If someone forced me to choose which of the four language skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) was the most important, it would be listening.
Listening is the key to accessing the spoken English language, English-speaking people, and English-speaking cultures. Without the ability to understand spoken English, you can’t really use it.
In this massive, ultimate guide, I want to give you everything you need to improve your English listening skills and master understanding spoken English—regardless of your ability. This will be your one-stop shop to designing an English learning programme that emphasises listening, including:
- Why should you improve your English listening?
- How to improve your English listening skills: A step-by-step guide
- The best English listening activities you can start doing today
- How to get the most out of your English listening activities
Let’s get started.
Why improve your English listening skills?
Why should I focus on listening—isn’t speaking the most important skill?
Sure, some teachers will tell you that you need to speak from day one. They’ll emphasise the importance of interaction with native speakers and the importance of producing language. And as a learner, you probably agree—most of my students pay me to tutor them because they want to be able to speak English, not listen to it.
Yes, speaking is important. Yes, learning to produce English is part of learning it. But, in my opinion, listening is the most important English skill. Here’s why.
Listening is a prerequisite for speaking.
You can’t have a conversation with someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying. Listening is the first step to being able to have a conversation. Get good at listening, and you’ll set yourself up for being able to have successful conversations.
If you start with speaking, you’ll get frustrated.
Feeling pressured to speak right from the beginning can be uncomfortable because you don’t know the language yet. It’s one reason people feel like English is too hard and give up. Trying to speak right away can be frustrating.
Listening helps you build basic language skills so that when you start speaking, you’re not going to feel like it’s impossible.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s one of the fundamental principles of Stephen Krashen, the legendary linguist, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, and someone who certainly knows more about how to effectively learn languages than almost everyone else on the planet.
“The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.”
Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practice Second Language Acquisition
When you can listen, the other skills will come
Listening activities don’t only improve your listening skills—your listening skill actually “spills over” into the other skills. That means that the better you get at listening, the more your other skills will also improve.
For example, when you engage in a listening activity, you are working on your grammar, building your vocabulary, and even improving your English speaking skills. So focus on your listening, and you’ll get better at the other skills too.
It’s low risk and easy
Speaking is great, but it’s also a bit scary, isn’t it? Sure, there are lots of speaking exercises you can do without a partner… but when you do speak with someone you can feel a bit silly or awkward.
Those feelings go away with practice, but they can stop us from actually engaging in conversation. Plus, the logistics of organising conversations with other people can be a bit of a challenge itself, especially if you live in a non-English speaking country, as most learners do.
Listening, unlike having a conversation with others, is easy both logistically and emotionally. You can do it anywhere and for as long as you like. And you don’t feel silly doing it. Listening activities are convenient and much less scary!
Extra reasons to practise listening
Here are some more reasons to prioritise your listening skills:
- Accessibility. Listening activities are available anywhere you can use your smartphone. Just bring some headphones and you can turn spare time into English listening practice.
- Free or low cost. Listening activities are generally free or low cost (unlike learning English in a classroom or hiring an English tutor!)
- Multitasking. Listening activities are great because they are easy to build into your day while you’re doing other activities. Doing the dishes? Try a podcast. At the gym? Listen to music. Commuting to work? Catch your favourite radio show.
How to improve your English listening skills: A step-by-step guide
Okay, you’re convinced you should improve your English listening skills. But how to get started?
Here’s a step-by-step guide that explains exactly what you need to do.
1. Set a goal
The first step to accomplishing something is to decide what it is you want to accomplish. This has two parts: thinking about what you want to achieve and then actually setting the goal.
Think about what you want to achieve
Sure, your goal is probably something like “to speak English well”. But break it down into smaller bits, and try to pinpoint exactly what you are trying to achieve.
What are the specific parts of English listening that you find hard and that you want to improve?
Some of the most common reasons that non-native speakers have trouble with listening are:
- Narrow or limited vocabulary
- Unusual or difficult accents
- Native speakers speaking too fast
- Connected speech that’s difficult to understand
Being specific will help guide what you do.
