How to Improve Listening Fluency

Learn English Listening Fluency

Listening fluency is the ability to automatically understand spoken English. (Chang and Millet, 2014) It is a difficult skill to learn. Improving fluency takes a lot of time and effort

Working hard to improve listening fluency is a great way to improve English communication skills. With better fluency, students can hear all or most of the important words, especially the hard to hear word chucks, blended sounds and advanced vocabulary. Plus students can understand the ideas.

Students improve English listening fluency via extensive listening. If you spend a lot of time listening to good quality sound files, English skills will go up.

Sounds reasonable, right?

What is Extensive Listening?

EFL students listen to lots of easy to understand and enjoyable sound files. In order to work well, there are three basic rules that students should follow.

1. Easy Listening

Extensive listening means easy listening to audio books, sound files or radio programs. If the words are too hard to understand, extensive listening does not work. Pick a listening file which has easy words. If you can understand about 95% of the words, that is the right level for you.

2. Fun English Stories

Extensive listening should be enjoyable. That’s why students pick topics they enjoy. If the story is boring, students will lose interest and won’t listen anymore. If students don’t listen, they can’t get better.

3. Short Listening Files

Students should listen to the same story many times in order to get good results. But, unlike students who cram for an English test, the best way to improve listening fluency is to repeat the story every few days for a few weeks. Not once a day for a week. And not 10 times in one day. This is called the spaced repetition system.

What about Listening and Reading?

Some people believe that extensive listening mixed with silent reading is a good way to learn English vocabulary. This is sometimes called Reading While Listening (RWL).

Some Background Research

There is research which says that listening to a sound file and reading the same text at the same time is a good way to increase vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension.

  • A study by Vidal (2010) found that EFL university students who read academic notes or listened to academic lectures learned more vocabulary than students who did receive special vocabulary material. Equally important, the students who listened to lectures remembered more vocabulary over time than the students who did the readings. (Meier, 2015)
  • A study of basic level EFL students at the University of Puerto Rico compared two groups: one group read a book and one group read the same book while listening to the audio file. In a standard comprehension test, the students who listened while reading got higher scores. (Woodall, 2010)
  • A study of sixth graders in Poland found that RWL helps lower level students achieve increases in comprehension test scores. Higher level students who learned with RWL did not achieve statistically significant increases in test scores compared to reading alone or listening alone. (Maryniak, 2014)

Chang and Millet Research

The impact of RWL on listening fluency has been studied in three projects reported by Chang and Millet (2014). A summary of the results is below.

In a 2011 study with 7 ESL students, students who read books while listening to the audio file had strong improvements in vocabulary knowledge and listening fluency compared to students who did not do the listening. These students read and listened to 28-30 graded audio readers over 28 weeks.

A similar study in 2012 involving 34 students found a much smaller improvement. The main difference was the amount of material which the student read and listened to. The students read and listened to 15 audio graded readers over a 26 week period, which is an average of less than one book per week per student. In the previous year, each student read and listened to about one book per week.

A 2013 study involving 113 low to intermediate level EFL university students reported interesting differences. Students were divided into three different groups, each with a different teaching program: reading only, listening only and reading while listening. Ten level 1 graded readers were used in the study (Oxford Bookworm series, average 5600 words per book; 95% of words in the 2000 word range; audio for each book about 59 minutes). The reading while listening group did a lot of work. First, they read the text and listened to the audio file at the same time in a reading class. Later, the students listened to the same audio file and answered 200 fluency questions without looking at the text in a listening class. The listening only group listened to the audio file and answered fluency questions at the same time.

Students in each study group completed a pre-test and three post tests. Compared to pre-test scores, the RWL group reported the highest improvement in listening fluency.

  • The RWL group record an average increase of 28% in three separate post-tests.
  • The reading only group had low improvements (ranging from 3% to -6% in post-tests).
  • The listening only group had post-test scores that were between 13% and 19% compared to the pre-test.

Results and Conclusions

Change and Millet put forward a number of observations and suggestions that might help teachers and students develop an effective RWL plan.

  • The book and audio material need to be level appropriate for the students. It must also be interesting in order to sustain motivation.
  • A good amount of input is required each week in order to bring about positive results. The authors suggest less than one book (5600 words, and one hour of listening) per week might be insufficient.
  • There is a suggested order and sequence of tasks which combine skills. First read while listening. Second, listen only. This order helps students learn unfamiliar words before doing listening only.






Anna Chang and Sonia Millett, The Effect of Extensive Listening on Developing L2 Listening Fluency: Some Hard Evidence. ELT Journal Volume 68/1 January 2014.

Amanda Meier, L2 Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition Through Extensive Listening to Podcasts. Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics. Vol. 15, NO. 2 (2015).

Billy Woodall, Simultaneous Listening and Reading in ESL: Helping Second Language Learners Read (and Enjoy Reading) More Efficiently. TESOL Journal 1.2, June 2010.

Aleksandra Maryniak, Effectiveness of Reading, Listening and Reading-While-Listening–Quasi-Experimental Study. ICT for Language Learning, 7th edition, 2014.

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