Listening, speaking, reading, and writing – these are your four basic language skills. Two of them – speaking and writing – are referred to as productive language skills. This is because you have to produce something, either in spoken or written form. It’s challenging to find online tools, especially free online tools, to help you with those skills. You need feedback once you have spoken or written something, and most technology right now still needs to be improved to do that well and for free.
In contrast, there are lots of free resources online to help you with reading and listening, which are your receptive skills. This post is all about some websites you can freely access to help you work on your listening skills. They can be used for either intensive or extensive listening practice, depending on your level. I have 20 websites to start you with – hopefully more than enough.
But first, are you self-directed?
Now, to really make good use of the resources I’m going to share with you, it’s helpful if you are a self-directed learner. Self-directed learners are people who take control of their own learning. They don’t depend on teachers to assign appropriate homework or answer questions. Self-directed learners can create or already have in place a system to help them plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning – as noted by researchers Vandergrift and Goh. Self-directed learners are also capable of selecting their own materials for practice and for working with the materials by themselves.
Not all language learners have those skills yet – even more advanced learners. If you’re not a self-directed learner yet, don’t worry. If you think you need help developing a study plan for any resources you find online, find someone to help you. An English teacher is an obvious choice, but you can also ask someone who has had a lot of success in studying on their own.
Many of the websites I’m sharing with you today are from an article published by my friend and colleague, Dr. Louise Ohashi (see below). She has divided her selection of listening resources into four categories (or groups), and these are stories, songs, talks and conversations, and news and current affairs. The resources in each of these categories of listening materials have different features and offer benefits to your learning.
Stories are great for learning another language because they are usually enjoyable and motivating, and you typically get a lot of descriptive language.
The first free site in this category is The Fable Cottage. This site is designed for learners of four other European languages in addition to English. Voice actors read well-known stories, such as Snow White, supported with music, video images, and illustrations. In the English version of each story, you can hide the transcript or make it visible. Each story is five to sixteen minutes long. It’s a good site to help you work on understanding both main ideas and details, learn new vocabulary, identify grammar patterns, and improve pronunciation through shadowing.
On Storyline Online is a website where you can watch videos of people reading children’s books aloud in English, with the option of viewing subtitles. Although this site was designed to develop literacy skills in children, it’s also great for mature English language learners, especially if your level is similar to American kindergarten to grade four. There are some famous narrators you’ll recognize, such as Elijah Wood from the Harry Potter movie series.
If you think you’d enjoy watching celebrities doing this, you may find this genre of listening very motivating. The videos here are also between five and sixteen minutes. Listening to stories on this website will expose you to a good range of vocabulary and grammatical structures that are supported with with pictures and video, read at a moderate speed, and read by people with a variety of accents.
ESL Fast offers short stories with audio and text for intermediate students. It’s not the most beautiful website, but a good thing about it is the large number of stories available – and there are hundreds. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see a vocabulary list for each audio recording, plus a variety of exercises, including dictations. The site also offers easy conversations if you have a more beginner level of English. You can listen to short conversations on a variety of topics and speak to Mike, a “robot” that replies to questions and statements that you type in a dialogue box.
Movies are an audio-visual form of stories, and the ultimate short form is the movie trailer. Movies Club is a simple website where you can listen to trailers and try to complete cloze (or fill-in-the blank) activities while you enjoy watching a movie trailer. The website divides the trailers into categories, but not levels.
It’s not only language learners who love songs. The Internet offers many websites where you can find the lyrics to all types of songs in many different languages. I’ll talk about a couple of options for English language learners here.
Lyrics Training is one of the many tools online where you can listen to songs with or without viewing the lyrics. It can be used for both intensive listening and extensive listening.
This is a “freemium” site, which means you get some free access, but then have to start paying for more. This study aid is popular as an app for smartphones, but can also be accessed through a website. You can sing along to songs in Karaoke (or カラオケ) mode, or challenge yourself in game mode, where you complete fill-in-the-gap activities at different levels of difficulty. The system keeps track of your progress and you can compete with other users to try to get the best score.
A very similar type of website which is completely free, at least while it is still in BETA, is Lyrics Gaps. On this site there is an added google translate site where you can hover over a word in the lyrics, and it will translate the English word into multiple different languages. You can search for songs by artist or by difficult level – easy, medium or hard. Fill-in-the-gap tasks where you type the missing words are at three levels, and there is a quiz function where you have to quickly choose between three possible words. Registered members can compete with other members to get the best score on this site as well.
