Improve Listening Skills in English – An In-Depth and Practical Guide
Frankly, it’s about time I wrote a piece about how to improve listening skills in English.
Over the past few years, I’ve rather focused on methods for learners to become more competent speakers of English.
Hence, it’s about time I stepped out of my comfort zone. After all, I have plenty of things to get off my chest when it comes to the best ways to hone listening skills.
Characteristics of Good Second Language Listeners
First of all, it’s important to nominate which traits I believe good listeners in a second language (L2) possess.
A good place to start would be this list of ‘Characteristics of an expert L2 listener’, as put forward by Christine Goh (in Johnson (ed.), 2005). Expert L2 listeners may be characterised as learners who:
- have complex knowledge of the language system;
- exploit grammatical, phonological and lexical cues to process input from the level of word recognition to discourse organisation;
- capitalise on knowledge about specific listening contexts to form interpretations and provide appropriate responses;
- possess extensive metacognitive knowledge about themselves as L2 listeners, the processes involved in L2 listening and strategies that can facilitate comprehension and learning;
- are motivated, confident and not overly anxious about listening;
- use a wide range of strategies (cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective) for enhancing comprehension and managing behaviours and emotions;
- show flexibility in applying strategies to handle different listening tasks and various cultural and communicative contexts;
- exercise effective control of a large number of variables related to the listening process, the input and the environment.
I’ll touch upon some of the aforementioned characteristics in the tips below. Just to add that proficient L2 listeners have this remarkable ability to zero in on getting a broader perspective of a matter, i.e. focusing on the big picture. Why fret about unknown words when it’s more important to get to grips with the overall meaning of a text or speech etc?
Good listening ensues when the learner begins to accept ambiguity for what it is. It’s a case of hanging in there until ambiguous issues eventually unravel themselves. Tolerance of ambiguity is certainly connected with perseverance. As Wilson (2008, p.41) puts it:
Good listeners persevere, realising that the hypotheses they make (about the meaning of what they hear) can be checked later. In short, they are prepared to make a calculated guess, hold it in their memory and suspend judgement.
Top Tips to Improve your English Listening Skills
Now that I’ve given a general overview of the characteristics of proficient listeners in an L2, let’s move on with a range of ideas to improve listening skills in English.
Tip 1: Content is King - Consider what Makes a Good Listening Text for you
In tip 2, I will highlight the importance of consulting a range of sources to hone your listening skills.
First and foremost, you should select listening materials which have the ‘interest factor’. After all, as Wilson (2008, p.26) confirms:
If the text is intrinsically interesting, and particularly if the students have a personal stake in it, they will listen attentively.
You might find that your current predicaments are more interesting than your hobbies. For instance, if you’re stuck in an unfulfilling job and cannot come up with an appropriate exit strategy, then this TED talk on how to quit your job would be right up your street.
Personal interest is one thing. Other times, it’s also worth pursuing the entertainment factor. For that, I recommend Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk - Do schools kill creativity? Robinson won’t have you rolling on the floor laughing. However, his quiet wit and charm will certainly make you chuckle, particularly if you have an interest in education like I do. Here’s witty Ken:
I have an interest in education. Actually, what I find is, everybody has an interest in education. Don't you? I find this very interesting. If you're at a dinner party, and you say you work in education – actually, you're not often at dinner parties, frankly.
Tip 2: Consult a Range of Sources
As the proverb goes, variety is the spice of life.
Over-relying on a certain form of listening input may lead to tedium.
Frankly, you shouldn't discount any form of listening input. Such means of auditory input include songs, TV documentaries and even listening files in coursebooks, as I’ll explain now:
Coursebooks do have their uses
In the world of English Language Teaching, there is an approach to teaching called Dogme ELT. Associated with the slogan ‘Teaching Unplugged’, fierce proponents of Dogme argue that the source of all listening activities should be only the students and teacher. Hence, Dogme does not promote the use of any other external input, such as listening activities in coursebooks.
I’ve never been one to extol the virtues of learning through coursebooks. However, even if some of the recorded speech in coursebooks is contrived, at least you’ll benefit from listening to a variety of accents and different genres of recordings. Indeed, recordings may be of personal stories, conversations, interviews with experts, weather forecasts and news bulletins.
