5 Practical Tips to Improve your English Listening Skills

October 12, 2021
By Emma Jakobi
Have you ever had to ask someone to repeat something you couldn’t understand? 

Whether it’s because they’re talking too fast; they have an unfamiliar accent; or they’re using slang words you don’t recognise... It can be hard to really hear what people are saying, right?

Here’s the thing: What you hear in real conversations is often completely different to what you learn at school! 

And this is why it is so important to master your listening skills! 

So, I’m sharing 5 techniques to help you practise and improve your listening skills. I hope, after reading this, you’ll feel more confident about joining conversations and communicating in English! 

1. Study natural pronunciation

This is one of the best ways to improve your active listening skills! 

Now, let me be clear: I’m not talking about studying pronunciation as you would at school. I’m talking about recognising and paying attention to the sounds of English as it is actually spoken.

Because real, spoken English isn’t always what you expect! Sometimes sounds blend together, they change - they can even disappear completely!

For example, in school you may have been taught to hear, 

“What do you want to do?”

But while listening to a native English speaker, what you actually hear is something like, 

“Whadayawanna do?” 

It can be super confusing, right?! 

So, how can you overcome these real-world listening challenges? 

It’s all about studying the elements of naturally spoken English, including: 

  • Contractions;
  • Reduced forms;
  • Sentence stress; and
  • Intonation

To get started, watch my mmmEnglish video lesson about “The 30 most common reductions in English”!

2. Listen to TED talks

This is one of my favourite techniques to improve your listening and comprehension skills. 

TED Talks are brilliant resources to improve your listening. In fact, we include TED Talks in our learning materials inside Hey Lady! for each of our fortnightly conversation topics! 

They’re a great way to immerse yourself in naturally spoken English. And (bonus!), you get to familiarise yourself with different types of English speakers… Which is an essential part of developing your listening skills for everyday conversations! 

Here’s what to do: 

Go to the TED website, and choose a topic that interests you. After all, you’re more likely to enjoy and absorb what you hear if you actually find it interesting, right?

The best thing about TED Talks is that every video has an interactive transcript that allows you to follow the script as the speaker speaks! 

While seeing the word as you read, you also hear it being spoken. When you come across new words, you can pause the video and practise saying it aloud in the same, natural way it was spoken on screen. 

This is a game-changer!

Why not give it a go? I’d love to know what you think! 

3. Surround yourself with different accents, voices & contexts

Opening yourself up to different voices and different accents is so important! 

This point goes beyond listening to different English accents. It is also about getting used to the sound of different voices, the different pace at which people speak, and getting comfortable having conversations in different settings and contexts. 

Maybe you are comfortable speaking to someone one-on-one, but when there is a group, and multiple people are talking at once… You find yourself retreating and staying quiet. Can you relate this? 

Listening to and getting comfortable with different English voices is a little harder at the beginning, but it will pay off in the long run. The best way to break through this barrier and understand more people better is to immerse yourself in the differences. 

But what does this actually mean?

It means stepping outside your comfort zone a little! 

When you are talking to someone and you realise their accent is different, or they are talking quickly, recognise and acknowledge the fear of not being able to understand them. Then, instead of running away from the fear and staying quiet, lean into it. Ask them to repeat what they said, and repeat it back to them to check if you are still unsure! 

Some tips for overcoming fear

Again, TED Talks are a great way of practising this because the presenters often speak more clearly. 

Practising inside a diverse English-speaking community like Hey Lady! is another fantastic way to immerse yourself in these differences! It gives you the opportunity to speak with ladies all over the world and surround yourself with different accents, voices and contexts. You can meet and speak in groups, or meet one-to-one - and the beauty of the Hey Lady! community is that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask for help as you speak... Because everyone around you is learning too - they are in the same boat!


4. Write what you hear

This strategy is simple, practical and very effective - especially if you follow these specific steps! 

Step 1: 

Choose one, 30-second section of a video, podcast or TED Talk!

Step 2: 

Listen to that section a couple of times. No writing yet! Just listening. This step is all about familiarising yourself with the topic, along with the speaker’s accent, and the tone and pace of their voice. 

Step 3: 

Now it’s time to pick up your pen and write! Listen to the first sentence, then pause the video and write down what you hear. 

Repeat this exercise - one sentence at a time - until you have finished the 30-second video. 

If there are some sounds you don’t recognise, don’t rewind it - yet! Instead, simply leave a gap on your page. 

Once you reach the end, listen to the entire 30-second section again and try to fill in any gaps. Try looking at the words around the gap… Can you guess what could go there? 

The brilliant thing about this method is that, unlike the other tips, this one helps you to discover exactly what you are not hearing. In other words, it highlights the gaps in your listening ability - the words and expressions that you need to learn and recognise more instinctively - and helps you to fill in those gaps in your knowledge!


5. Watch without subtitles

Now, I know what you’re thinking...Watching a video (in English!) without subtitles is hard work, right? But, it can be a great way of practising and strengthening your active listening skills. 

After all, there are no subtitles in real life!

But don’t worry, I’m not asking you to struggle through an entire movie without subtitles! Just like in all the previous strategies, the key here is to start small.

Every time you sit down to watch a movie, turn off the subtitles for the first minute. This means one minute of training your active listening skills before you can passively enjoy your movie!

Pause the movie after one minute and write down a quick summary of what you heard (just a summary, not every word!). Repeat this step if you want to!

Then, go back to the start, turn on the subtitles (in English!) and read them for the entire minute to check that you understood the meaning correctly.

This is a great habit to get into if you are hooked on a TV series. It’s a little easier to do this consistently if you are familiar with the actors, accents and storyline. 

So, there you have it! 5 practical techniques that you can implement in your daily routine to practise and improve your English listening skills. 

Set yourself a challenge this week and choose one that you would like to try. Let me know how it goes in the comments! 

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