How to Improve your Listening Skills in English through Conscious and Subconscious Learning

If you are learning English as a Second Language, (ESL/EAL), and are experiencing some frustration in not being able to understand much in the Target Language (English), don’t give up! There are many things you could be doing to improve your listening skills in English.

These range from conscious learning through conversation in English and doing various listening activities to subconscious learning, (ie. listening to the radio whilst you are doing the cooking or watching a tv programme in English). Depending on who you are, up to 95% of the brain’s activity can be through the subconscious.

If you are a music lover, listening to some great songs is an excellent and fun way of learning about the rhythm, pitch, stress and intonation of the English language. (Try visiting !).

If you are studying for an exam, there are many things you should be doing, (apart from regular practice), which will help you improve your overall exam technique and which could make a significant difference to your prospects of passing the exam. For example, below are just a few tips from my book that I have given to Upper-Intermediate/B2-Level students who are about to take their IELTS exam;

Multiple-choice Listening Skills

  1. Carefully read each question and each possible answer before starting the listening activity.
  2. Don’t rush this listening exercise.
  3. Be careful! Sometimes, the answer is not always what appears to be the most obvious choice.
  4. Use a ‘process of elimination’, (ie. eliminate the answers you think are not correct), method if necessary and check your work on completion.
  5. Make sure you give an answer even if you are not entirely sure what the right answer is.

Gap-Fill Listening Skills

Before Starting the Listening Activity

  1. Quickly read through the text to get an idea of what the text is about.
  2. Study the missing words – try to work out what type of words they are and in which space they go.
  3. Do the ‘easier’ words first in order to concentrate on the more difficult words after. Use a process of elimination.

During the Listening Activity

  1. Listen twice to the recording. Quickly write down as many answers as you can. Have your pencil ready and don’t give up!
  2. Try to concentrate on understanding the main idea of what is being said by listening to the Content Words, (ie. the main words). These words are likely to be more stressed in English.

On Completion of the Listening Activity

  1. Read through your answers to make sure they make sense.
  2. If any gaps are incomplete, try to fill them in with one of the remaining words. Try not to guess where possible.
  3. Don’t leave any spaces blank.

Listening for Detail Skills

  1. Familiarise yourself with what you are about to listen to by reading through the questions and missing information before you start listening.
  2. Predicting the answers – you may be able to predict the answers before starting the listening activity. This will allow you to be in the right frame of mind at the beginning of the listening activity from which to hopefully get the right answers.
  3. Try to write as many answers as possible after the first time of hearing. Then, you can check and fill in the remaining missing answers the second time around.
  4. Show resilience – don’t give up after the first time of listening.
  5. If there are any questions left unanswered after listening both times, make sure you fill in the gap with an appropriate answer – try to make an intelligent guess if necessary! Do not leave answers blank.

Whether you need to improve your listening skills in English for an exam or for everyday need and usage, there is always an opportunity to develop your skills or exam technique. Where necessary, be patient but persistent! Don’t despair if people become impatient or look at you in an unfriendly way because you don’t understand something. Hopefully, you won’t be shrugging your shoulders for too much longer but keep smiling…’ll get there in the end!



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