Helping ESL students understand what you say

This page gives advice on how to help ESL students understand what you say in class.


It is important that ESL students become efficient listeners for two reasons:

  • In general, students spend much more lesson time listening than they do speaking, reading or writing.
  • Listening is the basis of most classroom activities. Students cannot perform these activities correctly unless they have heard and understood the relevant instructions or information.

Like any skill, the skill of listening can be improved if it is practised under the guidance of an experienced and competent teacher.

The points listed below summarize what the teacher should know or can do in order to improve the ESL student's ability to listen effectively and understand more of what is said.

Make it comprehensible

This is the most important advice. @ ESL students learn from being exposed to language which is comprehensible to them. ~ It is unrealistic to expect their close attention to long stretches of spoken English which is not modified for their needs or supported by visual material.

Probably the most significant cause of incomprehensibility is the vocabulary used in the spoken language. Here you can read about English vocabulary and the words or phrases that cause the most difficulty.

And here is a short video that suggests three ways that you can explain unknown words.

Be aware of the cognitive processes

It is important to be aware of the cognitive processes underlying the skill of listening. Listening is not a passive process. It is the active skill of interpreting the verbal and non-verbal output of the speaker in order to understand the message.

Note: The verbal output comprises the actual words used by the speaker. The non-verbal output includes the speaker's use of intonation, pauses, facial expression, body language, etc. and the way she organizes the message.

Activate existing knowledge

@@ If students are to be expected to listen to long texts or lectures, it is usually desirable to activate their existing knowledge of the topic. ~~

This can be done by asking questions, by helping students make connections with what they know already, by discussing opinions, by making predictions etc. It is often helpful to pre-teach key words.

Prevent distractions

Effective listening presupposes that students can hear what is being said, and are not being distracted. The teacher can wait for silence before speaking and ensure that students listen to each other. The teacher may also consider keeping the door or window shut to avoid unnecessary distractions.

Enunciate slowly and clearly

Beginning learners will find it easier to understand speech that is clearly enunciated and relatively slow. The typical "swallowing" of sounds in English often results in spoken text that is problematic to new ESL students. So, not Dja do your homework? or Djoo come to school by bus? but Did you do your homework? and Do you come to school by bus?

Stand at the front of the class

Students generally find understanding and concentration improves somewhat if they can see their teacher. Standing at the back of the class or with your back to the students when talking about something on the Smartboard is not optimal for their listening comprehension.

Use visual material

Listening comprehension is easier if supported by visual material. As well as the obvious advantages of students being able to see pictures or diagrams of what is being talked about, it is often helpful for them to have key words written on the board.

Make it interesting

@@@ It is unrealistic to expect close listening attention to material which is boring or presented in a boring way. ~~~

On the other hand, peppering the lesson with jokes, cultural references and word plays can be alienating to the English language learners. See the student feedback page, where there is a reference to research on this issue.

Set tasks based on effective listening

Teachers can help students develop listening competence if they set tasks that can only be carried out if effective listening has taken place. For example, you could have one student report to the class on how another student went about solving a mathematics problem. Cooperative activities are an excellent way of requiring careful listening.

It is a good idea to tell students what they will have to do after they have finished listening, so they can focus on salient aspects of the oral explanation.

Increase wait time

Increasing wait time This is the time the teacher waits after asking a question before selecting a student to answer it. will give students a chance to process what they have heard and formulate answers in their mind. It is particularly helpful to repeat or rephrase questions that are in complex syntax or require more than simple answers.

If you invariably expect two students in the class to answer such questions before you give feedback, this will add to the amount of time available for the ESL student to formulate a response. This applies also to a response that simply is a mental one which the student does not yet feel confident to express aloud.

Repeat or rephrase what other students say

A student's comment, question or answer may not be clearly or fully expressed or just not very loud. It can therefore often be helpful if the teacher repeats, rephrases or summarizes what that student has just said.

Increase personal involvement

Students listen more carefully if they feel personally involved. You could do this in a science lesson by avoiding the typical use of the passive. So, for example, instead of saying:

After being swallowed the food passes into the stomach, where it is further broken down by the strong stomach muscles

you could say:

After you swallow your food, it passes into your stomach where strong muscles break it down further.

Start with a summary

It is often helpful to give a brief summary at beginning of lesson of what you're going to cover in the lesson, and then to clearly signpost each section.For example:

Now that we've looked at some of the effects of acid rain, I want to talk about ways that we can reduce the problem.

End with a summary

A short summing up at the end of the lesson of what has been covered may help ESL students finally make sense of some of what they heard during the lesson. A brief preview of the next lesson is also helpful.


There are many suggestions above on how to make the spoken language content of lessons comprehensible to ESL students. It is important to point out, however, that putting the suggestions into practice will benefit all the students in the class.

Further reading

How to be a better listener on the Learners section of the site has a list of all the things that can make listening comprehension difficult.

The page also has advice to students on how they can increase their listening comprehension in class. You might find it useful to remind students of some of this advice if they are struggling in your lessons.