How to Use Podcasts to Improve your English – by Mark Smith
What is a podcast?
A podcast is a recording that is downloadable or streamable to your computer or smartphone. The recordings are usually part of a series. Over the last few years this medium has become very popular, and so many professional media institutions have been making them. The best news is they are almost always completely free!
Why use them?
Basically, they are a vast resource of listening material. Listening material is unique in that it can be used while you are doing other, often boring and unfulfilling, activities (waiting for a bus, doing housework, eating by yourself) which means that they are a very efficient way to get some studying done.
Don’t be put off by authentic English!
The idea of listening to authentic English that hasn’t been created with English learners in mind can be a daunting prospect – but it shouldn’t be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware it can be difficult to make sense of high-level rapid speech, which might also be full of unknown idioms. The thing is, though, you're alone with your device, some headphones and a pen and paper. Nobody's judging you, and all you have to do is understand as much as you can. This takes a little bit of patience, of course, but there are some great podcasts around these days that cater for all sorts of interests, making the work you put in really rewarding.
Below are some ideas to help you use podcasts to improve your English, as well as some advice about how to find them and how to choose them. I’ve also included a short list of my favourites.
To be honest, I usually recommend podcasts to students who are B2 and above. But if you're a lower level than this and you want the challenge, go for it!
Three methods of learning English with podcasts
So what exactly should you do?
Basically, the three ways to listen are extensively, intensively, or most usefully, a combination of the two.
The extensive method
Extensively means listening to a lot – perhaps a whole podcast of 40 minutes – in one go. This is ideal if you're on the move your daily commute or a session in the gym, for example. In these circumstances it’s not easy to stop and rewind or write anything. The secret to benefitting from this is having the confidence to enjoy something you can’t understand 100%.
Depending on your level, you might only understand 10 or 20% of what you're hearing – this is absolutely fine. The fact you're trying to pick out words and phrases you do understand, considering the context they're being used in, and using this information to try and make some sense of the recording means your brain is doing work that familiarises you with the form and patterns of language.
Another disadvantage is that it’s hard to maintain concentration for such a long time and you may sometimes find you haven’t really been listening for periods of time. There are two things I want to say about this. Firstly, it’s my view that even having English spoken in your ear, whether or not you're closely attending to it will have some kind of benefit. Secondly, the more you do this, the more you can increase your attention span, and over time your “zoning out” will be less frequent.
The intensive method
Intensively means listening to a short extract, usually multiple times, with a view to understanding all or nearly all of what is being said. As the name suggests, this is harder work, and probably best done at a desk with a pen and paper. You can stop and rewind the recording as often as you like, and you may find it useful to look words up in a dictionary and take notes.
Understanding something in its entirety can be satisfying. Be realistic about the number of words and phrases you want to learn. Between five and ten per study session is a good starting point. The main disadvantage of this method is that it can be quite boring – you don’t get much content for the time you spend on it. Secondly, you can’t be sure all the language you painstakingly look up and write down the meaning of with the intention of memorising is actually useful to you.
The combination method
So how about a combination of the above two methods? Try this:
1. Extensively listen to some or all of a podcast.
2. Choose a short section – about a minute or two – to listen to again. Pay particular attention to parts of the recording that make for an interesting extract. For example, an anecdote, a description of a process, a disagreement, or a joke.
3. Listen to your extract, writing down key words and phrases you can understand.
4. Prepare to listen again by writing down some questions you think you might be able to answer after a third hearing. It doesn’t matter if you can actually answer them or not it’s simply a way of engaging with the content.
5. Listen for a fourth and final time, this time trying to note down unknown words and phrases that are preventing your understanding.
6. Look up the meaning of these words and phrases and choose some to learn.
The above method is not the only useful way, but it’s one my learners tell me they find motivating. The number of times you listen to some or all of a podcast is, of course, entirely up to you!
Top 5 podcasts for improving your English skills
Here are some links to five of my favourite podcasts, which are perfect for those learning English:
“Investigating a strange world.”
Really cool accessible science stories.
“The hidden side of everything.”
Fascinating stories about how many facets of our everyday lives are affected by economics.
“Mostly we do journalism, but an entertaining kind of journalism that’s built around plot. In other words, stories!”
“A podcast about ideas. Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, and Sony Award-winning radio host Geoff Lloyd talk to smart thinkers from around the world.”
5. The Inquiry
“The Inquiry gets beyond the headlines to explore the trends, forces and ideas shaping the world.”
This one is a good starting point since it always very tightly structured and clearly explained.
All of the above have extensive archives for you to trawl through and pick ones that sound interesting to you.