify.

In class

  1. Place the photograph in a position where it can be seen easily.If the students are unfamiliar with vocabulary items,  you may initially describe the picture while pointing to various parts of it.   Tell the students you will make several statements about the picture — some true, some false (and, if you wish, some which can’t be verified from the picture).
  1. Read your statements with normal intonation and speed.You may wish to number your statements so that all students can write down “True” or “False” (or “Maybe”) after each statement.  Alternatively, students can call out “That’s right” or “That’s not right” following each statement.

Sample segment 

(based on an illustration of a service department at a large appliance store)

  1. There are two women in this picture. 2.  One of them is holding something.  3.  She’s holding a telephone.  4. She’s holding a telephone answering machine.  5.  The sign on the wall says “Customer Service Department”. 6.  Both of these people work for the store.

VARIATION 3.1:  MEMORY GAME. This can be done as a memory game, with the students first seeing the photograph and then having it removed.  When the statements are read they have to recall the scene, as well as understand the statement.   Encourage the students to actually visualize the scene as they listen to your statements.

VARIATION 3.2:  THE CONTRADICTION GAME.  Done without pictures, this game calls for the students to listen and identify contradictions in an account.  Rather than say “that’s right” or “that’s not right”, the students say, “that doesn’t make sense” when they hear a contradiction. For example:  I woke up this morning about 7:30 and had a quick shower and a cup of coffee. Then I ran out of the house and was lucky enough to catch the 7:15 bus.  (Students should interrupt:  That doesn’t make sense…you couldn’t catch the 7:15 bus if you woke up at 7:30) Then, I got off the bus in front of my home….    It is best to start with several scenes (such as the “getting to work” scene above) that can be visualized by the students.

Follow-up options

  1. True or false?Ask the students to write five statements about themselves, some true and some false. (For example, I was born in 1972. I worked one summer on a fishing boat.) Each students reads his or her statements.  Other students try to guess which are true and which are false.
  1. The students work in pairs or small groups.Provide  each group with a large photograph.  Each group writes ten statements — 4 true, 4 false, and two “no information available.”  Then each group holds up their picture as they read their statements.  Other students answer.
  1. Assemble several similar photographs.Ask the students to write short paragraphs describing one or more of the photos. Jumble the photos and descriptions and ask the students to match them.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Picture differences, Angles

Intensive Listening        Sequence

Attentive Listening       Questions, please!

Teacher’s Diary

How did your students do in this activity?  What other language learning activities can you construct using photographs?

Selective Listening #4


Level:            Intermediate and above, depending on input

Students:       Young adults and adults

Purpose:         Develop ability to listen for gist, focus on overall meaning 

Text type:       Audio tape; songs

In this activity…

The students listen several times to a song. They recall key words and relate groups of words to impressions they have from the song.


Select one song or two songs by the same song writer. The lyrics should communicate some meaning if they are read alone, even without musical background.  The activity will work best if the vocabulary in the song is fairly common, if there are ample repetitions,  and if the enunciation of the singers is fairly clear.  Play the song or songs to yourself and try to listen to the words:  Can you hear the words clearly?

In class

  1. Announce the title of the song and the names of the song writer and singer.Tell the students the purpose of the activity — to think about how lyrics and music together create a meaning for the song. Read the lyrics of the song aloud. Ask the students to write down a few words to express “images” in the song.
  1. Now play the recording of the song.Again ask the students to write down any new or changed images they have after hearing the lyrics put to music.

VARIATION 4.1:  LISTEN FOR THIS!  Write down several key phrases from a song, in their chronological order in the song.  Play the recording of the song.  Ask the students to identify the phrases as they hear them.  Many students will  learn to hear the words in songs quickly (even if they have some gaps in their knowledge) if they have several “stable phrases” given to them in writing.

VARIATION 4.2:  ELICIT THE WORDS.  On the blackboard, write out blank lines for the song lyrics, with relative length showing the length of each word. (You may also wish to give the first letter of each word as additional help.)  Play the song several times.  After each playing, ask for volunteers to fill in whatever words they can. Provide some assistance if the students cannot identify all of the words after four or five hearings.

