In this article, you'll discover a number of ways that you can develop your English listening skills. You'll also learn one powerful step-by-step method that will really take your listening to the next level.
How can I improve my listening?
This is a question I get asked a lot from students. This is understandable as it's a skill that is very much underrated and one of the most valuable too.
Listening to a fluent English speaker can be incredibly difficult because of how fast they speak, the way they join sounds together, and their use of unfamiliar language and grammar structures. We also don't have much time to respond in a conversation and this sometimes puts us under more pressure.
And the simplest answer is honestly the best: 'If you want to improve your listening, you need to practise your listening'.
Our ears need time to understand how English sounds flow in natural conversation. At the same time, we also need to develop our vocabulary and understanding of grammar so that we are better prepared to hear this language in conversation.
So, what can I do to practise and where can I find good resources?
There are plenty of ways to practise your listening in your free time:
- TV shows or movies - websites like YouTube or Netflix are fantastic for watching TV series or films of all genres (e.g. sci-fi, drama).
- Podcasts - shows that you can listen to on your mobile phone are growing in popularity these days - check out the Podcasts app for iPhone or this article for Android suggestions.
- Music - some students find that they can learn English through listening to the words in their favorite songs - try Jango.com, which has a link to the lyrics (the words) for most songs.
- Audio books - most libraries have a good selection of audio books, where you can listen to the stories instead of reading. However, native-level books can be too challenging for many students and audio books that are graded at your English level can be harder to find. Luckily, you're able to listen to all of our graded blog articles (which are aimed at intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced levels).
- Conversation - Real-life conversation is also a great way of practising. Meetup.com is a fantastic website that allows you to meet new people and take part in activities (including English) together. There are events available in most countries.
Different kinds of listening practice
All of the options above except 'conversation' are possible to do on your own. And there are a few different ways that you can practise:
1) Take it easy - just relax and watch or listen to something for fun while not worrying too much about things you can't understand.
2) Take a few notes - some learners like to pause every now and then when they hear an interesting new word or phrase, take a moment to look the word up in a dictionary and write it down.
3) Turn off the subtitles - by turning off the subtitles or captions (the words at the bottom) of movies and TV shows, we force ourselves to listen rather than read.
4) Intensively - sometimes it can be useful to spend a short time doing some more focused, intensive listening practice.
Now, I'm not going to suggest that one of these is better than the others, but I think as learners we should try different methods, perhaps depending on how much time or energy we have that day. You can then decide which seem to work better for you and continue with those.
Intensive listening practice
Let me introduce you to one way to practice if you feel energetic and really want to give your ears (and brain) a workout.
- listening materials - the video or audio to a film, TV show, song or audio book (without the words)
- reading materials - the words for the film, TV show, song or audio book
Here's what you do:
- Prepare a short section of the movie, TV show, song or audio book (10-60 seconds) without the subtitles, lyrics or the words
- Watch or listen to it and write down everything you hear
- Watch or listen to it again and again until you can't write any more
- Compare what you've written with the subtitles, lyrics or words
- Highlight the language that you couldn't hear and see if you can decide why you didn't hear it? Was it a word, a phrase or a grammar structure you don't know? Was the speaking too fast or unclear?
- Watch or listen again and try to hear the missing language.
You may find this practice a little tiring because it's an intensive activity that needs a lot of concentration. For this reason, you should start with a very short section and as you get used to the method, use longer sections. But it's a powerful tool because it allows you to better understand the strengths and limits of your own listening ability.
And it's not just about your listening skills. When comparing what you hear against the actual words, you'll soon start to notice the gaps in your grammar and vocabulary, as well as any pronunciation difficulties you have - as these all affect your ability to hear words and phrases clearly. As you become more aware of these gaps in your knowledge and skills, you'll find that you're able to develop faster in these areas.