How to Improve Listening Skills in English - Learn the Best Methods

listening Oct 07, 2021
How to Improve Listening Skills in English


Listening and reading are two receptive language skills.  Receptive skills refer to the skills which require us to receive, comprehend and interpret information.  Writing and speaking, in contrast, are productive skills.  Productive skills require us to produce language.  We have different sets of vocabulary for productive and receptive skills - so it’s important to practice both sets of skills regularly. 


We do not need to produce any language when we are listening to someone speak English or reading an English book.  Our job when listening and reading is to comprehend what we’re taking in.  Comprehension skills are vital language skills to master.  We can improve our comprehension skills by firstly expanding our vocabulary.  Non-native English speakers must listen to English and read English books to discover new words.  However, there is more to comprehension skills than having a rich vocabulary - this is only the starting point.  English learners need to know how to listen and how to read.  Knowing how to listen and read will help you understand listening and reading tasks even when you don’t understand every single word.  Listening and reading skills require a lot of practice.  In this blog, we will take a closer look at how you can improve your English listening skills. 


Why is Important to Have Good Listening Skills in English

Reading is a fairly forgiving receptive skill because the words are in front of us.  We can read, reread and look words up if we don’t understand them.  Rereading and looking up words can slow down the time it takes to understand the written material but the reader will be able to eventually understand what’s written down.  Listening is a less forgiving receptive skill.  When listening, the words disappear as quickly as they were produced.  The amount of time we have to comprehend what we’re listening to is a lot shorter than the amount of time we have to comprehend what we read.  There’s added pressure when listening which can cause the listener to panic - and the stress caused by trying to hear everything and understand it only worsens the situation.  


In addition, pronunciation affects our ability to understand English when other people speak to us.  English accents can put a strain on comprehending what we’re hearing.  It’s easy to understand words in their written form but accents affect the way words and sentences sound in spoken form.  Accents aside, English has a specific rhythm where the content words are stressed in the sentence and the extra words are said quickly - and often inaudibly.  Additionally,  separate words get linked together which can make two or three words sound like one whole word.  And finally, some English speakers, like Australian English speakers, abbreviate almost everything they say and create their own words and form their own dialects.  All of these elements make listening to English very challenging.  It’s important to have good listening skills in English to be able to understand and comprehend what other people are saying and respond correctly.  Improving your listening skills in English will have a significant effect on your confidence when speaking English too.


Where People Make Mistakes When They Want to Improve Listening Skills in English?

The number one mistake people make when listening to English is attempting to understand every single word that they hear.  It’s simply not possible to hear and understand every word that someone says - and attempting to understand everything is guaranteed to overwhelm the listener.  This results in the listener understanding even less than they would have understood if they had listened without focusing on each individual word. 


Over and above making the mistake of trying to understand each word, non-native English speakers don’t practice their listening skills in a controlled environment often enough.  Listening has so much more to it than simply hearing words.  Listening requires the listener to comprehend new information and analytically draw conclusions based on what they hear.  English learners must actively practice listening skills.  A native English speaking partner can help guide learners through listening tasks and give them the tools to improve their listening skills.  


The third mistake people make when they want to improve their English listening skills is setting the goal of the listening task above their English level.  Listening is not an easy skill to learn, so it’s important that listening tasks are set at the level of the English learner.  Anything that is too complex will cause stress and the English learner will give up before they’re given the chance to succeed.  Listening tasks should be challenging but they must never be overwhelming and complicated.  



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7 Interesting Ways to Improve English Listening Skills

Actively learning listening skills may not sound like a lot of fun, however, there are heaps of listening materials that English language learners can use to keep the process varied and interesting.  You don’t need to sit and listen to boring prescribed textbook listening tasks.  You can challenge yourself with authentic listening tasks by learning English with movies and listening to English podcasts.  


Set Listening Tasks

Listening tasks are a great way to practice English listening skills in a controlled environment.  English learners must find audios that they can replay two or three times to improve their listening skills.  The listening tasks must be separated into different sections with different goals.  Start with getting an overall idea of the audio and then listen for detailed information.   


There’s a reason why English textbooks have listening tasks set out for the students before they complete a listening activity.  The questions that learners need to answer when listening to an activity are there to give the listener a reason to listen.  In the real world, we rarely listen to anything without having a reason to listen to it.  


The first time you listen to something, set a task that looks at the bigger picture.  


Ask yourself questions like:

“Who is speaking?”

“What is the relationship between the people who are speaking?” 

“How do they feel?”

“Are they happy or sad?”

“Are they arguing? What are they arguing about?”

“What are they speaking about?”


These questions will change depending on the listening task, however, these are good examples of listening questions that lead to an understanding of the listening task overall.  Once you have answered questions like these, you’ll have a good idea of what the listening activity is about.  You don’t need to understand everything to answer these questions and once you answer them you can move on to more detailed questions.  


Try to find important and detailed information the second time you listen.  If the people in the audio are arguing, ask questions like: why are they arguing? Was the argument resolved at the end of the audio? How did they resolve the argument?  


The second listening task will give you the chance to interpret and comprehend the listening without feeling overwhelmed because you already have an idea of what the listening activity is about.  The more you practice listening skills with audios that you can replay, the easier it will be to comprehend English in the real world. 


Eavesdrop On A Conversation

Once you have practiced listening to English in a controlled environment, it’s time to take these skills into the real world.  Listen to people speaking English if you have access to hearing English in your day-to-day life.  It can be daunting to ask someone to speak English to you so that you can try to understand what they say.  


