English listening skills

Listening is an essential skill. It is the ability to receive information and then to correctly interpret it. Listening is the most important of language skills and the key to speaking, reading and writing fluently. Until you are able to listen for understanding you will never learn to effortlessly speak English.

Yet, many language learners have a problem with listening. Firstly they fail to understand the importance of the skill, and secondly, though they may recognise written words, they may not connect them to the spoken equivalent.

Though there are many ways to improve listening skills, all require ongoing practice, The reward is the motivation to continue broadening your knowledge and enhanced self-confidence in speaking the language. 



Why students of English struggle to understand when listening

  • Speed: native speakers talk quickly, linking words together so it is difficult to understand what they are saying

Native English speakers often don’t pronounce words very clearly. They tend to shorten words and run them together so that individual words are not easy to decipher.

So the question “Are you doing okay?” may sound like this “Areya doin’okay?”

And the statement “I’m going to have dinner later” will sound like this “I’m gonna’avdinner lat’r.”


Native speakers link all their words in sentences in this way, making it very difficult for foreign English speakers to understand just what it is they’re saying.

  • English learners do not get enough listening practice

When learning a new language- the focus is always on reading and speaking, less so on listening.


Yet, when we learn our native language, we learn by listening first then by speaking, and reading later! This is the natural progression of language acquisition. 


  • Many English words are pronounced differently from the written form

English has many words with silent letters like “island” “aisle” “muscle” “kneel” “knife” “thumb” “debt” “scene” “gnat” “gnaw” “scissors” “awry” “wrack”. 


There are hundreds of these types of words. When words have silent letters students may recognize the words in their written form but may fail to do so when the words are spoken.

Add to that words with similar spelling but vastly different pronunciation and you realize how difficult it must be for new speakers of English to listen and understand the spoken language.

Words that are pronounced differently from what the student expects can cause confusion and a failure to understand the word in context.


  • Different accents also influence listening skills.

An accent is determined by where people live and their social background. There is a vast array of accents among native English speakers. It is often difficult for the foreign English speaker to understand the various accents that they come across. 

The best way to improve your listening skills in this environment is to listen to podcasts and radio and watch television presented with a variety of accents. 


  • A lack of vocabulary

Without the benefit of a broad English vocabulary, there may be many words that you simply don’t understand. This being the case, the discussion will be difficult to follow. If this is the case, your vocabulary will also benefit when you put in place a regular listening practice session. 



Facts about listening skills

  • According to Transform, listening, rather than reading or talking makes up 85% of what we learn.
  • Yet few of us actively listen. On average we are distracted or preoccupied up to three-quarters of the time.
  • Research reveals that we can recall just half of what someone has said directly after listening to them.  This percentage reduces if we don’t like the person or the subject matter under discussion.

Why are English listening skills important when learning English

Listening is the most important form of communication, making up around 45% of the total communication time. We Listen to one another in conversation and study, as well as listening to stories on the radio, podcasts, the theatre, and television. Listening is followed by speaking at 30% of the time, reading 15%, and writing at 10%.

Language teaching often emphasizes speaking and writing skills, but by far the most important skills are the receptive skills of listening and speaking. Many foreign English speakers find listening skills to be the most challenging.

Many foreign language learners are surprised that listening is so challenging. They feel that with all the time spent on learning to speak, read and write, listening should follow naturally. Since you will spend nearly half of your time listening in your new language, you should spend as much time learning to listening, if you hope to become a fluent listener. Here are some techniques to help you.


Practice active listening

It is natural for people sitting amongst a group of friends and colleagues to want to contribute to the conversation. Unless you do, you may feel left out or unengaging. This is not the case. Don’t confuse a passive process with a quiet one.

Listening is an active engagement even though you have said nothing. This is why an afternoon spent with colleagues who speak your target language can be so exhausting. 

You may feel a little less as though you’re sitting on the outskirts of the conversation if you employ some active listening techniques. Here are some ways in which you can signal your active listening stance


  • Make eye contact with the speaker
  • Nod from time to time to show your interest
  • Lean toward the speaker. This should come naturally if you’re listening
  • Pay attention. Don’t fidget or look distracted
  • Make noises that show that you agree. 

Spend time learning before you dive into a discussion

We all agree that children have a natural skill when it comes to learning languages so maybe they can teach adults something about learning languages. Children will often go through a silent period when learning a new language. Though researchers are not sure whether this is a necessary part of learning a new language, it may be a lesson for adults.

Adults seldom practice this silent period. Many are keen to try out their new language skills so they decide to practice their new skills in conversation before they have developed enough knowledge of the language.