If you wish to improve listening skills in English, listening exercises and audio scripts in coursebooks are both a good starting point and a worthy source of material to refer to from time to time on your journey to proficiency level.
Taken from one of my favourite coursebook series, Outcomes, check out the audio script below of a guide in a museum gallery telling visitors about two paintings. Remember, it’s the variety we’re interested in:
Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in authentic dialogue
Of course, there’s a plethora of listening materials at your disposal beyond coursebooks. Be it TV or radio news and weather reports, film clips, documentaries, TV interviews or podcasts, episodes in a comedy series, e-books, songs or TV commercials, shifting between genres will certainly keep you on your toes.
In a nutshell, authentic materials have not been compiled for deliberate use in the language classroom.
I’ve gone into the benefits of teaching with authentic materials before on this blog.
The main idea of immersing yourself in authentic materials is to expose yourself to planned and unplanned discourse, slow and fast speech rates and different accents and dialects. Essentially, this is wide listening - randomly listening to what you feel like without paying heed to any particular theme or author. However, there’s an approach quite contrary to wide listening which could help you to process auditory input more efficiently. This technique is called narrow listening.
Tip 3: Narrow listening - For Better Comprehension of Native Speakers
Essentially, narrow listening refers to how a language learner focuses on the same theme or author’s works systematically and consistently over an extended period of time.
Renowned linguist, Stephen Krashen, developed the narrow listening technique as an extension to his narrow reading strategy.
Here’s Krashen (1996, p.97) explaining the absolute essence of narrow listening:
In narrow listening, acquirers collect several brief tape-recordings of proficient speakers discussing a topic selected by the acquirer. Acquirers then listen to the tape as many times as they like … Repeated listening, interest in the topic, and familiar context help make the input comprehensible.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering the Narrow Listening Technique
Krashen proposed five easy steps to follow in order to nail the narrow listening strategy:
Step One: The Preparation Phase - Selecting Topics and Creating Questions
The name of the game is to ask native speakers of the target language to speak for a few minutes on a topic which interests both them and you.
Topics that might be worth pursuing include:
- Family background - Tell me about your hometown, your family and early experiences in school;
- Music - What kind of music do you like listening to? Do you play a musical instrument? If yes, how did you learn?;
- Language learning - What languages have you tried to pick up and what success did you have? Can you describe your experiences learning languages at school? What’s the most effective way to learn a foreign language?;
- Current economic situation - Can you describe the current economic situation in your country?;
- Travel - Tell me about some of your most memorable travel experiences and the best countries you’ve been to.
It’s important that you ask open-ended questions, i.e. questions which can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response.
Step Two: Use the Target Language to Provide Background Knowledge
It’s vital that you learn some topic-related vocabulary. For example, if you’d like to talk about the current economic situation in your participants’ country, try to predict some of the vocabulary they might use. Locate a good bilingual dictionary to translate key words and phrases from your mother tongue into English. For the topic at hand, such lexis includes unemployment, poverty, interest rate rises, rising rent, rising mortgage rates, cost of living and borrowing costs.
Reading about the topics you’ve selected in the interviewee’s first language will ensure that the input is much more comprehensible. Try to read five or six articles about the current economic situation in the interviewee’s country. Highlight and make a note of any other topic-specific vocabulary you may not have come up with during the initial vocabulary and collocation brainstorming stage.
Step Three: “Interview” a few Native Speakers
Ideally, you should ask your question to at least three native speakers.
Record your participants’ answers (with their permission, of course). When you have some spare time, listen to their responses.
Step Four: Repetition is Key when it comes to boosting your English Listening Skills
Typically, it should be enough to listen to the short speech samples three or four times.
There’s no harm in listening more than four times. This is because repetition is vital in all aspects of language learning. Keep listening until your interest begins to wane.
Step Five: Explore related topics
As soon as you’ve completed the topic of the current economic situation in whatever country it may be, begin another round of interviews on a closely related topic. The idea is to select a topic close enough to ensure that the vocabulary and phrases you picked up in the first round may well pop up again during the second round of narrow listening.