_  __  ___ ___ ___ _____

____ ______ ______ _____ _____

Follow-up options

  1. Distribute transcripts of the song.Ask the students to underline expressions (words or phrases) that create strong images.  Read through the lyrics again.  Then ask the students if their expressions were stressed (received phonological prominence — greater length or loudness than the surrounding words or phrases).
  1. Ask students what differences they experience in understanding a song by listening to its lyrics alone, by hearing the lyrics in song, andby listening to the lyrics and reading them as they are read.
  1. Ask the students to bring in songs whose English lyrics have impressed them in some way.
  1. Ask the students to prepare short presentations on the music of their countries.What are some of the traditional songs? children’s songs?  currently popular songs?   Ask the students to provide English translations of the lyrics.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Self-Introductions

Intensive Listening        Say it again 

Attentive Listening       Music images

Teacher’s Diary

Did your students enjoy this kind of activity?  Do they find it useful for language learning? What other uses of songs do you know?

Selective Listening  #5

                                             Recorded messages

Level:            Intermediate and Advanced

Students:       Young adults and adults

Purpose:         Develop strategy of listening for selected information

Text type:       Audio tape; announcements

In this activity…

Students listen to messages (real or simulated announcements and other recorded information) and note down key words and phrases.  This activity provides exposure to different types of authentic discourse.


  1. Collect several authentic recorded messages, such as actual recordings from telephone answering machines or recorded information from public and private services (museum exhibits, cinema schedules, bus timetables, event announcements, school closings)or make your own simulated recordings.
  1. For each recorded message, prepare a simple grid or cloze sentence which focuses upon the key information.

Sample information sheet: Bus schedule

Southwest  Transit Systems

Bus Schedule

from Los Angeles to:

                                    Departure Times  |           Arrival Times  |               Fare (one way/ round trip)

San Francisco




Salt Lake City


Sample tape segment 

Thank you for calling  Southwest Transit Systems…This is a recorded message to give you the schedule and fares for buses from Los Angeles to our major destinations —  San Francisco, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. If you have questions about other routes, please dial, area code 213- 711-1177.

Buses for San Francisco leave from Los Angeles Terminal every hour on the half hour, from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.  Duration of the trip is approximately 8 hours.   The one-way fare is $27.50.

Buses for Phoenix depart at 6:20 a.m., 9:20 a.m., 1:20 p.m. and 5:40 p.m….

In class

  1. Distribute the information sheets.Go over the information required by the grid.  Ask the students to use situation clues to make predictions of the information. For example: Which will cost more — the fare to San Francisco or to Phoenix ? (Consult a U.S. map for a likely answer.)  About how much do you think the fare is to San Francisco? (Consult a map and compare with similar distances in your own area.)  How often do  you think departures might be between major cities?  (Use local comparisons: How often are bus departures between major cities near you?)
  1. Just before playing the tape, give each student a different destination, and have that student fill in only the information that is relevant to him or her.

VARIATION 5.1:  SERVICE ENCOUNTERS.  Use recorded conversations (preferably recorded in the actual situation) of someone obtaining information in a “service encounter”. (“Service encounters” are live interactions with a “professional”, usually related to obtaining information, goods, or services.) Possible sources are: hotel clerk and guest conversations, bank clerk and customer, shop assistant and customer. Prepare information grids that the students fill out as they listen.

Follow-up options

  1. Correction: The students can work in pairs (with someone who had the same “listening purpose”)to compare the information they have in their grids.  Play the tape once again to confirm correct answers.
  1. Suggest some topics that students can “research” locally by consulting information services.Schedules of upcoming concerts, lectures, events?  Current exhibits at museums and galleries? Train schedules to …. ? Best local price of a certain model of (computer)?  Pose two or three specific questions for each student (or student team).  Ask the students to gather the information before the next class.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Project journalist

Intensive Listening        One-sided conversations

Attentive Listening       Listening skits

Teacher’s Diary

Do you think using “authentic recordings” is effective for building listening skills?   Do you think that the amount of preparation you had to do for this activity is excessive?  Can you keep a file of material for future use (and save time in the future)?  