For example, if you want to increase your vocabulary, you would really benefit from activities that use a wide range of vocabulary, and - even better - if they also provide lists of the key vocabulary.
If your problem is with connected speech or with accents, you would likely benefit from having a transcript to listen along with.
Do a bit of introspection here and really think about what it is, specifically, that you want to achieve. Only then will you be able to properly understand the kind of materials you need.
Set a SMART goal
Now, set a goal! I always recommend my students set SMART goals:
- Specific: Indicate what it is that you are trying to achieve. This will come from your thinking in the previous section!
- Measurable: Write your goal in such a way that you can assign numbers to measure your progress.
- Attainable: Choose a goal that’s a challenge but is still doable for you at your current level.
- Relevant: Make sure your goal is actually relevant to you—it should matter!
- Time-bound: Define a time period for your goal. By when will you accomplish it?
For example, some possible SMART goals for your listening skills could be:
- I want to get a score of 25 on the listening section of the TOEFL test by March.
- I want to be able to understand 75% of an episode of the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast on the first listen by the end of this year.
- I want to be ranked at a C1 on the listening portion of the Cambridge C1 Business Higher qualification.
Each of these examples states the specific goal, includes how it will be measured, and specifies a time. Each person would also ensure that these goals are attainable for them and relevant.
Check out this video for more information on SMART goal setting for language learning:
A great way of sticking to your goal is by making yourself accountable. Tell people, whether that’s your friends or family, or sharing your goal with others who are trying to achieve the same thing. For example, if you’re a member of Leonardo English share your goal on the community and keep yourself accountable.
2. Make a plan
You have your goal. Now, how will you accomplish it? By making a plan!
I love plans. At the beginning of every semester at university, I would highlight and colour-code my weekly schedule and put in where all my activities would go. I’d highlight my classes in blue, my study time in yellow, and the time I would exercise in green.
You don’t have to be obsessive about it, but I strongly recommend that you plan when you will practise your English listening skills. If you don’t, you might not make time for it. It doesn’t need to be complicated either:
- Pull out your calendar
- Identify what days you’re going to study
- Specify how long you’ll study for
- Decide what activities or resources you’re going to use
- Aim for at least 30 minutes a day.
Planning when you’ll do your listening activities will make you more likely to do them and more likely to actually accomplish your goals.
Here’s a video I love with ideas for how to plan out a language learning schedule or routine.
3. Choose your activities
You need to find activities that are easy to access, that you like, and that are effective for you.
Choose activities that are easy to access. It should be easy for you to pick them up and use them. English podcasts are great for this because you can access them anywhere. If you choose activities that are more difficult to access (for example, listening to an English grammar CD at the library) you are less likely to actually do it.
Choose activities that you like. One of the most common mistakes I see people make when they start learning English is they choose boring activities, either because they’ve been recommended them by a teacher or just because they were the first thing they found. Don’t make this mistake! Choose activities you like or that you find interesting. Choosing activities that you’re excited about doing is the secret to continuing to do them and ultimately improving your English.
Providing interesting materials to learn English was precisely Alastair’s goal when he created Leonardo English. Learning a language can actually be fascinating if you use the right materials. Don’t settle for boring activities. Just because learning English at school might have been boring, it doesn’t need to be that way when you choose your own activities.
Choose activities that are effective for you. We’re all different; some activities will work really well for you and others won’t.
And how effective they are for you can change. I loved Duolingo when I was a beginner learner of Portuguese, but it’s not helpful for me anymore. So now I don’t use it. Don’t be afraid to say, “This doesn’t work for me” and stop doing it. Stick with things that do work for you.
4. Follow through on your plan.
Learning English—and getting fluent—is going to take time. But the more you practise, the quicker it will happen. The trick to improving is actually doing the work.
So, find a strategy that works for you and put in the work. Sorry, there are no shortcuts to fluency here.
5. Track your progress
To find out if you’re accomplishing your goal, you have to measure your English learning progress somehow. Seeing your progress will keep you motivated. And, it will help you tell the difference between activities that really help you learn and those that don’t.
