English Listening: the complete guide to improving your English listening skills

This is the one article on the internet that you should read if you want to improve your listening skills. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an advanced student of English. This article contains information and tips to boost you to the next level.

You can read the whole article or just the bits that seem useful. It’s also an article that you should bookmark or save – there is so much here that you’ll definitely want to come back every now and again.

This article has advice and techniques based on the Moxon method as well as resources and links that will help you to apply them.


Why can’t I understand what people say in English?

Everyone who has started to learn English knows of the horror. You’re chatting with a native English speaker and you just can’t understand what they’re saying. What do you do? Do you apologize repeatedly and ask them to say it again? Or do you just pretend that you’ve understood? Or perhaps you’re an advanced speaker and normally you understand most things, but when someone tells a joke or a funny story you’re the only one not laughing. Not a nice situation to be in.

So why is it so hard to understand what people say in English? What blocks you from receiving the message that is being sent by the other person? Essentially there are two main problems. One is what I call ‘phonetic decodification’, or in other words making sense of the sound waves that get to your ear and transforming them into words. The second is vocabulary gaps. In other words, even if you are able to write down the word you don’t know the meaning. Let’s look at these two problems in turn.

Phonetic decodification: turning sounds into words

Phonetic decodification is basically an elaborate way of saying that the sounds you hear when someone speaks English are unclear, blurred and difficult to process. It sounds like a mysterious string of sounds, rather than the words and letters you know. This can even happen with simple phrases like ‘How are you?’ or ‘Were you at home last night?’. And of course with complicated phrases. It can happen with words you know very well (or at least you would know them if you saw them written down).

Of course there are some variables that can make the problem of phonetic decodification even harder. If you’re talking on the telephone or on Skype it can be more difficult to decode. If the person speaks quickly or enunciates their words poorly. If the person has an accent that you are not familiar with. If the person leaves little space between their words. All these things can make it more difficult. Later we’ll see how to train your ear to overcome these problems. Remember that practice is important but it has to be the right sort of practice.


Vocabulary gap: not knowing the word

This is simply when you don’t know the word. Even if you saw it written on a page you wouldn’t understand it. In a way this isn’t a problem that is unique to listening and oral comprehension. However, it’s still useful to identify and resolve this problem within the context of listening.

Clearly some vocabulary gaps are going to be bigger ‘blocks’ than others. If there is lots of context then you can probably understand the general sense without knowing every single word. In other situations, however, there may be a word that is central to understanding the concept the other person wants to communicate. We’ll start to cover ways to deal with vocabulary gaps in this article while further details and advice can be found in my articles about learning vocabulary. I should emphasize that when we learn vocabulary initially (e.g. using flashcards) there must be a listening component to that activity, even if it is only hearing the pronunciation on Google Translate or howjsay.com. Of course combining the veral production and oral comprehension into every learning experience is at the heart of the Moxon method.


Things that make English listening hard

Let’s look briefly at what can making English listening especially hard.

Speed. The quicker the person speaks, the more difficult it is to understand. Our cognitive processing power just can’t make sense of those sounds. Especially if our ear and brain are not trained. If the person slows down it can help us a lot.

Unfamiliar accent. If we’re used to a particular English accent (e.g. a New York accent) and we hear someone speak in a different accent (e.g. a Scottish accent) it can cause problems. The ‘phonetic rules’ that we use to transform sounds into words need to be adjusted. This is why it’s important to practice listening with varied English accents.

Clarity of pronunciation. Let’s face it. Regardless of accent or nationality or language, some people mumble. Mumbling is when the person doesn’t form the sounds with their mouth in a clear way. This can make it a problem if English isn’t your first language. But the truth is that it can be a problem even if English is your first language.

Awareness of speaker. This is sort of connected with speed and clarity of pronunciation. If the person is aware that you’re not a native speaker and that you find it hard to understand, then they will modulate and alter how they speak. They will slow down their speech and pronounce words more clearly. They may also choose words that are more simple and concrete. If they sense you don’t understand they will reformulate the phrase using different words. If the person isn’t aware then they will fail to do any of these things and listening will be more difficult.

