Active VS Passive Listening

It’s another day and another new skill to review and improve! Welcome to the 2nd activity in the final week of my August Learning Plan! I cannot believe we are almost finished! Time has flown by, hasn’t it?

If you are new to this English learning blog, well I am happy to have you! And don’t worry! It’s not too late to join in on the fun and participate in all of the exciting, educational, and interactive exercises we’ve been reviewing the past few weeks. For a quick review, we’ve brushed up on our reading, speaking, and writing skills, and are finishing the month off with our listening skills!

Activity 1 had you learn in one of my favorite ways, through TV! Last year I posted a Free Friday lesson plan, using a worksheet I created to help you maximize your learning experience with Breaking Bad. On that worksheet, you’ll find vocabulary, comprehension questions, and post-show discussion questions that you can talk about with a friend or converstaion partner.

Now, on to Activity 2, today’s post, which will help you differentiate, develop, and improve very important listening skills: active and passive listening. I am sure so far you’ve only heard these terms used for the grammar concept, differing in emphasis of the subject, but can you tell me the difference between the two when it comes to listening?


I can wait… 🙂

Let me first present you with a scenario. Imagine you are sitting with some friends at a restaurant in your home town, surrounded by people speaking your native tongue. How many side conversations (conversations at other tables) do you think you could pick up (hear and understand)? Have you ever overhead, by accident, a conversation others were having, just because some of the words went into your ear and caught your attention? Did you notice that you weren’t actually trying to listen, it just happened!? Well this can be described as passive listening, and it’s something that happens with no effort (as long as those ears are able to hear!). Being able to passively listen can help you dramatically while taking an academic test (TOEFL, IELTS), in the classroom, during meetings, watching movies, and can allow you to better follow conversations. Increasing this skill will simultaneously, and naturally help you improve active listening as well, when you are very focused on what is being said to understand and follow the dialogue.

Improving Passive Listening

There’s no deep, dark secret that I am going to share with you today. Sorry! Improving your passive listening takes time, practice, and dedication! You are improving it, little by little with your exposure to more English; however, without doing the practice and exercises, this improvement may be slow. Most often you will practice active listening in school, or while self-studying; you’ll actively take notes, respond to comprehension questions, and summarize what was heard. Don’t worry if that’s all you’ve been practicing; remember, just as I mentioned that passive listening will improve active, it’s the same the other way around! Surrounding yourself with English as much as you can, especially if you’re not in an English speaking country will really help improve these skills. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend reviewing my post: Increase English Speaking Fluency, just click and enjoy!

I am going to get you to practice both skills today, and help you start to recognize where your listening weaknesses are. Be prepared that this exercise will take some time, at least 30 minutes to really review, so make sure you give yourself some uninterrupted time to improve your skills. OK?


TED talks are wonderful! They’re one of my favorite learning resources because of the video option, of course, as well as subtitles and available transcripts. I did have a brief love for Umano, but Dropbox has stolen them away, so TEDtalks will remain my number one! I encourage you to find more videos that you find interesting on TED, and complete the following exercise many different times to continue building these skills. I choose to use the video, Remember to Say Thank You, because it’s inspiring, and about something we can all relate to, relationships. You can find the video by clicking the title above, or visiting:

Don’t be tempted to read the transcript first, or listen in any other language other than English. We’re working on listening here…


I want you to start with passive listening, which I know might seem strange because I told you this requires no effort, yet you are doing an exercise to practice… but bear with me! For this exercise you will need to do something that will keep you semi-distracted while the 3 minute video plays in the background. This will help you simulate, or “pretend” to be passive about it. Some things you can do: wash the dishes, get ready for the day (shower, hair, makeup, etc..), prepare a meal, clean up your house, etc..  Doing these other tasks will bring your mind’s attention away from the audio, but make sure you are still able to hear what is being said (ex: don’t leave the room).

When the audio is done (about 3 and a half minutes), grab a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and write down everything you heard. Whether it’s details you think are important, or small insignificant pieces of information, write it down.


The next part will have you do some active listening, play the audio again, except this time focus on what you hear and take notes as your listen. On a separate piece of paper (separate is important), write down the main ideas, small details, and try to take notes summarizing the entire 3.5 minute presentation.


Compare the two pieces of paper. What information did you hear passively and actively? What information did you not hear while passively listening? This is where you can begin to identify your weaknesses. Did you miss vocabulary words you didn’t know, grammar concepts you aren’t familiar with, or is the topic outside of what you’re comfortable relating with in English? Identifying these weaknesses will show you new areas you can start reviewing and practicing, maybe they are things you weren’t sure about! Add new vocabulary to your notebook (yes, you should have one of these), jot down (write quickly) new or unfamiliar grammar concepts, and do a quick writing activity where you reflect on what you heard: did you agree with what was said, what do you think about the topic?


I am going to say this part is optional (not required) if you don’t have the time, because it’s the first 3 parts that are most important to improve these skills. However, if you want to take your learning further, then this section will have you read the transcripts and identify even more new vocabulary, grammar concepts and deepen your understanding of the material. As you did in part 3, identify the things you didn’t hear or understand while listening, that you’re able to read and understand. This will help you identify weaknesses, and increase your skills.

When you don’t have time to complete this whole exercise, it’s important to continue doing things that will help your passive listening skills. So whenever you’re home, make sure you have something in English playing in the background. Turn on the TV, radio/Spotify/Pandora, or an internet video to play in the background while you’re doing something else. If you’re able to do this at work, do it there, too! If you do find that you have a few extra moments before you move on to the rest of your day’s activities, then take some notes about what you heard and refer to it later when you can complete the whole exercise.

Let me know how your exercise goes, what you complete, and if you found another TED (audio/video) that you found interesting and would like to share with the other readers. I look forward to hearing of your successes, and helping you overcome your challenges!

Happy Studying ♥

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