[email protected]: Teachers Reply - What Podcasts Should I Listen To?

Recently, we received a comment on our How to Use a Podcast to Learn English post, asking what podcasts would be best for upper-intermediate  learners. We asked a few of our teachers for their recommendations, and here is what they had to say:

Jonny Lewington, Senior Teacher, Kaplan London, Covent Garden

Podcasts are a great way to expand your listening skills.  I agree that the most important thing is to find topics that you are interested in.

However, regarding the level, in English teaching it is generally believed that the best texts are those which are just above your level.  That means texts which you can follow about 80% of, but which still have new vocabulary and sentence structures. If you can’t follow the main points of something you are listening to, it is unlikely to benefit your listening skills.

For podcasts, I have some personal favourites.  One of them is Ricky Gervais’ podcast.  Another is the storytelling podcast ‘the Moth’,  which is free on iTunes. On the Moth, they  tell a different story every week, but some are easier to understand than others (it depends on the speaker’s accent!).

There are a few podcasts made for English learners, but to be honest there are none I would recommend as most of them are both too easy and also about boring topics.

Your final question was ‘How can I find something in between – not too easy that makes me bored, but not so difficult that it makes me frustrated?’. I normally recommend podcasts for advanced students, because real podcasts are always going to be difficult to understand.

If the podcasts I have suggested are all too difficult, my recommendation would be to stop listening to podcasts, and start watching videos instead!  Videos are great for learning because the pictures will help you to understand what is going on, even when you don’t understand the words.

You also often have the option of using subtitles, which is still good for your listening skills, as long as it doesn’t make it too easy for you.

Generally, films, TV shows and video talks are the best things to help students to develop their listening and pronunciation. With videos, there are a lot of options.  My favourite videos are the talks at TED.com. These have transcripts in English and are about a lot of different topics.

There are also comedies like the British ‘Peep Show’, which is very funny, and sitcoms such as 'How I Met Your Mother'. For more difficult language, shows like ‘The Seven Wonders of the Universe’ are really good too.

Tiziana Arnold, Study Centre Manager, Kaplan Cambridge (who has previously written a blog post on How to Use Memory Tricks To Learn Languages)

In my experience as a teacher and as a learner (I am Italian), if you listen just for the sake of listening, you might improve, but there is a way to accelerate learning that really works for me and my students, too!

The main thing to remember is that you can listen in lots of different ways, and that depends on what you want or have to do with your listening… If you are listening just as entertainment, focus on what you can understand only, sit back and relax. You will probably learn a lot on the topic being discussed, but not so much English. You might be skilled and be able to pick up interesting expressions or sentences, but it can be quite hard.

If your aim is to improve your listening in order to be a more complete learner, improve your grammar, vocabulary and fluency in the process, then you should probably do something more than just listen, and you’d definitely need to listen more than once.

I use TED.com a lot with my advanced and higher intermediate students. TED talks are really as riveting, fascinating and inspiring as the website promises. The topics are varied, and most of all, it’s authentic English, in all its varieties, not “purpose-built” for foreign students. So I’m sure you’ll find it challenging!


1. Choose a TED talk, find any length, any topic, but it must be a talk with subtitles in your own language as well.

2. Look at the title and start thinking about it.

3. Watch the talk and take as many notes as you can, don’t stop it.

4. Read the transcript in English and look for interesting/difficult/new words, but stick to a certain limit of, say, 10… You don’t want to overdo it…

5. Listen again without subtitles and add to your notes.

6. Look at the transcript in your language. Read through it, and as you do that, try to imagine how the speaker would say what you are reading. Choose only a few sentences that you find interesting or challenging. Then click on the sentence you are reading in your language with the mouse, the video will take you to the part of the talk where the speaker says that in English. Check if you were close or totally wrong! (this will improve your vocabulary, grammar, speaking and writing, too!)

7. Listen one more time and see… you will understand EVERYTHING!

I know in real life this is not something you can do, but you will train your ear to be more attentive, to capture what people say and predict how they will say it. When people speak, they usually use a series of “ready-made” sentences which are really easy to predict. Also, but learning more vocabulary, you will find it easier to understand what people say. It’s fantastic to be able to click on a sentence in your own language and hear it in English.

It does take some time to do all that, but nothing gets better without a bit of effort!

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