Choice of words. Some words and phrases are simply harder for you to understand. For example, phrasal verbs can sound very similar so they are difficult to understand. Similarly, colloquial or slang phrases can create problems. Generally speaking English words that are of Latin origin are easier for some students to understand (especially if you speak a language with a large Latin influence).

These are not only variables that make it difficult to understand English speakers. They are also skills that you have to develop through daily and prolonged practice.


Moxon Method Principles: English Listening

The principles of the Moxon method can help you with every aspect of learning English. Let’s look at how each principle can help you specifically with English listening.

Speaking, Speaking, Speaking: Listening is a two-way street

Don’t be fooled! Don’t think that individual modalities (e.g. speaking, writing, listening, reading) can be worked on and improved in isolation. And certainly don’t think that only working on one modality (for example, reading) will automatically make you better at another (for example, listening). In reality, modalities should be worked on in combination. Speaking, especially, should always be exercised when working on other modalities. English listening is no exception. When we speak English we engage in a sort of phonetic production. We string together sounds that we produce with our mouths and lips. While this act of speaking and experiencing the production of English sounds isn’t sufficient for improving listening (speaking alone isn’t enough for improving English listening), it is absolutely necessary. And practicing speaking will certainly reinforce your listening skills, and vice versa. Later we’ll look at some practical ways that you can use speaking to reinforce listening and use listening to reinforce speaking.

Zero to hero: One step at a time

The most common mistake I see students making when trying to improve their listening skills is not choosing the level of difficulty properly. If you choose a level that is too difficult then it is unlikely that you’ll improve your listening. It’s just too difficult. It’s like trying to learn addition and subtraction by going to a third-year university mathematics class. Or learning to swim in the middle of the Atlantic. You should choose a difficulty level that allows you understand the general sense after 3 or 4 listens but that still creates a certain sense of difficulty.

This is commonly a problem when students decide to improve their English listening by watching films and the TV news. Films and TV news are difficult because they have fast and atypical speech. The language can be strange and specific to that context. If you are a beginner you should start with a TV series or podcast especially for beginner English students. If you are a pre-intermediate level then try an American soap opera (yes I know the plots are silly and the quality is low but the English is everyday and clear). Avoid UK soap operas as they often have regional accents and lots of slang. If you are an intermediate student then you can try certain TV series or TV dramas.

A perfect way to apply the ‘Zero to hero’ principle is by listening to the CDs that accompany graded readers. Graded readers are those little books written in English especially for English students. They have different levels (like beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate). More about graded readers later in the article.

Chunkification: Lots of listening in little pieces

Strengthening your English listening muscle is something you’ll have to do every day (or several times a day) for the rest of your life. Or certainly for many months and years to come. In other words you’ll need a vast quantity of listening material in order to keep you going along the road to English listening hero. Don’t rely on material that is incomplete or lacking in quantity. Make sure you have hundreds of little pieces of listening. It’s like taking a medicine. If you only have 1 or 2 tablets and have to go to the pharmacy every couple of days, it’s unlikely you’ll get better. But if you have a good stock of tablets by your bedside it is more likely that you’ll be able to follow your doctor’s advice.

The little pieces of listening could be television episodes, audio chapters from graded reader CDs, online audio quizzes, podcast episodes, mp3s or any number of other things. Note that it’s much harder to turn films into little pieces of listening.

Every day: listening in your life

For English listening to be effective you must do it every day. Even if it’s sometimes only a short while. It must be every day. If you can find the time to sit down and dedicate 30 minutes or an hour to English listening (or longer!) then brilliant. However, I know that you probably have a life full of work, studying, family and lots more. So the best technique is to make your listening fit in with your everyday life. With modern technology, especially smartphones, you really can listening everywhere. Listening while you cook, while you eat, while you wash the dishes, while you clean the house, while you play with your children, while you drive, while you commute on the train and while you wait for the bus. Again, make sure your smartphone is loaded with hours and hours of listening material that is just the right level for you.

Of course I know that’s not easy to be consistent and do it every day. If you skip a day (or a week, or months and months) then don’t be hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up! Jump up and start again with increased energy and positivity.

