10 Activities to Improve Your English Listening [Self-Study Guide #1]

Published on
November 11, 2022
Updated on
January 6, 2023
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

Listening materials in coursebooks are not authentic, but “real” listening materials can be too difficult. So, what is the best way to practise real listening? This guide will help you out with ten great ideas for listening activities that you can do on your own!

10 Activities to Improve Your English Listening [Self-Study Guide #1]
Table of contents

Note: This is the first of a series of guides covering self-study activities. You may also be interested in the other guides on writing, reading, speaking, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

You want to practise English listening skills, but there’s a problem. “Real” listening, such as watching the news on CNN, seems too difficult. 

But “easy” listening materials, like the ones you find in English textbooks, are artificial and boring.

The worst ones are the courses for tourists that you listen to in your car!

So what is the best approach?

How to approach listening practice

First of all, forget the textbooks. At intermediate level, moving towards advanced level, you want to use authentic materials.

However, although you should forget about those school textbooks, there are some good tips that you can learn from English teachers.

In English class (if the teacher is good), you always listen more than once. Generally, you listen once to get the main idea and a second time to pick up all the details.

You can listen as many times as you like - if there is something new to learn, it’s not a waste of time. The more times you listen, the more you understand. This builds fluency.

The second tip is not to “just listen”. Teachers always give you an activity to do. This focuses your mind and gives you a goal to work towards.

But what kind of activities can you do if you are studying by yourself? Good news! We have ten ideas for you to do just that!

These activities are part of a series of guides to help English learners with short activities to practise speaking, writing, reading, listening, grammar and vocabulary.

Easy activities

Activity 1 - Quiz time

Listen, and try a quiz. It’s an old-school method, but why not take advantage of the plenty of websites out there with free quizzes for English learners.

Here is an example of a site that has ten free quizzes at various levels.

But how do you know which level you are? What is A1, B2, C1 etc.?

These are called the CEFR levels and you can test yourself with a simple online test, such as this one. Or you could estimate your level in an instant with this self-assessment grid. Note that you may be level B2, for example, overall, but be B1 in listening.

Here are some more websites that offer free quizzes:

Listening | esl-lounge Student
English listening skills practice | LearnEnglish Teens - British Council
Listening Quizzes | ESL Quizzes | EnglishClub
General Listening Quizzes - Intermediate - Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab

You will find that some of the activities on these sites mirror the other activities I have recommended (dictation/cloze/news reports).

Remember, look for quizzes that are suited to your level, and look for sites that feature more authentic materials.

Skills: Listening
Tools: Various sites
Time: 5-10 minutes
Skill Level: Easy

Medium-level activities

Activity 2 - Podcast activities

At Leonardo English, we love podcasts! Our podcast, English Learning for Curious Minds, has been designed with intermediate to advanced English learners. It’s authentic, but spoken at a slightly slower speed and with slightly “graded language”. It also features a full transcript of every episode and vocabulary definitions.

We also have plenty of other podcasts to recommend.

So, we know that podcasts are great for listening practice, but what are some activities you can do with them? Here are three simple ones:

  1. Listen to the podcast without taking notes, then write down a summary of everything you remember. Listen again and check your accuracy.
  2. As with the first activity, listen without taking notes, but this time record your summary with a microphone.
  3. Listen to the podcast and write down your reaction to it in 50-100 words. Did you like it? Would you recommend it? Did you agree with the opinions expressed? Then post your reaction on social media, with a link to the podcast.

Looking for more ideas? Here is a podcast on using podcasts to learn English!

Skills: Listening, writing, speaking, fluency
Tools: Podcast
Time: 10-20 minutes
Skill Level: Medium

Activity 3 - The idiom hunter

Our members at Leonardo English always express interest in learning idioms, expressions and phrasal verbs. Let’s see a great example of how you can give yourself an activity to do this while listening.

