The listening DOs and DON’Ts

In my previous post I talked about how listening helps you improve your language in many different areas and that podcasts are a convenient and enjoyable way to practise listening. Some of my students occasionaly complain, however, that listening is too difficult for them, they find it hard to understand fast(er) connected speech, especially when produced by native speakers, and they don’t know how to get better at listening. Of course, it frustrates them and, as a result, it often further lowers their willingness to spend time listening and their general motivation to learn the language. So what are the main problems and how to avoid them in order to enjoy listening and improve your listening skills at the same time?

Note: listening in teaching context can take on many different forms. What I’m talking about in this post is general listening comprehension of longer recorded stretches of speech (such as the aforementioned podcasts, radio & TV programmes, textbook exercises where the task is listening for gist, audiobooks etc.), although some of the tips and strategies can be used in other types of listening activities too.


The majority of my students who struggle with listening identified the following problems:

  • getting stuck when they come across an unfamiliar word – many students just can’t get over the fact that they don’t understand every single word and they often get stuck when they encounter a word they don’t understand. They stop focusing, start feeling annoyed and the rest of the recording is just ‚lost‘.
  • not understanding connected speech – I often hear students say that they “didn’t hear the word(s) there“. The ‘word(s)‘ often refer to articles, auxiliaries and other function words (unlike in the previous point where the unknown words are of content nature). This is the result of the fact that English language  is connected, words are linked together, there’s assimilation of sounds and weak forms at play.
  • difficulties in understanding different accents – naturally, some accents are more difficult to understand than others, especially for untrained ears.
  • mental block due to previous ‘failures‘ – students sometimes adopt a negative attitude towards listening after previous bad experience from school, courses or elsewhere.


When we know what the possible problems are, we can look at some solutions too. There’s a variety of tips on how to improve your listening performance. I will mention those who work for me and most of my students.

You can try:

  • extensive exposure – as usual, more is more when it comes to practising skills. Immersing yourself into the spoken language is a way to give your ears the chance to get used to all the sounds of it. Chosing a variety of sources is recommended because you get exposed to different styles, accents, speed;
  • choosing appropriate material and level – if you work with recordings that are too difficult in terms of speed, topic or accent. Authentic material with the tapescript available is best (many podcasts, especially those intended for language learners, are accompanied by tapescripts);
  • activate your brain before listening – when you’re preparing to listen to something, try to find out some information on the topic or speaker(s) in advance in order to activate your brain. Try to predict what kind of words/information is likely to be mentioned;
  • focus as much as you can – it is good to block out other stimuli coming from the environment. Find a quiet place, make yourself comfortable and close your eyes while listening. This will help you to focus and your ears will become more perceptive to the language. You can do this even when listening to TV shows or other audiovisual materials;
  • listen repeatedly – don’t get nervous if you don’t understand everything for the first time. Listen again and again and fill in the possible gaps. You can listen without the tapescript a few times and then listen with it. Even if you can understand perfectly the first time, you can listen repeatedly and focus on different aspects of the spoken language such as the intonation, linking, etc.;
  • take notes – you might want to take some notes (especially if you’re listening to materials without tapescripts) and work with the notes further after the listening activity itself. Some people also focus and learn better when they write or scribble while listening;
  • relax and praise yourself for your achievements – focus on the things you can do rather than beating yourself down because you still can’t understand everything or as much as you would like. Focusing on the positive things is definitely more helpful as it helps you to stay motivated. I can guarantee that if you do spend time practising, your listening skills will improve eventually 🙂

I hope you will find these few little tips helpful. I’ll be happy if you share your experience with me. Don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts down below in the comments. Thanks!


Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/




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