Selective Listening  #6

                                              Facts and figures  

Level:            Elementary and above, depending on input

Students:       Young adults/adults

Purpose:         Develop strategy of listening for specific information

Text type:       Audio tape or teacher’s prepared talk

In this activity…

Students listen to factual descriptions of people, places, and things.  They record the key information on grids.


  1. Locate a source book of useful information and find topics of interest and value to your students.Almanacs or books of records, such as The Guinness Book of Records,  are useful for “light” lessons on a range of topics.  Frequently, special interest periodicals, such as IRED Forum, provide interesting compilations of facts and factual accounts on topics of international importance.
  1. Record on audio tape a short account that incorporates a set of facts.You can embellish your account with extra detail, but the students in the initial part of exercise will be asked to focus mainly on the facts and figures.
  1. Prepare a “fact sheet”, which has a grid of questions (or cue words) which can be answered while listening to the tape.You may wish to prepare multiple-choice items, rather than open-ended questions, initially.

Sample fact sheet

                                                            Facts in Nature

fastest growing plant                                                                                               

most poisonous plant                                                                                                          

requires the most water                                                                                                      

grows to the greatest height                                                                                    

is most common                                                                                                                  

has the greatest number of species                                                                         

In class

  1. Distribute the fact sheets.Ask the students to give their own answers to the questions first, working individually or in pairs.  Allow the students time to read through these questions themselves, or read them aloud as the students read to themselves.
  1. Play the tape.Students should write the correct answer, and indicate whether their answer was right. If you play this as a game, ask for a tally:  How many people got them all right?

Sample tape segment

Look at the list of items on your sheet:  “Facts in Nature.”  Please answer the questions first yourself as the questions are read to you.  Then listen to  the correct answers. 

            Number one :  What is the fastest  growing plant?  Is it the pineapple plant?  is it bamboo? or is it an oak tree?  Write your answer.  Now  number two : which of the following plants is most poisonous ?  …

VARIATION 6.1:  DOCUMENTARY.Find an authentic source, such as a documentary program, which has a number of facts presented.  News programs, historical, biographical, and environmental documentaries,  and science specials are all possible sources.  Prepare a fact sheet, in  a chronological order corresponding to the commentary of the program,  and distribute this sheet to the students.  Have the students provide their own answers (or guesses) before  listening, so that they will be actively predicting and verifying as they listen to the program.  (After preparing your fact sheet, be sure to try to fill it in as you listen, to make sure that the task is realistic.)

Follow-up options

  1. If you have abook of facts or world records, allow some students to page through it and jot down topic areas that are of interest to them.  From their notes, you can make the audio tapes or script notes for the next round of this activity.
  1. Ask the students to assemble lists of facts under different headings (e.g. science, geography, sports) and arrange a simple “True or False” game show.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Short speeches

Intensive Listening        News vocabulary

Attentive Listening       Video documentary

Teacher’s Diary

How did your students do in this activity?  Do you have suggestions for making the activity more interesting or challenging or more “authentic”?   What other topics would be possible for this activity?

Selective listening  #7 

                                              Story maps

Level:            Advanced

Students:       Adults

Purpose:         Develop organization skill; develop recall ability

Text type:       Audio tape, video tape, or text read aloud; stories 

In this activity…

Students hear a narrative and construct a “map” of the story, giving the initial characters, setting, problem, course of action to solve the problem, solution, and consequences.


  1. Find a story (or recall one from your own experience) with an interesting theme,preferably a story that has a “problem-solution” structure.    Political and business dramas are possible sources, as well as folk tales and children’s stories.  Construct a simplified account of the story, highlighting the main ideas and eliminating distracting detail.  Be sure to make explicit the initial characters, the setting, the problem, the course of action, and the outcome.

