It’s a common problem with English listening practice.
Everything just goes in one ear and out the other.
Ever heard this English expression?
It means you heard something but you didn’t really listen to it. The information didn’t stay in your brain.
How can you avoid this with your own English listening practice?
The answer is simple: make it fun!
No matter how much you love learning English, there’s always a time when studying becomes hard, stressful or just plain boring. Listening practice can be especially difficult if you’re not interested in the subject or can’t follow the speakers.
Just like in your native language, you might tune out (stop paying attention).
But make the listening activities fun, and this problem disappears!
In this post we’ll show you three totally entertaining listening exercises for you to boost your English listening skills.
We’ll also explore some specific listening exercises you can do, which will help improve not only your comprehension, but also your speaking skills and vocabulary.
Ready to find out how you can get English listening practice the fun way?
What Happens when You Have Fun with English Listening Practice?
When an activity is fun, it’s natural to want to do it again. So if you enjoy your English listening practice, you’ll be inclined to keep on practicing and improving your English listening skills.
But it’s not just about the amount of time you spend practicing. Having fun while learning can actually support the learning process itself.
It all has to do with dopamine, a chemical that gets released in our brains when we’re expecting a reward or enjoyable experience. Dopamine helps control the experience of pleasure. And according to research, increased dopamine won’t just improve your motivation to learn, but can also help you retain (remember) what you’ve learned.
In other words, if you enjoy the learning process, you may be able to accomplish more.
In this post, I’ll share three fun, out-of-the-box ways to practice English listening, so you can get excited and motivated to learn. No matter what your English level is, you’ll find listening exercises to get that dopamine flowing and get learning!
3 Fun Exercises to Practice English Listening for All Levels
For each English listening practice method below, we’ll provide our favorite resources and then practical tips to get the most out of them.
1. Audiobook Fairy Tales and Fables
Fairy tales, like cartoons for learning English, are ideal for young learners as well as beginner adults to practice their listening skills.
A fairy tale is a simple children’s story about magical creatures, such as goblins, mermaids, talking animals, evil witches, scary dragons or friendly giants. Fables are traditional stories, usually about animals, that teach a moral lesson.
Because they’re written for children, the language is straightforward and the stories are easy to follow. There’s also typically a lot of repetition, which can help you keep track of the plot and memorize new vocabulary. Plus, the characters are typically not very complicated—it’s easy to recognize their conflicts, goals and motivations.
This is especially true for fables, because they’re meant to teach lessons.
And when you’re enjoying these stories on audiobook, there are even more advantages. You’ll find that the narrator often uses a slow pace to accommodate young listeners. Fairy tales and fables are also often short. That means you won’t get lost or overwhelmed before the story ends, and you can easily re-listen to a story to catch anything you missed.
Where to Find English Fairy Tale and Fable Audiobooks
Here are some online resources to get fairy tales and fables on audio:
- “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” on YouTube: Listen to more than 60 classic fairy tales, all in one place! The steady, clear narration is perfect for beginner listening practice. There are no accompanying visuals, so you can concentrate fully on the audio.
- Aesop’s Fables on Audible: Want some variety in your English listening practice? You can find lots of great fable audiobooks with different English-speaking narrators. The audiobooks range between one and four hours long, so there’s plenty for you to practice with.
- Fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen at LibriVox: This collection of stories also has different narrators, so you can listen to different speaking styles and accents. These are especially great if you’re looking for short practice. Most stories are between five and 15 minutes long.
- You can also search for specific stories that interest you at the Amazon Kindle store (e-book plus audio narration).
English Listening Activities with Fairy Tales and Fables
Depending on your level of fluency and your learning circumstances, you can choose one or a few of these activities.
Listen to a story multiple times:
The first step is to put on a story and listen to it without any interruptions or distractions to see if you understand the plot. At this stage, you’re looking for keywords. See if you can catch stressed words, follow conversations and keep up with the flow of the story.
This will help you learn how to pick up the general meaning of English speech, even if you don’t understand every single word—a crucial skill for successfully conversing with native English speakers!
