Ways to Improve Listening

“To change what you get you must change who you are.”
by ~Vernon Howard~


I have written quite extensively on the importance of listening in learning languages in a number of posts, as I believe this skill lies at the heart of being a good language learner.

Many students understand this so they look for listening exercises to help them improve their listening. Teachers also understand it so they give their students listening exercises to do.

Listening exercises may help but for the most part they don’t provide the experiences that learners need so that they can become better listeners in their life. The reality is that learners need to develop the skills necessary to improve their listening whilst they are listening to others, to the TV, etc.  Without this, language learners can easily get stuck at the level they were when they left their classes, or just improve marginally.

ways to improve listeningI would like to relate here something that happened in one of my classes. A middle aged student of mine who had recently  joined an existing class I was teaching had been struggling with her listening.  She just seemed to miss things talked in the class about that others, even those weaker than her, picked up without too much effort.

One day she missed picking up that we were talking about having a party on the following day. I could see she was quite shocked by this. She came to see me after the class and asked what could she do to improve her listening. It struck me then that, even though my classes revolve around discussions in the class (tables are arranged in a horseshoe shape to encourage that) and I actively work on students having to listen to each other, she seemed somehow to avoid this. Maybe because she didn’t give enough value to this kind of interchange. She may have been waiting for the “real language learning exercises” which she was used to.

I said to her that it is important that she listen to everyone in the class, not just me. I could see the lights go on in her eyes, maybe because my classes concentrate so much on the speaking in the class. She said, “I need to pay more attention to the students” in a tone indicating she just had an ah ha moment. I said, “Precisely. That will give you a lot of opportunity to use your ears to listen to all kinds of things. This will help you in many ways. If you don’t understand something said, you need to say so.” I could see the realisation sink deeper into her mind.

I have seen students in my classes improve their listening, through becoming increasingly involved in the class, not by doing listening exercises. I seldom if ever do them, as they are artificial. They teach students to subconsciously  think that they can improve their listening by doing these exercises. Well they might! But how realistic is that? What will they do once they leave the class? There is no lasting way left with through which they can improve their listening, I would suggest (except for the few who already know what to do).

In reality, listening improves when you pay attention (as the student so clearly put). It is better to train yourself to pay attention to everything you are listening to rather than isolate that activity to exercises! This is common sense…but as has been said before…that is not so common!

The reality is that we can value other things so much more than listening that our listening can actually suffer. Maybe because we have too much on our plate, or that we are highly goal oriented, or maybe just too self absorbed. Hence we might pay more attention to achievements, to tasks, to ourselves rather than to giving our undivided attention to listening to others. Whatever the case, the way to improve your listening is to practice it with full attention to what others say AND to what you say.

If you have allowed your listening powers to degrade some, then it will take some focussed practice to revitalise it. I don’t really like the word practice as it seems to suggest exercises. The reality is that it is FAR better, for the reasons I have mentioned, to apply yourself in your life. If this is not possible, find areas that are close to it…possibly listening to songs, movies, etc.

One way you can take your listening to a new level is to respond to what people say… NOT say what you have on your mind.

Here is an example:

Your friend is talking about her problems.

Listen carefully to what she says. Don’t start talking about your problems or someone else’s. Sometimes people do this because they think it might make the person feel better or that they find the topic too difficult in some way to deal with, or…

Instead, find out more about her problem ( why, how when etc etc)

Do respond with sentences that show you understand (not just Ah ha) but by saying things like..”you mean you talked to your friend about her boss?” This way you are showing you are really trying to understand and that also gives her a chance to clarify her thoughts and feelings. You are helping her (and yourself!!) by doing this.

This attempt to paraphrase will force you to pay closer attention and give you a chance to work on you language skills ( if you are doing in the language you are learning).

This is one practical way to improve your listening. Do note though that here you are working on listening to meaning. Even though this is only one aspect of listening, such a practice gets you to focus on what you are hearing. This can have spin offs to other areas of listening as well.


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  • Peter Moczulski

    I didn’t understand the article. The two tips is to practice your pronunciation while reading and try match native speaker said. How is this suppose to help us listening to other speakers when they ask a question or explain something?

    I have been learning Chinese for 4 years now and I am having the most trouble improving listening. I read out loud, practice my pronunciations with a teacher, I listen everyday Chinese and I live in China. On the other hand I can read and follow directions to find the right bus or order simple meals. When I simple question where something is, than explain to me. I cannot understand the simple as directions as go down the street, turn right at the light, and the store is on the right next to this place. Very easy but still difficult to listen to. I’m getting very frustrated with learning.

  • Sergio

    Speaking of listening, I have a question about what I haven`t got a definitive response yet – if there is a definite answer, of course.
    Some people say that, in order to improve listening skils, we should listen to virtually everything, even not understanding much, just to get in touch with the intonation and rythm of the language.
    Others, however, say we should listen to only we can understand, say 90 to 95%, of what is said. Otherwhise would be a waste of time.
    Trying to overcome my difficulties in the listening process, I have subscribed a lot of podcasts, I would like to know if there is something in between – not so easy that gets me bored, but not so hard that makes me feel demotivated with the sense I still have a long way to go.
    What`s your take on that. Thanks for your time.

    • Apologies Sergio for not getting on to this earlier. I have been OS for quite a while and this one seems to have fallen into the cracks in my systems…

      It is a great question. The answer is not either/or. It relates instead to the issue you raise later about motivation. It really is whatever gets and keeps your juices flowing! 1 minute of highly motivated listening can be worth more than 30 minutes of the other kind, and so on.

      To improve not only do we have to find something that keeps us focused but also we need to have our intentions clear. Am I listening to clarify a particular sound that I am struggling with, or am I listening to get more comfortable with the tone and rhythm of the language or am I listening to improve my understanding of some parts of grammar, etc etc

      As soon as you clarify why you are listening, then you can become more discerning about what you listen to and for how long. Listening for the sake of listening soon runs out of steam!

      Hope that has helped.