How to use VOA Learning English resources effectively

My students know how much I keep talking about the importance of listening, always making new suggestions about podcasts they could subscribe to or audio content they can access online. So, here’s another post of that variety!

Let me first briefly explain why I’m so obsessed with listening. Firstly, it was mainly through listening that I learned English (and later German). While formal school lessons helped a lot, for picking up correct pronunciation and new vocabulary, listening proved to be indispensable. Of course, all four skills are important (reading, writing, speaking and listening); they all lean onto each other and need to be worked on in equal measure, but in my personal case, it was listening that really did the trick.

Secondly, listening is an activity you can easily organise based on your own schedule, needs and interests. Writing can be time-consuming, speaking practice is not always possible, reading requires focus and concentration… With listening, there’s no excuse! You can do your laundry, cook dinner or go for a long walk while listening to something using your smartphone or an MP3 player. (In that sense, podcasts are fantastic, as you can get them for free, on any subject imaginable, and listen to them whenever you want. Please look at some of my other posts that were specifically about the use of podcasts.)

Now, for the purpose of language learning, we need to approach listening with a bit more focus and attention, using resources that are in some way adapted to learners. Here I’d like to give some advice on how you can use one of my favourite resources: the VOA Learning English website. It’s been designed by the Voice of America in partnership with English language teachers. It used to be called VOA Special English, because they use limited and consistent vocabulary, simpler sentence patterns, and audio segments are read at a slower speed (this is known as “controlled language”). It’s just perfect for learners.

While there are language courses available on the VOA Learning English website (mostly at the beginning level), here we’ll look into how you can use individual programmes. As an example, let’s say we want to learn something about Edgar Allan Poe, or maybe to listen to a radio drama based on one of his works.

First, go to Type in the search box (found in the upper right corner of the website) the key words – in this case, literally “Edgar Allan Poe”. You’ll get dozens of results, listing all the instances in which his name appears on the website. Search results are given in chronological order, so let’s use the most recent one, which at the time of writing happens to be Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter”.

When you click on the link, you will immediately notice that you can use this resource in three ways: there’s a video on top which shows you the transcript of the story as you listen; then there’s a downloadable audio file that you can just use for listening; finally, there’s the whole transcript that can be used as a stand-alone reading practice. Ideally, you should use all three – not necessarily in one sitting; you can split this into a three-day activity, or whatever works best for you. There’s no hurry here – it’s best to do this slowly and with full concentration. Otherwise, it’s likely going to be a waste of time.

At the bottom of the page, there’s a short list of more complicated words (with definitions), as well as an interactive quiz about the story, which you can use as a comprehension check.

Another thing I would advise is keeping vocabulary notes. Write down any interesting words or phrases – especially the ones you found familiar or could understand, but would normally never think of using (unusual verb patterns often fall into this category). This helps to reinforce and activate your existing knowledge.

All of this may sound like a big project, but you can easily cut it into smaller, more manageable bits. Say, you could just listen to the story on a Monday, do the listening + reading combo on a Tuesday, do the reading + take vocabulary notes on a Wednesday, complete the quiz on a Thursday, and maybe write a paragraph about the story on a Friday (not necessarily retelling it, but rather commenting on what you liked / didn’t like about it; how it made you feel, etc.). Design your own step-by-step approach that you know you can actually complete over a reasonable period of time. As you can see, this doesn’t need to take more than 15 minutes a day.

I took the Edgar Allan Poe feature as a mere example. You should definitely choose content you’re really interested in – that’s a big motivation factor! Cut it into small, manageable segments and work on them day by day. It’s an easy and effective way to make language learning an integral part of your day, while not being a boring piece of homework.

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