Here are some ideas for tracking your listening progress.
- Keep track of how difficult a podcast was for you on a scale of 1 to 10.
- Keep track of the number of words you didn’t know in a podcast.
- Keep track of the number of times that you pressed pause on a podcast
Each of the above is a way to assign numbers to your listening. As you see the numbers increase, you’ll know that you’re improving.
It might sound like a lot of work, but noting down how difficult you found a podcast to episode takes less than 10 seconds: 9 seconds to think about, and 1 second to write. Keeping track will really help keep you motivated as you start to see the numbers going up and help you troubleshoot what’s going wrong if the numbers don’t go up.
6. Make changes if you need to
Finally, make changes to your plan based on your progress. Do your activities feel too easy? Find more challenging listening exercises. Or, maybe they are too difficult? Adapt the exercises to make them easier (more on that below).
Re-adjusting your plan to make sure it keeps working for you is essential.
The best English listening activities
Now you’ve got a clear, step-by-step process. You just have to choose your activities.There are tonnes of them, but the following are the best English listening exercises and activities that I recommend to all of my students.
The very best way to improve your listening skills is through podcasts. This is my opinion as a professional English teacher and a language learner, but it’s also supported by several research studies: podcasts are a very effective way to improve your listening skills (as well as other English skills).
How to use podcasts to improve English listening
This is the best and most effective way we’ve found to use podcasts to learn English.
- Find a good English podcast at your level. Our favourite is (you guessed it): English Learning for Curious Minds, but there are hundreds. Check out our guide on the best podcasts to learn English.
- Listen first without a transcript or subtitles. You’ll get a sense of how much you understood without help.
- Use key vocabulary and a transcript or subtitles. These aids will help you figure out anything you missed on the first listen and also reinforce new vocab or phrases.
- Write a summary. This is one way to ensure that you’re learning actively and will help develop your writing skills as well.
- Make your own vocabulary list. Keep track of the new vocab you’re learning either on paper or in an app.
- Transcribe the podcast. Write down the words you hear as you listen. This will really test whether you understand it and will also help with your writing skills.
- Shadow the podcast. Shadowing is a great way to use podcasts to practise speaking, but it also helps you develop your listening skills as well.
How to adapt podcasts to your level
- Beginner levels. Start with short podcasts that are aimed at English learners. Slow down the speed so it’s easier to listen to. Use podcasts with vocabulary and transcripts.
- Intermediate levels. Find podcasts that are slightly more complex and about topics you’re interested in. Use a transcript where you need it, and subtitles if the podcast provides them.
- Advanced levels. Find any podcast that piques your interest. Try ones that specialise in more complex subjects to get a wider variety of vocabulary. You can probably also use podcasts that are intended for native speakers now, and you can always slow them down to make them easier to understand.
Audiobooks are a great way to engage with English culture at the same time as improving English listening skills.
Where to find audiobooks in English
Here are my favourite places to get free audiobooks in English:
How to adapt audiobooks to your level
- Beginner levels. Start with easy audiobooks, like those for children. Listen along while you also read the book. For example, listen to celebrities reading James and the Giant Peach aloud on YouTube while you read along online. Or, check out Pinocchio on Storynory (it has both the audio and the text).
- Intermediate levels. Find books that are a bit more complex, but still doable for you. For example, you might try these classic stories by Ernest Hemingway. At this level, listening to books you’ve already read is also a good choice. Like beginners, you will probably get the most out of this activity if you listen and read at the same time.
- Advanced levels. Just find books you think are interesting and listen to them. The more advanced the language, the better. You can read along if you like, but you don’t have to.
English radio is another way to tap into the cultures of English-speaking countries and cultures. Radio also has a tonne of variety so it should be easy for you to find an English radio show that you like.
The best places to find radio shows in English
- TuneIn — provides a variety of radio shows from several English-speaking countries
- BBC Radio — radio from the United Kingdom
- CBC Radio — radio from Canada
- NPR — radio from the United States
- ABC Radio — radio from Australia
How to adapt radio shows to your level
- Beginner levels. If you are a beginner, start with simple radio shows aimed at English learners. For example, try Breaking News English audio clips. These are much shorter and you can choose to play them at slower speeds.
