Turbocharge your reading and listening


in Beyond the Basics, Something to read, Tools & Techniques

It’s no secret – reading and listening are the key to language development. The more you read and the more you listen, the more your English will grow. It’s that simple. But there are some things you can do to turbocharge (add energy to) your reading and listening to make it more effective.

Practices that will help you turbocharge your reading and listening

Make good choices. The most effective reading and listening material makes it possible for you to focus completely on the story or the message. If you can’t, the material is too difficult or too boring, and you should find something else. Your time’s too valuable to waste it trying to read or listen to something that isn’t going to work well for you.

Practice narrow reading and listening. When you read or listen to several things by the same author or on the same topic, you understand more. Also, vocabulary and grammatical structures are usually repeated, so you see and hear them more often. Better understanding and repetition make it easier for your brain acquire, or pick up, more language.

Read and listen at the same time. Some students find things easier to understand when they see them and hear them at the same time. In addition, reading and listening at the same time helps builds connections between how the language looks and how it sounds. Read sometimes. Listen sometimes. Do both together sometimes.

Sources that will help you turbocharge your reading and listening

I’m sure you’ll be able to find to find something that interests you among these sources – the range, or variety, of topics is unbelievable! All of them provide transcripts. And most of them can be used for narrow reading and listening; I’ve marked those that can.

Many of the sources are podcasts, so you can subscribe, or sign up, for them and have them delivered to the app you use for listening to podcasts. You can also stream them from your browser or download them to your computer. A couple of them have iOS or Android apps that you can download and use.

The ESL Podcast  (intermediate/advanced)

If I could recommend only one online source for English learners, it would be the ESL Podcast, produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse.

Two days a week, the podcasts cover subjects related to life in the United States – daily life, business, entertainment, health/medicine, relationships, shopping, etc. Once a week, in the English Café, Jeff answers listeners’ questions about English and life in the United States.

Learning Guide accompanies each podcast. It contains definitions for some of the words in the podcast, a short article about American culture, and a complete transcript of the podcast.

You can practice narrow reading (using the Learning Guide) and listening by using the drop-down search tool on the home page to choose groups of podcasts on the same subject.

VOA Learning English Audio (intermediate/advanced)

VOA Learning English produces a number of daily and weekly audio programs:

  • As It Is takes a daily look at issues in the news in the United States and around the world.
  • American Mosaic is a weekly program about music, pop culture and life in the United State
  • In the News explains one of the week’s main news stories to help make sense of our world.
  • The Making of a Nation explains the history of the United States and how it and its people have developed.
  • Science in the News is a weekly show about news from the worlds of science, technology, and medicine.
  • This Is America looks at a major issue in American life and society each week and explores popular places around the United States.

VOA provides a variety of other activities for English learners. However, if I were choosing how to spend my time, I would choose to read and listen – time spent doing that will be much more profitable than time spent on other activities.

This American Life (advanced)

This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, is a popular, award-winning weekly radio show from National Public Radio (NPR).

The shows’ producers say it’s a combination of journalism (news reporting) and fiction. They use a story-telling style of journalism to describe what it’s like to be here, now, in the world. They sometimes describe themselves as “a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries.”

This American Life makes it easy to practice narrow reading and listening: each episode of the show is built around a theme, or idea, and contains a variety of stories on that theme.

Start by looking at This American Life Favorites.

TED (advanced)

Each year, TED conferences bring the world’s leading thinkers and doers together to share their ideas. Presentations are short – no more than 20 minutes – but they’re always informative and exciting.

TED video transcripts can be used to navigate the video – move forward and backward – by clicking on the text in the transcript.

You can experience a certain amount of narrow reading and listening by reading and listening to presentations in a specific topic area.

TED Radio Hour (advanced)

TED Radio Hour shows, from National Public Radio (NPR), are perfect for narrow reading and listening. Each show builds on a theme, or central idea, using material from a number of TED talks. Guy Raz, the host of TED Radio Hour says that he tries to lead listeners on “a journey through fascinating ideas, astonishing inventions, fresh approaches to old problems, and new ways to think and create.”

The TED Radio Hour Archive is a good place to start.

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (advanced)

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is an entertaining weekly quiz program hosted by Peter Sagal. This NPR show asks “what’s real news and what’s made up?” You can play along and test your knowledge against experts from the world of news and entertainment.

Fresh Air (advanced)

Fresh Air, also from NPR, is an award-winning daily magazine hosted by Terry Gross. It covers many aspects of contemporary life – such as politics, technology, the arts, science, important issues, and sports. Some people may call it a talk show, but it’s much more than that.

Stuff You Should Know (advanced)

Josh Clark and Charles (Chuck) Bryant have one goal: to teach you about common things and how they work. Sound boring? It’s not. Their podcasts are as diverse, or varied, as the world we live in.

Freakonomics (advanced)

“The hidden side of everything” – that’s the subtitle of Freakonomics. The program is built on an unusual partnership between journalist and author Stephen Dubner and award-winning econimist Steven Levitt. It asks questions you probably never thought to ask, and answers them in Stephen and Steven’s own unique style. Here are some recent questions:

  • Would a Big bucket of Cash Really Change Your Life?
  • Is Twitter Making Kids Smarter?
  • Who Wants a Haircut for $9.99?
  • Who Are The Most Successful Immigrants in the World?
  • Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce?

Academic Earth (advanced)

Academic Earth offers free online courses from the world’s top universities. You can view all the lectures from one class or use the playlists, which are lectures organized by theme – a good way to practice narrow reading and listening.

Most of the lectures include transcripts. Links to transcripts can be found under the Related Resources heading on the same page as the lecture video.

Practice narrow reading and listening by reading and listening to all the lectures in a course.

