Using podcasts in English language learning

Podcasts are a very simple and easily accessible tool that can do wonders for your language learning. Now that almost everyone has a smartphone and access to the internet, there’s also access to a vast array of audio resources for your listening pleasure. As the whole idea of podcasting may sound a bit too abstract, unless you’re already familiar with it, let me first briefly explain what podcasts are, and then I’ll share on how you can use them in language teaching and learning.

First off, a podcast is a digital audio file (typically an mp3 file) that you can download onto your computer or a smartphone. In the early days of podcasting, it was primarily radio stations that turned their programmes into podcasts so people could subscribe to their favourite shows, and listen to them on-demand, at their own convenience. Soon after, it was not only the established media outlets but also individual users who began creating and sharing their personal podcasts, on all topics imaginable. Whether you’re interested in politics, knitting, or an arcane subspecies of insects, there is bound to be a podcast on it that you can listen to. Additionally, many renowned universities have released entire lecture series and courses as podcasts, enabling you to listen to top-quality lecturers within the comfort of your home.

I won’t go into great detail on the importance of developing listening skills in language learning, or the theory behind it. Let’s just say that neglecting it is bound to impair your learning experience. It’s a bit like trying to learn how to ride a bicycle using only one leg. You might learn to do it that way eventually, but why waste your time like that? There’s a number of reasons why I warmly recommend the use of podcasts:

  • they are a simple way to introduce more English language content into your busy, everyday life
  • you can subscribe to a podcast of your choice, on a topic that is of personal interest to you (hugely important for motivation!)
  • you can listen to them any time, any place – perfect for long commutes or when you go for a nice, relaxing walk
  • unlike the audio materials accompanying most coursebooks, podcasts are a great way to get exposed to natural speech patterns at regular pace, and to a variety of English accents

That last point may pose a problem for learners who are at lower levels (beginner to pre-intermediate), but there are also podcasts designed specifically for language learners; later on I’ll give a few recommendations.

Apart from listening, what else can one do with podcasts? Many of them, especially the ones produced by public broadcasters, come with full transcripts available online. This means that learners can work on their reading skills as well, checking any parts they couldn’t understand well or looking up any new vocabulary. This is very much like the use of audio CDs accompanying graded readers.

In teaching, I often use excerpts from various podcasts in class, creating gap-fill and other activities focused on particular lexical or grammar areas. As an example, in the week leading up to the Oscars, I designed an exercise based on a radio programme on this year’s nominees, leaving gaps in the handout transcript for any words to do with the film industry. Students had to listen carefully for the missing words, and later on we checked their spelling together, discussed possible meanings, and went on to talk about their favourite films – now armed with some new and useful vocabulary.

In this particular example, the podcast served multiple functions:

  • it was topical and connected to a current event, thus adding to the students’ general knowledge;
  • the programme happened to be in American English – an accent I don’t normally use (although I can fake it, when necessary :)), which exposed my students to a sound of English different from mine;
  • the activity had a clear lexical focus, thematically tied in with other things we were discussing that week.
  • last but not least, it made everyone actually listen to what was being said; it demanded (but also happened to facilitate!) a concentrated effort, which is extremely important to maintain in a classroom environment.

Given that there are thousands upon thousands of podcasts out there, how to find relevant, quality content? Podcast apps such as iTunes, Podcast Addict and others contain searchable directories, in which podcasts are listed by topic, popularity, and other criteria (including whether they contain adult content; if you intend to use them in class, you need to be mindful of such things). Whether you’re a teacher or a student, this might take some experimenting, as some podcasts have either bad sound quality, or turn out to be little more than endless rambling. As a rule of thumb, I tend to stick to tried and tested programmes produced by public broadcasters, but there are many hidden gems created by regular folks, enthusiasts who have invested a lot of time and effort into making top-quality podcasts on a subject of their interest (a good indication of quality can be the number of downloads / subscribers, visible in most podcast apps).

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I’m hoping it might at least serve as a starting point for learners and ESL/EFL teachers who have had no experience with podcasts and who wouldn’t know where to start:

Learning English Broadcast

Back in the day, this Voice of America programme was broadcast on short waves and was known as VOA Special English. It goes under a different name now, but the concept has been essentially the same for decades. It’s a daily, 30-minute programme designed for English language learners, with shorter sentences, limited vocabulary and slower pace, making it convenient for learners who are at a pre-intermediate level and above.

While we’re at it, VOA has a whole website for learners at all levels, with loads of video and audio resources. You can access it here.

BBC English News Review

If you want to stay on top of the latest news and current affairs, you can subscribe to this podcast from the BBC. This one is probably going to be difficult to follow unless you’re at least at intermediate level. However, it’s very well designed: apart from the podcast itself, each weekly episode (about 10 minutes long) comes with additional activities found on the BBC Learning English website. You can also watch videos of each programme and download the accompanying PDF material.

Speaking of BBC Learning English, there’s a number of other BBC Learning English podcasts you or your students may benefit from, such as the Learning English Drama, 6 Minute Grammar, The English We Speak, and others. (Needless to say, they all teach British English.) Here’s the complete list of available podcasts.

LearnEnglish Podcasts from the British Council

The British Council has a number of websites and podcasts aimed at learners, from elementary to advanced levels. For some reason, the BC Learn English website doesn’t include direct subscribe links to podcast apps, so you can either download them from the website, or manually search for them within your podcast app (best to just search for “British Council” and see what comes up). You’ll find dozens of podcasts, specifically designed for different levels (from A2 to B1), covering a range of topics.

Personally, I have a slight problem with the British Council podcasts, as they tend to have the coursebook-y feel of the classroom CDs, which some students may find off-putting. However, it is a practical one-stop resource, as the website includes not only audio files, but also transcripts and interactive activities (for busy teachers, that’s extremely helpful and saves a lot of time).

Those who are upper-intermediate and above: head straight for the wonderful world of podcasting outside the ESL/EFL bubble. Depending on your needs and personal interests, consult any of the podcasting directories, see which podcasts grab your attention, and give them a try. I’ve been subscribed to dozens of them, most of which I’ve been regularly listening to for years. For the purpose of improving your general English, I would warmly suggest that you start by exploring podcasts produced by public boradcasters. In the English-speaking countries, public radio is practically synonymous with quality, relevance, and impartiality, as public broadcasters are obliged to work in the public interest. It’s a different matter whether they always do, but at least you can be sure of good audio quality, the use of standard English, and of a high standard of decency in public discourse.

So, if you / your students are upper-intermediate or above, look into the following broadcasters, and browse through their individual podcast directories to find content you may be interested in. (In the brackets I’ve included the set of dialects / accents predominantly heard on each of the networks.)

ABC Podcasts (Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Australian English)

BBC Podcasts (British Broadcasting Corporation; British English, occasionally including regional dialects)

CBC Podcasts (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Canadian English)

NPR Podcasts (National Public Radio; American English)

PRI Podcasts (Public Radio International; American English)

RNZ Podcasts and Series (Radio New Zealand; New Zealand English)

RTÉ Podcasts (Radio Telefís Éireann / Radio Television of Ireland; Hiberno-English)

There are more English-speaking public broadcasters out there, but this list should be more than enough to give you some idea of what’s available, and the wide selection of genres and topics you can easily access.

Have fun, and happy listening!

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