It’s always a pleasure to share advice with my students that can really make a difference. I’ve invited Amy Whitney, an expert ESL conversation teacher from Real English Conversations, to our blog to share the some of her top tips to improve English listening skills. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did.
3 Tips To Improve Your Listening Skills
You might be surprised to know that almost half of the students that already have an intermediate to advanced level of English are having problems with their listening skills. Being exposed to ‘Real English’ can also expose new learning obstacles.
As a beginner, it is easy to create excuses or reasons for why you can’t understand something that you hear…
Those ‘beginner’ excuses aren’t valid anymore. You’ve already memorized hundreds of words, most of the grammar makes sense, and when you are reading with the subtitles or a transcript, you can understand perfectly.
Unfortunately, some of the most common advice on the internet about ‘how to improve your listening skills’ is actually really bad advice. In this article, you are going to learn 3 common mistakes students make while they are listening and what you can do to start improving fast.
Mistake #1 – Only Listening to LOTS of Audio
If you’ve ever Googled “how to improve my listening”, you’ve probably read that listening to lots of audio is the most important thing to do.
This is common advice, but it is not good advice.
If you are like most students, you will interpret this advice as needing to listen to a lot of new audio to try to get as much exposure as possible. Somehow, all this exposure is supposed to teach you to understand all the words – even words you haven’t learned – and eventually allow you to understand many different accents perfectly??
The problem with this advice is that your brain will only understand what it can the first time you hear the audio. Doing this type of activity is more like a ‘listening test’ than an activity that will truly improve your listening skills.
In order to start improving your listening skills, you need to give your brain (and ears) more information so that it can start to make connections to more of what you are hearing.
And that means, you are going to have to do a bit more work than just casually listening to audio one time ‘for exposure’.
Before I suggest different ways of listening in more depth and detail, let’s look at two other common listening mistakes learners make.
Mistake #2 – Listening to Audio that is Too Difficult
I made the mistake of thinking, “I should listen to harder and faster audio so that I learn to understand it. If I can understand that, I’ll understand EVERYTHING”.
Oops. That wasn’t a good strategy either…
The reason I didn’t see any results or improvement using this strategy is similar to the reasons I mentioned above.
If listening to normal audio is already challenging… Listening to faster, unclear, ‘harder’ audio is not going to help you understand more.
“We have to learn to walk before we learn to run.” – E.L. James
In this case, learning to understand audio that is suitable for your level is the first step. Once you feel you have a good grasp on that type of audio, try something a little bit harder to continue advancing your skills.
When you listen to audio that is right for your level, your mind can think about what it is hearing, the idea being explained is clearer and as a result, you understand enough of the context to guess what a word might mean.
Here is my guide for the ‘difficulty’ of audio:
Easy: Slow spoken scripts for English listeners.
Pre-Intermediate: Easy, everyday conversational dialogues.
Intermediate: Naturally spoken English conversation dialogues or podcasts for English learners.
Advanced: Documentaries, Ted-talk videos, interviews, movies or podcast that native speakers listen to.
If you are studying the correct level of audio, you will be able to understand between 70-80% of what you hear.
Mistake #3 – Listening without a Purpose
Once you realize you need to improve your listening skills, it is important to realize that listening to audio ‘to get exposure’ to English is probably the slowest way to improve your listening skills.
It is possible to increase your skills much faster if you have a specific reason or goal for listening to a particular piece of audio.
Activities to Improve Listening Faster
Once you have a purpose or a goal in mind while you are listening to something, it becomes clear that you need to focus on the audio in a different way.
Let me explain what I mean by showing you three ‘purposes’ you can have while listening to see big results faster.
Example 1: Reviewing New Vocabulary
Using audio to learn new vocabulary is a great way to make a strong connection to how new words sound and also to review new words you’ve learned from the audio while you listening again.
The first step is to find a piece of audio with a transcription included. Study it by looking for new vocabulary and phrases. Over the next couple of days, you can listen to the audio again several times to help you hear the words being used in context.
Using this method, your mind already knows the story and the context of the audio and this helps you to remember the meaning of the new words without studying a list of vocabulary.
Example 2: Increasing Listening Comprehension
Imagine being able to hear with the same detail that you read in English…
This is possible but you need to have this purpose in mind while you are listening to audio.
The reason why you are able to understand more of what you read is because you are taking the time you need to think about the words, the grammar structures and verb tenses. Often, you need to read the sentence several times and look up new words to really understand what is being said.
The same is true with listening comprehension. Listening to a piece of audio one time is like reading a sentence one time. If you listen to the audio several times, look up new words you don’t know, you will understand more.
Another important tip to achieve a high level of listening comprehension is to listen to the audio at a slower speed. This gives your brain more time to think about what it is hearing.
After you have listened to the audio as many times as necessary (with the help of a transcript if needed), then you can play the audio at a faster speed while still achieving a very high level of comprehension.
Example 3: Understanding a new accent
Because English is such a common language, it has many accents and different words that change how English is used from region to region.
Spending the time learning to understand a few different accents can make a big difference in your ability to understand more of what you hear.
To do this, you will need to listen to short sections of audio several times, using an accurate transcription and being sure to slow down the audio to clearly hear everything.
In this case, you are training your ears to recognize that the same English word can be said in different ways. Mostly, it is the vowel sounds that are changing and you need to build a new connection to the word you already learned that sounds different with a new accent.
Carefully studying a few pieces of audio and training your ears to recognize the difference in vowel sounds will help you to understand a new accent better. This takes time, but it is worth the effort to understand actors in movies or native speakers that come from different parts of the world.
About the Author
Amy Whitney is a conversational English teacher that has helped thousands of English learners to develop English skills that people need for real life communication. Check out her website, Real English Conversations, to get more helpful advice related to speaking and listening skills.