If you enjoy music, tools like these make for great listening practice because there tends to be a lot of repetition in the chorus, and music lovers generally enjoy hearing songs over and over again – a pleasant way to study on your own. Through lyrics websites like this, you can learn new vocabulary, improve your pronunciation, get used to grammar patterns, improve your spelling, and even increase you typing speed.
3. Talks and Dialogues
Listening to people talk about a range of topics is great listening practice because it exposed you to natural usage patterns that you’re likely to hear in real life.
TED Talks (and the TEDICT app)
The first two tools in this category are TED Talks, which is a large collection of recorded live speeches, and TEDICT, which is an app (for iphone or for android) that provides you with a range of language learning tasks based on TED Talks.
The TED Talks website and app were created by TED (Technology, Education and Design). This is a non-profit organization that aims to share “ideas worth spreading.” The organization hosts live events and shares recordings through its digital resources. There are now over 3,100 talks from speakers from all around the globe. The audio content is in English, but you can access subtitles and transcripts translated into over 100 languages. As a viewer, you can search by topic, subtitle/transcript language and video length to find the talk that you want to listen to.
While watching a video, subtitles can be switched on or off and viewers can refer to an interactive transcript. The transcript is interactive because if you click on any part of it, you will be taken to the corresponding (or the matching) section within the video. This is very useful when you want to listen to the pronunciation of a particular word or phrase, or if you want to check how something is translated. Just like with YouTube videos, you can also change the video speed. Slowing down a video can help you with comprehension.
If you want extra value when practicing intensive and extensive listening, the TEDICT app will give it to you. You can listen to segments (or parts) of TED Talks to practice dictation tasks. If you select the TEDICT function you can type what you hear or use speech recognition to complete the task. If you find that too difficult, you can the TEDICTisy function, which will allow you to select the words required to complete the dictation tasks from a list of options. With the Repeat Player function, you can also do shadowing activities. This function cuts videos into shorter parts. You then listen to one part at a time, and then try to accurately repeat when the voice recorder is activated. You can listen to yourself before moving to the next part to check your pronunciation and accuracy. Now sadly, the TEDICT app is not completely free. The lite version is free, however, but this means you only have this functionality for some videos, or for some parts of videos.
English Language Listening Library Online (or ELLLO with three Ls) has been around for a long time. It’s a large collection of audio and video files that give listeners access to clips made by speakers worldwide who speak English at various degrees of proficiency. There are over 1500 audio recordings and 800 videos. Each audio file comes with a script, vocabulary support and a comprehension quiz.
The recordings are short – some less than a minute long – and usually include one or two speakers. The Mixer section of the website allows you to listen to a particular topic from different perspectives. In the One Minute English video files, one or two speakers answer a pre-set question in one minute or less. You can listen while hiding the transcript or making it visible, and there are vocabulary lists, additional exercises or quizzes, as well as downloadable links. You can search for audio and video recordings by English level (there are 6). You can search by topic, media type, or speaker nationality. The nationality of speakers is useful for you if you want to hear different English accents from around the world.
ESL Lounge is a website with a listening section that supplies listening comprehension exercises divided into four levels of difficulty, as well as a business English section. There is a transcript that you can download with the audio file, and there are different kinds of comprehension exercises (multiple choice, cloze, true/false…etc.) There are no pre-listening activities or follow-up activities, however.
The British Council’s Learning English has a great listening practice section that is helpfully organized by CERF level. You can find short listening activities at the A1 or A2 beginner levels, the B1 and B2 intermediate level, and the more advanced C1 level. You can take a test online to get an idea of your level, too. There are plenty of accompanying activities on screen and for download. The British Council also have a special site for teenagers, which is great if you are a high school or even a university student, as the topics are more related to your needs.
ESL teacher Randall Davis put together a very impressive site some years ago called the Cyber Listening Lab. His site is filled with listening quizzes. One of the things you’ll notice right away about the site is that the quizzes are divided into Easy, Medium and Difficult. Each quiz comes with a pre-listening activity, a multiple-choice quiz based on the listening, and post-listening activities that include vocabulary exercises. These are wonderful, ready-to-use listening activities.
Talk English has listening lessons for basic, intermediate, and advanced levels. You can listen to a conversation, complete a multiple-choice quiz, and read a script of the audio. You can use the website for free, but if you pay a one-time fee, you get unlimited downloads, which included hundreds of dialogues at different levels. I think the advanced section is not really that advanced, so if you are an intermediate learner, try it!
