Ways to boost students' listening with the help of subtitles

Upgrading listening with the help of subtitles: how it works

Upgrading listening with the help of subtitles: how it works


  • Listening
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

Listening is one of the most important skills for second language learners, but it can often be frustrating and exhausting. That's why we, as teachers, try to help our students overcome difficulties in developing this skill and seek effective strategies to enhance their listening performance. One of the ways is to provide students with the written form of the spoken language by using subtitles, which is a great tool if used wisely. 

So in this article, we'll explore how using English subtitles can benefit language learners and provide practical insights for teachers.

Discover best podcasts and channels

Why using subtitles is good

Subtitles provide a written representation of the spoken words and help with understanding on two levels - auditory and visual. When watching English video content, subtitles can be useful for:

  • Comprehension ability: Rapid speech, background noises, mumbling, or other features of authentic content can discourage learners of different levels. Subtitles allow students to follow and understand enough of what is said so that they enjoy watching the video, even if they don’t know every word, and keep practicing listening skills without feeling overwhelmed by real-life speech. 
  • Pronunciation and accents: English is not a phonetic language, meaning some words aren't said the same way as we spell them (e.g. through, island, etc). Moreover, students might not catch some words or phrases if the latter are pronounced too quietly, too fast, or with an accent that students aren't used to hearing. As a result, sounds just blur together in connected speech, and they become hard to distinguish to the untrained ear. Foreign language subtitles help students figure out where one word ends and another begins, which can be especially useful for learners at lower levels. 
  • Language acquisition: Subtitled videos are great for language exposure and show students how language is used authentically. By watching them, learners can reinforce their understanding of some grammar or vocabulary, grasp correct spellings, and see how the words or phrases they know are used in different situations. If some language is new to them, watching a subtitled video in English can help learners catch the meaning by analysing the context or just pausing the video to look up a word in the dictionary.
  • Students' autonomy and entertainment: Subtitles allow learners to practice listening outside the classroom and watch films or TV shows that they like in English.

Things to keep in mind when using subtitled videos in class

Even though there are a lot of benefits to using subtitles for a better listening performance, we should also know and remember the following:

  1. There is always a chance that some students won`t actively listen when they see a written text. It can cause overreliance on subtitles and not paying attention to pronunciation, which, in turn, will not help learners develop listening skills and might only help in reading.
  2. Using subtitles in the student's native language is not an effective way to study English. Naturally, it’s way easier to read in your first language than to listen to L2. We always look for the easiest way to process information. Then why listen at all? 
  3. Using subtitles can be a great support at lower levels. However, its usefulness reduces as students` level improves. Advanced-level learners can often understand the video content without subtitles, so in that case, there is no need to use them as it will only distract students.
  4. Choosing video content that is not up to students' level can make learners feel demotivated or overwhelmed. A beginner student will be able to understand very few or none of the spoken and written words in the video if it's too difficult and not suitable for their level, even with subtitles.

How to develop students' listening skills?

To get better at listening, there should be a well-balanced challenge: not too difficult and not too easy. 

In addition, Lidiya Simak, the course author at Grade Univeristy, thinks that subtitles should be used wisely both in and outside the classroom.

If students watch some videos outside the classroom, they can face some words or phrases they don't understand in fluent speech. Then, they can stop the recording and turn on the subtitles to find out what has been said. In this case, subtitles might be very useful, especially if a person has problems recognising familiar phrases in a song or because of connected speech. 

However, it is important to only use the subtitles when necessary — to check what you don't understand, because if you turn on the subtitles straight away, the listening task will automatically turn into reading.

Using an audio script together with the listening to support listening skills is appropriate for teaching young learners of pre-A1 and A1 levels. Still, at some point, these two skills are separated and students start practising them separately.

Lidiya Simak

Discover some typical listening problems

Find the solutions with us

Practical tips on how to use subtitles to improve listening skills

Here are a few pieces of advice for you on how to make watching subtitled content upgrade your students` listening skills. 

Firstly, briefly introduce the topic and include a short lead-in to activate learners’ schemata related to the content before watching a video.

It will activate their prior knowledge of the topic and enhance engagement.

Secondly, before playing the video, it's important to remind students not to just read the words. Reading subtitles on autopilot won't unlock their full potential.

Encourage students to use the subtitles as a supporting guide: look down if you need them, rather than just reading them.

