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When I started teaching English, the Internet was still a baby and most people did not have satellite television. My students were hungry for any chance to listen to English.
Fast forward to 2022 and it’s incredibly easy to find English to listen to. YouTube, Netflix, podcasts, TV shows… the choice seems endless.
In fact, many English learners neglect listening practice because they feel that they are already practising English whenever they watch YouTube videos or Netflix shows.
But if you simply watch an English Netflix show with subtitles in your native language, do you think your English will improve by leaps and bounds? No!
Activities like this will only improve your English very slowly.
The amazing choice of listening material we have is great, but to take full advantage of it, you need to be an active listener.
Why is active listening important?
Active listening sounds like hard work, doesn’t it?
Well, think of it this way: If you are going to be an independent learner, you need to become your own English teacher!
The reality is that listening to something in a different language is harder work - don’t pretend that you can absorb the same as if you were listening in your mother tongue.
By applying active listening techniques, we not only “practise listening”, but we can improve our vocabulary and gain a better understanding of grammar and sentence structure.
As you hear things that you have learned previously, such as idioms of grammatical structures, you are more likely to remember them.
By paying closer attention to words and sounds, we can improve our pronunciation.
By noting down interesting phrases that we can use later in our speech, we can even improve our speaking skills.
Hence, when you listen actively, you are actually improving a wide range of skills in English.
Most importantly, listening is preparation for conversation - it prepares you for communication in the real world.
How to get ready to listen
Remember, we are going to listen actively - this means we need to make sure that we can focus fully on our listening.
The first step is to set aside some time and a quiet space for your listening practice. You should not be multitasking (doing many things at once) or checking social media during your practice time.
Make sure that you have a notebook and pen with you.
Ten recommended activities for English learners
Independent listening activity 1: Listen and write a summary
There are many ‘levels’ to listening. The first level is to understand the main ideas of what you are listening to.
You should aim to understand the main ideas the first time that you listen. If you need to listen multiple times to understand the main ideas, then the audio you have chosen is too advanced.
This technique is simple:
Step 1: Listen to the audio, noting down the main ideas. Pause if you need time to write.
Step 2: Listen again, and check if you were correct.
Step 3: If the listening clip has a transcript, use this to check yourself.
Independent listening activity 2: Listen and write a review
This technique is similar to activity 1, but instead of a summary, we are going to write a review on social media. This activity is suitable for longer media, such as Netflix shows.
By posting a review on social media, you are taking your learning ‘into the real world’ and perhaps you will have the chance to get comments and feedback from other people.
Step 1: Listen to the audio, making notes as you go along.
Step 2: Listen again, for a more detailed understanding.
Step 3: Write a review and post it on social media, such as a blog or our Facebook account. Write about whether you liked the show, what you learned from it, your favourite characters and so on.
Recommended media: Podcasts, Netflix shows, TV shows. Remember, you will be more likely to get comments and feedback if it is a current and popular show.
Independent listening activity 3: Listen for new vocabulary
In this activity, we will focus on learning new words and phrases.
It is often easier to do this through reading because you can see the spelling of the word. But with some practice, you can do this through listening, too.
Remember, we are not only looking for new words, but for familiar words that are used in different ways.
It is also a good chance to listen for phrasal verbs and idioms.
Step 1: Listen to the audio once to get the main ideas.
Step 2: Listen again, pausing and writing down new words. Write the sentence or phrase that contains the word, so you have context. You can use the subtitles or transcript to help you.
Step 3: Write the meaning that you guess for the word, either in your own language or in English.
Step 4: Use the dictionary to check if you were correct.
Recommended media: Podcasts or YouTube videos that provide transcripts.
Independent listening activity 4: Listen for discussion points
In this activity, we will listen with the intention of discussing the content with other people.
Let’s take the topic of artificial intelligence. It is something that people love to discuss and debate.
By listening first, we can learn talking points and also learn useful ways to express points about artificial intelligence.
Step 1: Listen to the audio once to get the main ideas.
Step 2: Listen again, pausing and writing down the main ideas that the speaker makes. You can note whether you agree or disagree.
Step 3: Find a speaking partner who is interested in this topic and discuss it with them. Try to bring up points from the listening:
“I was watching this video on artificial intelligence the other day and the speaker said that AI is the biggest threat currently facing humanity!”