For instance, if you initially asked How would you describe the current economic situation in ______?, your next focus question could be: In this day and age, is it better to rent out or buy a property?
In this way, the responders may well repeat some of the phrases above such as borrowing costs, rising rent and interest rate rises.
Narrow Listening with the aid of Youtube
With a bit of imagination, it’s also possible to use Youtube for narrow listening.
First of all, you need to come up with a simple topic. For instance, you won’t go far wrong with food, travel and languages.
As soon as you’ve chosen the topic, come up with a question in English. If it’s easier, write down the question in your mother tongue and translate it into English.
While you’re at it, you may as well just create a short list of related questions for the days ahead.
However, if you’re a bit insecure about nailing the exact grammar of your questions, you could just let YouTube do the work for you by playing around with the YouTube Search Bar.
The topic of real estate is currently a hot one for me. I’m learning Polish right now and I’ve just tried to find a question along the lines of “Will property prices fall in Poland?” I only had to type “Czy ceny …?” (Polish for “Will prices …?’) and my desired question showed up second in the search bar. Anyway, a chap called Robert appears first with a video about a ‘bubble' on the Polish property market in 2023. Property prices are falling’.
It seems that Robert frequently blogs about the Polish real estate market so I’m off and running.
Admittedly, this vlogger’s videos are a little long. In fact, most videos on the topic of real estate seem to be quite long. In my case, I could break down these videos into more manageable chunks. For example, five minutes a throw. I’d advise you to pick out shorter 3-5 minute videos so you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed.
All in all, there aren’t many better ways out there than narrow listening to improve listening skills in English. The technique proposed by Krashen does require you to put in some extra effort in the preparation and background knowledge activations phases. However, it’s worth putting in the hard yards. By focusing on a narrow topic area, the vocabulary load of the topic-related listening is significantly reduced (by at least 50% according to Nation, 2014, p.54). Consequently, you will find that you are swamped with large quantities of comprehensible input. This ability to consistently understand what you’re listening to can only breed confidence. Confidence means everything in language learning.
Tip 4: Use the Transcripts of Recordings Wisely
I tend to agree with the notion that reading and listening simultaneously can lead to a ‘divided attention’ situation. As soon as a reading script is involved, the power of the written word will grab more of your attention than the listening.
However, after listening to the recording at least twice, why not make use of the transcript at the final stage of the listening sequence. In such a way, the script serves as a tool to solve listening and other language-related issues. Moreover, the script can be cross-checked to either confirm or disprove your ideas about what you heard.
Transcripts, such as those which accompany TED Talks, enable you to get into the finicky details of connected English speech. For instance:
- Can you zero in on the way sounds blend together to create a completely new sound (assimilation)? Notice how “don’t you” really sounds like “don-chu”;
- Why don’t you focus on the way vowel sounds in short function words are reduced to the schwa sound?; For example, for sounds like /fə/ in rapid speech;
- You can listen out for the way native or proficient speakers of English use contractions - saying I’ll instead of I will or aren’t instead of are not.
Assuming that you’re very much an independent learner of English, following the four tips above will help you to improve listening skills in English.
Aside from following these tips and working on new approaches, you also need to adopt a more positive mindset. For example, when you listen to faster passages, don’t complain that the participants speak too quickly. Instead, take comfort in the fact that you understand the main point. Or, when faced with an ‘authentic’ passage with complex structures, don’t crumble in the face of adversity. Instead, look on the bright side. Think to yourself - at least the passage sounds like real English.
I’d also like you to ponder over the concept of automaticity. As Wilson (2008, pp.23-24) explains, once you have a command of the basics of grammar and vocabulary, you don’t have to listen to every word. Over time, you will automatically recognise which words are important and which you can ignore. In other words, the accomplished listener automatically ignores for, a and the, yet pays attention to the stressed content words - the verbs, adjectives and nouns.
Goh., C. (2005). ‘Second Language Listening Expertise’, in Johnson, K. (ed.) Expertise in Second Language Learning and Teaching, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.64-84
Krashen, S. (1996). The Case for Narrow Listening, System, Vol.24, No.1, pp.97-100
Nation, P. (2014). What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington: New Zealand
Wilson, J.J. (2008) How to Teach Listening, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited