How to Build Your Active English Listening Skills in Just 15 Minutes

Language is all around us – on TV, in our audio streaming apps, and in social media apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Tiktok. But if you’ve been listening to content without feeling like you are improving your listening skills, then it might be because you’re not focusing on your active English listening skills.

For English language learners, a strong listening ability is the gateway to speaking. In this article, we’ll show you how to learn active listening skills in English in just 15 minutes a day.

Too much content, too little active concentration

Think about the content you’ve listened to lately. Maybe you enjoy podcasts or audiobooks as you commute to work or relax in the evenings. Maybe you watch videos during stolen moments at work, or relax with Netflix in the evenings. 

Often, we want to practice our English but we are actually listening to “zone out” (= relax our minds and not think much). This is a form of passive listening. Even if you listen this way for 30 to 60 minutes, you may not actually learn from what you hear.

That changes today 🙂 Keep reading for more…

A podcast directory showing Plain English. Podcasts are a great way to build your active English listening skills.

A guide to building active listening skills

Anyone can do this exercise with access to audio and a transcript.

The key is to do some concentrated listening consistently each day. It doesn’t have to be difficult – ideally, you should look forward to it! 

Choose your material

Use material you already have and enjoy. For our purposes, let’s use the Plain English. The episode, “100-year-old American food brands that are still in business” is one of our favorites.

Materials from the Plain English website, including a transcript. Use audio and text to build your active listening skills.

Pick a clip

(Plain English Podcast always has a transcript. When you do this yourself, make sure a transcript is available, but don’t look at it.)

Let’s start with the first paragraph of the section titled, “Oldest American food brands.”

Example text from a Plain English lesson.

The first paragraph describes the aisles of an American supermarket and what companies do to keep the foods interesting for shoppers over time.

First listen

Listen the first time to see if you understand it. If you’re not sure, repeat the material until you understand the main point. 

You can play a slow or fast version of Plain English lessons, but the slow version might work better for this exercise.

Second listen

Play the content again and transcribe (= write down or type) the words you hear – without looking at the transcript. Repeat as many times as you need to get all the words down.

Compare

Now, compare what you’ve written to the transcript. Notice where you made errors. Did you miss smaller words like prepositions? Was it harder to understand words that sound blended together? Spelling counts here, as do all the small transition words. 

Example student transcription of Plain English lesson audio.

As you progress, the goal is to transcribe the content with fewer repetitions. Gradually expand the length of the clips you use. Eventually, you will be able to longer excerpts and transcribe them correctly the first time you listen.

Learn

This activity has many benefits. Repeated listening and transcription helps you: 

  • Pick up more vocabulary words
  • Practice your spelling and word order
  • Understand the overall message better
  • Improve your attention span when listening
  • Be more likely to retain knowledge over time

In our experience, 15 minutes of daily active listening like this is better than an hour of passive listening!

The best times for active listening

Doing active listening exercises takes commitment. Although 15 minutes is a relatively short time, it may be hard to squeeze it successfully between other stressful activities.

It’s important to set aside 15 minutes per day at a time when you feel calm and can concentrate. The best time for you will vary based on your energy levels; for example, whether you are an early bird or a night owl.

Here are some times to consider:

  • If you’re an early bird, get up 15 minutes earlier for quiet “alone time”
  • Just after breakfast
  • 30 minutes after a workout
  • During a longer commute when you have hands free; for example, on the train
  • Your lunch break
  • The early afternoon before children get home from school
  • During the evening after children have gone to bed
  • If you’re a night owl, after everyone has gone to sleep

Experiment with different times of day until you have a consistent, dependable rhythm. Once you make active listening a habit, you will improve your English skills faster than you know it!

Turn passive listening to active listening

Screenshot showing how to upgrade your active English listening skills with Plain English exercises.

Anyone can practice these active listening exercises for free with any audio sample and accompanying transcript. However, consider taking your active listening and practicing to the next level with Plain English Plus+.

As a Plus+ member, you can practice listening to lessons at two speeds, see instant translations of difficult words, and complete active-learning exercises that help you with prepositions, verb tenses, and vocabulary.

Getting started with Plain English

If you’re not yet ready to commit to the Plus+ membership, you can explore our audio lessons and full transcripts by joining as a free member. That way, you can begin to apply some of what you learned in this article with our English lessons about current events and trending topics.

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