NOTE:  Even for young adults and adults, children’s stories, which are designed for first language learners,  can provide stimulating and effective listening practice.  Obtain original cassettes from the many publishers of fine audio materials.  A few American sources are: Caedmon Listening Library,  Random House School Division, Scholastic/Reader’s Choice, Spoken Arts.

  1. Prepare a grid — the story “map” — in which the students will write notes in appropriate parts to complete the story.

Sample story map (reduced size)

Characters :                                            

Setting :             place:


The problem:      •

The goal:

Actions taken to reach the goal:


In class

  1. Distribute the story maps.Explain the purpose of the activity– to listen to the story in order to find out its basic organization  or plan.
  1. Play the tape of the story — or narrate the story — one time.Allow the students time to try to complete the story map with as much of the information as they can.  (The students can work in pairs or groups to do this.)
  1. Provide some hints about any parts of the story map that the students cannot fill in.
  1. Play or narrate the story a final time.Discuss different variations of the completed story map.

VARIATION 7.1:  PREDICT THE NEXT PART.  Narrate the story, but stop when a new event is about to happen or a decision is about to be made. Ask the students for predictions about what will happen next. ( Many children’s stories are excellent for this purpose.)   Be sure to encourage any plausible continuation, and not wait for the one “correct” one.

VARIATION7.2:  ARGUMENT MAP. Provide an excerpt from a political speech or editorial in which the speaker is making a strong claim (for example, “Xwill be the most urgent medical crisis of the next century.”  or “If Yis elected president, our country’s economy will be destroyed.”).  What kind of information is being used to back up this claim?  What kind of accepted principles or morals are being used to support the claim?  After listening to the speech or editorial, have your students try to make an “argument map” which clearly shows the claim, the backing (facts which back up the claim), and the principles (ideas or morals which support the claim).   This kind of exercise can be useful for drawing attention to the “rhetoric” of persuasive speeches.

Follow-up options

  1. Ask the students to outline and then narrate alternate versions of the story.Ask them to identify on the “story map” what in the basic organization has changed.
  1. Ask the students to write out (true or fictional) stories that have a problem-solution pattern.Collect the stories and use the best ones for subsequent listening practice.
  1. Ask the students to collect folk tales from their own country.Prepare English versions that will be usable for “story mapping”.
  1. Try out this activity with video.Choose dramatic segments from situation comedies, “soap opera” dramas, or full-length Hollywood films.


Consider trying these activities as a follow-up: 

Selective Listening        Episode, Self-Access

Attentive Listening       Personal stories

Interactive Listening     Recounted stories

Teacher’s Diary

Did the mapping activity increase your students’ interest in the stories?  Did it help them to understand or recall the stories?   Can you think of ways to explore how to understand “typical” stories with your students?  Are there any significant cultural issues involved in understanding stories?

Selective Listening #8

                                             Talk show       

Level:            Advanced

Students:       Adults

Purpose:         Develop ability to l isten for gist, develop note-taking                                          skills

Text type:       Audio tape or  video tape; broadcast

In this activity…

Students listen to a segment of a talk show.  They identify topics that are introduced and one main point made by each speaker.


  1. Find an interesting segment of a talk show or interview show on video tape or audio tape.Sources may be regularly televised shows, especially those featuring controversial topics with panels of discussants.
  1. Listen to the segment yourself.Note down any areas of vocabulary that you think may present difficulties for your students.
  1. Make a simple visual sketch to show the speakers involved in the talk show.Under each speaker’s image write the words:  TOPICS, STATEMENTS, VIEWS.

In class

  1. Distribute the visual sketches.Tell the students that they are to fill in as much as they can about each of the speakers after watching the talk show segment.
  1. Preview some of the key vocabulary.Give example sentences in contexts similar to those in the show, but without providing key information from the show.
  1. Play one segment of the talk show or interview.Ask the students to fill in:

Whattopics  did they discuss?  What statements  (paraphrases, not exact words) did each speaker make?  What views  (opinions) did each speaker give?