Choose a podcast where the transcript is available, and listen to it once without the transcript. While listening, write down any idioms that you hear.

Next, listen again with the transcript and write down any further idioms that you find. They could be idioms that you already know, or new ones!

Or, instead of idioms, you could ‘hunt’ phrasal verbs.

You could even ‘hunt’ verb tenses. Have you recently learned the present perfect continuous tense? Write down any examples that you hear, and analyse how they are used.

To make it more challenging, try this activity with a TED talk.

Skills: Listening, vocabulary, grammar
Tools: Podcast or TED talk
Time: 5-15 minutes
Skill Level: Medium

Activity 4 - Clozing time

A great activity for focusing on details and new vocabulary is the cloze activity. Despite the funky name, a cloze is simply a fill-in-the-blanks activity.

Teachers love to give these in class when practising listening, but how can you make your own? It’s simple. All you need is a bit of imagination.

Again, find a short audio clip with a transcript. We’re looking for a very short clip of around one minute, or simply the first minute of a longer clip.

Read through the transcript and identify words or grammar examples that you wish to learn or practice. Copy and paste the transcript into a Word document and replace the identified items with blanks.

Then, put the activity aside for around a week, so that you ‘forget’ the answers. Finally, listen and fill in the blanks.

If you still remember the answers from when you made the worksheet, that’s fine. You’ve still learned something!

Skills: Listening, writing, listening for details
Tools: Podcasts, TED talks
Time: 5 minutes
Skill Level: Medium

Activity 5 - News in two languages

Just like the last activity, this technique uses ‘scaffolding’ to help you slowly improve understanding of native speech. It’s great for learners who like the news.

The method is simple: watch the news in your own language, and then watch it in English.

I recommend just watching the first five minutes of the news (the main stories of the day). Why? Because they are likely to be the same on all the news channels.

When you watch the news first in your own language, you will already know the main ideas of the news in English. For example, if there was an earthquake in Japan, we know to listen for the word ‘earthquake’. Now, we can focus on the details and vocabulary - even without listening twice.

You can create a more formal activity, by writing a table with the news stories in your own language. Then, tick the stories that are covered in English. Were they covered in a similar style? What vocabulary did you pick up?

Skills: Listening, vocabulary, fluency
Tools: New on TV or Internet
Time: 5-15 minutes
Skill Level: Medium

Activity 6 - Set your own questions

In an English class, your teacher might give you a worksheet when you practise listening. However, when you study by yourself, you need to be your own teacher!

Let’s work with this concept and turn it into an activity: 

  1. Choose a formal listening activity, such as a podcast, a TED Talk or a documentary. It can be any length.
  2. Listen to the introduction; perhaps the first minute.
  3. From the introduction, try to predict what will be covered in the rest of the audio clip.
  4. Next, set yourself some questions. For example, if you are listening to a documentary about Leonardo da Vinci: What made him famous? When did he paint the Mona Lisa? How did he die? Was he rich? Try to write some questions on the main ideas and some on the details.
  5. Listen, and see if you can answer your questions.

Congratulations! You’ve just become your own teacher!

Skills: Listening, fluency
Tools: Podcasts, TED talks, YouTube, Netflix
Time: 20 minutes
Skill Level: Medium

Hard or challenging activities

Activity 7 - The dictator

Do you feel that you make a lot of ‘small mistakes’ in your English? Perhaps you confuse your prepositions or get ‘been’ and ‘being’ mixed up? If so, then dictation practice could be very helpful.

A dictation is simply an exercise where you listen and try to write down exactly what is said, line by line.

It helps you to focus on the small details. Did he say ‘fed up of’ or ‘fed up on’? Did she say ‘have’ or ‘had’? It helps to form a link between listening and grammatical accuracy.

How do you do it? Simple! Find a short audio clip in clear English with one speaker where a transcript is available. A short clip is best, or just the first one or two minutes of a longer clip. Play the audio a sentence (or part of a sentence) at a time and write down exactly what you hear. Then, check your dictation against the transcript.

