Improve Your English Listening Skills: 26 Tips for Success
If you want to get better at English listening, you have to… well, listen to English!
You’ll just have to find the method that works best for you.
Some people learn really well in a classroom, while others prefer to practice on their own.
This post will show you how to improve your English listening skills quickly, using the right tools and environment.
- What English Learning Setting Is Best for Me?
- How to Improve English Listening with Independent Study
- Start with a positive mindset.
- Study a little bit at a time.
- Try different types of content.
- Sing along to English songs.
- Listen to the same content every day for a week.
- Listen to English conversations.
- Take advantage of “white noise.”
- Listen intensively.
- Listen for the big ideas.
- Listen for the details.
- Listen and read.
- Listen and speak.
- Listen and write.
- Predict audio content.
- Experiment with different accents.
- Play ESL listening games online.
- Listen as you sleep.
- Listen to yourself.
- Listen from mid-sentence.
- Listen to the verbs.
- Listen to the articles.
- Use different audio speeds.
- Join a conversation group.
- Prepare your conversations before they happen.
- Guess meaning from context first.
- How to Improve English Listening in a Classroom Setting
- How to Improve English Listening in One-on-one Classes
- Resources to Practice Listening to English
- Why Is It Important to Learn English by Listening?
- And One More Thing...
What English Learning Setting Is Best for Me?
Here are three main types of learning situations for English listening:
- Independent study: Independent means “by yourself,” so this involves studying English on your own time. You might like this option if you can get distracted by others in a classroom, are too busy for a formal class or prefer to study in different places (on a train, at home, at a park) whenever you can.
- Classroom setting: A classroom will have other students with a teacher, and meets regularly. This might be for you if you like discussing with other students, feel uncomfortable alone with a teacher or have trouble focusing on your own.
- One-on-one: One-on-one classes are sessions with you and a teacher (or a conversation partner). You might prefer these lessons if you feel shy around other students or if it’s easier to ask questions to a teacher or conversation partner privately (alone).
Try these different ways of practicing English listening skills, and pay attention to which works best for you. Once you’ve chosen your best learning setting, use the tips below to practice listening in English.
How to Improve English Listening with Independent Study
Start with a positive mindset.
I know English listening can be very difficult, especially with speakers who have a strong accent or who talk really fast.
But you’ve actually done it before! You learned how to listen and understand and speak a language when you were a baby. Why should it be any different now that you’re an adult?
If you don’t believe that you can listen and understand what people are saying, in the words of Jedi Master Yoda from “Star Wars”: “That is why you fail.”
Having a hard time? Focus on actively listening. When people are talking, don’t focus on what you’re going to reply, don’t try to translate what they’re saying, don’t analyze the grammar structure of the sentences… just listen.
Study a little bit at a time.
Only have a few minutes per day to study? Perfect. There are a lot of scientific studies that prove that learning 15 to 30 minutes every day is much better than trying to memorize hundreds of new words and grammar rules in one day.
Studying around 15-20 minutes a day instead of a few hours in one sitting, actually has a name: microlearning. Simply speaking, microlearning is dividing your task into very small tasks that can be done in about five minutes.
For example, if you’re trying to listen to a podcast, you can break it up and focus on one minute at a time, taking the time to learn the vocabulary and understand what’s being said.
This is just an example. You can divide your task the way you want, always trying to remember that every individual task should last five minutes at most.
Try different types of content.
There are so many different formats for studying. Find the one that works for you, or switch between content types depending on the situation.
For instance, you can listen to podcasts, audiobooks and radio shows while you’re on the go. When you have time to sit and do more active studying, you can turn on a YouTube channel or read along with your audiobook.
There are benefits for studying with each type of content:
- Podcasts: You can hear natural conversational English on many podcasts, especially when they don’t have a script. This can help you understand people’s speaking habits, and hear the way real native English speakers have conversations, add pauses to their speech, and more.
- Radio: The radio has a huge variety of listening practice. You can listen to music, talk shows, and news broadcasts—just to name a few. Radio is great for passive listening (listening in the background as you do other things). You can choose different radio shows and focus on listening to different dialects and accents from English speakers around the world.