Pleasure first: listening because you like it

Yes, learning English can sometimes be difficult and exhausting. But it shouldn’t be unpleasant. It should be difficult, exhausting AND pleasurable – like climbing a mountain or playing sport. Try to make the listening a pleasureable as possible. Sample different types of listening material to make sure it is the right level for you but also to make sure that you enjoy it. As your level increases you will be able to enjoy wider and wider choice. You’ll be able to listen to podcasts, radio programs, audio books, soap operas and television programs. When you reach an advanced level you’ll even be able to start enjoying comedy and films and even the TV news.

Obviously choose material that is of interest to you. But you’ll also find the listening enjoyable when the language used is the sort of language you could use yourself. If you watch sports in English then you’ll hear lots of technical language about football or tennis (or whatever sport you’re watching). Is this language really useful for your everyday life? If you watch the news then you’ll hear lots of words and phrases that only journalists use. Is that really the language you need to work and communicate with your colleagues and friends?

Positivity: Listening and lifting

If you follow the other principles of the Moxon method then feeling positive will come more naturally. If you choose a level that is too difficult then don’t be surprised if you feel demoralized and lacking in energy. If you don’t prepare the material in nice bite-sized chunked then you will soon lose your way and feel about it.

You should also pick yourself up and feel positive if you have a confusing encounter with a native speaker. It’s normal to have communication blocks (even between native speakers of the same language) so don’t be hard on yourself. If you’re positive and determined (and patient) those unpleasant moments will become less and less.

People: Listening in company

While I think individual lessons on Skype represent the best solution for learning with a native teacher, there is lots of room for listening practice with other students. Listening in groups introduces a group dynamic that can push you to develop your comprehension skills to a great extent. And of course, watching a soap opera or a TV series in company is always pleasant. Try to make it a regular meeting and enjoy yourselves by have something nice to drink and eat while you study.

Multiple-intelligence: listen with your mind

Try to take advantage of your musical-rhythmic intelligence when listening. Don’t only listen for letters and syllables but also try to listen for the rhythm, the musicality and the tone of the language. These aspects make the language richer and will help you to form a deep memory of the words and sounds you hear.


How to listen: different ways of listening

Students often assume that there is only one way to listening. You play the audio track, you listen and you understand (or don’t). You may have experienced that this isn’t so useful. You may have been frustrated at how little you understand and given up.

Luckily there are lots of different ways you can listen to the same track. Think of it as applying different filters to the same thing. Varied listening strategies will help you to develop flexibility in listening and will strengthen your ability to understand varied accents, speeds and quality of English speaking.

Every time you listen you are actively listening for a different reason. You can use any combination of the various strategies that I describe. You don’t (and probably shouldn’t) use them all.

You should normally use them one at a time. So this means that you’ll listen to the same audio track multiple times. You can also listen more than once applying the same strategy. The strategies are universal and can help if you’re an absolute beginner or an advanced learner.

Strategies for listening

General sense. Listen in order to understand the very general sense. Don’t worry about the details and don’t worry if you don’t understand every single word. Try to understand who are the speakers are. What sort of situation they’re in. Is it an instruction, a story, a joke, a conversation, a radio program, a theatre play, a soap opera? What topics does it address?

When you forget about the little details and individual words, and concentrate on the big message, it should help you to relax. You might want to listen 2-3 times for the general sense. Or as much or as little as necessary. Listen without reading the text or transcript and without subtitles. Don’t take notes.

Key themes. This time you should be listening to isolate the key themes of the audio track. This can be the main points or the important pieces of information. If it helps you can write down a couple of key words. Don’t listen with the subtitles yet.

Detailed listen. Here your question is to start focusing on some details. However, don’t try to understand all of the details. Just one or two each time your listen. Before listening try asking yourself some questions about the track. These should be questions that arise from the previous times you’ve listening (e.g. General sense and Key themes). You can even write down these questions before you start playing the track.

Remember that questions are great filters. And filters make the consumption and comprehension of knowledge easier.

Free form listen. This is an exception because this time you’re listening without a particular filter, task or question in mind. Simply relax, listen and see what happens. Don’t worry about writing notes and don’t worry about understanding. Is the same as what most English students do? No. It’s different because you’ve chosen to listen in this way.

