There are ESL listening activities which help practice perception, and comprehension. At the beginning students need help just recognizing the new sounds. Sometimes this is a sound they don't have in their own language, and they will need to create new ways of hearing. Sometimes they have a very similar sound, and need help in seeing where the difference lies.
I know from learning Chinese tones that this can be hard. It took me about 2 months to just hear the differences between the tones. I had to develop new 'boxes' in my brain in which to place these new sounds, or ways of using sounds. In the same way, students working to improve their esl listening ability need to create new mental 'boxes,' when the sound does not exist in their language.
As well as learning the individual sounds, ESL listening activities must include work on rhythm, stress and intonation in English. In fact, a lack of awareness of the rhythm and stress of English, creates listening difficulties. Often, when students complain that English speakers talk too fast, it is really because they have no training in how the rhythm and stress of English work. Therefore, teaching English pronunciation is a vital part of ESL listening.
Another difficulty students have with listening is a lack of vocabulary, especially when colloquial language is used. This, of course, has no fast remedy. Lots of reading for pleasure, listening and esl vocabulary work will eventually produce results here. The following activities are mostly for children. Although some also work very well for adult students.
Generally I prefer esl activities which require little, or no, preparation. This is no different when I'm choosing ESL listening activities. Most of the activities here require very little preparation.
• Repetition This is the simplest method. You say and the students repeat.
• Which category For practicing vowel sounds. Draw columns on the board. For example in column 1 write hen, in column 2 hat. The teacher then calls out a word - "cap" - and the students have to choose whether the word is a one or a two. This game can be done as a raise your hand and say game, or a writing game - where teams line up at the board and write the word.
• Slap it! This is an old ESL game. Write letters or short words - preferably 3 letter words - on the board. Have 2 teams line up and say a sound or word. The students must listen and slap, or circle, the correct sound or word. Although I prefer to use real words, in this activity it's ok to make up nonsense words to practice the vowel sounds or consonant clusters. For example if I wanted to practice listening to the sounds of 'e' and 'i' I might say 'hep' 'hip' etc. Keeping the consonants the same in this case will focus the students' attention on the vowel sounds.
• Sound Stations You could place a vowel written on a piece of paper on the wall at one end of the room, and another vowel written on a piece of paper at the other end of the room. If the class is not too big, they can all stand. Then say one of the sounds, or a short word containing the sound. All the students must then run to the correct part of the room, and say the sound. This activity works for all but the weakest, who will just copy the majority, but it is still useful as an occasional activity.
A common problem is that many native speakers are unaware of the times in the language when sounds almost disappear, or when they blend into each other. Often this kind of speech is seen as lazy speech. Sometimes teachers attempt to teach English using full pronunciation. This results in students with poor listening, and poor pronunciation. The two are linked. Many words in English have both weak and strong pronunciations. For example 'can' in the question: 'Can you swim?" and 'can' in: 'I can cook fish and chips."
A very useful listening activity is 'How many words?' which is described in detail in my article teaching English pronunciation
• Ticking off Items For example, write the words fruit and vegetables at the heads of 2 columns on the board. Students copy onto paper. Then read a list of fruit and vegetables aloud. The students must tick each time they hear a fruit or vegetable. Any categories of vocabulary can be used.
• Listening to a story A simple activity. Prepare a true/fictional story that can be told in a few minutes. List the main verbs on the board accompanied by pictures to remind the students of the story. Artistic ability is not required. Tell the story - not just reading from notes - and the students listen. If they are able they can retell the story using the verbs, if they are not then they can answer or ask questions to find out more.
• Listening and following a text has some use, but shouldn't be overdone.
• Listening to and obeying instructions The teacher give instructions and the students perform them. Turn right. Walk to the door and listen to the song etc. Students will have to mime the actions.
• Picture Dictation In pairs, one student describes a picture and the other student draws it, asking questions when needed. The pair cannot look at each others pictures until the end.
• True/False statements Using a picture, or describing generally known things, the teacher reads a prepared text allowed. The students tick off true or false items on a piece of paper. Detecting mistakes in a piece of speech is a variation of the above activity. For example describe animals in the wild and include a few odd mistakes. The students must find them.
• Listen and alter a picture or map. Student must listen and color, add parts of an animal's body, add trees and other things.
• Dictation A useful dictation exercise is CD dictation. Prepare a text - perhaps involving students in the class. Make sure the vocabulary is known to the students. Draw the controls of a CD player on the board. Read the text at natural speed. The students tell the teacher to 'stop' 'go back' and 'play.' Meanwhile they write the text on paper. This activity practices both listening and writing.
Basically, an ESL listening activity can be made from any story or description. The students can complete true false grids, alter maps, change diagrams, draw pictures or answer comprehension questions as they listen to the teacher speaking, or a recording on someone else speaking.
Also see games to teach English listening for more ideas.