Intensive Listening – What is it and why (and how) should you do it?

A little while ago I posted about intensive reading and extensive reading. Both forms of reading are important to your development as an English language learner, and as your reading skills improve, so will your understanding of English grammar and vocabulary. Better reading skills are often correlated (meaning they often go together) with better speaking and writing skills, too.

But what about listening? Is there such as thing as intensive listening? How about extensive listening? Yes, there is, and you need to do both intensive listening and extensive listening tasks to improve your listening skills.

Let’s start with intensive listening. Similar to intensive reading, intensive listening is slow, careful listening of short, difficult audio clips. You’re focussing more on form than on overall meaning, because the goal of the listening is to pay attention to pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Intense focus on these parts of the audio will help you build a foundation for language acquisition. Intensive listening is the type of listening that you probably do in your English language classes, particularly in an oral communication course. It’s very helpful if what you listen to something that’s interesting, but if you’re doing intensive listening in class, it’s possible that not everything you listen to will be interesting to you. If you do intensive listening by yourself, you should definitely listen to audio that includes topics that appeal to you, because it’s more motivating.

The ideal audio for intensive listening is not long movies, long lectures, or long documentaries, etc. Instead, you should listen to short audio clips of news or current events, interviews, short recorded stories, short YouTube videos, or any material provided by your English teacher. Audio visual material such as video is fine, but not looking at the screen will help you focus only on what you hear. Intensive listening materials are all much shorter than materials for extensive listening. Depending on your level of English, you might be listening to the same audio as native English speakers when you do intensive listening. If you’re a beginner, almost everything you listen to will be intensive listening. As you get better and better, those same materials will be more appropriate for extensive listening (although they will be short!).

Intensive listening audio needs to be short because the goal with this type of listening is to understand all the language and details of what you’re hearing. Intensive listening is supposed to be difficult, because you want to learn new grammar and vocabulary in spoken form. If the audio clip is too long, you’ll quickly become very tired. You need to concentrate when you’re doing intensive listening.

Unlike extensive listening, intensive listening is not relaxing. You probably shouldn’t do work with intensive listening more 30 minutes at a time. The best time to do intensive listening is when you’ve had enough sleep or when you’re well rested. Otherwise, you won’t be able to focus. You need lots of mental energy to do intensive listening.

When you do intensive listening in class, there are often many tasks you may be required to do. During intensive listening tasks, you want to focus on understanding specific details of the script and listen for specific information such as certain words, phrases, details, or examples. There are often tasks to do before you start listening to prepare you for what’s coming or to make sure you understand the goals of the listening activity. Activities assigned by your teacher might be fill-in-the-gap activities, transcription, vocabulary work, or pronunciation activities. According to work done by Schmidt in 2016, these types of activities are effective for your learning. While you listen as well as after you listen, you might be assigned additional activities, such as comprehension questions, vocabulary and grammar tasks such as sentence-making, or summarizing and paraphrasing – either orally or on paper, and finally, maybe some discussion or writing. Because intensive listening audio clips are supposed to be challenging, you’ll usually have to listen multiple times to understand what you’re listening to, and to successfully complete the work assigned by your teacher.

Intensive listening, like intensive reading, is often the type of listening you will do in your English class because you can benefit from the activities and guidance supplied by your teachers. But what if you don’t have an English class? Can you still practice intensive listening? Of course you can! See my post on how to use YouTube to learn English as an example.  When doing intensive listening by yourself, you’ll need to take initiative to create your own study plan and method. It’s best if you can get access to the script (which is why YouTube can be good), as well as someone who is better at you in English so you can ask them questions. You’ll have to research the meaning of certain patterns and words by yourself. Skilled language learners know how to do these things on their own, though. Becoming an independent or self-directed learner should be one of your goals if you want to reach a high level of English.

If you’re already a more advanced learner of English, you may be listening to audio more for content than for language, just as native speakers do. Perhaps you’re taking a CLIL (Content & Language Integrated Learning) class or maybe an EMI (English Medium Instruction) class. In this case, your main study method is going to be note-taking while you listen, just as if you were listening to a university lecture. If this is you, I recommend my series on note taking.

Let’s summarize. Intensive listening audio should be short and difficult for your level. The goal in intensive listening is to learn new language – in spoken form. A second goal in some cases might be to learn somecontent. Intensive listening takes time, but because you need concentration, you should only do it for shorts periods of time. You’ll probably have a variety of tasks to do if you do intensive listening in an English class. And ideally, but not as important as in the case of extensive listening, the content should be interesting to you.

Tips for Intensive Listening to Learn English

  • Focus on form, not content.
  • Listen to short video or audio recordings.
  • Listen to difficult / challenging content.
  • Focus on form, not content: Listen carefully for details and language use, not main ideas. Use the video or video or audio recording to help you learn new language.
  • If possible, choose content that is interesting to you.
  • Listen with support activities from your teacher or that you create. Much of your intensive listening work might be done in class.

Intensive listening takes a lot of your effort and energy, but it’s worth it. And don’t forget to also work on your extensive listening!



Impetus for this video and two others on the topic of listening is grace of an article by my dear friend and colleague Louis Ohashi (see reference below).

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.

Schmidt, A. (2016). Listening journals for extensive and intensive listening practice. English Teaching Forum, 54(2), 2–11.

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