Improving your listening skills

In this post, I thought we might take a break from grammar and talk about listening skills. There are some good hints, and examples of FCE listening scripts on the Ready for FCE Listening page, but this post is about improving listening in general.

Baby Metal \m/

First of all, as you learn a second language, you will find that your listening skills will improve more quickly than your speaking skills; it is natural to be able to understand more than you can say when you communicate in your second language. There are certain things that you can do, and avoid doing, in order to improve your listening skills even faster, however.

1. Immerse yourself in the language.

If you really want to improve your English, the best way to do it is to live, work and study in an English speaking country. If you are having English lessons, that is a great start, and listening classes will have an impact on your listening skills. They will not allow you to improve as much as socialising and working with English speaking friends and co-workers though.

This is good news! It means that you can go out and have a drink or a meal with English speaking friends and call it “studying”.

I’m “studying” at the bar tonight with my English speaking friends.

Of course, all that socialising costs money, so the best thing to do is get a job working alongside English speakers. I can honestly say that from my own experience, these two things – socialising and working with native speakers- helped me to improve my second language skills more than anything else. In fact, I learned more from living in Japan for 6 months than I did in 3 years of Japanese language study at university. English is no different.

2. Listen to music

We all love music of one genre or another. What better way to improve your listening skills than to discover new artists and bands who sing in English! One of the best things about listening to English through songs is that when people sing, they naturally do a lot of the things that native speakers do when they speak.

How many times have you told an English teacher,

I understand you when you speak, but outside the classroom, people speak too quickly!

When people speak (and when they sing) their words run together, the pace is faster sometimes, and slower others. Their tone and volume change. They use slang.

Listening to music helps you to get practice at hearing native English, delivered at an authentic speed, but from the comfort of your own home/ car/ bus ride.

If you love music as much as me, you will be happy to try the website below. (Just click on the image) Lyrics training lets you listen to your favourite songs, watch the film clip, and type the missing words from the lyrics displayed on your screen. For an FCE student, I recommend starting with the Intermediate level, and progressing from there.

Try lyrics training; you won’t be sorry

3. Don’t try to translate everything!

When you are trying your hardest to understand what someone is saying in English, it can be quite stressful at times. There are so many different words with similar meanings, not to mention all the words that are pronounced the same and have different meanings! Then there is all the slang. If you are living and learning English in Australia, this can cause some real problems, because we love to shorten everything! (Take a look at the video below if you want to know what I mean)


What does all this have to do with translating? Well, if you try to translate each and every word that you don’t understand, it slows you down, a lot. While you are busy trying to find the meaning of that word in your brain, you have missed the next few words, and now you are lost. On the other hand, if you try to listen for the general meaning of what the person is saying, without trying to understand every word perfectly, you will actually understand more. Listening for the words you know, looking at the person’s body language, and thinking about why they are communicating (the context) will help you to understand more of what you hear.

4.Watch movies in English

(and yes, subtitles are okay, if you use them properly)

The last tip I have for improving your English, is to watch movies in English. Movies are enjoyable, and help motivate us to learn. They are full of examples of authentic (“real”) English, and may even help us to understand more about the culture of the countries where it is spoken.

In the beginning, it’s always a good idea to try to find a movie that does not rely too much on dialogue (spoken English). For this reason, even as an adult, some children’s movies can be a good place to start. Of course, you can always watch any movie you like with the subtitles on. Even though they do tend to distract a little bit from what is happening on the screen, having the written words there as you listen will help you to better understand what you are watching. This will hopefully help you to enjoy the movie more.

Another great way to use subtitles in a movie, is to help with your pronunciation. A former student of mine told me about this, and I thought it was a great idea. He would watch a movie with the subtitles on, and occasionally, he would pause the movie, and read the subtitles aloud as he tried to copy the actor’s pronunciation, timing and tone of voice. Basically, he was mimicking (copying) the actor. This is a great way to improve your listening and pronunciation.

So that’s it for improving your listening. There are of course other ways to do it, such as taking English lessons, joining a English practice meet up, and many more. The suggestions above should help you to see the biggest improvements in the shortest time, however. Feel free to contact me if you have questions, or a suggestion for other ways that helped you to improve your listening.


Past Tenses and Time Conjunctions

Welcome to this week’s blog on how to use past tenses with a variety of time words (time conjunctions). This post continues on from where last week’s post finished. If you haven’t read the first post, or the Grammar section yet, it might be a good idea to start there.

This week you will see how different time words can be used with different tenses, and how those time words help to show the order of past events. Using time conjunctions also allows you create more complex sentences, which is generally a better choice in the FCE exam than just using lots of simple sentences. So, without further ado, here it is.

