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4 Simple Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills with Podcast Transcripts

Tried and tested activities I’ve used with my learners

An image that says, "Easy Listening"
Photo by Joshua Olsen on Unsplash
“The major problem in listening to connected speech is lexical segmentation — recognizing where one word ends and the next one begins” (Lynch, 2009).
 

Podcast transcripts can help you solve this problem — if you know how to use them.

Maybe you already use podcast transcripts to check unknown words and expressions. Maybe you enjoy listening to a podcast episode while reading its transcription.

That’s good. But there’s more you can do.

I’ll show you 4 simple activities to improve your English listening skills using transcripts. I’ve used them many times with my learners of English and they work. I’ll also explain why these activities are effective.

I’ll be talking about podcast transcripts, but you can use transcripts of any kind such as YouTube, TED Talks, and movie transcripts.

Activity #1: Without — With — Without

A student listening and transcribing.
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

What to do:

Listen to only 1 minute of the podcast. Do this 3 times.

1st time: listen without reading the transcript. Try to understand as much as you can and write down the percentage of how much you understood. For example, if you understood almost everything, write down 95%.

2nd time: listen to the same segment while reading the transcript. Then stop and use these reflection questions to check what you didn’t catch the first time you listened to the segment:

  • What was I not able to understand the first time?
  • Why was I not able to understand? Was it because the speaker spoke too fast? Was it because the speaker used words I didn’t know? Was it because of something else?
  • Are there any groups of words that sound like one single word because they’re linked when spoken?
  • Are there any grammatical structures I failed to recognize when I heard them? If so, why did I not recognize the structure?

Reflect.

3rd time: listen again without reading the transcript. How much can you understand now?

Why this is an effective activity:

This is a useful exercise that can help you:

  • notice what difficulties you have in listening.
  • understand why exactly you couldn’t understand the speaker.
  • notice differences between the spoken and written form of a word or a sequence of words.
  • notice features of spoken English (words that connect with other words, how words are pronounced, and how they change when they’re spoken).

Activity #2: Podcast Dictation

Image of a student transcribing while listening.
Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash

What to do:

Play only 10–20 seconds of the podcast. You can choose a random section or one you have trouble understanding.

Play the segment as many times as you need and transcribe everything you hear.

When you’re done, compare your text with the transcript. Use the following questions for reflection:

  • How complete is my transcription?
  • What words or phrases were hard to catch and why? Are there any words I still find hard to recognize even though I can read them in the transcript?
  • Did I confuse one word with another?
  • Can I spot any surprising or tricky pronunciation features of spoken English?

Why this is an effective activity:

Dictation is a great way to practice and train your lexical segmentation skills (Felker, Ernestus & Broersma, 2019), and transcribing the sounds of English is a major learning task (Davis & Rinvolucri, 2002:7).

This is indeed an activity that forces you to listen carefully to transform speech into text. To do that, you’ll have to recognize word boundaries — when one word ends and the next one begins.

Activity #3: Word Counting

Image of an abacus to count words.
Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

What to do:

Play only 5 seconds of the podcast and count how many words you hear. 10 words? 20?

Check with the transcript. Were you right? Did you miss any words?

Repeat the activity using a different segment of the podcast.

Why this is an effective activity:

This is another activity to train your lexical segmentation skills. By counting the number of words, you train your ear in listening for word boundaries.

It’s also a great activity that you can do while walking as you don’t have to write down anything. You just listen, count, and check if your number is correct.

Activity #4: Paused Transcription

Dice representing a text, "Train your brain"
Photo by Margarida Afonso on Unsplash

What to do:

Listen 10 times to the same 30-second segment of the podcast without reading the transcript.

After the 10th time, listen again but pause the podcast halfway through each sentence.

Can you remember the next 5 words that come next in the sentence? Write them down.

Then check with the transcript.

Variation

Instead of writing down the next 5 words, write down the last 5 words you’ve heard.

Why this is an effective activity:

John Field, a researcher who’s been writing about the teaching of second language listening for 40 years, says that to improve your listening skills, it is helpful to practice identifying syntactic patterns that are characteristic of the language you’re learning. And this is a valuable exercise that can foster an active approach to identifying syntactic patterns (Field, 2008).

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These are 4 micro-listening activities I’ve done in class with my students but you can do them on your own to improve your listening skills.

They’re easy to set up and you can do them with any transcripts, not just podcast transcripts.

They’re also quick to do.

They don’t require you to understand long segments, so you would focus on understanding 100% of what you hear — which can be motivating too.

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I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to ask me all the questions you want about these activities.

I’ll be happy to help you.

And if you’d like to improve your foreign language skills, check out these other articles I’ve written (I talk about learning English, but you can apply the knowledge to any language you’re learning):

You can read my articles on Medium too.

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References

  • Davis, P., & Rinvolucri, M. (2002). Dictation: New methods, new possibilities. Cambridge University Press.
  • Lynch, T. (2009). Teaching Second Language Listening. Oxford University Press.
  • Felker, Emily R., M. T. C. Ernestus, and Mirjam Broersma. (2019). Evaluating dictation task measures for the study of speech perception. In Calhoun, S.; Escudero, P.; Tabain, M. (ed.), Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, pp. 383–387
  • Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

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