VARIATION 8.1:  WHOSE LINE?   List several of the phrases used by the speakers on  the tape on the blackboard.  Read over the lines with the class.  Play the taped segment.   At the end of the segment, students categorize the phrases by speaker:  Who said each line?  This simple exercise can help students sort out and remember what they have heard and understood.

VARIATION 8.2:  OPINION GAP.  Prepare your own interview tape, or monologue tape (that is, a sequence of monologues by different speakers),  in which two speakers give complementary or somewhat opposing views on a topic. The topic might be a moral or social dilemma  in which two speakers give their proposed solutions.  Or the topic might be a social issue which invites a range of overlapping viewpoints.   After the students listen to each extract once or twice, ask them first to note the main points of each argument.  The students can then discuss:  Are the arguments opposing?  are they complementary?  which argument is stronger or more compelling?

Follow-up options

  1. Ask the students to prepare and produce their own talk show. Guests (other students or “outsiders”) should be selected on the basis of prior written responses to a set of questions.Select speakers who have particularly coherent viewpoints.
  1. Present part of a transcript of the show.Highlight some of the appropriate discourse cues used by the speakers in the conversation.  Which show that they are actively listening?  (cues such as “um-hmm” or “oh, really”). Also point out some of the “agreement markers” that the speakers use (cues such as “I see what you mean”,  “Good point,” “Right”, “I agree with you up to a point, but…”).
  1. Discuss with your students the normal difficulties of understanding native speakers in authentic conversations with each other.Note that there are important factors that make authentic conversations understandable to the participants, but not to the overhearer —  shared background knowledge (similar past experiences and type of education) and  shared topics (things they talked about earlier).  Not all of the difficulties they experience are directly related to their language ability!    Encourage the students to be satisfied with understanding the main points and the speakers’ attitudes in overheard conversations.


Consider trying these activities from Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Listener diary

Selective Listening        Self-Access

Intensive Listening        Short forms, Appropriacy 

Attentive Listening       Interview

Teacher’s Diary

What video resources, including local television, do you have that may be useful for this activity?  What are some other ways you have discovered to involve students in the viewing of authentic interviews and programs?

Selective Listening  #9

                                             In order 

Level:            Intermediate and Advanced

Students:       Young adults and adults

Purpose:         Develop ability to listen for discourse markers; develop aural                            memory

Text type:       Audio tape; conversation

In this activity…

Students listen to dialogues.  The students  are given strips of paper with single lines of the dialogue written on them.  The students put the lines in order.


  1. Locate several recorded conversations on the same topic, or in the same setting and situation ( a hotel, guest checking in).  There should be enough turns to make this activity challenging — about twelve turns for each conversation.  Make a transcript of the conversation and cut it into strips, with one speaker turn per strip. (Sound effects, if any, should also be noted on the strips.)
  1. Play the tape recording of the conversations to yourself and attempt to put the strips in order as you listen.If this is too difficult to do (perhaps because the turns are too short), combine two turns per strip.
  1. Copy enough strips for all of your students.

In class

  1. Distribute the strips to the students in jumbled order.Tell them the setting of the conversation.  Can they put the strips in order, even without hearing the conversation?  Give them a few minutes to try to do this.
  1. Play the tape once.Ask the students to listen only without manipulating the strips.  After the first playing, allow another minute for the students to arrange their strips in order according to the tape.
  1. Play the tape a second time for confirmation.

VARIATION 9.1: MONOLOGUES.   This activity can be done with sets of instructions (e.g. recipes), or with narratives, or with news broadcasts.  Prepare a transcript and cut it into parts that correspond to “event chunks” in the story or to segments of the broadcast.   Ask the students to memorize their strips.  In order to put the script together, the students will listen to you read the entire script aloud once.  Then (in groups) they recite their own bits, listen to each other, and pay attention to different sequence cues.

