How to Improve Your Listening Skills
Online Listening Practice
Transcript of the Episode:
Welcome to the English for Everyone ESL Podcast! I’m your host, Caren Hayden, and I’m here to help you improve your English.
Do you want to improve your listening skills in English? Today, I’m going to explain why listening in another language is so difficult, why this skill is very important, and how you can actually improve your listening skills. Stay tuned!
Before I tell you about how to improve your listening skills in English, I just want to mention that any resources I talk about today will be on the show website. I will put all of the links there.
Ok, I want you to imagine this scenario: You’ve practiced your question in English (just an important question that you need to ask a native speaker). You looked up the grammar and sentence structure. You know the correct vocabulary. You’ve rehearsed the question several times, and you’re ready to ask it! The only problem is, once the question is out of your mouth, the native English speaker you’re talking to gives you a long and complicated response. A response that you don’t understand!
Everyone learning a second language has experienced this. It can make you feel frustrated and stressed when trying to listen to important information in another language. What do you do in this situation? Do you stop the speaker and ask for clarification? Or, do you just smile and nod and try again with a different person? I’ve definitely done both when speaking in a different language.
Listening skills are just as important as speaking skills. Effective communication relies on both. You may be able to say and pronounce the perfect question in English, but if you can’t understand the response, you’re stuck. Good listening skills are not just about understanding vocabulary. You also need to have a good grasp of grammar, pronunciation, and intonation. What makes listening in another language so difficult is that you have to understand all of these aspects of the language simultaneously. And, sometimes, the speaker is speaking very quickly and using all sorts of slang!
There are different types of listening tasks, and you need to think about these in order to know how you can improve your English listening skills. Some listening tasks are unresponsive. This means that you just listen; you don’t need to respond. Examples of unresponsive listening tasks are a lecture, a radio show, a podcast, or a television show. Other listening tasks are responsive. This means that you will probably need to respond after you listen. Examples of responsive listening tasks are a casual conversation, a job interview, a doctor’s appointment, or a discussion-based college class.
But, can you rehearse listening just like you can rehearse things you need to say in English? YES! So, how do you effectively practice and improve your listening skills? Well, you’re off to a good start by listening to a podcast for English language learners. However, there are a lot more ways you can work on your listening skills.
A successful listener cannot be passive. You must be active while you’re listening. You can do one, two, or three things to be an active listener (depending on the task and situation). You can THINK, WRITE, and REPEAT. While you’re listening to someone or something in English, you can THINK about what might be said in that specific context.
For example, at the pharmacy. What kinds of questions might you get when talking to a pharmacist while picking up a medication? Even if you don’t understand every word, there are many things you can guess from the context. The pharmacist is likely to ask you for your insurance, your birth date, your payment method, and any allergies you may have. You can anticipate that you will hear those questions when going into that situation.
Sometimes you can WRITE while you listen to be an active listener. Taking notes is very helpful in improving your listening comprehension skills. This may not be possible in every listening situation, but you can certainly take notes during a lecture, while listening to a radio show or podcast, or while watching a television show. What kinds of notes would you take while listening to a podcast? Well, maybe key names, dates, and places; vocabulary you want to look up; or phrases that you want to practice saying.
Finally, you can REPEAT some phrases and words to yourself (either loudly or under your breath) while you are listening to get a better grasp on pronunciation, intonation, grammar, and listening comprehension. For example, while listening to that last sentence, maybe you could pause the podcast and say those last four elements of the sentence to yourself: “pronunciation, intonation, grammar, and listening comprehension.”
These three actions make up active listening: THINK, WRITE, REPEAT.
So, what kinds of things can you listen to in order to practice active listening? Well, podcasts, of course! This podcast is a mostly scripted podcast designed for English language learners. And, there are lots of good ones out there. You can also listen to podcasts made for native speakers. I will put some links to the podcasts that I often recommend on the show website.
I always recommend the NPR (that’s National Public Radio) hourly news summary to all of my students. It’s a five-minute news summary that’s updated every hour. You could listen to this every day, at least once, and maybe several times a day.
Music is also an excellent source of listening materials. You want to find songs and artists that you like, that you can mostly understand, and that you can find the lyrics for. Some artists that I recommend to students are the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, James Taylor, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. You can easily find songs by these artists on YouTube and their corresponding lyrics through Google.
Another resource for practicing your listening is a great television show. You want to find a series that you enjoy watching, that you can understand at least 50 percent of, and that you can get subtitles for. My students seem to enjoy the following television series: Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, The Office, and Grey’s Anatomy. But, there are so many more to choose from on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
Talking about subtitles … There are three ways that you should use the subtitles when you’re watching a television show to improve your listening skills and your English skills overall. First of all, you can watch with the subtitles in your native language. I don’t recommend this. That’s something that really a true beginner would do if they don’t understand anything being said. I recommend that you watch a show with the subtitles in English because maybe if you miss something that’s spoken very quickly, at least you can look down and see what’s happening in English. Or, you could pause it, rewind it, and reread what you missed. And then you will graduate, eventually, to watching a television show with no subtitles.
I love listening to audiobooks. I have an Audible membership (not a sponsor!), and I listen to the audio versions of popular novels and nonfiction books at least once a month. These are a great resource to practice your listening skills. You can even check out audiobooks from most local libraries.
There are also a ton of resources online that include scripted and level-specific audio for English learners and also authentic dialogues that occur between two people having a real conversation. Both of these have a place in the language learner’s toolkit. I will leave my favorite listening practice website links on the show page.
Make sure to challenge yourself (but not too much!) when choosing the listening resource. You want to understand at least 50 percent of what is being said, but no more than 90 percent. If you can understand almost everything being said, then you won’t be improving your listening skills. If you listen to something that is too hard for you to understand, something where you understand less than half of the audio, then it’s too challenging. You won’t improve by doing this either. You will just be stressed and frustrated.
Remember, while you’re listening to THINK, WRITE, and REPEAT. You can do all of these active listening techniques when listening to the resources I’ve talked about today. Also, you can change the playback speed for most of these listening resources, and I completely recommend this to my students. Sometimes changing the speed to .9 or .8 or .75 does not distort the speech so much. Once you get into half of the normal speed (.5 or .6), it really changes the speech so much that it sounds strange, and I’m not sure if that’s very helpful.
You need to turn your daily “down time” into listening time. That means when you are driving, washing dishes, grocery shopping, doing chores, etc., you can work on improving your listening skills. Set a time-specific goal for each day or week. And, follow it! You will see that your listening skills will improve slowly but surely.
How do you work on your English listening skills? What do you do for self-study? Let me know by leaving a comment on the show website or by sending me a message.
Thank you so much for listening to the English for Everyone ESL Podcast! Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. You will find the transcript of today’s show and some helpful links about today’s topic on the show website: www.englishforeveryonepod.com. [Stay tuned for the slower version of today’s episode].
[slower version, same transcript]
Music is Where’s My Jetpack by Computer Music All-Stars found on www.freemusicarchive.org