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5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

July 22, 2017

Forget listening to podcasts about learning English: instead, learn about English through podcasts about interesting subjects! If you need to improve your academic English skills for the American college or university setting, spend some time listening to these fascinating podcasts about science, the humanities, culture, and technology.

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Astronomy Cast

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Travel through space all learn all about the cosmos! Where did the Earth’s water come from? Do planets have seasons? How can you make a telescope at home? Who are some famous astronomers throughout history? Hosts Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela L. Gay answer questions you’ve always had about the universe.

National Public Radio (NPR)

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Science, news, comedy, education, culture, technology: take your pick! NPR has many award-winning, well researched and well produced podcasts on various subjects. The content will keep you interested as you improve your listening skills with one speaker, two speaker, three speaker, and interview style recordings.

NASA Science Casts

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

NASA offers many podcasts on different subjects. Some focus more on specific projects (such as the Space to Ground podcast about the International Space Station), some focus on education (check out The Beautiful Universe), and others are news-focused, like This Week@NASA.



5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Philosophy, history, science, and the human experience come together in RadioLab, and incredible podcast produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Converse International School of Languages offers English courses in San Diego and San Francisco, California. Improve your English through CISL’s small, eight-student classes: students can choose from Standard English, Intensive English, or specific courses such as TOEFL Preparation, IELTS Preparation, Cambridge Exam Preparation, and English for Academic Purposes. After EAP, students can attend college in the U.S. through CISL’s Academic Year Abroad and Pathway programs. 

Cambridge Exams Featured Listening Practice

Cambridge Advanced (CAE) Listening Part 4 Tips

April 25, 2017

Are you taking the Cambridge CAE exam soon? Many students struggle with the Listening Module, particularly with Part 4 of the test. The following CAE Listening Part 4 tips will help our students prepare for this section of the test.

CAE Listening Part 4 Tips

I said, “Do you know how to master CAE Listening Part 4?”

Cambridge CAE Listening Part 4 Tips

Before reading the CAE Listening Part 4 Tips, let’s take a look at what Listening Module Part 4 is.

CAE Listening Part 4 Overview

Type of task: Multiple matching

Number of questions: 10

Length: 3-4 minutes

Format: Five short monologues (about 30 seconds each). These are labeled “Speaker 1, Speaker 2, etc.

There is a theme that connects all of the speakers. For example, everyone will be talking about where they were during a recent earthquake, or how they feel about technology, etc. In the example below (which is the official CAE sample test for 2017), the speakers are talking about changing jobs.

CAE Listening Part 4 Tips

From Cambridge ESOL. 

Students have two tasks: Task One and Task Two. In the example below, the tasks are:

  • Task One: choose the reason the speaker gives for changing jobs
  • Task Two: choose what each speaker feels about their new job

Students select the correct choice from a list of eight possible answers (listed A-H).

Scoring: Each correct answer earns the student 1 mark.

CAE Listening Part 4 Tips

Here are some important tips to remember for CAE Listening Part 4:

Find the theme

Remember that there is a theme with all of the recordings. The theme will be written on the top of the paper, so you will know the theme before the recording begins.

Use the time that the recording reads the instructions to think about the theme. Predict what language and ideas you could hear related to this theme. For example, in the theme above (changing jobs), what could some of the people talk about? You will probably hear some reasons for changing jobs: the company failed, the person got a better job, the person was unhappy with his or her boss, the speaker found a job that paid better . . . trying to predict themes will greatly help you improve your understanding of the recording.

Use your time wisely

Before the recording, read as much as you can of the answers (A-H). Remember that the speaker will probably NOT use the exact words, but will probably use a synonym. For example, “A” is “unfriendly colleagues.” The speaker will probably not use these words, but you might hear them describe a “rude coworker” or something similar.

Underline keywords

Underline keywords: words that will be associated with the recordings, words that might have synonyms, etc.

Know the format

Remember that you will hear the recording twice. Know what is required of you. Understand where to write your answers.

Actively listen and analyze

After each task, ask yourself what the speaker’s main idea, point, or feeling was.

Develop a strategy

For Part 4, here are two tasks, but you can begin with Task Two if you want. Try to take the test a few times using different strategies and see which one works best for you: there is no proven way that helps students score better. It all depends on your personal preferences.

Know what to expect from the speakers

The speech will be very informal. Expect to hear male and female speakers with various accents.

Become comfortable with “gist”

Part 4 of the Listening Module is focused on gist. Gist is the general meaning of something. Therefore, you do not have to understand every word . . . but you do have to understand the overall meaning of the speaker’s monologue. Ask yourself, “What was his/her point?”

