4 things you need to know about listening skills

The question I get asked most of the time is how to improve listening skills. About 70% of my students say that the biggest challenge about learning English is to understand what other people say, especially native speakers in a real life situation.

I believe that there are 4 main reasons for comprehension difficulties.


  • Wrong pronunciation
  • Concentration on details
  • Lack of vocabulary
  • Lack of practice


1. It is often the case that English learners remember a wrong pronunciation of a word. As a result they pronounce the word wrong themselves and they can’t recognize it when others say it.

Solution.  Always check pronunciation of new words. Nowadays it’s very easy to do.

  • Almost every online dictionary has audio recordings for each word, like Macmillan 
  • Use flashcards that contain audio pronunciation to memorize the words, for example   Quizlet

There is another issue connected with pronunciation. It often happens that you pay too much attention to learning the words, and you fail to notice how they get connected in a sentence. I’m talking about rhyme and intonation.

English speakers do not say one word at a time. The words are all linked, they go in language units. Consequently, it’s essential to pay attention to how the words are linked and practice, practice, practice.

Here is a very good illustration of this point.

The best way to practice English pronunciation, rhythm and intonation is on   English Central.

It’s got videos with transcripts and voice recognition system. You can repeat after your favourite celebrity, record your voice and get points. What makes it addictive is that you can compete with other learners!


 2. “When I was listening, I heard a new word and while I was trying to remember its meaning, I stopped following the rest of the audio”, the words I hear quite often. You may know that there are two main types of listening

  • Listening for the main idea
  • Listening for details

Listening for the main idea should always come first. When you listen to something for the first time, my advice is not to pay attention to new words. Concentrate on what’s being said in general.

I’d also recommend not to be discouraged if you don’t understand a dialog (for example) for the first time. It is often the case, that you may get 10% first time, and 90% second time.

Never say that you’ve got bad listening skills, until you’ve listened to an audio (for your level) at least 3 times.

From my teaching experience I can say that everyone is capable of understanding spoken speech if they follow recommendations I give in this article.


3. Improve your vocabulary. Simple as that. The more words you know, the more you will understand.

You can learn new words anytime you do something in English – reading, writing, watching, listening, singing and even dancing. Use every chance to grab a couple of useful words.

Let’s say, you’re listening to a song. Open the lyrics, take two words you like and put them to your flashcard sets. You’re watching a film, take 2 expressions, look them up and put to your flashcards sets. And so on…

Next time you open your sets, you’ll instantly recognize the words and remember what source they were taken from. You’re going to have both – an association (the source) and a constant revision (flashcards). Two essential things for memory.


4. Practice makes perfect.


I’d like to list a few resources that’ll help you improve all of the above mentioned skills.

I believe, this site is mostly for those who love watching American movies. Vocabulary and grammar exercises are based on short movie clips. There are also games and English learners community.

It’s a  fun place to study.

  •  ESL-LAB  (for elementary level and above)

This site does not look as glamorous as English Attack, but it’s got LOTS of short audio clips and comprehension exercises.

That’s my favourite! You name it – Lingualeo has it. No more said. You should see it for yourself.

  • Elllo  (for pre-intermediate level and above)

A huge library of dialogs recorded by english speakers (native and learners). Great for practicing understanding spontaneous real life language, and different accents.

  • China232 (for intermediate and above)

Great podcasts made by two American guys. Real life language.

Podcasts made by an Australian guy. Worth listening!


Good luck and remember!