Follow-up options

  1. For each conversation, discuss with the class how they were able to put the conversation in order.What are the sequence cues?    Were some of the exchanges “routines” that are very predictable?   Did some of the turns have pronoun references (one, that, it, them ) that showed a connection to other turns?
  1. Compare the different conversations in the same setting and situation.How are they alike — do they have common patterns? How are they different — are there different ways to reach the same conversational goal?


Consider trying these activities from  Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Fill the gap

Selective Listening        Whose line?  

Intensive Listening        Word chains, Pair dictation

Attentive Listening       Scenes

Teacher’s Diary

How did your students do in this activity?   What are the advantages of having the students do this activity alone? in small groups?  Do you think that this kind of study of “cohesion clues” will help develop your students’ listening ability?

Selective Listening  #10

                                             Topic listening     

Level:            Intermediate and Advanced

Students:       Young adults and adults

Purpose:         Develop ability to listen for main ideas, develop note-                                          taking and review skills

Text type:  Teacher’s prepared presentation; lectures

In this activity…

Students study a topic area (academic or technical) through short lectures, which are supported by readings and in-class discussions and presentations.


  1. Select a subject area on which you can give a series of short informal lectures.This might be an academic area such as political history (e.g. a biography of a significant person),  biology (e.g. an account of a particular discovery), or astronomy (e.g. a review of thinking at a particular period of history).    It might be a non-academic area such as local history, para-psychology, or tournament billiards.  The topic should be of interest to you and your students, and it should be a topic that you know fairly well.  You should also have ample resource material (including visuals) in order to prepare a few informative lectures and presentations.
  1. Prepare notes for two or three short lectures.Also prepare  a  true/false test for each lectures.  The true/false tests should cover the main content of the lecture and ask for  both factual recall and inference.

In class

  1. Distribute the True/False test in advance of the lecture. Read over the items with the students.  How many do they know the answer to already before the lecture even starts?  (They should not be able to answer more than half of the questions without listening to the lecture, or else the lecture content and test are “too easy”.)  Collect the blank tests and tell the students you will distribute them again at the end of the lecture.
  1. Deliver your lecture informally, allowing questions as you go along.If possible, tape record the lecture for later reference. Encourage the students to take notes, particularly about items they remember to be on the upcoming test.
  1. When you have finished the lecture, distribute the true/false tests again.After the students have taken the test, go over the answers with them.

VARIATION 10.1:  WRITE YOUR QUESTIONS. If students do not seem to be following the lecture and  are reticent about asking you clarification questions,  stop the lecture periodically and ask every student  to write down one question about the lecture on a slip of paper.  Collect the slips quickly and read out some of the questions and respond to them, without giving the identity of the questioner. Eventually, as the students become more confident about asking questions, you should be able to drop the step of actually having the students write out their questions.

VARIATION 10.2:  STANDARD QUESTIONS.  By having students compare their own test  questions with those written by test experts, the students can become more aware of inferential question types that are often used in standardized tests.  Have your students take a practice test for a standardized test, such as TOEFL or TOEIC.  Allow  the students to hear each lecture segment in advance, before they see the prepared test questions.   Ask the students to prepare their own questions.  Then let them compare their questions with those written by the test writer.  Which are similar?

Follow-up options

  1. Ask the students to reconstruct lecture notes into short oral (or written)summaries.
  1. Ask the students to do shortresearch projects related to the lecture topic.  These can be the basis for oral presentations to the class.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Short speeches

Intensive Listening        News vocabulary  

Attentive Listening       Video documentary

Teacher’s Diary

How did your students do in this activity?   Were there any special problems in preparing the activity?  How did you deal with vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to the students?   What kind of help did the students need to follow the lecture?  Do you have suggestions for improving the lecture next time? 

Selective Listening  #11

Conversation clues

Level:            Intermediate and Advanced

Students:       Adults

Purpose:         Develop skill in making  inferences based on known information;                     develop test-taking skill

Text type:       Audio tape; conversations

In this activity…

Students listen to short conversations and make guesses about each conversation:  setting, relationships between the people, the purpose.