- Audiobooks: An audiobook is basically a recording of someone reading a book. Audiobooks can be a great source of vocabulary since they use a wider range of words than common speech. People who read them often speak in a clear and articulated way. Also, audiobooks are highly entertaining, so it’s easy to listen for many hours.
You can also get a physical or digital copy of the book and read along as you listen. Doing so, you’ll find it easy to concentrate solely on the words. You can practice pronunciation by reading out loud and trying to match what you just heard.
- YouTube: There’s truly no end to what you can watch on YouTube. You could watch English learning channels, tune in to popular YouTuber shows, learn to knit, watch people play games, try new recipes, and so much more. Many YouTube videos have captions available. Though these aren’t always accurate, they can help support your listening until you feel more comfortable with just using your ears.
Sing along to English songs.
Learning English by listening to songs is a fun and effective way to improve your listening skills.
You can write out the lyrics, sing along (karaoke night, anyone?) or you can even skip the lyrics and see how much you know by heart! Turn on English music as you do other things and sing along as you wash dishes or drive to work, for instance.
For a challenge, try listening and singing along to rap songs. The speed and rhythm of these songs can make them difficult to shadow, which makes them perfect for active listening practice.
Listen to the same content every day for a week.
Find a bit of content that you enjoy like a podcast or a YouTube channel. Choose just one brief episode or video to listen to every day for a week.
Pick out words or phrases that are difficult to understand and look them up on the first and second days. Don’t forget to hit “pause” and listen again.
After a couple of days, you should be able to listen out for these words and understand them. Try speaking along with your audio source. You can even record yourself and listen for the differences between yourself and the speaker.
By the last day, you’ll find that you can understand much more than on the first day. As your ear adjusts to hearing this English podcast episode, it’ll be easier to listen to new audio in English.
Listen to English conversations.
If you’re living somewhere where English is spoken, take an afternoon to hunt for an English conversation. You can search for English conversation on a bus, in a cafe or at a park. Or, if eavesdropping on random strangers makes you uncomfortable, you can search for casual street vlogs on YouTube.
At first, you probably won’t know what they’re talking about since you’ll probably start listening in the middle of the conversation. This will make it even more challenging to understand, but also more fun.
Try and pick out words that you’ve learned or are trying to learn. How much can you understand? Could you write a summary of the conversation?
Take note of how people pronounce things when they have different emotions. Something that’s said in anger and something that’s said in passing (quickly, casually) can sound very different.
Take advantage of “white noise.”
White noise can mean different things, and its dictionary definition is quite complicated even for native speakers. Basically, white noise is an ongoing, usually repetitive sound that goes on in the background while you do something else.
If you switch on the radio and listen to music while you do the dishes, that music is your white noise. If I’m listening to a podcast while I water my plants, that podcast is my white noise. We’re practicing passive listening when we use English white noise.
Play a podcast, an audiobook or an English series in the background while you clean your flat or iron your clothes (or do any other chore). Don’t pay special attention to it, just let it play and go on with your activities.
You might think that you’re not learning anything if you’re not paying attention, but the truth is that your brain is registering everything that’s happening in the background! This practice is also useful for familiarizing yourself with the sounds and rhythm of the English language. Don’t stress out about missing some information or not understanding something—that’s not the purpose of this exercise.
Find a quiet place and make set aside 15 minutes free of disruptions. Play an audio file and focus on catching the words as well as their use and the overall meaning of the audio.
Take notes about everything you find important, such as when a speaker raises her voice to imply her anger or where you think a speaker is being sarcastic (means the opposite of what they say).
Are there any words you don’t understand completely or are unsure how to spell? Write them down as well so you can check later. Listen to the speed, too. Are there any places where the speaker pauses, slows down or speeds up? What do you think these moments mean?
This exercise focuses on taking your listening skills to the next level. It trains your ability to focus your attention on the words being spoken, and is beneficial whether you’re entering an English-speaking university, workplace or just an everyday conversation.
Perfecting this exercise is a big step forward from listening to understanding.
Listen for the big ideas.
At first, you should resist the impulse to try to understand every single word people are saying. It’s more important to keep up with the conversation and try to understand the main ideas.