Also, remember to add a bit of a challenge in order to keep students from relying on subtitles too much. If you are watching a cartoon, it probably won't be too hard to understand it without the written form of the spoken language. However, if it's a BBC news report with strong regional accents, using subtitles may be reasonable. That's why you should turn the subtitles on or off depending on the difficulty level of the content you’re watching with your students.

Discover 5 best movies to watch with your students!

You can also try watching the video a few times: with, or without subtitles, or vice versa:

  • Watching a video for the first time without subtitles can help students see how much information they can get from it at first. Ask students not to worry about every single word in the video and focus on the general idea. For this, you can set a few questions for students to check general comprehension or specific information. That way, they won’t be distracted by reading and will be able to concentrate on what they hear. However, ask students to make notes when they are listening. Then play the video one more time and ask students to check their notes against the subtitles to see how accurately they understood things. Discuss what they found difficult when listening to it for the first time. 
  • Watching a video with subtitles first and then without also might be helpful if you want your students to notice some features of pronunciation, connected speech, or accents and learn how to recognise them.

After watching, you might want to have a discussion, where students will reflect on what they've seen and share their opinions about the content. 

Finally, if viewing subtitled content is done at home as a part of homework or extensive listening, ask students to focus on sentence structures, grammatical expressions and watch for unfamiliar vocabulary. They can make short notes to check the definition or test themselves on it later.

Subtitle-based activities for your classroom

Let's have a look at some subtitle-based activities that can be used in the classroom to help students deepen their knowledge and enhance language skills.

Exploring new vocabulary

To practice vocabulary, ask your students to take notes of any unfamiliar words or phrases while watching a subtitled video. Later you’ll be able to discuss their meanings together using the context from the video. 

Another way to make students explore the meaning of new words is to ask them to discuss it with their partners. Make them create a table with three columns: “the words I know”, “the words I`m not sure about”, and “the words I don`t know”. The vocabulary the students wrote down while watching the video is likely to be placed in the second and third columns at first. 

However, learners will need to work in pairs asking their partner to help with the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary by exchanging their knowledge. The aim of the activity is for students to move the words (as many as possible) to the first column, “the words I know”, after the discussion. If there is still any uncertainty, rearrange the students into bigger groups, ask them to use dictionaries, or clarify the meanings by yourself. 

This vocabulary can be later used in other controlled-practice activities, such as practicing with flashcards, matching the words with definitions, gap-filling tasks, or during the freer practice, when learners need to use new words in a personalised context.

Can listening be taught through the exposure?


One more great tool you can use to improve your students' pronunciation as well as their ability to recognise sounds is shadowing.

In short, it means immediately repeating out loud what you hear.

It’s a great way to practice the physical aspects of fluency, and it’s easier to be done with subtitles turned on. Make students read along as they listen and copy the pronunciation and intonation they hear. Practice difficult parts of the video together with the students explaining how sounds are pronounced in connected speech. 


After shadowing, you can have some fun by playing a short scene of the video without the sound but with the subtitles on and asking your students to make a voiceover. Remind them to use correct intonation, pauses, and pronunciation. You can also ask them to vote for the best or closest to the original sound version.

How to add subtitles to your video

There are many resources where you can find subtitled videos, such as YouTube, TedEd, Netflix, etc., but if you need subtitles for a specific video that doesn't have them, you can create subtitles yourself.

Which AI tools can an ESL teacher use?

To sum up, using subtitled videos in or outside the classroom is a valuable tool for learners to improve their listening skills by providing visual support, facilitating comprehension, and enhancing language exposure. But remember that, eventually, your goal is to make your students get to a place where they no longer need subtitles. So, use it as a supporting guide, not a crutch.

Is shadowing a good practice for developing listening skills?

Article authors & editors
  • Alina Butchak

    Alina Butchak


    CELTA-certified teacher of General English



Leave your comment

Also you may like

Why do we need to teach writing?

  • Writing
  • Cambridge English
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology
7 minutes

10 activities for developing listening skills

  • Listening
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology
6 minutes

What is a teacher’s certificate?

  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology
6 minutes

Planning a writing lesson

  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology
3 minutes

The Whys and Hows of Co-Teaching in ESL Classrooms

  • Cambridge English
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology
8 minutes

7 online tools for developing listening skills

  • Listening
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
5 minutes