“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”
- Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Whether learning a language or not, we could all learn to listen a little better. As a teacher, it’s almost immediately obvious which of your students regularly practise English listening outside of the classroom. They are the ones who are quick to understand instructions, the ones who use more colloquial expressions and whose pronunciation is often a little bit closer to a native speaker. Unlike grammar, vocabulary or even writing, listening can’t be studied and rapidly improved. Rather, it’s a matter of regular practice which leads to gradual, lasting progress. That’s not to say that improving your listening skills needs to be a painstaking marathon. Try some of these tips for online ways to become a champion listener and ace that listening exam.
1: Use listening sites that divide by level
There are so many sites dedicated to listening skills that it can be easy to get a bit lost in the vast selection. Over the years, I’ve noticed that most students react well to sites which allow them to progress through levels. It’s highly motivating for students to be able to begin at a level which is mildly challenging but understandable, then after some time move up to the next level. A website that I often use with students is breakingnewsenglish.com. Based on interesting snippets from world news, students can select their level and then even select the speed at which they want to hear the recording. After a few weeks or months of regular listening, students often feel that a certain level is becoming too easy and simply move up to the next. Other great sites that allow you to listen by level are elllo.org and Randall’s Cyber Listening Lab.
2: Find a YouTuber who you like
Watching YouTubers can be a great way for students to develop listening skills. Most YouTubers simply talk to the camera for a few minutes, meaning that the viewer has very few visual supports to aid understanding. It’s almost like listening to the radio, but where we can see the presenter. Speaking as a dedicated student of Spanish, I know that my own listening skills have improved a lot since I began regularly watching Basque YouTube sensation Soy Una Pringada (I’ve also learned some delightfully rude Spanish expressions as a fringe benefit!). Choose a YouTuber who shares certain interests with you: comedy-lovers might enjoy the ramblings of Jenna Marbles; sports fans could be interested in KSI; fans of make-up may enjoy tutorials by Laura Lee. Lower-level students will probably find it better to select a YouTuber who provides English subtitles for their videos. Click here for a list of some popular YouTube stars.
3: Use online exam listening exercises
If you’re planning on taking an official exam in the near future, it’s essential that you put in some practice for the specific requirements of the exam’s listening section. Over the years, I’ve taught many Proficiency courses to students who have a near-native level of English. Such students often work in English, watch TV in English, even have friends or family from the UK or the US. They usually begin the Proficiency course thinking that the listening exam will be a piece of cake … until they do a practice exam. It quickly becomes clear to students that there’s a difference between being able to catch what is being said and being able to answer specific, often quite subjective, questions. This is why it’s imperative to become familiar with the format and types of questions of the exam which you want to take. Luckily, there are many sites which allow you to prepare for the big day. The British Council offers free listen free listening practice for IELTS in its Road to IELTS materials, while the Exam English site offers free listening practice for all major exams, from FCE to TOEFL.
4: Start watching a web series
One obvious way to develop your listening skills is to watch TV series in original-version English, as outlined in this previous post on Learn English quicker – 6 tips. If you’re a fan of TV, you might also want to consider following a web series in English. In fact, online series are even more suitable for language learners considering that each episode is typically just a few minutes long. Improving listening skills usually implies listening to the same audio/video more than once so this is much easier to do for a short episode of a web series like Newborn Moms than for an hour-long episode of a TV series like Game of Thrones. There are web series for all tastes. Young Vic Films is a series of diverse short films featuring a host of famous British actors. Click here for more ideas on which web series is for you.
5: Use podcasts
Possibly the simplest web resource to practise your listening is the humble podcast. Download it to your phone, then listen to it as you travel to work, cook dinner or do some exercise. There’s a wide array of podcasts for various levels and interests available from the British Council Podcasts app. For example, the “Professionals” series provides short audios of people speaking in business contexts and students who want more focused practice can complete corresponding comprehension exercises on the Learn English website. If you feel like more of a challenge, you could try listening to podcasts aimed at native speakers. This may seem daunting but might not be as difficult as you’d imagine if you choose the right podcast for you. The NPR News Now podcast provides a simple, five-minute summary of the most recent world news and is updated hourly. I also often recommend my students listen to the nine-minute BBC Witness podcast, in which important days in modern history are described by the people who experienced them. Choose a podcast on a topic that fascinates you and you’ll quickly see how eager your ears are to understand exactly what’s being said.
6: Try doing online dictations, even for songs
One of the most difficult types of listening tasks is the dictation. It may not seem like the most practical skill to practise but is nonetheless important, especially as many listening exams include a section where students need to transcribe exact words or expressions from the audio (and spell them correctly!). There are many sites dedicated to dictations. In class I’ve used dictationsonline.com, which allows you to select your level and then transcribe short passages from famous literary works. Otherwise, check out Coach Shane, an English teacher on YouTube who uploads daily videos from which students need to transcribe a sentence from a TV clip or news report. If you’re looking to do a dictation based on content which interests you personally, why not go for a talk from TED.com? Simply select a short part of the talk which you are going to transcribe, watch this part various times until your transcription is complete and then check your precision against the online transcript/subtitles for the talk. Or if you really want to spice up your dictation practice, there’s always lyricstraining.com, where students listen to their favourite pop songs and transcribe the lyrics.
Whichever method you choose to improve your listening, make sure to practise it regularly to really notice the benefits. Now get to work and prepare for the glory of top marks in your next listening exam.