Identify keywords that indicate change

Listen for keywords that will help you better understand the speaker. For example, conjunctions or linking phrases (such as “therefore,” “that’s why,” “for that reason,” “however”) will help you understand what the speaker is saying.

CAE Listening Part 4 Tips

How to Prepare for CAE Listening Part 4

Students often make the mistake of taking many practice tests to prepare for Listening Part 4. The truth is, the best practice is exposure to as many accents and dialects as possible. Listen to podcasts, watch TV shows, watch movies set in different parts of the world, etc. The more time you spend doing this, the better your listening skills will be. Here are some more CAE Listening Part 4 tips.

Listen to as many varied accents as possible.

Watch some movies that are set in the American South to learn some of this accent.

Movies such as “Fargo” are great for learning the Midwestern accent. This Crash Course in the Midwestern Accent is an excellent article; also check out How to Master the ‘Fargo’ Accent.

Shows like “The Wire” are great for the Boston accent.

The accents won’t always be from native English speakers. TED is a great website for students to find presentations made by non-native English speakers.

Understand how the test tries to trick you

Read the manuscript after taking practice tests and understand WHY each answer is the correct one.

Improve your English vocabulary and skills

A great way to improve your English vocabulary (and therefore your listening skills) is to improve your understanding of phrasal verbs: these are commonly used in Cambridge exams. Be sure to learn some useful idioms and expressions as well.

Do you need help on other parts of the test? Check out our tips for improving with the articles Cambridge CAE and FCE Listening Part 2 Practice + TED’s “Why Videos Go Viral” and California Facts + Cambridge Listening Part 2.

CISL has provided Cambridge ESOL instruction for over 25 years and is a proud testing centre. Visit our site to learn more about our intensive CAE and FCE classes, and watch the video below to hear how our former student, Diogo, benefited from the Cambridge Exam. 

CISL San Diego Cambridge Testimonial – Diogo from Converse International School on Vimeo.




Academic English Featured Listening Practice University Pathway

The Five Best TED Talks about Language

April 7, 2017

CISL’s English classes give students plenty of opportunities to improve speaking, writing, listening, vocabulary, and reading skills. However, we also believe that learning doesn’t stop when class time does: we encourage our students to continue learning English after the school day ends! The following five best TED Talks about language are designed to motivate our language-loving students.

The Five Best TED Talks about Language

Anne Curzan: What makes a word “real”?

What makes a word “real?” How does a new word get put in the dictionary . . . and who makes these decisions? English professor Anne Curzan discusses this all (and the role of slang in the English language). In this fascinating talk, students learn some interesting slang, such as hangry (hungry + angry), adorkable (adorable + dorky), and YOLO (which means “you only live once”).

John McWhorter: 4 reasons to learn a new language

We all have different reasons for learning a new language. Linguist John McWhorter explains how learning a language allows us to connect to new cultures, how languages shape our brain, and how much fun we can have while learning a new language.

Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?

Do languages shape the way we think? Economist Keith Chen thinks so. In fact, he believes that “futureless languages” (languages that do not use the Future Tense the way that English does) affect the way that these speakers save money. Decide for yourself in this interesting (and data filled) speech. Afterwards, check out our post on slang words for money!

Sid Efromovich: 5 techniques to speak any language

Sid Efromovich, a polyglot who speaks seven languages, gives us some tips and tricks that have helped him master language learning. His first tip? To relax! We agree, which is why the CISL classroom is always a warm and welcoming environment that makes you comfortable! Another tip? Find a “language buddy” to help you learn. You’ll find plenty of language buddies at CISL!

Tim Doner: Breaking the language barrier

Another polyglot, Tim Doner, discusses some of the ways he improves his vocabulary. He also talks about the ways he uses language to connect with others and better understand the cultures connected to the languages. There is definition . . . and there is meaning. What is the difference? Tim Doner explains!

Remember: TED Talks include subtitles and interactive transcripts to help you improve your English. Use these tools if you need them!

Featured Grammar Listening Practice

Love as a (Non-action) Verb: Grammar through John Mayer Lyrics

February 1, 2017
There is a popular song by John Mayer called “Love is a Verb.” In the song, Mayer says that love is a verb, and something that must be shown. We agree, love IS a verb: specifically, a Non-Action Verb!
Today we are looking at love as a Non-Action Verb (and how LOVE can also be used in the Active sense when speaking informally).


Non-Action Verbs

 Non-Action Verbs are also called “Stative” verbs. There are many in English, and they usually express emotions, states of being, desires, senses, opinion, or possession. These verbs are typically not used with the Present Progressive or other tenses that use -ING.
Here are some examples of these verbs.

“I feel happy and free.”