To use another effective strategy, choose classes you’ve already taken in your native language. The background information from what you’ve already learned will make the English class more understandable and help you acquire more English.

Start by looking at the list of courses.


I want to thank my friend and occasional student Bryan for helping me put this list together. Bryan’s a French lawyer, a father of two girls, and active in other activities, yet he spends one-and-a-half to two hours a day reading or listening to English. I don’t think you’ll be surprised when I tell you that his English is very good. Yours could be too if you take advantage of the suggestions and sources in this article!

Warren Ediger

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Bryan October 7, 2013

Thank you Warren for this post 😉

For all the readers of this blog, I just want to tell that things would not have been possible without the advice of Warren which helped me putting my English on the right track about 2 years ago. His advice will simply help you save time and money and…change your life.

The principle of reading and listening understandable and enjoyable English may seem very obvious and very straightforward, maybe too for those who like grammer/translation books, etc. (like me before), but it works if you are patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same applies for English and any other language.

We have a wonderful saying in France which says” Pourquoi faire compliqué quand on peut faire simple?” ie why complicate things when they can be simple? Something very important when you have a hectic life with a family and a full time job.

In other words: KISS (keep it simple stupid…for those who know :-))

Good luck to all of you and enjoy this wonderful stuff and all which is on this website. I would be happy to discuss with some of you some time.


Jehovanna Arcia October 12, 2013

Dear Doctor Warren Ediger:
It is great to have you back after your hiatus Doctor Warren…I was missing your inputs. I have been reading narrowly, completing the reading of four of John Grisham’s books. It is incredible how one’s vocabulary can improve by reading interesting books.

Many thanks for your generosity, I am going to take advantage and take as many online courses as I can. I knew about TED conferences, but not the radio. I likewise was told about VOA by a new epistolary friend who is an early retired Engineer from the Netherlands living in a rural area in my country. He has an impeccable English competence. This is something that also encourages a second learner to keep improving, to have epistolary friends in the target language, so that, I have been working on my listening skills with this VOA site. I was unaware of the existence of free courses online, and am going to start with courses about History. I am considering starting with the “History of Britain,” given my background knowledge in this subject matter, and my passion for history, and humanities. It would be interesting to hear expositions from the developed world. In this part of the world, Doctor Warren, history is important, but we take precocious, because there must be, sometimes, biases in the teaching of history. I have searched, and the professor lecturing about Britain, is a well renowned one from England. I would like more people to take advantage of these compelling lectures.

Blessings, Jehovanna

Andreu Martínez October 13, 2013

Warren, this is amazing! A lot of resources and podcast. I’m downloading right now through itunes Freakonomics and Fresh Air.

I have to check more carefully all these resources because Academic Earth seems to have more material since the times I downloaded some courses.

Hope you are doing well!

Dan October 17, 2013

Thanks Warren

As a radio listener, I do listen to almost everything you list above, and much more.
I would also add to that the radio program -Car Talk- that because the caller and the hosts describe things, parts of the car and places. Moreover at times they can even be funny.

I like the idea of turbocharging it grabbed my attention and brought me here.


Bryan October 17, 2013

Dan:I also have Car Talk in my list -in addition to those listed above- but it comes with no transcript and is pretty difficult to understand even for an advanced learner (Boston accent). i would also recommend Radiolab and The Moth which are great. There are plenty of podcasts out there but with all of these, you have a good bang for the buck (without paying actually coz everything is free at least for now)!
Jehovanna: I’ve read plenty of books by John Grisham and I agree they are great.
Take care.

Andreu Martínez October 18, 2013

Speaking about books John Boyne and Haruki Murakami ones are very interesting in my opinion. They are easy to read (sure for advanced learners). Boyne is Irish. Murakami is Japanese, but I think he lives in the States (Hawaii I would say). The books that I’ve read till now (downloaded from Apple ibooks) are easy also. Just I’m now reading one of his books.

Dan October 19, 2013

Thanks Bryan.

Dan October 20, 2013

What about HUMANKIND

I get it on Sundays morning on NPR.
Love it! I am listening to it right now.


Bryan October 23, 2013

Dear Andreu: I’m also planning to read IQ84 by Murakami but I was told it is a bit “weird”.

Dear Dan: talking about “weird” do you listen to the latest fad which is the podcast “Welcome to Nightvale”?…I’ve listened to 6 episodes and have trouble to jump on the bandwagon.
I will take a shot at Humankind.

Btw, do you listen to:
– The New Yorker Out Loud
– Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Always good to know people’s advice.

Kind regards,

Andreu Martínez October 25, 2013

Dear Bryan, you are right. I have read two books from Murakami. One was “normal”. The title is “What I talk about when I talk about running”. The other one was “strange”. The title is “Kafka on the shore”.

It has been told to me that the one you want to read is “strange” also. In any case is a successful one.

By the way, what about Paul Auster? Their books are strange also. I like very much his way of writing.

Another excellent author is Khaled Hosseini.


Bryan October 30, 2013


I read Auster’s New York Trilogy and enjoyed it. However, I’m not sure I would read all of his novels.

Hosseini’s Kite Runner is excellent and very good read for intermediate learners. I read it while listening to the audio read by the author himself in English with a twist of Dari/Farsi accent. I really enjoyed it.

If you want to read sth funny and rather easy, all about US culture, I invite you to read Bill Bryson’s books. You won’t regret it.

Sorry Warren if this blog is becoming a litterature café 🙂


[note: Hosseini’s books are excellent – for all readers, intermediate and advanced. WE]

Dan October 31, 2013

Thanks Bryan.

I was looking for something to read.
I think I am going to follow your advice and get something
of Bill Bryson.

Thank you again for your kindness.

Dan, Italy

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