Improving English Listening Comprehension Skills

The four basic communicative language skills are reading, writing, speaking and listening, no arguments there. Often each of these skills are developed in dependently though specialized courses, programs and practice. They could alternatively be developed in active / passive sets in which raising the level of one skill would correspondingly increment a complementary skill though not necessarily to the same degree.

What Makes Listening Difficult?


In the vast majority of cases there are but a very few factors which make English listening difficult. Briefly, these factors include the following:

  • The person or persons speaking
  • You, or the person who is listening
  • The actual content of what is being said
  • Support for the listening topic
  • Quality of the acoustics and sound produced

Let’s now take a closer look at what is involved in each of these factors.

Improving your English Listening Skills

Each of these listening comprehension affective factors can greatly influence listening comprehension. By controlling each and all of these, you can be more successful in improving your English listening skills.

  • The Speaker – speakers vary greatly in their manner of speech. This can be especially true with native speakers of languages like English or Spanish, for example. Their clarity of speech and velocity of the delivery of their words can hugely impact listeners’ ability to understand what is being said. If the speaker has an unfamiliar accent, speech impediment of some kind or poor enunciation, listeners can suffer from a general lack of listening comprehension.
  • You, or the listener – the better your general listening comprehension skills the more you will generally understand when others speak in English. Your basic listening comprehension skills in English should be developed to the greatest extent possible for maximum listening comprehension success. This can be especially true, as mentioned earlier, when the speakers have an accent or regional English pronunciation with which you are unfamiliar.
  • What is being said or the actual content is a major factor in listening comprehension. If the spoken material is highly technical or is filled with specialized vocabulary, listening comprehension can be seriously impaired.
  • Visual and realia support of the listening material can certainly be a tremendous aid to successful listening comprehension. Support can be knowledge of the situation, images or related video and include physical objects of various types.
  • The quality of the location acoustics and sound quality – If you are in a place such as an auditorium, large hall or empty building, echoes will be bouncing all over the place making listening comprehension difficult to say the least. The sound from speakers, radio or TV can also be distorted making listening comprehension much more of a problem than normal.

Tips for Improving

Try some of the following activites for help improving your listening skills.

  • Watching local television soap operas to practice vocabulary, expressions and slang used in the area. For even better results, record a few shows then watch and imitate the language used in them repeatedly for faster improvement. You’ll know you’re improving when you begin to understand more and more of what is being said at normal conversational speed.
  • Recording radio programs such as short stories, talk shows, commercials and even the news, then replay and mimic the announcers and voices. Sports commentary during a game doesn’t usually make for effective English listening skills improvement practice. Why? It’s because announcers are almost always speaking at the fastest speed they can to keep up with the action.
  • TV and radio commercials can be an especially rich source of English listening skills improvement. Since they are typically short: under one minute, use active, locally understood vocabulary, idioms and expressions, a good base in listening comprehension can often be formed quickly. Using commercials is such an effective listening comprehension improvement technique that there are actually university language courses based on this method. I went through a semester-long French course in Montreal during which we squeezed French radio commercials for every bit of vocabulary, lexis and grammar usage that we could. The results were astounding. At the end of about three months I understood virtually everything in French that fell on my ears.

Improving your language skills takes time and practice, but with time you will soon see a vast improvement!