If you can’t find a speaking partner, try discussing this topic on social media platforms, such as Reddit.
Independent listening activity 5: Shadowing
In this activity, we will listen with the intention of making our pronunciation more fluent.
Shadowing refers to repeating the audio just after the speaker. This allows you to closely copy the speaker’s style, tone, pace and stress.
Step 1: Listen to the audio once first, if you like.
Step 2: Listen again, repeating exactly what the speaker says. Record yourself doing this if possible.
Recommended media: Podcasts with transcripts are perfect for this. Alternatively, YouTube videos. Choose a listening clip that is not too long and only has one person speaking. The person should speak in a conversational tone.
Independent listening activity 6: Listen and record yourself
This is another activity where we will listen with the intention of making our pronunciation more fluent.
For this activity, we need to choose a podcast that provides a transcript.
Step 1: Listen to the audio at least once first.
Step 2: Open up the transcript and record yourself speaking it aloud. Feel free to imitate the original speaker’s pace and style.
Step 3: Play it back, comparing it to the original recording. How did you do? Give yourself a rating out of 10.
Independent listening activity 7: Listen to a song and write out the lyrics
If you love music, why not use it to improve your listening? Many songs have wonderful and interesting lyrics that you can use to learn new vocabulary.
The important thing here is to choose a song that has a story or meaningful lyrics. Avoid songs that just go “I love you baby, yeah, yeah, yeah!”.
Step 1: Choose a song with meaningful lyrics and a singer who sings clearly.
My recommendations are:
Last Kiss by Pearl Jam (about a boy who lost his girlfriend in a car accident).
Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen by Baz Luhrmann (a fun speech to graduate students)
Stan by Eminem (a hip hop song about an obsessed fan)
Step 2: Listen once to get the main idea of the song.
Step 3: Listen again, writing the lyrics to one verse at a time.
Step 4: Check your written lyrics against the transcript. Use Google to find the lyrics if there is no transcript.
Recommended media: YouTube, Spotify.
Independent listening activity 8: The no-subtitle challenge
Do you use the subtitles to help you when you watch an English show or movie? If your answer is ‘yes’, then this challenge is for you.
The challenge is simple: to watch an entire show or movie with no subtitles. Your goal should not be to understand 100%, but to understand enough that you can still follow and enjoy the show (perhaps 70-80%).
If you use subtitles in your own language, the first challenge is to switch to English subtitles. If you use English subtitles, the challenge is to watch without them.
Here are some tips:
- Try this with a series - as you watch more episodes, you will become more familiar with the various characters and their accents.
- Try this with a movie that you have watched before. This way, you already know the story and you won’t become confused.
- Watch half of the show with the subtitles and half without the subtitles. This way, you will understand the set-up of the story before you remove the subtitles.
Recommended media: Netflix, TV shows, movies, podcasts with subtitles/transcripts.
Independent listening activity 9: Be your own English teacher and set yourself questions
In an English class, before doing any listening practice, the teacher will set you some comprehension questions. The purpose of these questions is to keep you focused on the audio and to help you better understand.
Well, if you are an independent learner, you have to be your own teacher. Set yourself some questions before you listen.
For example, let’s say that you have found a documentary on YouTube called “Top 10 Most Dangerous Prisons in the World”.
Before listening, you could write out some questions for yourself to answer:
1 Where are the top three most dangerous prisons?
2 What makes them so dangerous?
3 How do the guards keep control in these prisons?
4 Do people actually get murdered in these prisons?
5 Are any of these prisons in my country?
Perhaps there may be some questions that you cannot answer. That’s okay.
Setting questions before you listen is a good habit. You can do this when reading, too.
Independent listening activity 10: Listen and speak using social audio apps
Sharing audio conversations online is becoming more popular.
For example, the Clubhouse app allows you to join a moderated (controlled) conversation. You could listen to someone speaking on the topic of artificial intelligence. After they finish, you will have a chance to speak, too!
You could either ask a question or speak for a short time on the same topic.
If you feel a bit shy at first, you could be a ‘lurker’ (someone who listens but doesn’t join in) until you feel more confident.
Twitter offers Twitter Spaces for sharing audio and many other social media platforms have similar services.
Recommended media: Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, social media.
Find the way that is best for you
As an independent learner, you’re responsible for your own learning and you need to find the way that works best for you.
There are so many ways to practise listening and so much material out there. What are you waiting for?