Listen out for certain words that give you a hint of the sequence or topic of conversation. For example, when you saw the words “for example” in this sentence, you knew that an example was coming up! Or, if your friend is talking about a new movie that they watched, you can listen out for positive and negative words to understand if they liked the movie (“great,” “exciting”) or not (“bad,” “boring”).
Focus on keywords like these to grasp the most relevant parts of a conversation. Once you relax and make it a priority to understand the main idea, you’ll have the freedom to complete your comprehension with the details and clear the air later by asking questions.
Listen for the details.
Once you feel comfortable figuring out the main ideas of different conversation topics, you can start to listen in for the details. For example, if you’re interested in knowing the age of a person, pay attention to any words related to age like “old,” “years,” “born in” or even a number, which could be that person’s age.
An excellent way to practice listening for details is to decide what kind of detailed information you want to practice listening for and then listen to radio shows where you would get this information.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to practice listening for details about the weather. You could listen to a weather report and focus on the names of cities and the temperatures in every one of them.
You can also focus on other kinds of details, like word intonation or stress.
Listen and read.
Another way to improve your listening skills is to use two sources of information at the same time. The easiest way to do this is by watching an English video with English subtitles. This way, you’ll be listening to and reading the words, which will make it easier to understand everything and will help you to remember more.
Many podcasts include a transcript of what the speaker’s saying, so once again you get to listen to and read the same information at the same time.
You can also print the transcript before listening. That way, when you find something interesting, you can stop the audio and make notes on the printed transcript.
And, as I mentioned earlier, you can listen to audiobooks while you read along with the written work.
Listen and speak.
Listen to a sentence over and over. Repeat the words immediately after the speaker says them. This is called shadowing.
Keep practicing until your speed and intonation matches those of the speaker.
Shadowing an audio file is one of the best exercises to improve your listening and speaking skills at the same time. You’ll not only polish your pronunciation but also acquire the natural rhythm and speed of the English language.
For an added challenge, turn off the audio and try to say the sentence on your own. Record yourself and see how similar your version is to the audio file.
Listen and write.
Many listening practice exercises focus on improving listening skills through listening comprehension activities. But writing what you hear forces you to decode individual sounds.
Transcribing (“writing what you hear”) gives you a surprisingly fun way to improve your listening skills. Through writing, you can learn new words or discover that certain words are pronounced very differently than you thought.
Some websites let you listen to short audio recordings and write down every word that you hear. Make sure to keep going back and playing each sentence again and again until you’ve transcribed the whole thing.
Pay close attention to your spelling, as well. One of the most challenging things about English writing is that the way something sounds is not always how it’s written!
Predict audio content.
Imagine that you’re listening to the radio. You hear a helicopter in the background and a speaker is mentioning the names of streets, roads and avenues and talking about how many vehicles are currently on these roads.
What do you think he’s talking about? Most likely, you’re listening to a traffic report.
You can then expect to hear other words like “bottleneck,” “traffic jam” and “rush hour.” You’ll probably also hear the imperative (command form of verbs): “Don’t take the highway” or “Avoid 4th Avenue.”
Next time you’re watching or listening to an English TV show or the radio, pause after every few sentences. Try to predict what’s going to happen or what the speaker might say next.
Based on the context, you can often predict the words and even style of language you will hear. A powerful way to practice this is by creating mind maps: Whenever you learn new words, try to group them with other words used in a similar context.
Experiment with different accents.
You might have trouble understanding some English accents the first few times you listen to them. This is normal! Even native English speakers can have trouble understanding different English accents.
Remember that practice makes perfect. If you think a specific English accent is more difficult to understand for you, all you have to do is keep on practicing your listening skills with audio from that accent.
For example, if American English is challenging for you, try watching American series or listening to American podcasts or the news for a month. At the end of these 30 days, your ears will have gotten used to the accent, and it’ll be much easier for you to understand.
You can get some additional help with this by using a subtitled immersion program.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Play ESL listening games online.
English listening games provide a fun, interactive experience if you’re looking to improve your listening skills.
