8 Listening-Speaking Strategies to Engage ELLs


Listening and speaking are often the first domains explored by a language learner.  Students who are new to English require frequent, purposeful opportunities to develop these skills.   With so many demands on our classroom time, it can be challenging to make room for dedicated speaking/listening skills practice.  Fortunately, we can engage learners by embedding meaningful conversational activities in our lessons throughout the school day. 


Here are eight low-prep cross-curricular activities that will get students talking (and listening, too!).



This activity encourages academic vocabulary development by engaging students in active speaking and listening around relevant classroom content. A pair of students sits back to back, with one student facing the front of the room. A category is announced (for example: mammals, text characters, types of triangles) Facilitator presents an image of one item in this category. The student facing the visual must relay to his or her partner what the image shows. In giving clues, this student must be as descriptive as possible, but cannot say the actual word or words that name the image. The student facing away from the image must engage his or her active listening skills in order to guess what the image is. When the away-facing student correctly names the image, partners hold a high-five or touching elbows and wait for other teams to solve the puzzle. Partners exchange seats and reverse speaking/listening roles.



Fan N' Pick is a Kagan cooperative strategy that can be used to activate background knowledge, facilitate discussion on a topic or review a concept. To prepare for activity, create a series of questions related to a text or concept. Write or type questions on strips of paper that are of similar size and shape. Place questions in an envelope. Each working group of four students will receive one envelope. Create as many envelopes as projected student groups. For lesson, arrange students into groups of four and distribute envelopes.  Students in each group are numbered 1-4. Student 1 will remove the strips, making sure that all of the questions are faced down. Student 1 "fans" the strips and presents them to Student 2. Student 2 reads the strip that he or she chose and provides thinking time. Student 3 is responsible for answering the questions. Student 4 clarifies, praises, or adds on to Student 3's response. Then, the sentence strips are passed to Student 2, who becomes the new Student 1. The process repeats until all students have had a turn or all questions are answered.



Students work in pairs for this cooperative activity. Within pairs, each student has a card containing an image or text. The two images or passages are the same, except that each is missing some information. It is important that different information is missing on each card. Place a folder or other divider between the two students. Partners take turns asking each other questions in order to solve for the missing information on each card. New information should be recorded on the card or in a notebook. The students should not view one another's cards during the activity. Sentence starters may be useful.



Listen-retell is a straightforward strategy that assesses student comprehension while working to develop learners' listening and speaking skills.  For this exercise, students work in pairs.  Facilitator gives each pair a prompt that is relevant to a topic being studied.  One student from each pair responds to the prompt.  The other student listens carefully to his or her partner's response.  Then, the listening partner rephrases what was said.  The first partner confirms the accuracy of the listing partner's retell.  For older or more advanced students, the listening partner will rephrase the speaking partner's statement and then add on to the conversation with a new statement.  After both partners have contributed, a new prompt is issues and students' speaking/listening roles are reversed.



The Mix-and-Match strategy encourages students to interact with one another in a guided format and allows for movement within the classroom.  This exercise works well across all content areas.  To prepare, first create a series of questions related to a topic or unit of study.   Record these questions on a set of index cards.  On a separate set of cards, record appropriate responses to those questions.  Each question card should have a corresponding answer card. In working with older learners and/or learners with higher levels of language proficiency, it is best to incorporate student-generated questions and responses.  To carry out the exercise, half of the participants are issued cards containing questions.  Give the other students cards with appropriate responses to questions.  Learners must move about the room sharing and comparing their cards until they find their match.  Once all students have found their match, pairs may share out their corresponding questions and responses with the other students in the class.



Partner coaching is a cooperative strategy that allows students to practice using several or all language domains while working to solve a problem together. This activity works especially well in math or science subjects. To begin, arrange students in pairs and assign two challenges or problems to each pair of students. Each student in the pair will be responsible for solving one challenge. While the first student works on his or her problem, the second student acts as a coach, offering advice, feedback and encouragement. The coach is not permitted to write the answers or solve the problem for the first student. Students reverse roles and solve the other problem. When both challenges have been solved, one pair of students partners with another pair to form a group of four. All four students work together to confirm the validity of answers and make corrections as necessary. Note that it is helpful to model the acts of offering and accepting constructive feedback in advance. Some students may find it difficult to accept peer coaching. Make it clear that the expectation is to try to be open to feedback as possible. Offer sentence stems and other supports to guide students through the cooperative practice, as needed.



Partner dictation is a fast-paced, simple activity that engages students in all four language-learning domains. To prepare, select a brief passage on a focus topic. Print half the number of copies as students in the class. (Or, choose unique dictation passages and print separately). For the activity, begin by pairing students. Each pair of students stands on one side of the room. Dictation passages are posted in another part of the room (or outside of the room in a hallway or corridor). One student will act as the "runner" and the other as the "recorder". (Students will have a chance to change roles). The "runner" will quickly make trips to and from the printed dictation passage to read it and return to partner to relay the message. The recorder writes what he or she hears. Students work together to edit scripts as they are being written. The runner makes as many trips to the dictation sample as needed for the recorder to capture the whole passage. Roles reverse, with a new dictation passage.  Length and complexity of passages should reflect grade and language abilities present in the classroom and should be modified for pair groups as necessary.



This is a classic drama warm-up game that works great for ESL verb study. To play, select a small group of students (teams of 5-7 students works well, though any number is fine) to enter the "stage". The remaining students in the class will serve as the audience, though all students should have the chance to perform. Have one student from the acting group take center stage while his or her teammates wait "in the wings". The first student begins the game by performing an action, such as driving a car. Another teammate enters and asks the first student, "What are you doing?" The first student can respond with any answer excluding his or her actual answer. For example, "I'm brushing my teeth." The second student would then have to begin the action of brushing his or her teeth. The first and second students continue performing their actions. The third student enters and asks the second student, "What are you doing?" He or she responds with a new action, such as "I'm ice skating." The third student mimes ice skating. The process repeats until all students in the group have gone.  Audience applauds and a new group takes the stage. More advanced students may be encouraged to use more complex verb clauses, such as “I’m baking a cake for my mom’s birthday.” Students really love this activity!

Ready to dig deeper? These activities (and many others) are part of the comprehensive EduSkills platform. Learn more at eduskills.us.

EduSkills is an educational services and school data analysis company serving schools and districts Pre-K through 12th grade. EduSkills collaborates with schools and districts in order to help teachers and administrators become high-performing outcome based educators with a clear focus on high level student achievement.