Boost Your English Listening Abilities with Videos and Podcasts

I love watching videos online, and I love sharing my favorite videos with my friends and students. That being said, there are certain videos I tend not to share with beginner level ESL students. Some videos provide a listening experience that is simply too challenging for beginner learners, for one reason or another.

If you’re almost ready to take the TOEFL though, you’re probably not a beginner. Most TOEFL test-takers have intermediate to advanced English skills. And many of you reading this may be looking for ways to boost your already-strong English skills.

In this post, I’ll show you a few types of online videos and podcasts that English learners often struggle with. Master the English in these listening resources, and you will be a truly strong English listener. (Find out how to get even more out of these resources by following Magoosh’s top TOEFL Listening tips!)


Animated cartoons

This may seem like a strange place to start. But quite a few ESL students find the English in cartoons to be a little difficult to understand. This is because cartoon characters—especially in American animation—tend to speak in very strange, comical-sounding voices.

If you can learn to understand what Donald Duck says in his old cartoons on the Internet, you have truly mastered your English listening skills. While Donald Duck’s weird, scratchy voice is an extreme example, lots of other classic cartoon characters have strange ways of talking. Most of the Looney Tunes characters (Bugs Bunny and his friends) have regional dialects, speech impediments, and so on. And there’s plenty of strange cartoon English in newer cartoons too, in TV shows such as The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

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“Vlogs” refers to blogs in video form. Vlogs are one of the most popular video formats on YouTube. Generally, these kinds of videos feature the knowledge, opinions, or lives of their creators (and sometimes all three).

Vlogs that focus on knowledge and opinions feature a speaking style that is unique to the Internet, and very challenging for ESL learners. Typically, knowledge/opinion vlog hosts speak quickly and loudly, shouting their knowledge at their viewers at a fast pace. One student I work with aptly described this style of vlog speech as “INFORMATIONINFORMATIONINFORMATION!” videos. This is a very appropriate nickname—the words really do all run together at a crazy pace. Watching these vlogs and truly learning to understand them is an impressive ESL feat.

Vlogs that feature the lives of their creators don’t usually have the strange super-fast webspeak I’ve just described. But “slice of life” vlogs are challenging in a different way. These vlogs feature an authentic look at real speech, with an emphasis on conversation. And conversation, in its most natural form, is fast paced, a little disorganized, and challenging to follow. Watching “life” vlogs can really help you build your conversational listening skills.

The most-watched vlogs on YouTube also provide an interesting look at the popular culture of the English speaking world. If you want to build both your language and cultural skills, top-ranked vlogs such as Community Channel, Amazing Phil, Todrick Hall, Niki and Gabi, and Shaytards are good places to start. You may also want to check out some of XMojo’s top 10 vlog lists, which are themselves narrated in the “INFORMATIONINFORMATIONINFORMATION!” style.


Informative podcasts

English language informational podcasts tend to fall into one of two categories: educational films designed primarily to teach, and “infotainment,” an entertaining discussion of facts and ideas. Above all, informative podcasts test your ability to listen to English for long periods of time. It’s not uncommon for an informational podcast last more than one, two, or even three hours. Podcasts are also challenging because they often feature authentic conversations and recordings of natural speech.

BBC offers educational podcasts about a wide range of interesting topics; for the American equivalent of this, you can check out NPR’s podcasts. BBC and NPR lean toward the strictly educational end of podcasting, but definitely have some entertaining moments as well. In contrast, the Cracked Podcast takes on serious issues with a funny twist, and leans more toward infotainment than pure education. (Be warned that Cracked and other podcasts like it may contain some foul language.) To seek out podcasts that interest you and provide a good level of challenging English practice, you can browse podcast networks like iTunes and Earwolf.

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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