The following sentences are designed to show you how to use each of the 4 past tenses with a range of time conjunctions (such as when, as, while, by the time, before, after etc.) Each sentence starts the same way, but finishes with a different tense.

  • When you look at the following sentences, you should decide which action happened first, and which one was second ( I arrived or the movie started).
  • In addition, each sentence uses the time conjunction “when”. When is a versatile time conjunction which can mean different things in different sentences. For each of the following sentences you should also find an alternative for the word when. For example, you might need to use before, after, by the time or as.

1. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie started.

2. When I arrived at the cinema the movie was starting.

3. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie had started.

4. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie had been running for 15 minutes.

  • Notice that in all 4 sentences, the first clause uses when with past simple tense.
  • The second clause in each sentence uses a different past tense. Past simple in sentence 1, past continuous in sentence 2, past perfect in the 3rd sentence and finally past perfect continuous in the 4th sentence.

So, which action was first and which one happened second? What does when mean in each case?

Sentence 1. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie started.

In this sentence both clauses are in the past simple. In this case, 1st I arrived at the cinema and 2nd the movie started. In this sentence, the word “when” could be replaced with AFTER.

  • “After” is used with the first action/event.

Sentence 2. When I arrived at the cinema the movie was starting.

In this sentence there are 2 actions which overlap. The movie starting is the longer action which is interrupted by me arriving (and continued after I arrived). Although they overlap, the movie started just before I arrived, so the movie started 1st, and 2nd I arrived. However, as both events overlap, I could use the word AS instead of when.

  • “As” is used when 2 actions overlap or happen at the same time. As is used with the shorter action.
  • If I changed the order of the sentence, I could use “While” with the longer action

(e.g. While the movie was starting, I arrived)

Sentence 3. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie had started.

In this sentence, The movie started 1st and I arrived 2nd. However, in this sentence I begin with the second action When I arrived at the cinema and then talk about something which happened before that – the movie had started. This is why past perfect tense is used to describe past before the past.

  • Past perfect simple tense is used to describe past before the past when the focus is a completed action (or you are using a state verb which cannot be used in the continuous form e.g. feel, think, know etc.)
  • In this sentence when can be replaced by BY THE TIME.
  • “By the time” is usually used with either past perfect tense or past perfect continuous when talking about the past.
  • It also means the same as “before”.

Sentence 4. When I arrived at the cinema, the movie had been running for 15 minutes.

This sentence is very similar to sentence 3. The only difference is that past perfect continuous tense is used with an action that was not complete. Therefore, When I arrived at the cinema happened 2nd and the movie had been running for 15 minutes before that (1st).

  • Past perfect continuous tense is used when the first action was not complete when/ until the second action occurred
  • It is used to focus on the length of time (for 15 minutes) rather than on the completed action.
  • Depending on the circumstances, the first action may or may not continue after the second action occurs.

So there you have it. Past tenses and how they work with different time conjunctions. Hopefully this has been good revision for the last post on past tenses, and maybe something new added in with the time conjunctions.

Use the link below to test what you have learned with a Kahoot. It will be open for the next 2 weeks.

Now that you know how to use past tenses, the next post will be on using future tenses, which are actually very similar grammatically to past tenses. Don’t forget that you can use the Contact form to ask a question, or request a topic. See you next time and good luck with your study.


Welcome to the First Blog Post

Welcome to the first of many posts on the Ready for FCE blog, designed to help you get a better understanding of the knowledge and skills needed to do well in the FCE exam. This post is designed to follow on from the content covered in the Grammar section of Ready for FCE. Before you look at today’s blog, you may like to check out the Grammar page. With that in mind, let’s take a look at our first topic.

Past Tenses

Looking at the above meme, you may think that this week’s topic is dad jokes. While I love a good dad joke, and will use them probably more than you would like, this week’s topic is actually past tenses.

Why Past Tense?

I decided to start with this topic, because when I look at students’ work, particularly when I am marking their writing, I find that past tenses account for many of the errors I find. Past tenses is also a good place to start, because once you understand past tense, the future tenses are easier to understand too.

The future content of this blog will be built on, and expand on, the grammar fundamentals covered in the Grammar section of this website. Furthermore, you will need a solid understanding of the 12 tenses to be able to properly understand future grammar topics, such as Conditionals and Reported Speech.

So what are the different past tenses? And how are they used? There are 4 past tenses, which are listed in the sections below. Each section has some basic information about the tense. At the bottom of the page, you will find links to extra materials, a Kahoot quiz for practice, and links to some particularly useful textbooks on the subject of grammar.