  1. Obtain tape recordings of several short conversations which are not necessarily related to each other.(One possible resource is practice tests in TOEFL test preparation books, which sometimes contain random sequences of conversations followed by recall questions and inference questions.)
  1. Listen to the recordings and write down two or three questions for each that are answerable from the conversation:(a) setting:  What is the setting? Where does this conversation probably take place?; (b) characters:Who are the speakers? What is the relationship between the speakers?;  (c)purpose: What is the purpose of the conversation?  What does A  want  B  to do?  Why did  A  say (……)?;   (d)attitude of the speakers:  What is  A ‘s attitude toward  B ? What is  A ‘s reaction to B ?

In class

  1. As a warm up activity, write the names of several occupations on the chalkboard: doctor, dentist, teacher, mechanic, sales clerk, postal clerk, hairdresser, police officer.   Ask the students what words and phrases they think each person often says.  For instance, if you say, “teacher”,   the students may suggest words such as “books” and “homework”, and  phrases such as “OK, let’s continue” or “Today, I’d like for us to…”.  Write the words and phrases on the board.  Continue with some of the other occupations.
  1. Explain the purpose of the upcoming listening activity — to listen without knowing the context and to find clues to the setting by using our background knowledge.
  1. Play each conversation.At the end of the conversation, ask your questions.  The students write down brief answers.
  1. After playing the sequence of conversations, go back to the first one and replay it.Ask the questions again and elicit answers from the students.  Ask them what clues in the conversation helped them to answer the questions. Specific words and expressions? Intonation?  Repetition? Predictable patterns in the conversations?

VARIATION 11.1:  WHICH WAS IT?  Play the short conversations again.  For each conversation, write out one of the lines in two or three different versions. Each version of the line should have the same basic meaning (although the social register or social effect may be somewhat different).  For example, if the line is   

Can you tell me where the bus stop is?

 use paraphrases such as:

– Do you know where the bus stop is?

– Would you happen to know where the bus stop is?

–  Please tell me where the bus stop is.

After listening to the conversation, the students select the exact  line that the speaker said.  Play the tape a final time so that students can verify the exact form of the utterance.

VARIATION 11.2:  TEST QUESTIONS.  Prepare, or locate,  several two-line dialogues which require a “fill-in link” to be understood. An example:

Man: The front tire is flat and the shock absorbers need to be replaced.

Woman: Better take it to Mr. Jones.

Students, working in pairs, will be given the transcript for one conversation.  They are to write a “test question” on the dialogue, which cannot be answered directly  from information in the dialogue. For example:

Question:  What kind of work does Mr. Jones probably do?

By attempting this kind of question writing, the students should become better able to anticipate test questions.

Follow-up options

  1. Ask the students to write several short conversations which have one or two cues about the relationship between the speakers or the setting.Possibilities for settings are:  customs and immigration at an airport, bank transactions, post office, department store, restaurants and cafes, travel agencies, train stations.  Pairs of students say their conversations (without miming any actions).  Can others guess the relationship and the setting?
  1. Let the students take a practice listening test of the TOEFL or a similar standardized test which has short taped conversations, and written multiple choice answers to questions.Go over the test results as a class to analyze how  the correct answers were found.


Consider trying these activities from other sections of Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Interactive Listening     Conversation tips, Cartoon sequences

Intensive Listening        One-sided conversations, Paraphrase

Teacher’s Diary

Were the students successful in using context clues to help them in the activity?  Do the students like to have “test questions” following each conversation? If so, why?  If not, why not?

Selective Listening #12


Level:  Intermediate and Advanced

Students:       Adults

Purpose:         Develop ability to listen for gist; develop skill of identifying missing information prior to listening

Text type:       Video tape; broadcast

In this activity…

Students listen to an episode from a TV drama or from a video tape of a feature-length film.  They complete a basic comprehension check quiz and a review form.


