Improve EFL Listening Skills – Tips and Activities

Exam season has rolled around again! Hopefully you’re prepared for all the marking, extra hours and special planning you may be required to do in order to get your students up to scratch.

Today I am focusing a post on improving listening skills for exams. Especially the gap fill exercises that pervade official examinations these days. There is often little time available to practise listening in class, and students hate doing it at home. So how to improve their skills quickly and effectively? Well, with the simple 3 step method, with some other tips and activities included at the end!

Step One – Train Those Reading Skills

Yes, I’m serious! Students need to be able to read quickly and effectively in order to get good marks in this part. So the best first step to improving those listening scores? Practise reading!

Collect some listening part 2 exercises and example sentences, and have them read them quickly, identifying the type of information necessary for the space. For example;

John decided to wear _______________ to keep him warm on his journey down the mountain.

First, students should identify that they need a NOUN, and then refer to the context to glean more specific information. From this, they will know that they are looking for some kind of clothing. They should note this down next to the question.

Why is this step helpful?

Well, for two reasons. Firstly, it focuses their listening, ensuring that they pay attention to the words that meet the criteria they have written down. Secondly, if they are left with no answer at the end of the listening, they will be in a better position to guess.

Step Two – Identify Distractors

This part of the listening is notorious for distractors, which will throw students off. Knowing that candidates will be looking for specific information, exam creators throw in lots of similar words in an attempt to ward off ‘word spotting’. The intention of this is that candidates focus on the gist and meaning of the entire listening exercise. So how to deal with them?

If, for example, students have correctly identified that they need a noun to complete the space, they should note down next to the question all of the relevant nouns that they hear. For example;

John decided to wear _______________ to keep him warm on his journey down the mountain.

Audio Script:

I often used to take a pair of gloves with me down the mountain, but in the end I never used them and they were taking up too much space. My mother suggested that I use a scarf to help keep me warm but it blocked my eyes and I decided against it. Then I discovered some other snowboarders using a face mask and found that it’s really effective in keeping the chill off, so I’m never without it these days!

There are three answers that perfectly fit the criteria here; gloves, a scarf, and a face mask. All are nouns, and all are things that one wears.

Students should, the first time they listen, note down all three options. The second time they hear the audio, an attempt should be made to narrow them down using the context.

Why is this step helpful?

By getting the general idea of the context the first time they listen, candidates will be better placed to choose between the options in a multiple choice they have created for themselves!

Step Three – Check Answers

The last and potentially the most crucial of the three steps. It would be a shame for your students to fall at the final hurdle! After they finish the listening, without really thinking about what the people said anymore, they should go back and read what they have put. The focus here is not on if the answer is contextually correct, but grammatically. Do they have a plural if the sentence requires one? Did they remember to put an article before the singular countable noun? Those small grammatical errors that cost students hundreds of points.

Also in this step, students must make sure to put an answer for every question! If, at the end of the test they have nothing, they should guess. Using the notes they made to help them. This is a matter of luck a lot of the time, but given that they have a context and a grammatical guideline, I have seen many points gained from guesses in listening part 2!

Other Tips –


  • Remind students that the answers come in chronological order, and they therefore shouldn’t get to hung up on a question, or they may miss the next. This information also helps them to locate where they are if they get lost.
  • Spelling is hugely important here, and another thing they should revise in step three.
  • Let them in on your secret, tell them about the three steps rather than simply training the skills. Students love methods and tricks, it helps with motivation!
  • Emphasise that they have a word limit of three. In FCE exams, it’s not common to see three word answers, but in CAE it is. So they should be expecting it!

Practice Activities!


  • Have a look first for some example exam exercises online, students always appreciate the chance to practise with genuine past papers.

download (9)

  • Check out my post on improving gap fill listening with TED talks! I love this activity because TED talks are usually super interesting and practise listening at the same time! Have a look at my examples and then you can make some of your own!

TED Talks for ESL Advanced Listening Practice (With Examples)

download (8)

  • The best one of all is lyrics training! The website omits words from popular songs, students must type the word before the timer runs out. Great for all ages, and is good fun for anybody who enjoys music. The website has helped countless numbers of my students to improve their listening skills while having fun.



I hope you’ve found these tips useful, happy teaching!

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