- Intermediate levels. At this level, you can try more complex radio shows, perhaps still tailored for English learners. VOA Learning English, Adept English, and 6 Minute English are good options.
- Advanced levels. Advanced learners should find any radio show that they like and simply listen. Try listening every day to a radio show in English.
4. Video Games
Video games are just generally a great way to learn a language. They make great listening activities because you often have to understand what is being said to interact with the game. And, we’re usually happy to play video games for hours—that means you’ll end up practising English for hours!
How to use video games to learn English
- Find the right platform. You might have a preference for PlayStation, Xbox, Windows PC, or Nintendo Switch… or you might just want to play on your phone. Figure that out first.
- Find the best games. Games that have lots of dialogue, lots of auditory instructions, or lots of interaction with others are ideal for learning English.
- Buy or download the English version. Or figure out how to change the language settings on the game to play in English. How you do this will depend on the game you’ve chosen and where you buy it from.
- Now you play. And don’t feel guilty, you’re learning a useful new skill!
How to adapt video games to your English level
- Beginner levels. Choose easier games with less dialogue. You may even choose games for children.
- Intermediate levels. Consider playing with a dictionary beside you and writing down new words.
- Advanced levels. Advanced learners can try to interact with other players if that’s possible in your game. You also might watch YouTube videos of people playing the games or participate in gaming forums.
I love YouTube—it’s how I learn pretty much everything these days. It also makes a great listening activity as long as you use it correctly!
How to use YouTube to learn English
- Choose good videos. They should be interesting to you, they should be comprehensible to you at your level, and they should be short (so you can watch them several times).
- First, just watch. Put it in full screen so the other videos on the side don’t distract you. Watch in English with English subtitles. Watch out though, sometimes the subtitles are automatically generated by YouTube which means they often have mistakes in them.
- Next, watch a second time. This time, watch with subtitles in your original language if you struggled to understand the English subtitles. Focus on these so you understand what is happening in the video.
- Then, watch a third time. Watch again with English subtitles. But this time, you should have a good sense of the meaning of the video so you will likely understand more words or speech.
- Watch a fourth time. This time, take notes. Keep track of words and phrases you don’t know and their translations in your native language.
- Relax, and watch a fifth time. This time, watch again without subtitles. Now you have a good sense of the content and new words, you should be able to understand most of the video.
Great YouTube channels for learning English
- Easy English (best for beginners)
- HowStuffWorks (good for intermediate learners)
- National Geographic (good for intermediate learners)
- Story Corps (good for intermediate learners)
- TED and TEDx (Great for more advanced learners)
How to adapt YouTube to your level
- Beginner levels. Find shorter videos aimed at beginner English learners. Watch the video multiple times. You can slow down the video to make it easier.
- Intermediate levels. Find videos that are a little more advanced and that use native English-speakers speaking at a natural pace.
- Advanced levels. Find videos that express more complex ideas. You can also skip some of the re-watching steps and simply watch the video once (or maybe twice).
I know a lot of people on the Internet say that Netflix can be great for language learning. And it can. But there is a danger if you rely on it and only learn passively from it (passive language learning doesn’t work very well). Here’s my advice on how to use Netflix as a language learning tool more actively so it’s more effective.
How to use Netflix to learn English
- Choose a show. Again, choose something you like and also something relatively short so you can re-watch it easily. A 20-minute episode is ideal.
- Watch first. Watch the whole episode in English with English subtitles. Do not use subtitles in your language. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything.
- Watch a single scene a second time. Now, choose a scene to focus on. It should be about 2 to 5 minutes. Rewatch this scene with subtitles in your language if you really struggled to understand the English.
- Watch the scene a third time. This time, watch the scene with English subtitles. You should have a better sense of what they’re saying and be able to listen closely to the language they are using.
- Watch a fourth time. Watch the scene again, but this time, take notes on new words or phrases that you learned.