It might be difficult at first, but keep going and you will improve!

Skills: Listening, writing, grammar, fluency
Tools: Podcasts, TED talks
Time: 10 minutes
Skill Level: Hard

Activity 8 - The song lyric challenge

Songs can be very tricky. Sometimes, the lyrics aren’t clear - trust me, nobody can understand the lyrics to this song, not even one word! Sometimes, the lyrics have no meaning and sometimes the lyrics are full of confusing slang.

But don’t be too quick to ignore songs as a way to practise English, especially if you are moving from intermediate to advanced level.

Yes, pop songs are full of slang, but is that a bad thing? Slang is just a way of being expressive in English. For the same reason, song lyrics are full of idioms and phrasal verbs too.

Look at these lyrics from an old Rick Astley song:

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you

There are three phrasal verbs (give something up, let someone down, run around), a great example of a contraction (gonna) and an interesting use of the word ‘desert’ (abandon).

The simple challenge with song lyrics is understanding the meaning. And the main advantage is that you will remember the vocabulary and grammatical structures every time you hear the song again!

However, a further challenge is finding a song with interesting lyrics that are easy to hear. I recommend this song as a starting point.

This website has a list of songs that feature various grammar points. This blog has a list of artists whose songs should be easy to understand.

Skills: Listening, writing, vocabulary
Tools: Spotify or YouTube
Time: 5-10 minutes
Skill Level: Hard

Activity 9 - The no subtitle challenge

As your English gets better, it’s frustrating if you still need to rely on subtitles to understand. In fact, you may even feel guilty or foolish for using them!

Don’t worry. The English used in Hollywood movies and American TV shows is often spoken faster than in real life and may also contain more idioms and unusual language. After all, these shows are scripted (even the ‘reality’ shows!)

Instead of beating yourself up about it, why not turn subtitles into a challenge?

See if you can use the subtitles less and less. Do you have a favourite series, like Game of Thrones? Why not watch half of the season with the subtitles on, and then half with the subtitles off? This will give you a chance to get familiar with the actors’ voices first before listening without subtitles.

Or why not watch every other episode with the subtitles off? It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll get used to it.

What if you struggle to understand and you don’t enjoy the show as a result? Choose an old show that you’ve seen before (like Game of Thrones Season 1). That way, you will also slowly remember the story, even if you don’t catch all of the language.

There are also many websites that offer transcripts for TV shows and movies. These can help you.

Skills: Listening
Tools: Netflix, YouTube, your favourite streaming service
Time: 15 minutes or more
Skill Level: Hard

Activity 10 - Advanced translation with BBC Reels

For the last activity, let’s try something a bit more advanced - a translation activity.

For this activity, I recommend using BBC Reels. These are a collection of short videos on a range of interesting topics, such as why some people are always late.

You’ll find that most of these videos are between three to eight minutes and you can switch on subtitles if you like. I recommend choosing shorter videos for this activity.

Your basic challenge is to translate 30 seconds at a time into your own language. The full activity is as follows:

  1. Choose a BBC Reel, or a similar short video on a general, but interesting topic.
  2. Listen to 30 seconds, then pause the video.
  3. Write down your translation in your own language (it should be a few sentences).
  4. Continue to the end of the video.
  5. From your translation, make short notes in English.
  6. The next day (if possible), use the notes and try to imitate the talk aloud in English.
  7. Listen again, to hear how your final version compares to the original.

The reason for waiting until the next day is so that you talk from your notes and not your memory.

This may be a hard one, but the more challenging the activity, the more you can learn!

Remember the keys to good listening practice

These ten activities should activate your listening practice and give you some good ideas on how to improve.

There are countless other ways to improve your listening, but remember these key points:

  • Choose authentic materials.
  • Be prepared to listen more than once.
  • Give yourself an activity to do while you listen.

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