Have you ever put on an English radio station or podcast and gone to sleep, hoping that when you wake up in the morning your listening skills will be magically better?

Sadly, language learning doesn’t really work like that – at least, not in our experience! In fact, we think that being an active listener is the best way to improve your listening skills. You’ll need to make predictions, ask a lot of questions, take notes and practise a lot if you want to improve.

Of course, being an active listener is not easy and you’ll need to take things step-by-step.

The following tips will help you make the progress you need to meet your goals, without being too difficult or overwhelming.


1. Focus on the most important information

A great place to start is to try to listen for gist. This is when you just focus on understanding the keywords (nouns, verbs and adjectives) which carry the most important information in a sentence so you can understand what the people are saying.

Listening for gist is a useful stepping stone on the way to understanding the more complex detail of what people say.

Try this at home: Find a 5-minute video on YouTube on a topic that you are interested in. Watch the video without any closed captions (subtitles) and write down as many of the keywords as you can hear. If you need to you can repeat this a few times, in order to see if you can piece together the gist of the video. When you’re ready, you can turn on the subtitles and check to see if you’re right!

In addition, check out our specific blog post for using YouTube to improve your English for more tips like this.


2. Make some predictions

The situation you’re in can give you some really useful clues to the content and language you might expect to hear.

Make some predictions - 5 ways to improve your listening skills at home | Oxford House Barcelona

We can probably guess a lot of what is being said in this situation


This is something we do a lot in our own language without realising – how often are you asked a question by someone completely out of context? For example, if you’re ordering food in a restaurant you would expect the waiter to ask you about your order, or tell you about tonight’s specials. However, if he suddenly asked you about last night’s football you would find it a little odd!

By predicting a lot of the language you might hear, you can begin to experiment with listening for more detail in a conversation.

Try this at home: By using Vimeo or YouTube, watch some short clips without the sound or subtitles on. A really good place to start is travel vloggers, such as Mr Ben Brown or FunForLouis. See if you can predict the content of their videos by only using what you can see. Where are they travelling, and what are they doing or eating? Do they look like they are enjoying it, and what words might you hear to suggest this? Now watch it with the sound and subtitles on, were you right? Did you hear any language that you predicted?


3. Expand your vocabulary

Once you start listening for more detail, you might begin to notice that there are a lot of words and expressions that occur regularly, but you don’t understand. By noting these down and actively learning these words and phrases, you can start to grow in confidence when interacting with native speakers outside of the classroom.

A great place to start is to build your understanding of linking and signposting expressions. This may be quite simple, such as the words “however” or “despite” to show a contrast in the conversation, or more complex like “you’ll never guess what happened next!” which suggests you’re about to be given some surprising information.

Once you have a better understanding of these expressions, it will help you be able to better predict the content of a conversation, and help you follow the story you’re being told.

Try this at home: Take a look at our 7 podcasts to improve your listening post to find one which is appropriate for your level, and try them out. When you hear a new linking expression or slang word you don’t quite understand, look it up online (or on a transcript) and try to use it in your next English conversation to help you remember it.


4. Listen to different accents

The wonderful thing about English is that it is spoken by so many people around the world. However, this means that you will need to understand more than just the Queen’s English to get by if you’re travelling.

Along with the different expressions you can hear between American, British, Irish or Australian speakers, to name just a few, the way they pronounce their content words is usually very varied. However, with the use of Netflix you don’t need to travel to these countries anymore to listen to these different accents.

Try this at home: Take a look at our blog post about using Netflix to improve your English for a list of shows which include different English accents. Choose two or three that look interesting for you and check them out. By using the subtitles you can see exactly what they’re saying, and even compare how the same words are pronounced by different people in different shows.


5. Put it into practice

If you’re not lucky enough to already have a phone full of English speaking contacts, there are loads of great apps out there to help introduce you to native English speakers.

HelloTalk is one example which allows you to send Whatsapp style messages to English speakers all over the world who are looking for help with another language in return. However, it also has a function where you can send voice notes to each other instead.

You can ask native speakers to send messages for you to listen to, instead of simply reading them. You can play them as many times as you like to help get as much detail as you can, or you can always ask them to speak more slowly or using different expressions if you need to.

So, spend the next three minutes downloading the app and making an account, and then get listening!

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Gist (n): the general meaning of a conversation or reading, without all the details.

Stepping stone (n): a part of a process to help you get closer to your objective.

Clues (n): some information to help you find an answer.

Odd (adj): strange/weird.

Occur (v): to happen.

Signpost (v): to give words or information which helps you to understand meaning.

Slang (n): informal expressions which are not always found in dictionaries.

Get by (pv): to survive in a situation with enough language or money, etc.

Voice notes (n): messages which are spoken and recorded, rather than typed.


n = noun

adj = adjective

v = verb

pv = phrasal verb

Study English at Oxford House Barcelona

Interested in taking an English course at Oxford House Barcelona? Check all the different English classes we can offer you, or contact us for more information.

Leave a Reply

Captcha *