How To Turn Listening Into a Game For YLs

by Maria Conca

What do Young Learners (YLs) really want from a language lesson? Have you ever wondered? I have asked colleagues, both experts and newly qualified, who confirmed ‘YLs just want to play’. Yes, play games. Possibly, play games and learn something new? Surely, YLs want to learn something new while having fun and playing games. This is what really motivates them and motivation is a key factor in order to learn a foreign language (Brown, 1994). Many teachers will agree that integrating games into their lessons has become essential. It is not so hard to turn grammar or vocabulary activities into a game, e.g. a grammar auction, scattegories or taboo, or using technology and online games in general. What is definitely harder is to turn a skills lesson into a game. How can you turn boring listening into a fun activity? This is what we will be looking at in this article.  

Motivating YLs To Listen 

How do YLs learn? They learn best ‘by doing, exploring topics and engaging in meaningful tasks in a stress-free and supportive learning environment’ (Bourke, 2004:286). Motivating YLs to engage in listening tasks requires selecting topics that will interest them and designing tasks that have a clear objective or outcome. Games are the perfect example of motivating class activities: they have a goal that has to be achieved by making the best possible choices within a shared set of rules; there’s always immediate feedback; they have a reward and progression system to promote achievement and risk-taking; they lower anxiety (Dickey, 2005). Games of all kind contain the key features of a communicative approach to language teaching that can lead to acquisition: interactivity, feedback, choice (Johnson & Morrow, 1981). How can we use games to teach listening? In the next section, we will look at some ideas for gamification and game-like task design.  

Gamification Techniques  

If you like playing computer games, you will easily apply your knowledge and practice to the gamification of a language activity. Setting time limits, creating levels of increasing difficulty, challenges, scores and bonuses in friendly team competitions are the most common game elements that motivate learners to complete a task. Gamification is not to be confused with game-based learning (GSL), which uses games to introduce new language  and support learning through the use of games in the classroom (Kapp,2014). Werbach and Hunter (2012) describe gamification as the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts. Some recent studies have suggested the term game-based teaching (GBT) as opposed to GBL: it is actually the way teachers use games to teach new language or skills in a positive and engaging environment that facilitates learning, not ‘merely playing a game’ (Pivec, 2009:14).  

The key question is whether learners actually learn through the game or a gamified task. They could if the tasks include the elements that support learning: ‘the tests of working memory, pattern matching, and cognitive skills known as ‘chunking’ (Pivec, 2009:7). Hence, listening games need to create realistic conditions for concentration, re-engagement and the meaningful repetition called ‘retrieval practice’ (Kapp, 2014:45). Not just scores, badges, rewards, but activating working memory, promoting High Order Thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy and creativity will trigger learning. The crucial part of game-based teaching is designing tasks that demand both decoding skills and listening strategies to win the game. Listening games can train learners to listen naturally (Rost, 2011:189), make sense of what they hear and build meaning intuitively. This will help them become confident in doing it automatically like a native listener (Field, 2008:263).The environment in which the players compete and the skills needed to play and win will be motivating not the game itself.  

Strategies of task design should reflect the different game genres and may include ‘role playing, narratives, challenges, and interactive choices within the game, as well as interaction with other players’ (Dickey, 2005:67). 

Practical Ideas  

A – Ready-to-go Materials  

1- Listen & Respond (age range:  7-10)  

Topic: Money  

Functions: Asking for prices 

Aims: Developing transactional/top-down listening skills in the context of shopping 
Activity   Listen to a short exchange at the toyshop  

Drag & drop UK money into the till  

Game elements  Two-three teams taking turns 

Immediate Feedback 


Pre-taught vocabulary  Pound, sterling, penny, pence, till, change, price  
Follow-up activity   Role–play – Buying the things we love  
Resources  British Council Learn English Kids – ‘How much is this?’ 


2. Listen & Write (age range: 10-14)  

Topic: Travelling  

Functions: Notetaking 


Developing top-down listening skills   

Activity   Listen to a Virtual Traveller talking about a trip to a top destination  

Write notes online or on paper templates  

Game elements   Pair/Team or Individual competition  

Teams to report one piece of information at a time to earn 3 points after listening twice 

Thinking time allowed after listening – 5 mins  

‘Listen again’ bonus – add new info or lose points 

Challenge – tell the class about the trip in 3 mins – Win 15 points 

Feedback – read the teacher’s notes/tapescript  

Winner – the team with highest scores  

Pre-taught vocabulary  None  
Follow-up activity   Write a travel diary or travel blog post  

Type a WhatsApp message to a peer in class about your last trip  

Read & reply to a peer’s WhatsApp message about his/her last trip  

Resources  BBC Skillswise  


 3. Listen &Guess (age range: 6-12) 

Topic: Story with a moral  

Functions: predictingevents 

Aims: Developing bottom-up/top-down listening skills for gist and details through a story  
Activity   Listen to a section of the book (two pages with max. 5 lines)  

Listen and follow (depending on whether text is shown or not)  

