Home » Tips and Advice » 7 ways to improve your English listening skills

Are you looking for advice on how to improve your listening skills?

Becoming a better listener in English is a huge challenge, but there are many things you can do to improve. Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you get started.

#1: Use your ‘dead time’ to practise listening.

Our days are filled with periods of time when we are kind of busy, but we’re doing things that don’t require our full focus. We sometimes call this dead time in English.

  • Walking to work?
  • Stuck on a bus?
  • Doing some exercise?
  • Cooking?
  • Can’t sleep?

These are all examples of dead time that you can easily fill with some English listening practice. Listening is different to the other skills, because it is very easy to practice passively.

Of course, sometimes it is important to focus and listen more actively, but it is also very useful to listen to English while you’re doing other things.

Take advantage of these opportunities – the more English you expose yourself to, the better.

#2: Vary your listening

Ask yourself this question: how varied is the material that you listen to in English?

Of course, it’s good to listen to things that you are interested in, but it is also important to listen to a very wide variety of things:

  • Different topics: sport, food, politics, travel and so on. Listening to material on a variety of subjects will expose you to a wider range of vocabulary. Here’s a good list of podcasts organised by topic.
  • Different people. No one speaks in exactly the same way – if you always listen to the same person (e.g. your English teacher or your favourite podcaster) then you will probably get very good at understanding them. However, you might get a shock when you have to communicate with and understand someone else in the real world!
  • Different accents. There are so many different accents that you could encounter when speaking English. Listening to a variety of accents will help you to adapt more easily when you come across a new one. The exercises on MicroEnglish will expose you to a variety of English accents, and the International Dialects of English Archive is a fantastic resource for more in depth practice.
  • Different ages. People from different generations often speak in different ways and with different vocabulary – as with accents, this is something you can prepare yourself for.

The basic message is: don’t always listen to the same kind of thing, or the same people. If you do this, then you will find it hard to adapt to and understand new people or unfamiliar situations (which is often when you need your English skills the most).

#3: Eavesdrop on English conversations

If you are living in an English speaking country, then you are surrounded by English. Make the most of this fact, and secretly listen to the conversations that are happening all around you.

What is the man behind you in the queue saying on the phone? What are the couple at the back of the bus arguing about? What is the child in the park asking her mother for?

You might find this a little strange to begin with, but remind yourself that you are only doing it for academic reasons!

Notice interesting language, grammatical structures, pronunciation features, things that don’t make sense. If you can, make a note of them and do some research later on.

#4: Listen to authentic, spontaneous English (not just Netflix)

When I ask students how they practise their listening, a very common answer (maybe the only answer!) is that they watch a lot of TV in English.

That’s fine (sometimes), but it is important to be aware that the language in films and TV programs, as well as things like the news or documentaries, is not very authentic or natural because it is often scripted. The English that you hear on TV programs and films is too perfect.

Conversational English is a lot more challenging because it is spontaneous.

People make mistakes, start sentences and then abandon them, use strange pronunciations, and so on. On top of this, spoken English tends to be faster, and people talk over each other (which means that they talk at the same time).

Obviously this is much harder to understand, but you have to practise this if you want to get better at understanding people in the real world.

So, try and find examples of spontaneous, conversational English to listen to – these could be debates and discussion programmes (e.g. panel shows), informal interviews, conversational podcasts, etc. Podcasts are often quite relaxed and conversational, so they can be a great resource for practising this kind of English.

If you’re looking for a recommendation for a conversational podcast, you could start with either The Adam Buxton Podcast or Table Manners.

#5: Watch out for subtitle addiction

You might not like hearing this, but you should avoid using the subtitles too much if you are watching TV or a film.

If you use subtitles, two things might start happening. Firstly, you can accidentally end up practising your reading instead of your listening (without realising it!).

Secondly, you can become dependent on subtitles, which means you won’t develop vital skills like guessing words from context.

Having said that, subtitles can still be a useful resource. Try watching a few minutes of a TV programme or film without the subtitles to see how much you can understand, and then watch the same section again with subtitles to check your understanding. It might ruin your enjoyment of the programme, but is a useful exercise!

#6: Focus on vocabulary if you want to survive

If you’re finding it difficult to follow what someone is saying, then this strategy can be very useful. The best way of following the main idea of what someone is saying is to focus on the vocabulary they use, rather than the grammar.

English speakers tend to stress vocabulary words but not grammar words (e.g. he DECIDED to HAVE a BATH). If you develop your ability to focus on stressed words in a sentence, then you will get better at understanding the main idea of what someone is saying.

Imagine a colleague comes up to you on Monday and asks you: “What did you do at the weekend?”. If you only understood one word of this sentence, which one would be the most useful?

If you think about it, ‘weekend’ is the only word you need to get a pretty good understanding of what you are being asked. Of course, understanding only one word is not ideal, but it can allow you to survive and continue the conversation.

#7: Do regular intensive listening

When students practise their listening, they usually do extensive listening – this is when you listen to long pieces of English (like a TV programme or a podcast) and aim to understand and follow the main idea of what is being said.

Doing this is important, just like it is important to read a lot.

However, you should also do regular intensive listening. This is a very different kind of listening practice, which involves listening to short sections of English, and trying to understand every single word of what someone is saying.

This kind of listening will help you develop the skills you need to be a better listener in real life, and will also help you identify the problems you have which stop you understanding people.

Think of this kind of listening as like exercise for your ears. When you do 20-30 minutes of intensive listening a day, it’s like your ears are going to he gym. This ‘exercise’ will make you a stronger listener when you need to use this important skill in real life.

As you’ve probably realised, the aim of MicroEnglish is to provide you with intensive listening practice – the micro-dictations and intensive listening exercises on microEnglish will provide you with the challenging practice that you need to develop your ability to better understand rapid, spoken English. If you’re new, you can try an exercise here.

Always remember that understanding natural English is probably the most difficult thing about learning the language.

It is totally normal to find it hard, even impossible. Everyone gets totally lost sometimes.

Generally, you don’t need to try to understand everything. Most of the time, you should just try and understand enough to follow the main idea of what is being said.

That’s a great start, and with regular practice, you will improve.

Photo by builtbymath on Unsplash

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