on January 29 2012 06:13 pm 0

How to Get the Most from Your Listening Material

headphones When you’re learning a foreign language, improving your listening skills takes lots of listening. Even if listening material for your target language is plentiful, it’s easy to find yourself without enough good material if you don’t make the most of what you have.


By listening to something just once or twice, working through any accompanying comprehension questions or practice exercises, and moving on to the next thing, you’ll go through a lot of material without getting much out of it. Worse yet, you may end up feeling like you’re working awfully hard at improving your listening skills, but not making much progress.

A More Efficient Way to Use Listening Material

Taking a step-by-step approach to working with your listening material helps you get as much as possible from each one. Planning a structured lesson–rather than just passively listening–helps you suck every last drop of usefulness out of every bit of listening material you have so you actually learn and improve your listening skills with all that work you’re doing. That means greater rewards and less frustration for you!


One note, though: the lesson-planning method I’ll describe below works best with material you could understand most of if it were written, but find somewhat more difficult to understand when you hear it spoken at a natural speed.


Of course, sometimes you might want to listen to any authentic material (material meant for native speakers) just to catch whatever you can or simply get used to the sound of the language. Doing this is helpful in its own way, but it’s hard to build a useful lesson around material you find extremely difficult to understand. To use this method, choose listening material that’s at or slightly above your current level.

Step 1: Global Comprehension

Before you listen the first time, set a “prediction task” for yourself. The goal with this is to prepare yourself for the kinds of vocabulary and grammar structures you might hear so you’ll recognize them more easily.


A teacher who’s already listened to the material has a wide variety of possible prediction tasks he or she can give you. When you’re doing this alone, you’re limited in the kinds of tasks you can set for yourself, but you still have a few options. For example:

  • If you’re going to listen to the day’s news, write down a few topics you think you might be discussed.
  • If you’re going to listen to material on a specific topic (grocery shopping, the state of the economy, puppy care, etc.), write down some words or phrases you expect to hear.
  • If it’s an interview, what questions might the interviewer ask?
  • If it’s an anecdote or short film, use the title and any accompanying pictures to predict what might happen in the story.


Listen once through and check your predictions. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, the goal is simply to warm up for more detailed listening. If you weren’t able to tell whether you were right or wrong, have another another listen. When you’re done, you should have the gist of the material and be able to give someone a brief overview of what the material’s about.

Step 2: Discrete Comprehension or Listening for Details

On your next (usually second or third) listening, listen for more detailed information. If your listening material comes with comprehension questions, they’re probably mostly the “listening for detail” kind.


So, when you listen to a news report the first time–aiming for a general overview–you might understand that a bank robbery happened that day. When you listen again for detail, you might try to hear what time it happened, how much money the robber stole, or whether or not the robber hurt anyone.


If you don’t have comprehension questions or other exercises available, focus on anything you didn’t understand. It may be individual words or short phrases. It may also be whole sentences in which you understand all the words, but still don’t quite understand the meaning of the whole sentence.


If you hear a word clearly, but don’t know what that word means, don’t just ignore it or wait until you see it written to look it up in your dictionary. Take your best guess at the spelling and look it up in your dictionary. Getting into that habit can go a long way towards helping you build your vocabulary from listening.


Once you think you’ve understood everything you can from listening, then look at the transcript, if you have. But don’t cheat yourself by checking the transcript after only two or three listenings!

Step 3: Work with Your New Vocabulary and Grammar

Add any new words and phrases from your listening to your vocabulary notebook, if you keep one. Be selective! Choose just a few of the new words you think you’ll be most likely to use, instead of overwhelming yourself with a dozen or more new words.


Then practice using them. Get them into your head and make them your own so you can use them whenever you want. Being able to recognize words isn’t enough if you want to speak and write, too!


Try making up a few sentences using each new word. Create a mind map starting with one of the words. Put a word or phrase into your favorite search engine to see if any good usage examples come up in the search results. (Just make sure the phrases are grammatically correct and acceptable (polite) usage before you bother to write them down and practice them!)


If you noticed a grammar structure you’ve never seen before, look it up in your grammar book, learn a little more about it, and try using it yourself.


Now go and give it a try! If you have a book-and-CD set of listening lessons, use the steps above to expand each lesson to get even more out of it. Don’t have any pre-made listening lessons? Make your own listening lesson out of a radio program, podcast, song, interview or any other recorded audio material you can find.

Related posts:

  1. Learn a Language Fast with Audio Courses
  2. Authentic Material: Speed up Your Learning Speed and Boost Your Motivation
  3. What if You Only Have Eight Weeks? Can You Learn a Language That Fast?
  4. Three Ways to Improve Your Ability to Listen for Detail
  5. Make and Keep your Language Learning New Year’s Resolutions

Filed under Getting Organized,Listening

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