After the first listen, take a short break to gather what you’ve learned. Then press replay. This time, pay attention to the details. What adjectives are used to describe each character? What clothes do they wear? How is the setting described?
This is your chance to:
- Practice using context clues
- Identify unfamiliar vocabulary words
While listening, jot down details. Make it a game. For example, try to catch all the qualitative adjectives (e.g. beautiful, tall, strong). Note them down and see if you can add any when you listen to the audiobook again.
If you have an English study buddy, make it a competition and see who can catch the most details!
Read after listening:
Fairy tales and fables are also useful because it’s often easy to find text versions of the story you’re listening to.
Once you find an audiobook that you like, search online for an e-book or print version. Again, you can try the Kindle store since it offers e-books with accompanying audio—this way you know you’re getting the same version of the story in audio and text.
After listening, read the story and keep track of words, expressions or plot elements that you missed when listening. If you wrote any notes while listening, compare those to the text.
You can also guess the spelling of unfamiliar words while listening to the audiobook, and then try to locate them in the text to see whether you spelled them correctly.
Once you understand all the words, their meanings and pronunciations, practice reading out loud along with the narrator.
This listening exercise gives you the full experience of how words are used together in English. By reading along with the narrator, you can notice where you do things differently from him or her regarding pitch, the length of vowels, rhythm and even speed.
Role play with learning partners:
Grab some other English learners and bring the story to life!
After listening to a fairy tale or fable on audiobook, role-playing can help make sure you didn’t just hear the story, but understood it.
One person can be the narrator and the others can play characters, such as the evil queen and her talking mirror in “Snow White.”
Try to convey the mood of the tale (story) as well as make the proper speech patterns. If necessary, listen to the story a few more times and pay close attention to elements like contractions, linking and rhythm. Native speakers use all of those elements naturally, but English students have to learn them, and the first step in learning is to imitate.
2. English-language Comedy
Who doesn’t like a good comedy? Whether it’s a silly movie, a standup performance or a classic sitcom, comedy is a great way to unwind while also gaining essential English skills.
Comedy is particularly great for English learners because it typically relies on wordplay and cultural references. Very often, jokes use homophones, puns and rhymes, or reference famous figures from English-language culture.
Of course, these are the same reasons that English comedy can be quite difficult to understand. Certain content may just be too difficult if you don’t have a solid foundation in English language and culture. Below, we’ll talk about which types of comedy are better for different learning levels.
Comedy Genres That Are Great for Language Learners
These are three kinds of comedy that I watch for English listening practice as well as for fun.
- Modern American sitcoms: Long-running shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Friends” or “Modern Family” are very fun for getting accustomed to English conversation and senses of humor.
They’re good for beginners because the jokes often involve repetition or physical humor, making them somewhat easier to follow while listening. Check out this list of the 10 best modern American sitcoms for English learners to get started.
- Comedy podcasts: These are better for intermediate and advanced learners, as there’s often lots of complicated wordplay, multiple speakers and inside jokes (jokes that are shared by a particular group).
- Standup comedy shows: Most standup comedy is best suited for advanced speakers. It’s fast, specific and the comedians bounce from subject to subject without warning. If you’re ready for it, this is an awesome way to absorb Anglophone culture and give your English listening skills a workout.
I find standups very personal. I am a big fan of a “niche comedian” named Mike Birbiglia (his words, not mine). You might have never heard of him, but I have listened to his performances on Spotify for at least five years. I flew from one country to another to see his latest show. A lot of listening practice there, I must say.
If you don’t know where to start, here are some bigger names in the world of standup comedians: Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld and Wanda Sykes. You can also check Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
English Listening Activities with Comedy Shows
Watch with and without subtitles:
Unless you’re practically fluent in English, there are almost certainly going to be some words and jokes you miss the first time.
If subtitles are available, you can use them to test your comprehension. Watch once without subtitles and then make an estimate of how much you understood. Half? A quarter? All but one or two jokes?
Then watch again, and pause at the parts you didn’t understand. Write down what you see on the subtitles and look up any words or references that don’t make sense to you. You can even post questions on your favorite English learner online forum for help on jokes that you’re missing.