  1. Select an interesting five- to ten-minute segment from a television drama, film, or ELT serial drama.Alternatively, you may select audio-only sources, including “read-along novels”.
  1. Watch (or listen to) the drama yourself.Prepare a “gapped” paragraph which constitutes a  general  summary of each segment.  Leave out key actions (verb phrases) and key descriptions (adjective phrases),  rather than names and details of time and place .

sample gapped paragraph

(based on a detective story)

This is the story of a man named Arthur Logo who  died on the evening of December 31st .   Police Lieutenant Walala contacted Martha Lowes, who said that  she and Logo went to a party together that evening.   Ms.  Lowesdenied any involvement in the murder, but police said that …

[The underlined portions would be left blank on the students’ sheets.]
  1. If you are using an audio-only source,prepare some simple visual aids which will help contextualize the segment.

In class

  1. Introduce the new segment of the story by recounting, or asking one of the students to recount, the previous episode.
  1. Pose two or three “inferential” questions that will be answered in the upcoming episode. (For example, Why couldn’t Ms. Lowes have been with him on that night?What did she mean when she said she knew Mr. Logo “only professionally”?)
  1. Play the episode in its entirety, without stopping.Ask the students which of your advance questions they can and can’t respond to.   Don’t provide answers to the questions yourself at this point, but do suggest where in the episode some relevant information to the question can be located.
  1. Elicit further questions from the students, again directing them to places in the tape to listen for answers.Play the segment again.
  1. Distribute the gapped paragraph and provide time for the students to complete the summary.You may wish to have them work in pairs on the summary.  Allow approximate answers for the fill-ins.

Follow-up options

  1. The students re-enact the scene in their own words.Attention should be on the meaning of the scene and the attitudes of the characters, not on the exact wording.
  1. Discuss the scene with the students.Are there any interesting cultural insights to be gained from the scene?
  1. Discuss with the students how to set up a self-access centerso that they can listen regularly to tapes of the kind used in this activity. (See following variation 12.1: Self-access.)


Consider trying these activities from Listening in Action  as a follow-up to this activity: 

Selective Listening  Self-Access

Interactive Listening     Assemble the script

Teacher’s Diary

What aspects of the drama were most interesting to the students?  Did any of the students have particular cultural insights to share after listening to or viewing the episode?  In the follow-up re-enactment, did the students recreate the “meaning” of the scene effectively? 

VARIATION 12.1:   Self-Access

Provide a facility for self-access listening or viewing and a realistic time when students can use the facility.  Prepare several short audio and video tape programs for students at different levels (beginning, intermediate, advanced).  Try to vary the selection of recorded materials: serial mysteries, music videos, short stories, folktales and fables (including children’s stories), non-fiction documentaries, social conversations, simulated lectures. Prepare a reporting sheet  (see sample below for the students to use with each program.

The initial investment of time, energy, and money in setting up a self-access listening programfor your students will be significant but the long-term benefits will make it worth the effort.  One of the essential features of any successful self-access center isteacher  follow-up:  regular checking of learners’ journals, keeping records of time each student spends in the self-access center, chatting with learners regularly about the content of the programs they listen to.

In the initial stages of organizing a self-access program, it may be useful to assemble a set of original copies of audio and video tapes that are likely to be of interest to the students.  Develop a simple indexing system for the tapes you have available.   Ask the students to read through the list of  tape titles (with brief descriptions of the contents and length of the tape) and to rate each title in terms of interest (on a 0-1-2-3 scale).

Self-access report sample (reduced size; the actual form should have enough space for writing)


  1. What tape are you going to listen to or watch?
  2. Why did you choose this tape?
  3. How long are you planning to listen today?
  4. What do you expect to learn from this tape?
  5. How will you listen to the tape?
  6. Listen to the whole tape and try to understand the overall meaning.   
  7. Listen and replay sections that I don’t understand well.


Write notes about main events and ideas of the tape:


A 25-word summary of the tape:

List 10 expressions from the tape that you would like to be able to use. 


Do you recommend this tape to other students?  Why or why not? 

Please prepare a short (5-minute) quiz on this tape.  Also provide an answer key. 

About The Author

, Selective Listening, 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.

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