Eavesdropping and listening to other people speaking English allows you to hear English in an authentic way without needing to respond.  Once again, make sure you set some listening tasks.  If you’re a beginner in English then keep the tasks simple and listen to get the general idea of what the English speakers are speaking about.  If you’re advanced, set tasks that require you to listen for detailed information once you know what the English speakers are speaking about.  



Listen To The Same Audio Multiple Times Throughout The Week

Find English audio that is difficult for you to understand the first and second time you hear it.  It can be a podcast or a scene from a movie that you are struggling to understand.  Listen to it over and over again over the course of a week and see if you can understand more of it at the end of the week.  Try not to read the transcript or use subtitles.  The whole point of this exercise is to challenge your ear.  It will get easier and easier the more you listen.    


Watch Movies With English Subtitles

It is challenging to watch a movie in a foreign language.  Accents and different dialects mean that you’ll miss a lot of the words, phrases or even whole sentences.  This results in struggling to understand the whole story and you’ll most likely turn the movie off.   


Improve your English listening skills by turning on English subtitles instead of turning on subtitles in your own language.  It is significantly easier to read words rather than hear them.  Watching English movies with English subtitles will give you some extra support while watching the movie.  It will also help you identify new words that you didn’t know before.  As you progress through your English learning journey, challenge yourself by turning off the subtitles altogether.  But don’t be afraid to add a bit of extra help whenever it's necessary.  Learning a language should make you feel good, not defeated. 


Challenge Yourself With Podcasts

Once you’ve mastered watching English movies without subtitles (in your mother-tongue language or in English) then it’s time to challenge yourself further.  Podcasts are great resources to practice listening to English - but they are very challenging.  Firstly, there is no possibility to turn on subtitles to read what is being said which is the first challenge.  In addition, there are no images or videos to help you understand the context of the podcast.  


Podcasts rely entirely on understanding the language, tone of voice and other verbal intricacies without the assistance of visual aid.  However, the one major advantage of podcasts is that the podcast presenters are usually well-spoken.  They speak slowly (when compared to other native English speakers) and clearly.  Podcasts presenters also structure their podcasts to guide the listener through the podcast.  You can listen to the same podcast repeatedly until you understand the whole thing from start to finish.  It’s a great exercise if you’re looking to challenge your English listening skills. 


Listen Without Actively Learning

We’ve looked at examples of activities that you can do to actively improve your listening skills.  Actively improving your listening skills refers to listening carefully for the gist of what you’re listening to or listening for specific detail.  It’s the process of comprehending what we hear and it is vitally important. However, our brains also put in a lot of work even when we’re not actively listening.  This is what we can call exposing ourselves to a language.  


When we visit other countries, we are constantly exposed to the language of the country.  We don’t actively seek out the language and we don’t actively learn it - we simply hear it and read it everywhere we go.  We can add this into our quest to improve our English listening skills by putting English audios on while we do other work.  Turning on an English radio channel or playing a podcast in the background of your day-to-day life is a great way of getting your brain used to the sounds and rhythm of English without actively learning it.  


This might seem like a strange way to learn a language, however, exposure to a language is just as important as actively learning a language. If you want to improve your English listening skills, play English podcasts, movies, radio or series without focusing on it and let your brain put in the hard work.    


Listen To Different Accents

Have some fun when listening to different English accents.  It can be interesting and entertaining to see what you understand and what you don’t understand.  Mixing things up and listening to different English accents will help you train your brain to identify words even when they are pronounced in a way that’s different from what you have learned.  This will ensure that you will be able to listen to English spoken by anyone and anywhere.  


Some regional Scottish, Irish, and Australian accents can be very heavy and difficult to understand - and you mustn’t expect to understand the heaviest English accents because there are instances when native English speakers struggle too.  


If you’re interested in improving your English listening skills so that you can understand almost any English speaker (both native and non-native) then you should watch a mix of English movies and series from different regions.  There are many British English TV shows that you can watch where people use a variety of accents - from the Great British Bake Off to Downton Abbey and The Crown.  


Best Practice for Improving Listening Skills in English 

The best way to improve your English listening skills is to listen to English as much as possible.  Whether that’s actively listening for information or inactively listening to the sounds and rhythm of English, you need to listen to English regularly to improve your skills.  


Watch English Movies

English learners are spoilt for choice.  There are countless movies in every genre that we can think of in English.  Start a movie club with your friends if you need some extra motivation to watch English movies regularly.  This is a great way to ensure that you’re always improving your English listening skills - even when you’re having fun.  Movie clubs also require you to speak about the story you have watched.  Summarizing a story is a great way to test whether or not you have comprehended the story. 


Listen To English Podcasts

There are also millions of English podcasts available for you to listen to improve your English listening skills.  There are podcasts specifically designed for learning English where the speakers speak slowly and teach things like phrasal verbs, idioms and phrases in English and there are podcasts designed for native English speakers that you can challenge yourself with from time to time.  


Listen to English Radio Stations

English radio stations are an alternative to English podcasts. You can listen to English radio presenters and listen to English music at the same time.  Listening to English radio stations gives good insight into English culture too.  You can keep up-to-date with the news and what’s happening in English-speaking countries while learning English and improving your English listening skills.


If you’re an English learner who is trying to improve your English listening skills but you don’t know where to start, then find small ways to introduce English listening activities into your daily life and accept that you won’t understand everything.  We all need to start learning somewhere and, if you make listening to English a habit in your daily life, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you progress.  Trust yourself, trust your brain and trust the process.  You will reach your language goals with determination and a lot of practice.