Unfortunately, subtitles aren’t always available for standup comedy, but you should have good luck if you’re browsing standup shows on platforms such as Netflix. If you’re using a comedy podcast, see if the podcast transcript is provided along with the recording.
Pay attention to canned laughter:
This activity is specific to sitcoms. When you watch “Friends” or the “Big Bang Theory,” canned laughter (recordings of audience laughter) will be played after all the big jokes.
For English learners, this is great because it lets you know whether you missed a joke. If you don’t get the joke, rewind and listen again, asking yourself these questions:
- Did the speaker use a homophone or a homonym? Could the phrase or sentence be understood with an entirely different meaning?
- Did somebody say something that was very unusual for their character? Or did they say something that only that character would say?
- Do the words have another meaning, other than what the speaker intends? Often, it’ll be something offensive or politically incorrect. (They do this a lot in “Modern Family,” by the way.)
Doing this activity many times is a great way to make yourself more aware of the subtleties of the English language and will help prepare you for real-life conversations with English speakers.
3. Watch Authentic English Videos Online
Online videos are a go-to source for English listening practice because you can find a lot of relevant, educational and fun content. They’re also useful for learning to recognize different accents, since they come from all English-speaking parts of the world.
Where to Find Awesome, Authentic English Videos Online
Here are some great resources for finding authentic English videos you’ll love:
- TED Talks: This is an awesome online resource for formal, educational videos on any topic you might be interested in. Each video has only one speaker, talking at a steady pace in a clear voice. They also come with transcripts, a summary and notes.
- FluentU: FluentU is the most entertaining but effective online resource for English listening practice. You’ll get authentic English videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, that’ve been transformed into personalized language lessons.
While you’re watching and listening, you’ll get interactive captions for in-context definitions and example sentences. Hover over any word and the video will automatically pause while you learn it. After you’re done watching, FluentU provides flashcards and exercises with audio so you don’t forget what you just learned.
You can also filter the videos based on your interests and learning level. FluentU will even suggest more videos based on what you’ve already learned!
In other words, you’ll get exposure to real situations and conversations from the English-speaking world, plus tools to make sure you learn from them. You can explore the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
English Listening Activities with Real-life Videos
Take advantage of subtitles:
Just like with comedy shows, subtitles are helpful for online videos, too.
Because these videos come from all walks of life, you might find one with an unfamiliar accent that makes the content extra-difficult to understand. But don’t give up! Just turn on subtitles to improve your understanding.
The subtitles help you follow any conversation when sound fails you. In particular, subtitles can help you understand non-standard accents, fast speakers and connected speech. It’s like a stepping stone to fluent English listening comprehension.
This type of practice can be especially useful if you’re planning to use English to work in a multi-cultural environment, where there’ll be many different accents used.
Play a character:
With online videos, you can do a similar exercise as described in the fairy tales section. Acting out a video will help you target any confusing areas or new vocabulary. Try to recreate the mood of the video, imitate the pronunciation and speak with the same rhythm.
You can even record your version and compare it to the original video. This will help you listen for details in the English version, as well as your own grammar or vocabulary weaknesses.
Make your own related video:
This is an exercise for advanced learners that takes the previous one a step further. It works best with educational videos like TED Talks, although you could also use news clips and even English advertisements.
After watching an online English video, you can make your own clip based on what you’ve listened to. This is a fantastic way to prepare for debates, professional meetings or presentations in English, which are important for anyone who’ll be using the language in a business or academic environment.
To be able to discuss the topic on your own, pay attention to the following when you listen to the original video:
- The stressed words, which indicate what’s critical to a speaker
- The speaker’s body language, which conveys the mood or tone of the subject
- Important names (people, companies, countries, etc.) that are relevant to the topic
In your video, you can record a direct response to what you watched: what did you agree or disagree with? What points do you think the original video left out?
This listening exercise will train you not only to listen for the key elements of any English speech, but also to be able to respond in English yourself.
Who said English listening practice has to be dull? With these fun resources in your tool belt, you can start boosting your English listening skills the fun way.
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