- Relax, and watch the entire episode again. Finally, watch the whole episode again. You still might not understand everything in the whole episode, but you will have “mastered” a piece of it. Once you go through several seasons of a series in this way, you should see lots of improvement in your English listening.
How to adapt Netflix to your level
- Beginner levels. Netflix isn’t really an ideal learning tool for beginners. My best advice is to find shows that are aimed at children and that do not require as much cultural knowledge or use much slang.
- Intermediate levels. Try finding shows that you really like and would watch even if you don’t understand everything. Don’t watch it with subtitles in your language, watch with English subtitles. Feel free to repeat scenes using the method above.
- Advanced levels. Watch any show you like. If you’re at this level, you probably don’t need to repeat scenes. Keep a notepad or your phone handy to keep track of new words.
7. Conversations and speaking partners
Meeting up with other English speakers and learners is one of the best ways to improve your English listening skills. That’s because conversations are rich with listening data, and the other person usually adapts the level of the conversation to accommodate you. So I highly recommend getting together with others to practise listening in English.
Naturally, Stephen Krashen says it better than I ever could:
In the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful.
Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practice Second Language Acquisition
Where can you find a speaking partner
Here are a bunch of free ways to find language partners. Keep in mind that for some of them, the idea is that you speak for a bit in English and a bit in your language.
- Conversation Exchange
- My Language Exchange
- Polyglot Club
- Reddit Language Learners
How to adapt conversation and speaking to your level
Usually, your partner will adapt to your level, so don’t worry about this too much. The main thing I would suggest for you, at any level, is to not worry about your mistakes! Everyone makes them. They’re normal. Try to feel confident and focus on the conversation.
Pro tip: At Leonardo English we hold live sessions for members, where we do everything from discuss English accents to debate whether we should abolish the monarchy. These can be a great way of practicing your listening.
8. Find a tutor
I don’t really suggest you take English lessons, especially only for listening activities. There are tonnes of ways you can improve your English listening skills without lessons. Lessons and English classes might be a good idea for some people, but most people can just make their own English learning programmes without a tutor or teacher.
That being said, finding a tutor or taking classes are ways to improve English listening.
Where can you find a tutor
Here are some places you can find an online English teacher or tutor:
How to adapt tutoring to your level
Again, you usually don’t need to do much adapting with tutors… they’re usually pretty good at finding activities that are challenging but not too hard for you.
At any level, I encourage you to communicate clearly with them about what your goals are and what you want to learn. And don’t rely on tutors. Do most of your learning on your own time.
How to get the most out of your listening activities: be an active learner
I’m the first to admit that I love listening activities because I can do them while I do other things. I listen to Portuguese podcasts virtually every day while I’m having breakfast and while I’m cooking and doing the dishes. The ability to multitask with them is my favourite thing about them.
But multitasking is not the best way to learn. The best way to learn is actively: processing the information consciously.
So, here are some ways to use listening activities more actively:
- Transcribe what you are hearing as you hear it
- Shadow: say what you’re hearing shortly after you hear it
- Create vocabulary flashcards for the words that you learn
- Write summaries about what you heard
- Have a conversation with a friend about what you learned or heard
Doing these things, in addition to the listening activities themselves, will actively engage you in the listening and help deepen your learning.
You don’t always have to do these things. Like me, you may just simply like to listen while you do the dishes. And don’t get me wrong, listening to some English while you’re doing something else is going to be more helpful than not listening to English.
But doing these ‘active’ activities will help you learn more effectively—and quicker!
Conclusion: Improve English listening skills and the rest will come
Listening skills are often underrated. They’re a bit like the cone under your ice cream: not the thing that everyone talks about, but essential to holding everything together.
Learning to understand spoken English has a multitude of benefits that people just don’t realise, from helping improve your English speaking, helping improve your English pronunciation, and opening you up to other ideas, cultures, and worlds.
And if you can’t understand what someone is saying, then it will be difficult to have a successful conversation.
It might not be the most glamorous of the English skills to develop, but put the effort in and you will soon realise why it is every successful English learner’s secret weapon.
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