How to use podcasts to teach ESL

Chris Parker
Benefits of using podcasts in the ESL classroom, plus five activities that involve podcasts to improve students’ English fluency

As ESL teachers in today’s modern world, we have many technology resources available to us, though few are arguably as useful as podcasts. Not only can they help improve your students’ listening, speaking, and writing skills, but they can also simplify lessons for both you and your students. So, if you haven’t already tapped into this helpful form of media while teaching, here’s how podcasts work and how to use them in your ESL lessons.

What are podcasts?

Podcasts are audio recordings that are either pre-recorded or broadcast live to an audience, and while they’re normally found online on various websites, they can also be found elsewhere, such as on standard or satellite radio stations. The person who records audio during a podcast is known as a podcaster.

Topics discussed during a podcast can vary and can include anything from informational discussions about world events to fictional stories that are read aloud by a podcaster. Some podcasts are even geared specifically toward teaching English, though these may not always be the best choice for your students if you’re trying to expose them to authentic conversations. Podcasts may be recorded by a single podcaster or may involve more than one person, and discussions between two or more people are quite common.

Benefits of using podcasts in ESL lessons

  • Real-life authenticity – students hear new words and phrases within authentic contexts
  • Accent recognition – accent differences can be heard and distinguished from one another
  • Builds knowledge – podcasts build background knowledge by providing context around words
  • Inspires motivation – students are often more motivated to learn when doing so with podcasts

Podcast activities for your lessons

To immerse your students in the English language with podcasts, you can use any of the following activities below. Just remember to keep your class time in mind when choosing which podcasts you’d like your students to listen to, as many can be quite long and might not meet the time constraints of your lessons.

Pronunciation modeling

Podcasts can be a very effective way of teaching your students about pronunciation or different types of accents. There are many different ways that you can use podcasts to do this, though the following are two of the most common approaches:

Direct pronunciation lessons
With this approach, you can have your students listen to English-focused podcasts that specifically discuss pronunciation (or accents) and provide different examples of how to pronounce English words. There are many podcasts available for free online that teach pronunciation in this way, as well as those that focus more on teaching the differences between accents. 

Pronunciation differentiation
If you’d like your students to learn pronunciation or accents in a more authentic way, you can play different podcasts that are recorded by podcasters from different geographic or regional areas. As an example, you can first play a podcast recorded by someone from the United States, and then play a different podcast recorded by another person who’s from England.

Even better, you can play a single podcast that has two or more people from different places discussing something, whether it’s two people from different countries having a conversation or two people from the same country but from different regions and with different accents.

Cloze podcasts

Cloze exercises are those where students are provided sentences with specific words or phrases missing, and they must complete the sentences by filling in the blanks with the parts that are missing. Cloze podcasts is an activity where your students are doing the same but either during a podcast or after listening to one.

1. Choose a podcast that has its transcript available where all the sentences spoken in the podcast can be easily viewed and then altered. Many podcasts online come with available transcripts, though you can always make your own transcript by listening to the podcast beforehand and writing or typing out each sentence as you hear it.

2. Remove a word or phrase from each sentence that you use from the podcast by omitting it from lines on a worksheet or on a blackboard.

3. Ask your students to listen closely while you play the podcast for the class. You can either have students write down the omitted words as they’re listening to the podcast or ask them to wait until the podcast has finished to see if they remember the words and the sentences in which they were used.

Vocabulary recognition

Podcasts can also be a great way to teach new vocabulary words to students, as they’re an opportunity to hear target words used in real-life contexts, such as dialogues. To carry out a vocabulary recognition activity, you can follow these steps:

1. Find a podcast that uses vocabulary words throughout that you’d like your students to learn and write down the words.

2. Review the list of new vocabulary words with students by writing the words on the board at the start of a lesson while having the students repeat each word aloud after you’ve done so first.