Past Simple Tense.

Past Simple Tense is used to describe the following in the past:

finished actions.

I went out for dinner with my wife last night.

habits/ routines.

When I was a child, I often rode my bike around the neighbourhood. (This tense is often used with adverbs of frequency, such as never, hardly ever, sometimes, often, usually and always, to show that this was a routine, not just a once off).

states .

I was very tired after the game last weekend.

The past tense of the verb will differ, depending on whether the verb is Regular (“ed” for past tense), or Irregular. For example, Walk is a regular verb, so the past tense is walked. Eat is an irregular verb, so the past tense is ate, (not eated).

Past Continuous Tense (Was/were + Ving)

Past Continuous Tense is used to do the following:

Describe an action in progress at a specific time in the past.

I was watching TV at 8pm last night.

Describe a longer action in the past that was interrupted by a shorter action. Basically, 2 things happened in the past, and past continuous is used for the longer action, past simple for the shorter one.

I was watching TV last night when my boss called me.

Set up the background to a story. (Past Tenses are also called “narrative tenses”, because we tell stories with them).

It was a dark and stormy night. Tim was driving home. The wind was howling, it was raining cats and dogs, and Tim was driving recklessly.

Past Perfect Simple Tense (Had + Past Participle)

Past before the past

Past Perfect Simple Tense is used to describe something which happened before another event in the past. In other words, we often refer to this tense as being “Past before the past”. We use the past simple tense to talk about a past action, then the past perfect simple tense for something that happened before that. Past Perfect Simple Tense focuses more on the action.

By the time I left the restaurant, I had eaten an entire pizza, all to myself!

In the above example, I ate a whole pizza, then I left the restaurant. If I tell the story starting with leaving the restaurant (1), I go back further to talk about eating all the pizza (2). This is when I use past perfect simple tense.

Past Perfect Simple Timeline

You should use past perfect simple when one action is completed before another action starts. In the above example, I finished eating the pizza before I left.

Past Perfect Simple Tense also answers the question “how much/ how many?”

For example, A: “how many beers had you drunk by the time you left the party?”

B: “I had drunk 3 beers by the time I left.”

Past Perfect Continuous Tense (Had + Been + Ving)

Past Perfect Continuous Tense is also used to describe the past before the past. The difference is that the first action was not finished when the second action occurred.

By the time you arrived at the beach, I had been surfing for 2 hours.

In the above example, I went to the beach and surfed for 2 hours, then you arrived at the beach. When you arrived, I was still surfing. In this sentence, it is not clear whether I stopped surfing when you arrived, or if I continued. We use Past Perfect Continuous Tense here to focus on the length of time, more than the action.

By the time I reached the front of the ticket queue, I had been waiting for over an hour!

Past Perfect Continuous Timeline

In the second example, I waited for over 1 hour and then I reached the front of the line for tickets. If I start my story with reaching the front of the queue (1) and go back in time to when I waited for over an hour (2), I use Past Perfect Continuous Tense.

In this sentence, I stopped waiting, because I reached the front of the queue.

Past Perfect Continuous Tense answers the question “how long”. This is why it is often accompanied by a period of time (e.g. for an hour/ since last week etc.).

For example, A “Was it a long wait for your car to come back from the mechanic?”

B: “Yes! By the time I finally picked it up, they had been working on my car for 3 days!”

Extra Information and Practice

The information above is a short run down of what you can do with past tenses. It is a guide, not comprehensive list of every grammar rule and exception. If you would like to practise using the past tense, here are some materials you can use.

Click here to review the 12 tenses cheat sheet

You can try a Kahoot on the topic of past tenses by clicking the logo below. The Kahoot quiz will close in 2 weeks and the winner will be announced in the next post!

A great place to start with your FCE study journey is this website Flo-joe. I highly recommend spending 5 minutes a day on doing the “Word Bank”, and using the other exam practice materials. You can find it all here – https://www.flo-joe.co.uk/fce/students/index.htm

Finally, there are many good grammar books that will help you to better understand the grammar content of the FCE exam. Click on any of the blue links below to purchase the book. From my experience, I can confidently say that these are the best resources that I have used as a grammar reference and for practice relating to the FCE exam.

Language Practice for First – Student’s Book and MPO with Key Pack

English Grammar in Use Book with Answers: A Self-Study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Learners of English

Cambridge Grammar for First Certificate with Answers and Audio CD 2nd Edition

Thank you for reading my first post; I will update the blog regularly, and each topic will build on the last in a structured way. I hope to see you here again soon, and good luck with your exam preparation/ English study.