Sean Banville is an experienced EFL teacher who runs many websites for language learners. I’ll talk about him again later, but in this section, I’ll mention his site, Listen A Minute. On this site, which is for elementary to pre-intermediate students, you can select a listening lesson from almost 500 options according to topic, arranged alphabetically on the main page. With each one-minute audio recording on the topic you chose, you can try the online quiz, read the script, do a fill-in-the-blanks listening activity, and do other activities on grammar, spelling, and/or vocabulary for the lesson. There are even discussion questions, writing prompts, and other follow-ups that are useful if you have a study partner or want to journal. There is an answer key provided as well.
4. News and Current Affairs
Particularly useful for Japanese native speakers is ABCニュース英語 (ABC News English). This website is produced by Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK. The materials are aimed at Japanese speakers who are learning English, with the interface in Japanese and all English listening tasks offering Japanese support. So, if you’re not a native speaker of Japanese, probably, you don’t need this one.
There is a new video clip is uploaded to the site four to six times a week. Each five-minute clip has an overview of a current news item in Japanese and a key word or phrase, then a short, authentic news clip played three times, first with English audio and subtitles, and then with English audio and Japanese subtitles, and finally with English audio and no subtitles. There is a lot of support in Japanese, so if you’re a Japanese speaker, this site might be good for you.
Probably one of the most widely known news sources in accessible English is the multimedia platform, Voice of America (VOA). Like most news sites, it offers content on local and international news. There are many different parts to it. There is level specific content specifically for learning English at learningenglish.voanews.com. Video programs and audio programs here are separated into sections for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. You can find not only news items, but also resources that are designed to help you learn news-related vocabulary and develop news literacy skills (which means the ability to read). Each of the recordings is no more than three minutes long, and there are subtitles. You can also make use of an app for iPhone or Android smartphones that teaches you how to say and use a word in a sentence.
Now, you can also try Student Union from Voice of America, which is described as “news for students and youth worldwide.” This section is mostly written articles, but there are some are accompanied by related videos. These give you the opportunity to learn about topics in different ways. This part of VOA or Voice of America is not specifically designed for learners of English as a second or foreign language, so I would recommend this site for more for extensive listening for advanced learners. There are not subtitles in the videos.
The BBC or British Broadcasting Corporation, has a website called Learning English that is dedicated to helping learners of English. There are a lot of resources here for you, and not all of them are related to news, but since the BBC is a news corporation, I’ll focus on that section. You can search by level, but sadly you cannot search by media type. However, many of the resources are multimedia-rich, including video. I like this one series of lessons with short videos about fake news, which is a very timely and important topic these days.
The main website of Sean Banville, who I mentioned earlier, is called Breaking News English. This website is packed full of news articles with accompanying audio that is read by Mr. Banville himself. His news lessons are available in up to seven levels, and he has a large variety of activities to go with each article. You can listen at different speeds, with or without the transcript. As a teacher, I have been making use of this site for many years. The website is not very attractive, but it’s useful. Sean Banville also runs other sites, and I mentioned one of them earlier. Check them out!
My last source for you today is Newsy, another source of short video news segments about a variety of topics from business to entertainment, international to US news. Each video is posted with a transcript, giving you the choice to just listen, or listen and read. The site offers an app for iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry, and is probably best for more advanced English learners.
So, now you have a list of tools you can explore for your own listening practice. I didn’t mention that of course YouTube is also a great source for listening materials. I have already created part 1 and part 2 posts on that topic, so do read them.
I challenge you to try out some of the website I mentioned today. See if they suit your style of learning. If you are studying English formally at school, you can always go to a teacher to get help to plan, monitor, and evaluate your own listening study. Thanks for watching and I hope you learned at least one new website you can make use of to help you practice your listening skills.
Remember, however, that you won’t see progress unless you practice often and regularly, repeating some activities for review. Sometimes you’ll have to practice even when you don’t feel like it. That’s the way we make progress!
Knowles, M.S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning A Guide for Learners and Teachers. N.Y. :Cambridge Books.
Ohashi, L. (2019). Listen up! Useful materials for intensive and extensive listening. In Robert Chartrand, F. & Forsythe, E. (Eds.) AI and Machine Learning in Language Education. Selected papers from the JALTCALL2019 Conference, Tokyo, Japan. https://jaltcall.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/AI-and-Machine-Learning-in-Language-Education.pdf
Vandergrift, L., & Goh, C. M. (2012). Teaching and learning second language listening. Routledge.