Zoom in. This time you can focus in on parts of the track that are particularly difficult. Use the pause and tracking bar on your player in order to listen repeatedly to the same section. Remember that by repeating the sounds aloud it will help both in comprehension and long-term memory.

Echo listen. This strategy can be used once you’re familiar with the track (you’ve probably listened to it multiple times by now). While you listen to the track try to repeat aloud what you hear. You can try to do it quickly without pausing or you can try it by pausing the track to allow you to repeat. It really is important that you repeat it aloud and that you pronounce the words as clearly and boldly as possible. For fun you can even try to copy the accent, tone, musicality and rhythm of the speaker. Do this without the help of the transcript or subtitles.

Text, transcript, subtitles. Yes! You guessed it. This is finally the strategy that allows you to listen with the transcript or subtitles.

Shadow reading. This is a lot like echo listening except that you can do it with the transcript. Rather than an echo, you’re reading almost at the same time as the speech. Remember to do it aloud in a clear voice. Feel free to pause, replay and repeat parts of the text that are difficult. You should be guided by the words but above all by the sounds that you hear.


Levels of listening

If we want to apply the Zero to hero principle of gradual improvement then we need to start with the right level for us. After applying our different listening strategies we want to understand most of what we hear. If we don’t or it’s unpleasant then you’ve chosen material that is too hard. If you understand everything on the first listening then it’s too easy. We want something that is challenging but not impossible.

As we’ve seen above, there are different things that make listening difficult. The two main things are the ‘vocabulary gap’ and ‘phonetic decodification’. Typically listening material will combine both of these factors equally to result in its difficulty level. Sometimes, however, the words will be familiar but expressed in an unclear way (phonetic decodification). Other times the words will be clearly pronounced but you simply won’t know their meaning (vocabulary gap). It helps to be aware of this so you know what makes a track difficult and what aspect you need to improve. If the ‘vocabulary gap’ is constantly creating problems for you then you need to work on your vocabulary learning (perhaps more than your listening).

Let’s look now at different listening resources for different levels and where you can find them on the web. Categorizing listening resources into different levels is very difficult. Please explore different resources, try them out and decide what is right for you.

Listening for beginners and elementary students (A1)

Graded reader CDs for beginners

Elllo.org listening tasks for absolute beginners (level 2)

Elllo.org listening tasks for beginners (level 3)

British Council Learn English Teens A1

podEnglish for beginners

podEnglish for elementary students

ESLvideo.com for beginners

ESL Lounge

Sounds English

Listening for pre-intermediate students (A2)

Graded reader CDs for pre-intermediate

Elllo.org listening tasks for low-intermediate students (level 4)

British Conucil Learn English Teens A2

podEnglish for pre-intermediate students

podcastsinenglish.com for pre-intermediate students

ESLvideo.com for pre-intermediate level

English Central (I think this is pre-intermediate level, not beginner)

ESL Lonuge

Sounds English

Listening for intermediate students (B1)

Graded reader CDs for intermediate students

Elllo.org listening tasks for mid-intermediate students (level 5)

British Council Learn English Teens B1

Wikispaces Listening Martateacher B1

podEnglish for intermediate students

podcastsinenglish.com for intermediate students

ESLvideo.com for intermediate students

English Central

ESL Longue

Sounds English

Listening for upper-intermediate students (B2)

Audiobooks for upper-intermediate

Elllo.org listening tasks for high-intermediate students (level 6)

British Council Learn English Teens B2

Caroline Brown Listening Lessons

Wikispaces Listening Martateacher B2

Listen to English

podEnglish for upper-intermediate students

ESLvideo.com for upper-intermediate students

Sounds English

Listening for advanced students (C1)

Audiobooks for listening

Elllo.org listening tasks for advanced students (level 7)

BBC Words in the news

BBC 6 minute English

podcastsinenglish.com for advanced students

ESLvideo.com for advanced students

English Central

ESL Lounge

Sounds English

Various levels

Speak Up Open Content

Dictations Online

Randall’s ESL Listening Lab