Speaking a new language can be quite a nerve-wracking experience. When we jump into conversations before we’re ready we are likely not to listen to the other as we need all our brainpower to consider our next witty retort. When you decide to remain silent you can get the most out of your listening experience. 

Having said that, you shouldn’t remain silent all the time. Contributing to a conversation will give you the confidence and the motivation to continue to learn. 


Have you understood the full story or just the outline?
When listening to a conversation don’t forget to discover just how much of the discussion, you’ve actually understood. Sometimes we may have a good idea of the outlines of the story but we’ve missed much of what has been discussed. If you’re unsure of how much of the discussion you have understood you could try these tips


  • Quietly try to answer questions about the facts of the discussion
  • Summarize what has been said
  • Draw a picture of the facts
  • Get into an imaginary discussion with the speaker by asking silent questions
  • Translate the discussion into another language
  • Imagine the next step in the discussion.


Learn the segmentation rules
In a foreign language, your short-term memory is shorter than it is in your native language. Here’s why;

When we listen our brain segments the language into smaller bits in our short-term memory. The brain then takes its understanding of the language rules to put the segments into a logical sequence. The brain stores these segments as images and then uses the rules to put them all together. 

When you’re listening to a foreign language your brain has to remember everything that is said because you don’t know all the rules of the language. By ensuring that make listening a large part of your language learning, you’ll ensure that you quickly learn the laws of segmentation in that language. Here are some suggestions on learning segmentation through listening


  • Read a book while you listen to the audio version
  • Watch series or movies on television or online
  • Listen to the radio
  • Socialize with native speakers


Improve your listening strategies


Language schools tend to teach students listening skills by getting them to listen to a piece and then write down everything that they have heard. This teaching method of getting students to listen to each word and sentence structure and then work out the content is called the bottom-up strategy. It works well in the classroom but isn’t very practical in real life.

A top-down strategy for listening is more likely to work for you in the world of conversation. Instead of focusing on individual words, top-down strategies focus on impressions. To use this approach, you’ll have to do a bit of homework. Find out a little about the subject ahead of the discussion. 

  • Study the topic of a presentation
  • Read the book before you watch the movie
  • Listen to friends who repeat stories to different groups of people.


10 ways to improve your English listening skills


Everyone has a preferred way of learning. Some people prefer to spend time quietly learning on their own while some prefer time spent with others either in a classroom setting or in a more informal environment.

How you learn best should guide you in the methods that you choose to improve your listening skills. Here are some tips to help you along the way. Just make sure that every time you listen in, you activate your active listening skills. You have to pay attention if you are to learn anything. 


  • Take it slowly

Between twenty and thirty minutes a day is all you need. In fact research has found that this may be the most effective way to learn. Spending hours trying to memorize long lists phrases may be counter productive. Rather try and make your listening exercises enjoyable and effective. 

Try the microlearning technique of breaking down the learning tasks into small tasks that you can accomplish in five minutes. 


  • Listen while you read

Find an English film or video that includes English subtitles so that you can listen and read. Alternatively you could read a book and listen to the audio book at the same time. This technique is a fine way to improve your listening skills as you can connect the strange spelling of words with what they sound like. 


  • Listen to an English podcast over and over again

Learning is all about repetition. Find an interesting podcast. Select one episode that isn’t too long. You don’t want to come out of the other end exhausted. Make a point of listening to it every day for a week. You can make it part of your daily routine. Listen on your commute, while you clean your home or walk your dog. Look up the phrases and words about which you are uncertain.  


  • Learn as you sleep

The concept of learning in your sleep has been around for some time now. We know that learning before sleep is useful as the sleeping brain absorbs the new found information. Carefully chosen audios may help you to improve your English listening skills. There is plenty of information on the internet about the subject if you would like to investigate this further. 


  • Have a conversation with yourself

Whether the discussion is in your head or you’re talking to yourself in front of the mirror make sure to listen critically to your pronunciation and challenge yourself with your use of vocabulary.



  • Join a discussion group

There’s nothing like the real thing to really appreciate how far you have come and how far you still have to go with your new found listening skills.

There are plenty of discussion groups on the internet. Platforms like Meetup and Conversation Exchange offer students a platform to find conversation groups in English. 



Resources to improve your English listening skills


Active listening is the key to language fluency

Listening is key to learning English. Active listening is the only way to quickly learn the language. A radio or television running in the background won’t cut it as you’ll tune it out and ramble around in your thoughts.

It is only through active listening that you can become a keen conversationalist in any social or business environment. Speaking, reading and writing will naturally improve as you learn to understand and interpret the spoken word.  

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