Listening comprehension is one of the core language skills. No one has learned to speak English fluently without honing their listening skills first.
Why it is so important to improve listening skills in English 🎧
Have you been in a situation where you couldn’t get what a person was saying to you, only to find out (too late) that you knew those words and the whole topic was familiar—it’s just you haven’t heard them spoken?
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend about a project she was working on, and she mentioned “Audible.” Her accent is Canadian, but I don’t think it would be different if she used any other accent. The fact that I had never heard the word “Audible” before made me completely unable to decipher what she was saying. She repeated it a couple of times, and then we changed the topic. She thought I had never heard of Audible. Needless to say, I had. (I had not heard of it, actually; I read about it. I am not an aural type of person, and I still prefer Kindle.)
The same thing happened a few more times in my life. Different people, different words, but it was embarrassing every time.
Things get even more complicated when you have an important conversation, like a job interview, an exam in English, or a corporate meeting. There are situations in life when it’s crucial to say the right thing, and how can you know what’s the right thing to say if you don’t fully understand the question?
A failure to get the message right can sometimes be quite costly and lead to major disappointment. It hurts when you fail, and it sucks when you fail at something that is actually incredibly easy.
Then, how did I allow myself to get confused by perfectly straightforward terms? I think you know what I’m talking about. It probably keeps happening to you as well, and that’s why you’re here. Chances are that you’re, like me, someone who prefers reading over listening and books over conversations. No worries. It turns out there is a solution. It is super easy, and I’ll help you create a plan that works for you.
How to develop and improve listening skills in English
Instead of talking about “strategies for overcoming listening barriers,” “identifying personal and environmental listening challenges,” and, you know, a word salad like that, let’s get to the point. (In case you’d still like unintelligible and overly wordy advice, you can always ask ChatGPT 🤖.)
Basically, all you need is some good audio content (podcasts, audiobooks, and your favorite songs—but make sure these have some great lyrics), an hour or two a day (for example, when you cook dinner or clean the house), and a weekly or bi-weekly lesson with an English tutor.
I’ll soon suggest different types of content suitable for English listening practice based on different proficiency levels and tell you what to look for when finding a tutor. But before that, we have some important distinctions to make.
Not every listening is the same. You can listen to a course or podcast passively and only understand it partially, without any particular consequences. But when you’re listening to people talking to you in a one-on-one conversation, you need to be good at active listening, too.
I have a new acquaintance who recently moved from another country, and when we meet, we mostly talk in English. He is a kind and patient person, and when I talk to him, I have the impression that he understands me. But then, when it’s his turn to respond, he starts talking about something that’s only partially related to the topic I thought we were discussing. I guess he only listens to me until he hears some familiar terms, and then, for the rest of the time, he thinks about something he could tell about those things. Even though I believe he is an emotionally intelligent person and an active listener by nature, he doesn’t quite excel at active listening in English. But he will improve, and so will you and I.
The importance of one-on-one tuition in improving English listening skills
One-on-one tutoring is priceless, especially when it comes to active listening practice. You can choose a LiveXP tutor who has the same interests as you. That way, you can discuss subjects and ideas you’re into or let them explain some concepts in a way you can understand. In the next phase, they can deliberately choose a more complex lingo and then encourage you to take part in different types of conversations.
A tutor can also help you process what you heard while passively listening to some material of your choice. You can talk about the same topics and approach them in various ways. A tutor can give you instant feedback on listening comprehension errors and clarify things for you.
The most important fact about LiveXP English tutors is that they instantly adapt to you, your learning style, temperament, and personality type. In rare cases, when that isn’t possible (for example, if you’re not a great fit psychologically, or they are not able to talk in-depth about something that’s very important for you to understand in English), you can easily find another tutor, and just continue where you left off, without worrying about setting up a new plan.
Beginner-level English listening practice
Since you got this far, you’re probably not at a beginner level, but in case you still need beginner’s English material for listening practice, there’s plenty to choose from.
There are many English podcasts aimed at beginners. For those learning British English, I would definitely recommend the wealth of resources created by the BBC and the British Council. Although most of them are for intermediate lever learners, you can check out the BBC “English My Way”—Easy English course.
If your target language is American English, you can choose from a variety of podcasts and YouTube videos, which not only allow you to listen to English at your level but also provide transcripts and practice questions to help you assess your understanding.
But my favorite resource for beginners in any language is—cartoons! Peppa Pig is my absolute favorite because it covers a range of everyday topics, and every episode deals with a single subject. In addition to introducing basic vocabulary and grammar structures, every episode also includes some jokes only parents can get, so it’s kind of multi-layered. So, if you have kids, watch Peppa Pig in English together and have fun! (You can also choose any cartoon. Just make sure it has plenty of meaningful dialogue.)
If you love watching the news and you find regular news too fast and hard to follow, check out News in Slow English. Although they have a limited number of episodes, they inspired others to create similar content. Now, you have several podcasts where everyone speaks super clearly and slowly to help ESL learners understand everything.
Intermediate-level English listening practice
Once you get to the intermediate level, it becomes easier to find good resources. Most ESL podcasts cater to this level of proficiency.
I already mentioned BBC English, and even though it contains lots of material for beginners, it offers even more good stuff to intermediates. For those looking for American English resources, This American Life is a classic. It is a radio program and podcast featuring lovely narratives that keep us engaged emotionally—and help us practice listening comprehension in US English. The range of topics they cover is incredibly varied. The last episode aired at the moment I’m writing this is titled “How I Learned to Shave—Things our dads taught us, whether they intended to or not.” But there are also many other interesting episodes recorded over almost thirty years. If you’re still not convinced—keep in mind that they won a Pulitzer for narrative journalism, and the content is publicly available and free to listen to. Choose a past episode that seems interesting, and enjoy your time listening.