A few great ESL listening game sites include:
- ESL Kids Lab: This site is filled with simple listening exercises for beginners. Practice understanding basic vocabulary for school, jobs, everyday objects and more.
- TeachThis: These games are designed for English classrooms, but if you have a group of friends to practice English with you can try them, too!
- Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab” This site is an absolute goldmine of English listening tests and quizzes. They’re organized by level, with something for everyone from beginner to advanced.
Listening games also give you an incentive to “win”—you’ll stay motivated and want to keep practicing English listening.
Listen as you sleep.
No, I haven’t gone crazy. It’s actually possible to practice your English while you sleep.
While you can’t actually learn new content, sleep learning has been shown to improve your memory of vocabulary that you’ve already started learning.
If you want to give this a try, you’ll find lots of posts, articles and studies that talk about this topic. They normally focus on learning vocabulary, but you can use these resources to improve your listening skills, as well.
Listen to yourself.
If you’re having a conversation with yourself in front of the mirror or in your head, you’re already listening to yourself. Use your own voice to improve your English listening skills!
Talk to yourself in English when you go for a run, take a shower or any other time when your mind isn’t occupied by something else. You can even pretend to be two different people and play out a conversation in English in your head. You can even try using different accents!
Another way to improve your listening through speaking is by mimicking English-language shows. Watch an episode (or part of one) and try to imitate the accent in front of a mirror. Look at the actors’ faces and listen to them say specific words and phrases as many times as you need, until you have the correct pronunciation.
Listen from mid-sentence.
Fast forward to a random place in the audio and start listening in the middle of a sentence.
Try to figure out the topic as quickly as possible. Can you also guess the emotion? Does it sound like a friendly chat or a heated discussion? The intonation and stress are your clues.
This is a perfect exercise to prepare for you to enter real-life conversations. In workplaces, schools and other social locations it can be easy to miss a part of a conversation due to noise from the environment. This exercise will prevent confusion and help you catch up even if you don’t hear (or don’t understand) something.
Also, by being able to guess the topic quickly you can join a party conversation at any point and have fun.
Listen to the verbs.
Listen to about a minute of an audio file and write down every verb you hear.
Pause the audio and immediately try to rewrite all the sentences based on your list of verbs. Do this quickly while your memory is fresh.
Listen again, this time pausing after each sentence. If your audio comes with subtitles, compare them to your sentences. How similar was your version to the actual one?
This high-level listening practice with audio enhances your ability to catch the vital information while listening. It’s useful for attending classes in English-speaking countries or working in an English-speaking environment since it helps you focus on the key points of each sentence.
As you write, pay attention to the role of action verbs, such as “to drink” or “to run,” compared with linking verb like “to be.” Writing out the sentences from memory is a great way to practice, and will affect your choice of words when you speak and write yourself.
Listen to the articles.
Articles are often among the biggest obstacles experienced by English learners, as it’s hard to figure out when to use them and how to use them correctly. Being aware of their use during your listening practice will help you understand how to use them in your own speech.
Despite having no real meaning, articles are an essential part of the English language. Native speakers don’t stress those little items, but they do use them. With this exercise, you focus on recognizing unstressed sounds.
Pick a video with subtitles or an audio file with a transcript. Listen to it once without looking at the written text, and once again with the text. Pay attention to the articles: “a,” “an” and “the.”
As you listen the second time, circle or highlight every article. How many times is each article used? Which articles are used in which sentences? How’s the meaning of the sentence affected by the type of article used?
Use different audio speeds.
This is as simple as it sounds: Pick a video on YouTube or any platform or program that allows you to change the speed of the audio/video.
The first time you watch, do it at normal speed. You’ll probably miss information, but that happens to all of us.
During your second listening, choose the 0.75 speed. This will play the video slower, and you’ll be able to understand many more words or expressions than the first time.
When you think you’re ready for a challenge, do the opposite. Choose 1.25 or even 1.5 and watch the video at a faster speed. (Don’t go over 1.75—that’s a challenge even for native speakers!)
Join a conversation group.
One great way to practice listening to real people is to join a group of English learners who are looking to do the same. Conversation groups usually meet regularly, but it’s not a class. You don’t have to come every week; the purpose is simply to talk in English.
