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Learn English: Five tips to improve your listening

Ear phones on a keyboard with a book next to it.
Working on your listening skills.

ABC: Shivali Nayak

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If you're trying to improve your listening skills, where should you start and what should you do? Amy Coutts from Monash College shares some useful tips below.

1. Identify your motivation for learning

Amy recommends students think about why they need to learn English and why they are learning listening. Is it to study overseas, travel and meet new people or just learn the language?

From there, you can make choices of materials that are going to help you, according to Amy. Here are some scenarios and possible options:

  • Taking a look at movies and songs from Australia if you're interested in Australian culture
  • Watching lectures online if you're preparing to attend university
  • Listening to people communicating in daily life if you're trying to pick up everyday English
  • If you're trying to understand news in English, using news websites that grade the language according to a learner's level. For example, easier to more challenging vocabulary or the same news story recorded at different speeds that anyone can access

2. Set aside time to practise every day

There is no such thing as picking up English fast, so it's a good idea to find a pocket of time to spend every day.

"Being consistent and practising a little bit every day ... and how quickly you want to improve really does depend on how often, how many hours a day or even minutes a day you spend," Amy says.

When it comes to remembering what you've heard:

  • Document or write down what you've heard. It doesn't even have to be the exact words. It can be a paraphrase or a short summary to remind yourself of what you've heard
  • Document new vocabulary you've learnt
  • Record yourself talking about what you've just heard

"The good thing about a lot of listening resources is that if you're watching things online you can always replay them," Amy says.

3. Be aware of different vocabulary used in different parts of the world

Amy says students should expose themselves to different vocabulary that can help with their listening.

For example, in Australia what is called a rubbish bin is known as a trash can in the United States.

Another example: In Australia we say 'petrol' and in the United States, it is known as 'gasoline' or 'gas'.

4. Use transcripts to help you understand words and grammatical structure

Learners don't always know where the end of a sentence is and when the new sentence starts.

Amy says when you're watching a video:

  • Get the transcripts
  • Listen again
  • Try and write down everything you've heard
  • Attempt to make sense of the words and structure
  • Mark in where things are chunked together

Intonation is another one — the rise in the voice, the fall in the voice is usually to signal where the end of a sentence might be.

Sometimes you may come across words that you can't differentiate because they sound very similar when someone is using them.

For example, 'plain' vs 'playing'.

"Where you've heard the word in the sentence — so it comes back to grammatical structure and also words that are surrounding the particular word," Amy says.

To figure out which word it is you're listening to:

  • See where it falls in the sentence
  • Look at the words that come before and after
  • Know the situation or the context
  • Look at words that go with that particular word and make a list of them

5. Zero in on what help you need to prepare for a listening test

Amy says you should look at what you are doing well and then look at where you need help.

"Identify what it is you're having trouble with and practise on that particular section or question type," Amy says.

"If you're taking the IELTS Academic listening test for example, quite often the fourth section is the hardest and that's a lecture."

"So if that's what you're weak in, practise listening to lectures."

Amy adds that getting used to language that guides you through a lecture and leads you to information and answers is useful.

Finally, she suggests looking at websites or engaging a tutor for strategies for different sections of the listening exam so that the practice is as targeted as possible.

Learn English Hacks is a Facebook Live series featuring Australian teachers where they discuss challenges learners face and how to overcome them. For more information, visit our Learn English Facebook page.