At this point, you can also start listening to audiobooks in English; just make sure they are not overly complex. Choose a title on a topic you’re relatively knowledgeable about or something aimed at a general audience. Stick to easy reads for a while and see where it gets you.
You can also watch various TV shows, movies, and other entertaining content. Or scientific—why not? If you’re into popular science, visit the “60-Second Mind” on Scientific American and listen to interesting audio articles on various scientific topics. These recordings are all under a minute long, downloadable as mp3 files, and accompanied by transcripts. If you prefer long-form content, they also have awesome podcasts titled “Science Talk” and “Science, Quickly.”
Okay, you might say these are more appropriate for an advanced level, but you’re learning, and you need to challenge yourself. At this point, you can process anything that is aimed at a general audience—maybe not completely, and maybe you’ll need to listen multiple times to the same podcast episode and discuss it with a tutor, but that’s how progress happens. And don’t worry, I have something even more challenging for advanced learners.
Advanced-level English listening practice
Once you get to an advanced level of proficiency, it means you’re ready to listen to anything in English. You no longer need to use ESL materials at all. When picking podcasts, you can consider those in which people talk fast and use specific jargon.
The best thing about being an advanced-level English speaker is that you can explore various topics wide and deep, using more complex resources. Whether it’s university lectures, TED talks, or sermons—you can listen to them, feed your mind and soul, and grow your language skills at the same time.
Reaching an advanced level in English listening means you can understand the language in all its forms. You’ll start to catch the subtle jokes and the different ways people speak in various places, whether it’s the rolling rhythm of an Irish accent or the slow Southern drawl from the United States. You can listen to fast-talking characters in TV shows or follow complex discussions about politics. Your vocabulary will grow, and you’ll get a better grasp of different cultures.
As you get better, you’ll also feel more comfortable listening to content about a lot of different topics. You can listen to experts talk about the latest news in technology or science, join in on group discussions, and get what people are saying even when they talk about very specialized subjects. You’re no longer just learning English; you’re using it to learn about the world and to connect with people.
Activities to improve listening skills in English
In addition to listening, there are many activities that help you process and internalize what you heard. For instance, you can try role-playing, speech shadowing, and transcribing what you hear.
Role-playing is like a game where you pretend to be in different situations that you might face in real life. Imagine you’re buying a coffee or asking for directions. When you act these out, you practice how to listen and then respond just like you would in real life. This helps you think directly in English without translating from your native language. You can do that alone, but it is much better, more fun, and more effective if you practice role-playing with a LiveXP tutor.
Shadowing is another fun activity. It’s when you listen to someone speaking English and then immediately repeat what they say. It’s like following the shadow of their speech. This can help you get better at saying words just like native speakers do, with the right tune and rhythm of English speech.
Listening to something in English and then writing down what you hear is another great way to get better at understanding the language. This could be a short story or a part of a speech. When you write down what you hear, you pay more attention to the words and how they’re used together. It’s like drawing a picture of the speech with words. If you make mistakes, don’t worry! Checking and correcting your work afterward is a very good way to learn. It helps you remember the right words and phrases for the next time you listen.
Best English movies to improve listening skills
I saved the best for the end. Watching a movie is probably the most immersive experience when it comes to listening practice. For best results, if possible, use subtitles, too—but only in English, not in your first language.
The choice of the movie really depends on your taste and preferences. Any genre will do. Although drama often has the most complex dialogues, other genres allow you to pick up some phrases and idioms more quickly.
Here’s my attempt to make a very diverse list of movies you might like and improve your English as you watch them.
If you’re curious or worried about the impact of artificial intelligence on the lives of people, you might enjoy a movie where the protagonist falls in love with an AI companion. I’ve chosen this one because of an interesting perspective—and because the characters talk about feelings and ideas in simple yet meaningful ways. If you’re into movies like this, you can also check “Simone” with Al Pacino.
This is just one of the greatest movies of all time, and I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t watched it already. And if you have, it’s about time to re-watch, but this time in English only, with only English subtitles.
“The Notebook” is a love story that goes back and forth in time. It’s good for practicing English because the characters show a lot of emotion when they speak. This helps you understand how English speakers change their tone when they are happy, sad, or angry. The actors also speak very clearly, which can help you hear and understand every word.
“Little Women” is about four sisters growing up after the Civil War in America. This movie is special for English learners because it shows you what American English sounded like in the past. It’s a bit more formal than what we use today. Watching the sisters talk about life and their dreams is a good way to hear English used in family conversations.
“The King’s Speech”
“The King’s Speech” tells the story of a king who works hard to speak better English. It’s a really good movie for learning because it focuses on how to pronounce words clearly. You can watch and listen to how the king practices and improves, which might give you some ideas on how to work on your own English-speaking skills.
“Dead Poets Society”
In “Dead Poets Society,” a teacher inspires his students with stories about classic English poets and their work. The protagonists use both everyday language and beautiful poetry. The teacher and students speak very clearly, so you can practice listening to different ways of using English, from classroom talk to the language of Shakespeare and other poets.
These are just some movies you could watch, but you can choose any other, as long as it is in proper English. Just don’t think of movies as lessons. Watch as many and as often as you can, and have fun!