3. Play the podcast that contains the target vocabulary words so that students can hear how the words are used within context, and it might help to replay the sentences that contain these words multiple times. During this step, you should simply ask your students to listen for the words and how they’re being used.

4. Open up a discussion about the vocabulary words that the students heard in the podcast. Ask your students what they think the words might mean now that they’ve heard the words used within context. Provide the meanings of the words to students if they’re unable to guess the correct meanings on their own.

Podcast bingo

An excellent activity for students of all ages, and particularly younger ones, is podcast bingo. This is similar to a regular bingo game, though instead of listening to someone calling out words or numbers, your students will be listening to a podcast instead. This can help develop their English listening skills and can also teach them the meanings of new vocabulary words by learning them within different contexts.

Follow these steps to set up your first podcast bingo game:

1. Choose any podcast that includes key vocabulary words that you’d like your students to learn. Create and provide your students with bingo scorecards that are made up of 25 squares and include these vocabulary words on them. You can create your own bingo cards and print them out in batches of 30 for free here.

2. Play the podcast for your students and have them listen carefully for the vocabulary words. When they hear a word that’s also on their bingo cards, have them either mark it with an X or place a marker piece, such as a colored bingo chip, over it.

3. When a student has marked five squares in a row, they should call out “bingo!” When this occurs, it’s up to you whether you’d like to give them a prize for winning or simply congratulate them on winning, depending on your students and resources.

Create a podcast

If you’re teaching older students, such as those in high school or higher levels, then you can have them create their own podcasts. This is a great way to get them to practice most of the core English language skills they’ll need to use in the real world, including reading, writing, and speaking.

Below are the steps for carrying out this type of activity with your students:

1. Have your students listen to podcasts to get them familiarized with the concept and how podcasting works. For this activity, it’s best to use podcasts that involve more than one person, or podcaster, because this is a group activity.

2. Provide your students with handheld recording devices if possible. If they have their own smartphones in class, then the simpler way of doing this is to have them download free recording apps to their phones.

3. Place your students into groups of two or more students per group, depending on how many podcasters were involved in the earlier recordings, and ask them to work with each other by first writing down the dialogue that they’ll want to discuss. A question-and-answer format where one student asks the other questions is often the best approach for this, as it’s easier for students to understand.

4. After your students have finished writing down their dialogues, have them record podcasts similar to the ones they heard by taking turns reading their respective lines of dialogue. Regardless of how long the original recording was, each group should record a podcast that is typically no longer than two to five minutes long so they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Tip: for ESL lessons, it’s often best to provide your students with a short list of vocabulary words used in the original podcast they’ll be listening to. Similar to the vocabulary recognition activity previously mentioned, you can tell them to listen for these specific words while listening to the podcast so that they can understand how the words are used within context, then ask them to include these vocabulary words in the dialogues they write.

Resources: free podcasts for you to use

English News Weekly
A long-running podcast produced by associate professor Jaime Selwood, who works at Hiroshima University and speaks in a slow manner to assist English learners listening to his podcasts.
Listen now

The English We Speak
A podcast focused on teaching listeners common expressions, phrases, and even slang, which is produced by the BBC. These are perfect for lessons where you have time constraints, as each recording is typically only two to 15 minutes long.
Listen now

Slow English on Deezer
Regularly updated podcasts from a slow-speaking Australian English speaker. These recordings are free during the first month of listening, though there’s a paid membership required after that if you enjoy them.
Listen now

Find your own podcasts
To search for your own podcasts based on the topic you’re teaching, you can use the Google Podcasts service, which features a search bar at the top of the page.
Find one now

Parting advice: keep it authentic

While using podcasts in your ESL lessons, you should never forget the value of authenticity that podcasts provide. As you’re choosing which activities you’d like to use, you should try to provide as much of an authentic experience as you can for your students by allowing them to listen to podcasts without too many interruptions. You should also carefully select podcasts that match both the skill level of your students and the types of conversations or environments where they’ll later need to use their newfound English skills.

Written by Chris Parker for
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.

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