Meetup is a great place to look for English conversation groups. (If you can’t find a group near you, start your own!)
Meeting with other learners is a great way to listen to English with a variety of accents and voices. If you’re nervous about speaking English, remind yourself that you’re going to listen—and this is totally okay.
You can even tell the other speakers this if you want to, if you think it’ll be weird to sit quietly. You could say something like: “Hi, I’m Rebecca. I’m going to focus on listening tonight, so I might not say very much!”
Besides listening and speaking practice, joining a conversation group can be a fantastic way to make new friends who can help push you to keep learning.
Prepare your conversations before they happen.
Every conversation includes a speaker and a listener. This means that when you’re having a conversation, you’re also practicing your listening skills.
This can be intimidating if you struggle to understand spoken English. The solution? Prepare for conversations before they happen!
Of course, you can’t always know how a certain conversation will go. But certain situations, like going to the doctor or buying groceries, often repeat vocabulary words, phrases and sentences.
Prepare for a conversation by figuring out what questions you might be asked or need to ask, and how you can respond. Pay special attention to key words you expect to hear, and practice listening to them so you know what to recognize them in conversation (you can record yourself saying them).
Guess meaning from context first.
To get better at English listening, it also pays to use context clues. When having an English conversation or listening to English audio, try to pick out key words that you know. You can use these to get a basic idea of what someone is trying to convey and figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.
You can pay attention to tone of voice (is the speaker happy, confused, serious or laughing?), body language and your surroundings. For example, if someone is trying to communicate with you and is pointing at a map while asking a question, there’s a good chance that they need directions.
How to Improve English Listening in a Classroom Setting
Record class activities on your cell phone.
If you have trouble understanding every spoken English word during your classes, record the lessons. Later, you can listen to the class again and hear any of the words you might have missed the first time. These recordings will also help you become familiar with the sound of your teacher and classmates while they speak.
You should listen for the tone and intonation (the rise and fall of a voice’s tone) of their words. This will help you pronounce difficult words more clearly and easily. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to understand everything that’s being said during classes.
Most smartphones come with a voice recorder, but if yours doesn’t have one, here’s one for Android and here’s one for iOS.
Have a list of words to listen for in class.
Using a recording, write a list of the words you hear most often in class. Then, bring this list with you to class and listen for those words. Whenever you hear a word on your list, place a check next to it. Which words do you hear the most often?
When making your list, you can also add words that you think you might hear in class. For example, if you’re starting a unit on traveling, add some English words for travel to your list.
Listen for the context or how the words are used in sentences. This active listening exercise will help you understand when and why certain words are used. Once you’re comfortable with the words you hear all the time, you can focus on the words from your list with fewer check-marks.
Ask your classmates for help.
While you can learn a lot from your teacher, it can also be helpful to learn from your classmates.
Find someone in your class who wants to learn with you. You can agree on a certain podcast, speech, song or other audio and listen together. Then, quiz each other on what certain words or sentences mean.
Your classmate will probably understand words that you don’t, and vice versa. In addition to the listening practice, this will let you get to know your classmates better, which can make you more comfortable in class.
How to Improve English Listening in One-on-one Classes
Listen to your teacher for intonation.
Intonation is the change in pitch—how high or low a sound is—when one speaks. The two main patterns of English intonation are falling (lowering your pitch to make a statement) and rising (raising your pitch to signify a question or disbelief).
During a session, try to listen to your conversation partner or teacher only for intonation. If you can notice intonation, this will make it easier to hear the difference between a statement or a question.
So pick a day, and instead of listening for the words your teacher uses, listen for the emotion and meaning behind the words—based on the intonation.
You can ask your teacher to say the same phrase or sentence with different emotions (angry, excited, sad, etc.) so you can listen for the difference. You can even turn this into a game: Guess the emotion that your teacher’s using based on their intonation.
Listen to your teacher for stress.
Listen for word stress, which can be recognized by the louder volume, higher pitch or extended length of a vowel in a particular syllable. (For instance, in the word “centipede,” the stress is on the cen.)
