Listen to Learn your Vocabulary

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to teach specific vocabulary words so that students not only recall their meaning, but are also able to use them in speaking and writing? Even better, what if this method helped students develop the skills to learn new words on their own? And imagine if it was a learner-centered approach that allowed students to collaborate and help each other?

Where has this method been all these years?

Most listening textbooks and teaching materials preview key words before the exercise, but usually present the vocabulary on the page. Many rely on a listen-and-repeat method, or ask students to match the meaning to the written form of the word.  However, research shows that a strong connection between the part of the brain responsible for listening and decoding words and the part of the brain that controls speaking and articulation is important for learning new words. Particularly for a listening class, students need to develop the habits for making meaning out of a jumble of phonemes.

Listen to Learn Vocabulary Introduction method for ESL Listening classes

It starts with a blank piece of paper. Or, perhaps if students are already used to the task, a blank table. Depending on the level of the students, there can be additional columns for part of speech, word families, the “color” of the word, synonyms, antonyms, or other word knowledge fields. But for the first 15 minutes, students are only concerned with the first two columns.


Before class, the teacher needs to find a short list of the key words in audio. These might be words with high saliency or words necessary for understanding the main points, or words that the teacher knows the students will need in the future. Between 6-8 words are best – more than 10 and the lesson will run too long. One or more can be familiar or review words – this will build student confidence and keep their skills sharp. offers a text box on the home page that you can copy+paste a long transcript into, and it will pull the most relevant words for a customizable study list.

Step 1: Decoding

At the board or at their desks with the worksheet, students listen to the words said 3-4 times by the teacher or an online dictionary ( has very clear American English audio). They try to write the word, or the sounds if they don’t know the word, that they hear. Then in pairs or small groups, they compare their spellings and discuss the correct answers. Groups are given the opportunity to correct the words that their classmates have written on the board. After about 2-3 minutes, the teacher leads a short class discussion about the words on the board, giving feedback and finalizing the correct spelling. Repeat the process, saying or playing the words and asking students to mark the pronunciation (syllable, stress, and possibly color). Give them a short time to compare their answers and discuss, and then monitor the discussion as individual students add the information to the board.

15 minutes into this activity, students have already had the opportunity to hear the word 5-6 times and say the word multiple times with their group. You may have noticed them sounding it out in their mouth or arguing the use of a ‘n’ or ‘m.’ Some groups may have the wrong word completely, and that’s part of the learning process. Nevertheless, check that the class has the correct answers before moving to the next column each step.

Step 2: Meaning

Now, it’s time to focus on meaning. Ask students to rate their knowledge of each word – usually on a scale of 1-4 or A-D

A = I know this word very well and can use it in a sentence.
B = I know the meaning, but can’t use it in a sentence.
C = I have seen or heard this word, but don’t know the meaning.
D = I have never seen or heard this word.

Students have 5 minutes to walk around the classroom and explain words that they know well to their classmates, and find classmates who can explain words that they don’t know.

Back in pairs, students write the part of speech and a short, easy-to-understand definition for each word. Again, this information is compiled on the board – the teacher can call on students or pairs to choose a word that they want to fill in the definition for. Groups are given a chance to give feedback on each other’s definitions, and if there are any words left at the end of the activity, the teacher can supply missing information.

Step 3: Review

After 30-40 minutes of this kind of intensive vocabulary work, the instructor and students may want to take a break, but there are still several activities that can be used to reinforce the vocabulary, perhaps in the next class.

  • Preview the audio by listening to just the key words in context. Ask students to identify the word that they have heard. Use a free audio editing program like Audacity to pull out just the segments you want, or use settings in PowerPoint to play audio and video files with specific timings.
  • Make a Quizlet with the key words and definitions. ( has great, accessible definitions). Use Quizlet flashcard’s audio option to play the definition and ask students to identify the word. Make the Quizlet available to them to study outside of class.
  • Create pairwork questions that reinforce meaning. One great activity for this is “Yes, because…No, because…” On a worksheet or a slide, display the questions for students to ask each other and the listener has to reply Yes or No and give a reasonable explanation.  

Ex: Student A: Are wolves domestic animals?

Student B: No, because they’re wild.


No, because you can’t have a wolf as a pet.

Other good meaning-based questions are “Where can you find a …” “What should you do if you…” “What’s the best way to…”

Thanks to Pascal Hamon and the team of teachers at Missouri State University for developing the Listen-to-Learn Vocabulary Method!

What’s your favorite way to reinforce vocabulary through listening?

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