Listening by the Rules


There are many important elements to consider when learning a new language, but one that often gets overlooked is that of listening. There are many different methods and approaches adopted by language learners, but sometimes simple, effective listening can be the best way to develop your linguistic skills. This is the idea behind Listening by the Rules which comes from one of our former trainees Marcin Skurzak. In this feature, he outlines a list of useful rules to adhere to in order to hone your listening skills. Take a look at this list and let us know what you think in the comments below.

ListeningByThe Rules

Rule number 1: Combine

Pick a listening method that you could easily fit into your daily routines. For example, if you drive to work every day, instead of listening to your native radio programme, put one of your downloaded audiobooks on and turn it into your passive listening exercise. This way it will not disturb your routine and you will allow your brain an ample time each morning to get accustomed to listening to English. Now, take a while to think when during your typical day you could find some time for a chosen listening practice and then fill it with one of the many listening activities I have presented you with before.

Rule number 2: Be varied

Try to be as varied as possible. In other words, do not stick to one single method but change it every second day, so that the practice stays original and interesting. If yesterday you did some podcast listening, watch a movie tonight and a few interesting YouTube videos tomorrow. Remember, the key lies in being proactive and variable.

Rule number 3: Listen actively

I dare you to listen actively to English recordings three times a week for half an hour. Find some time during your day when you can practise active listening. It can be after your breakfast in the morning or you can equally make it an evening practice. You do not need more than half an hour here and you should make it every second day. Be realistic, it is only one of a number of self-study tactics that you can implement, so do not try to make it every single day or else you risk turning it into a laborious monotony. Make sure you are not disturbed when exercising, because your goal is to really focus on the audio.

Rule number 4: Listen Passively

The other method here is to listen to a thing without focusing on it. It can be practised literally anytime and anywhere, whether at your desk, while driving, riding a bus or washing dishes. Just play your podcast or audiobook on and enjoy your other activities. The idea is that you do not focus on the listening itself but rather let your brain digest all the necessary information here, including pronunciation and accents, in a subconscious and totally uncontrollable way.

Rule number 5: Help yourself

Whenever there is something difficult, help yourself and do not demand too much. When watching a movie, for example, especially at the beginning of your practice, you might choose to turn on the subtitles. For the first few movies that you watch, you might let yourself simply read the lines alongside the actors. You might bring along a dictionary and check any key words that you are unsure of. You might even say them out loud, as this will help you remember them for a longer time. The more videos you watch, the more confident you will become to finally rely only on the audio itself. It all depends on how much practice you go through. On a similar note, there is even a tricky computer programme, called VLC, which you could download and watch movies using it. The crucial thing about it is that it allows you to play back movies at half speed or even quarter speed. So, if there are parts that you do not seem to grasp, you can easily play these back at a slower speed and try listening again.

Rule number 6: Re-listen

This is similar to the previous one – help yourself when needed. If at first you have problems with understanding something, choose a single episode and listen to it every day for three days in a row. It can be both active and passive listening. When doing it actively, pick out those words that are difficult to understand and try to find their definition in the dictionary. After a couple of days following this routine, you should be able to understand much more of the recording than at the first time. You can keep repeating this exercise with other recordings too, until it becomes easier for you to listen to new audios.

Rule number 7: Do not over-aspire

In other words, do not be over-ambitious. Do not make your active listening an every-day routine, otherwise it will quickly turn into a dreaded duty. Instead, listen actively to podcasts every other day and for no more than 30 minutes for the first three months. You can obviously raise these standards as you go but it will all depend on how quickly you adopt to the skill that you are working on. Also, an important rule is that you match your methods to your English level. So if you are intermediate, do not choose podcasts or recordings that use really advanced vocabulary. This might discourage you and really sabotage your progress. One way or another, remember that the basic rule here is to follow simple and minimalistic steps.

Rule number 8: Be specific

If you would like to get particularly skilful in a given area of English, for example business or taxes, try to adjust the context of your audio exercises accordingly. Let’s say that you would like to improve your listening skills in law-related situations. After listening to ten or twenty recordings which are specifically about law and legal issues, you will start developing a better understanding of the phraseology used in this field and, consequently, your listening skills will improve greatly. It is because you will not only learn what each word means, but also how it is used.

Rule number 9: Have fun

Do not pick subjects because you think they might be important to listen to or someone has so suggested. Watching things that you do not enjoy or do not find intriguing wastes your time and builds up your anxiety. So instead choose topics that you feel really inspired by or interested in. The more moved you are by a subject, the more likely it will be that your brain understands that too.


We hope you enjoyed this feature. If you think these rules are useful and would like to check out the full article or to see more from Marcin Skurzak, then click here.


Written by
Liam Kennedy
– Schuman Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. Graduate of Journalism with a Language (French) at Dublin Institute of Technology. Currently completing a Masters in Translation Studies at University College Cork.