Phrases and sentences also have stressed words. For example, in the question “What did you say?” the biggest stress will be on “What” and “say.” The middle words “did you” are said more quickly, since they’re not as important.
Learning to listen for the stress in a native speaker’s voice will help you find the key terms in each sentence, as they’re usually the ones that are stressed.
To practice listening for stress, try to do an impression of how your teacher speaks and sounds. Listen carefully, think about stress and intonation, and then give it a try!
If you’re not comfortable doing this in front of your teacher or partner, record part of your lesson and then try it at home. You can make this a really fun exercise!
Have a conversation with someone who isn’t a native English speaker.
If you can, have a session with someone whose first language isn’t English (a non-native speaker). This will give you a chance to listen to the differences between how native speakers and non-native speakers sound.
If you can hear the differences, it will actually make it easier to listen to native English speakers. To find a non-native English speaker online, try an online language exchange or online private tutor.
You can find both options on italki.
Resources to Practice Listening to English
Breaking News English
This resource is free, printable and interactive, and it accommodates many levels. This site’s full of short audio tracks about current events, weird news and worldwide issues. Each news clip is presented in a number of different difficulties so you can use the one that suits your current skill level.
With more than 3,000 lessons, you can do word-fill activities, vocabulary exercises, true or false questions and multiple-choice quizzes along with other activities that prompt conversation and critical thinking. Then you can check your answers.
This site offers a wide range of speeches on as many different subjects as you can think of, all for free. You can even find talks with subtitles in 105 languages. This means that you can watch videos in your native language to help you follow along. (Once you’ve done that, try it with English subtitles!)
You can also find an interactive transcript or a printable one that you can read along with the talk.
TED is ideal for advanced learners, but there are plenty of talks for all skill levels.
English Listening Lesson Library Online, also known as “elllo,” has over 3,000 free listening lessons for various levels. It offers a large variety in exercises and accents. You can get news, situational dialogues, video blogs from other English learners around the world, audio tracks called “mixers” where six different speakers respond to the same question and other helpful audio. All of these come with transcripts.
It’s especially fun and interesting because the content is made by people from all over the world, with different accents and cultures. You can connect with other learners, and if you want, you can upgrade your account for more language exercises.
The British Council
The British Council offers some great audio and four different levels to choose from. They also provide questions and gap fills that you can do as you listen to the audio track.
If you want to study it even further, they have PDF downloads with more exercises. Below the online exercises, there’s an active chat board where you can answer a question posed by a moderator and vote on other people’s responses.
Whether you’re attending an English-speaking university, preparing to attend one or simply want to improve your listening skills in an academic field, this solution is for you. The edX website provides lectures from some of the greatest universities in the world, available for free to anyone who wants to learn.
University lectures use specific vocabulary about academic subjects, depending on your interests or the profession you’re interested in. Learning this specialized vocabulary can be challenging but it’s a great opportunity for you to practice and improve your listening skills.
You’ll increase your chances of success in university courses while improving your listening comprehension skills. You’ll practice listening to class lectures. You’ll also improve in common college tasks such as class discussions and presentations.
And all without burying yourself in debt!
Why Is It Important to Learn English by Listening?
Studies show that listening is the most frequently used language skill by students. English listening is important not only in communication, but also in how we learn.
According to these studies, listening is basically how you obtain—and learn—new information. Whether you’re in the classroom or not, listening takes up more daily communication time than other forms of verbal communication.
If listening is at the center of the lives of students throughout all levels of their educational development, why should it be any different in learning a language? In your efforts to improve your overall English, working on your listening abilities must be at the core of your learning practice.
It’s important to learn how to listen effectively. Listening effectively is something that very few of us actually do. This isn’t because it’s difficult, but because most of us never developed the habits that would make us effective listeners.
As you develop the necessary skills for listening effectively, the feedback you’ll receive on your performance as a language listener will help you correct mistakes and increase your motivation to keep on learning, as well as help you to develop your confidence in using the language.
Whether you learn best in a classroom, one-on-one with a teacher or by yourself at home, practice English listening the way that’s best for you. These tips and resources will help you improve even faster than before. Good luck!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.