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Activities to Help Learners Understand Spoken American English

written by: R. H. • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 4/5/2012

It is not always easy to understand spoken English, as native speakers often speak very quickly. Here are some tips on how to improve your comprehension of English through listening.

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    Learn the Sounds by Listening

    The first way to improve your listening comprehension in English is to be sure you really understand all the sounds of American English. The best way to do this is to have a native speaker pronounce each English sound for you, so you can see how their mouth is shaped while making the sound and hear what the sound actually "sounds" like.

    There is an interactive web resource, Phonetics: the Sounds of American English, is a perfect starting place for listening comprehension. Here you can listen to each sound in the English language, see how it is written, and see a video clip of a native English speaker saying the sound; you can also hear the pronunciation of words that contain this sound. You can click on the different consonant tabs (stop, fricative, affricate, nasal, liquid, glide) to listen to all the English consonants and then on the monophthongs and diphthongs tabs to listen to all the English vowels. A link to this resource is available in the References section of this article.

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    Read, Watch and Listen to Simultaneously

    A good way to improve listening comprehension in English, once you know all the sounds of English, is to listen to blogs, broadcasts or videos that have both audio and text in English. This way, you have the spoken English reinforced by the written form. If you hear a word you do not quite recognize, you can look at the text and see the word; then, if you don't know the definition of the word, you can look it up in your dictionary. This is a great way to understand spoken English better and, at the same time, to build your vocabulary of words and idioms.

    One of the best online resources for simultaneously watching, reading and listening to native English speakers is English Central. This resource includes videos, accompanied by line-by-line text, in three levels: easy, medium and hard. Once you sign up for a free account, you can access all the videos. As you watch a video, you see the text line-by-line on the screen. You can play back each line slowly to be able to understand the words more easily. This website is great for improving your listening comprehension, especially at an intermediate level.

    For more advanced listening comprehension in English, try audio books. You can start by checking out some English classics from the public library (for example, Anne of Green Gables) and you can listen to the audio version of the book free online here while reading along in the book. This way, you are both listening and reading at the same time --seeing how the words are written, but also, more importantly, hearing how they sound when spoken.

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    Converse with Native English Speakers for Comprehension

    The most advanced exercise for increasing English listening comprehension is to listen to spoken English with no text to read along with what is being spoken. A good way to get good audio input is to watch movies in English. Another great way to increase your listening ability in English is to get involved in a local conversation group. Check bookstores, libraries or community centers for opportunities to get involved with a free English conversation group. When you converse in English in small groups, you can listen to English and ask for clarification when someone says a word you don't understand.