Listening is one of the toughest skills to master in any language. With dialects, accents, and colloquial phrasings, it’s no wonder that our students sometimes struggle to understand what they hear on the street, on TV or even in the classroom.
Thankfully there are thousands of great authentic listening resources that can help them improve their listening confidence, train their ears and prepare them for exams like Pearson Test of English (PTE) General.
We’re talking about podcasts – online radio shows with hundreds of millions of listeners combined. They can be bite-sized or long form, they can be funny or serious, and they cover as many topics as you can possibly imagine. Some are even designed specifically for English language learners.
So, here are some top podcasts which you can use with your students to help them boost their listening skills and become more independent learners.
Why listen to podcasts and not just watch TV?
It’s a great idea for students to watch series and movies in their original versions. However, visual mediums offer lots of contextual clues that make things much easier to understand (e.g. the actions and expressions of the characters). For this reason, they do not fully prepare students for the “pure” listening tests that students are exposed to during exams.
Podcasts, on the other hand, can more effectively prepare students for exams such as PTE General. This is because they do not offer that extra visual information and are therefore closer to an exam experience.
Moreover, in PTE General, candidates will need to listen to different types of audio text, such as short monologues and dialogues, news bulletins, factual broadcasts and recorded messages – and podcasts use many of these styles.
So what are some podcasts I can use with my learners?
To practice the dictation activity in Section 2 of PTE General, visit the Listen A Minute site. As the name suggests, these are one-minute recordings on a variety of different topics. There are also ready-made gapfills for each text, so if your students are new to dictation, you can provide them with more structure before they try listening and writing the whole text.
The British Council also has a series of podcasts for A2+ learners in which Tess and Ravi chat together and interview guests about popular topics. Earlier episodes are quite long, so are ideal for learners to listen to on their commute to work. Students can also use the resources on the website to check their understanding, work with language points from the podcast and read the audioscript.
Higher level learners, or those preparing for PTE levels 4 or 5, should try an authentic podcast, such as This American Life. With over 600 episodes to choose from since starting in 1995, there’s something there on every topic imaginable, from stories of romantic misadventures to the story of a man who operates a lie detector. The hosts of the podcasts are Americans from different states, allowing students to hear different American accents.
How can I prepare my learners for different accents?
In PTE General, students will hear from a range of ages and nationalities, so students should get practice listening to as many different voices as they can.
Another site which is full of short dialogues is elllo.org. The podcast features presenters from around the globe so your students can hear a Jamaican talking to a German, or someone from Poland conversing with someone from Sri Lanka, for example.
And podcasts don’t need to only focus on improving students’ listening skills. In the BBC series The English We Speak, students can learn more about the English language as they listen.
Have you ever heard the phrase ‘There’s a method to my madness’? If you want to know where that phrase and many other idioms and colloquialisms come from, you can find more than 150 episodes to help your students improve their listening skills at the same as learning new phrases to incorporate into their vocabulary.
How can I encourage my students to listen to podcasts outside of class?
The first thing to do is engage them in the idea of listening to podcasts during your lesson. Listen to a podcast episode as a group; this will not only introduce them to the benefits of doing further listening practice at home, but it will also demonstrate how to navigate around the website. This means they won’t be overwhelmed when they go to the page themselves.
What’s more, as motivation is key to encouraging students to continue their learning outside the classroom, start with a topic they’ll be interested in.
Here are some ideas:
On the Stuff you should know website, students can listen to podcasts answering life’s big questions:
Similarly, Freakonomics Radio invites listeners to look at the world around them and consider the things we take for granted. However, at an average of forty minutes per episode, it may be too challenging for low-level students to maintain their concentration to make the most of listening.
Seven-minute Explainers from The Week are a manageable length and also have engaging content: Have you ever wondered why some people have allergies? Or why Yoda so strangely in Star Wars speaks?
For more ideas on using authentic listening material in class, visit our blog.
Are there any other podcasts designed specifically for language learners?
If you feel authentic content will be too challenging for your students, there are plenty of learner-friendly sites to choose from.
Luke’s English Podcast, for example, is produced to support language learners and is regularly updated to provide current affairs content for your students.
Podcasts in English also has hundreds of episodes, divided by level and can provide good practice of sections 3 and 4 of PTE General. Encourage students to take notes while they listen, then compare the notes to the audio script to mimic the test.
If you’re looking for more support in preparing students for PTE General, visit our Resources page to download sample exams, guides and test tips.