10 English Listening Exercises That You Can Do Today (For Free)

Published on
August 31, 2022
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Updated on
September 5, 2022
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📖
8
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

There are plenty of resources out there for you to practise listening. In fact, there are so many that most learners don’t know where to start! That’s where our guide will help you. Let us recommend the best free listening techniques and resources - and how to use them.

10 English Listening Exercises That You Can Do Today (For Free)
Table of contents

Podcasts, videos, free quizzes, TED talks, songs, movies… it’s not difficult to find something to listen to in English. The problem is HOW to use all of these fantastic resources.

Many English learners think that “just listening” to English is enough to make progress. Well, as an English teacher, I can tell you: it’s not.

You need smart strategies in order to make the most of all of these fantastic resources. Here are ten of the best English listening activities.

1. The idiom hunter

Instead of listening passively, it is good to give yourself a challenge or activity to do while listening.

The first activity is simple (simple is usually best). 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 hear. 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.

Suggested resources: podcasts or short videos
Suggested time: 15 minutes per session
Skills developed: listening for vocabulary, developing fluency, listening to improve grammar

2. The 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 can be 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? 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.

Suggested resources: Netflix or similar
Suggested time: 30 minutes per session
Skills developed: developing fluency

3. 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.

Suggested resources: BBC, CNN or similar
Suggested time: 20 minutes per session
Skills developed: listening for main ideas, listening for details, developing fluency, listening for vocabulary

Bonus: If you like the news, you want to improve your English listening, and you like podcasts, you should check out Simple English News Daily.

4. 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!

Suggested resources: English learning for Curious Minds (which includes transcripts) or a similar podcast
Suggested time: 15 minutes per session
Skills developed: listening for details, developing fluency, listening to improve grammar

5. Listen more than once - for main ideas and details

If you’ve taken an English class where you practised listening, you may have noticed that your teacher always played the listening activities twice (or at least, they should have!)

Teachers don’t do this just to fill in time. When you listen to a text in a foreign language, you won’t pick up everything the first time.

Generally, it works like this: the first time you listen, you’ll catch the main ideas. The second time you listen, you’ll be able to catch the details.

If you listen to something on your own, you should use the same approach. Listen once for the main ideas, and write them down. Then listen again for the details that you missed the first time.

Can you listen more than twice? Yes, of course! You can listen three times or more if you feel there is still something to learn. In fact, the third listen is a great chance to note down new vocabulary.

Suggested resources: podcasts, short news clips
Suggested time: 5-10 minutes
Skills developed: listening for main ideas, listening for details, developing fluency

6. Clozing time

Another 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, with 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!

Suggested resources: English Learning for Curious Minds or a similar podcast
Suggested time: 5 minutes preparation, then 5 minutes activity
Skills developed: listening for details, listening to improve grammar, listening for vocabulary

7. Song lyrics 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.

Suggested resources: Spotify + a Google search for the lyrics
Suggested time: 5-10 minutes
Skills developed: listening for details, listening to improve grammar, listening for vocabulary

8. Read it; listen to it

I’ve talked about linking listening and writing skills. Let’s link listening and reading skills. After all, everything in English is connected.

This approach is simple: take something that you are interested in, such as a sports competition, and read an article on it. Or a book. Or a short story.

Then, listen to an audio clip on the same topic.

Since you will already have read about the topic, you should be familiar with most of the vocabulary, main ideas and details discussed. That means you can concentrate on core listening skills - understanding fast, natural spoken English. If you have trouble ‘keeping up’ with English spoken at a natural speed, then this technique is for you.

Any reading and listening material is suitable for this exercise, but items that are currently in the news are the best, because it is easy to find both articles and listening clips. And when I say items that are currently in the news, I include movie reviews, game reviews and fashion trends (because listening to the news is not for everyone).

As an activity, you could rate your understanding from 1-10 and see if you can improve over time

Suggested resources: any reading material and related audio clip
Suggested time: five minutes reading and five minutes listening
Skills developed: listening for details, developing fluency, listening for vocabulary

9. Listen, record and compare

I’ve talked about linking listening to writing, grammar and reading. What have I forgotten? Speaking!

There are many easy and fun exercises that you can do to practice speaking alongside listening (and improve both). My recommendation is recording yourself using the transcript. It’s simple, but effective.

First, find an audio clip, such as a podcast or TED talk, that comes with a transcript.

Listen to the audio clip, either with or without the transcript.

Record your version (using the transcript) and compare it to the original.

An alternative is to take notes while you listen (especially if it is an academic or ‘serious’ topic) and then speak from the notes instead of the transcript.

Yes, it may feel a bit weird listening to your own voice, but if you can get comfortable with it, this is a powerful method for improvement.

Suggested resources: podcasts or TED talks that come with transcripts
Suggested time: 15 minutes
Skills developed: listening for fluency, listening to improve speaking, pronunciation

10. Try a quiz!

Last, but not least, there are plenty of websites out there with free listening activities for English learners, usually accompanied by a quiz.

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:

https://www.elllo.org/
https://www.esl-lounge.com/student/listening.php
https://learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org/skills/listening
https://www.englishclub.com/esl-quizzes/listening/
https://www.esl-lab.com/intermediate/

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

Skills developed: listening for main ideas, listening for details, listening to improve grammar, listening for vocabulary

What are you waiting for?

After reading this post, I hope you forget about “just listening” and use these smart strategies to take full advantage of all the great free resources that are out there.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to go and practise your English listening!