Guess what Jack will do next 

Buy a clue word  

Write your guess on a mini–board 

Listen to the next part to find out 

Game elements  Pairs in teams  

Immediate Feedback while listening to the next part 

Prize: click on the icon & play the interactive activities for the section 

Pre-taught vocabulary  None 
Follow-up activity   Make a storyboard using  

Change the start, the twist or the end   

Read & Record the story for your storyboard  

Create & Publish your book on  

Resources  Pearson Longman Interactive book – Silly Jack   



B – Game-like Listening Tasks  

1. Listen &Fill the Box  (Age range: 6-10) 

Topic:  Animals 

Functions: Asking for repetition  

Aim: Developing decoding skills while listening to chunks of language  
Activity   Listen to a tongue twister 

Write the words in numbered boxes to reconstruct the utterance 

Game elements  Team competition of decoding tongue twisters 

1 point for each correct word in the correct box up to 14 points  

Unlimited attempts if asked politely ‘Can you play again, please?’ 

Clues against a credit of 2 points per clue  

Pre-taught vocabulary  Bug (picture)  
Follow-up activity   Tongue twisters’ speed competition in pairs & individual challenges  

with teacher’s feedback on speed & accuracy  

Inventing a tongue twisters with a given set of words to practise /p/ and /b/ sounds e.g. big, pig, pink, pat, back, purple, bat  

Possible answer: A big pink pig patted a purple bat on the back  

Resources  British Council Learn English Kids – Tongue twisters   

Slips of paper with as many numbered boxes as the words in the audio 

e.g. 14 boxes – A big black bug bit a big black dog on his big black nose 


 2.Listen & Complete a Map (age range: 10-14)  


Topic: Weather  

Functions: Understanding weather forecasts 


Developing listening skills for details using icons, maps & a radio weather forecast report  

Activity   Listen to the radio weather forecast 

Stick the weather icons on the map as quick as possible  

Game elements  Time limit 

Feedback – Right/Wrong  

Scores – A ‘Sunny‘ weather card for each correct answer 

Badges for three best teams  

Pre-taught vocabulary  North-West-South-East (where necessary)  

Vocab matching game in the preparation section  

Follow-up activity   Recast weather forecasts using maps for guidance  

Make a video of weather forecasts in your area 

Create a weather forecast board game, e.g. adapting the Weather game  

Resources  e.g. British Council Learn English Teens – Weather forecast  

Weather icons on sticky cards or Post-it notes; a map for each team 


3. Listen & Match (age range: 10-14) 


Topic:  Daily routine 

Functions: Asking & 

Answering questions  

Aim: Developing interactive listening skills through a recorded interview  
Activity   Listening to the questions  

Choose the best answer from a set of cards after each pause  

Game elements  Listen to abstract from an interview (questions)  

Choose the right response to each question from a set of cards   

Pre-taught vocabulary  none 
Follow-up activity   Reconstruct & Recast the conversation from clue cards or memory  

Role-play – What a busy week! 

Resources  British Council Learn English Teen – Interview with a swimmer  



Games have proved to enhance students’ engagement, boost collaboration and create meaningful learning experiences for students. They also help in creating fun learning environments where students are motivated to take responsibility of their learning and become ‘risk-takers’ in language learning. Integrating game-based teaching and learning into a language course could be a good chance for teachers to make YLs’ learning more fun and effective. 


Game: A system in which players engage in an abstract challenge defined by rules, interactivity and feedback  

Game-based learning (GBL): Game-based learning uses an actual game to teach knowledge and skills. Game-based learning is often used as a one-time instructional event to provide formal learning either online or within a classroom 

Gamification: only uses a few game elements. Learners don’t play an entire game from start to finish; they participate in activities that include video or mobile game elements such as earning points, overcoming a challenge or receiving badges for accomplishing tasks. 

Learning game: A learning game is a self-contained unit with a definitive start, game play and ending 

Source: Karl Kapp, ‘Gamification: Separating Fact From Fiction’, Chief Learning Officer • March 2014 • pp. 42-52 available online 


Author’s Bio: Maria Conca has been teaching English for over ten years in the UK and in Italy, where she’s based and has been running her self-owned language school since 2011. She took her CELTA at IH Rome in 2007 and completed her Delta at IH Newcastle and Distance Delta IH London in 2016. She works a Teacher, CLIL & Primary Education Teacher Trainer, DoS, Academic manager, Course Designer & Consultant. Her main interests are YLs, Teaching Listening & Speaking, CLIL, Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and ELT materials development. She tweets at @MConca16.



Bourke, J.M. Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners, ELT Journal Volume 60/3 July 2006 

Dickey, M.D. (2005). Engaging by design: how engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design. Education Training Research and Development. Issue n. 53 (2), pp. 67-83 

Field, J. (2008). Listening in the language classroom, CUP       

Johnson, K. & K. Morrow. (1981). Communication in the Classroom, Longman 

Kapp, K.M. et al. (2014).The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Theory Into Practice, Wiley                                                                                               

Pivec, P. (2009). Game-based Learning or Game-based Teaching? Available online Accessed on 24/10/2017 

Rost, M. (2011). Second Edition. Teaching and researching. Listening, Longman-Pearson  

Werbach, K and Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your  Business. Philadelphia, PA: Wharton Digital Press