  • feel
  • like
  • love


  • I feel like eating Thai food tonight. (Not “I am feeling like eating Thai food tonight.”)
  • I really like the band New Direction. (Not “I am really liking the band New Direction.”)
  • I love this song. (Not “I am loving this song.”)

States of being

  • be
  • exist


  • I am a student. (Not “I am being a student.”)
  • Does the truth exist? (Not “Is the truth existing?”)


  • desire
  • need
  • wish
  • want


  • The desire for wealth can be a motivator for many people. (Not “The desiring for wealth”)
  • I need some coffee! (Not “I am needing some coffee.)
  • I wish I could take a vacation. (Not “I am wishing I could take a vacation.”)
  • I want to go to the Bahamas. (Not “I am wanting to go to the Bahamas.”)
Listening Student Frustrated

What emotion is he feeling right now? And why can we use “feeling” in this sense? Some verbs can be both Active and Non-Active!


  • feel
  • hear
  • see
  • smell
  • taste
  • touch

Senses are interesting verbs. They can actually be used in the Active or Non-Active sense: see our article on Taste and Other Active/Non-Active Verbs for more information!


  • agree
  • disagree
  • believe
  • think


  • I totally agree with you. (Not “I am totally agreeing with you.”)
  • I disagree with what the man said. (Not “I am disagreeing with what the man said.”)
  • I believe you. (Not “I am believing you.”)
  • I think you’re right! (Not “I am thinking you’re right!”)

Road Trip Ocean Love Action Verb


  • have*
  • own
  • possess


  • I have a car. (Not “I am having a car.”)
  • He owns a house on the beach. (Not “He is owning a house on the beach.”)
  • You possess a great happiness. (Not “You are possessing a great happiness.”)
It is important to note that there are times when these verbs can be used in the -ING form. See our article on Action vs. Non-Action Verbs for more details.
*Have can be used in the -ING form when it is a part of an expression. For example, “I’m having dinner with Tim tonight” or “Are you having a good time?” are perfectly acceptable because HAVING + A MEAL and HAVING + A GOOD TIME are common expressions. 

Love as a Non-Action Verb

Love is a Non-Action Verb, but it CAN be used in the Active sense when speaking informally. As we have all heard, McDonald’s famous slogan is “I’m lovin’ it!” This is technically grammatically incorrect, but it reflects an informal way of saying “I currently really like this.”
John Mayer’s song states that “Love is a verb.” Now you know exactly what type of verb it is! Take a look at Mayer’s lyrics and listen to the song using the video below.

“Love is a Verb” by John Mayer
Love is a verb
It ain’t a thing
It’s not something you own
It’s not something you scream
When you show me love
I don’t need your words
Yeah love ain’t a thing
Love is a verb
Love ain’t a thing
Love is a verb
Love ain’t a crutch
It ain’t an excuse
No you can’t get through love
On just a pile of I-O-Us
Love ain’t a drug
Despite what you’ve heard
Yeah love ain’t a thing
Love is a verb
Love ain’t a thing
Love is a verb
So you gotta show, show, show me
Show, show, show me
Show, show, show me
That love is a verb
You gotta show, show, show me
Show, show, show me
Show, show, show me
That love is a verb
Love ain’t a thing
Love is a verb
American Traditions Featured Listening Practice Vocabulary

Christmas Pop Songs + Holiday Vocabulary

December 15, 2016

The holiday season is here, and with it comes the traditions of this time of year: drinking eggnog, giving gifts, hanging stocking by the fireplace, ice skating, and of course decorating the tree! Another holiday tradition? Famous pop stars often produce a Christmas or holiday-themed album. Sometimes the songs are old favorites remade to fit the singer’s style; other times, the songs are brand new. Either way, these songs are great ways to learn holiday-related vocabulary! How many of the songs below do you know? And how many of the holiday-related vocabulary words are you familiar with?

Christmas Pop Songs

Mariah Carey “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

This classic pop song is guaranteed to be played at every holiday party. Listen to the song as you also read the lyrics.

Do you know the words below?

Fireplace: the area of the house where the fire is built. 

Stockings: an old word for socks! Now, “stockings” are the large “socks” that people hang on the fireplace. Traditionally, they are filled with gifts and opened on Christmas morning. 

Bells ring: when decorative bells make a sound, they are “ringing.” This is a common collocation!

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath The Tree”

This simple song repeats many of its lyrics, so it’s easy to learn (and fun)! These romantic expressions are common in holiday songs, since holidays are often associated with romance.


To hold something/someone tight: to hug someone closely.

Carolers: people who sing holiday songs to neighbors. 

Snow falling: this is a common collocation. When it snows, the snow is “falling.”

Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”

Is Ariana Grande singing a love song to Santa? It seems so if you read the lyrics! In fact, this “Christmas” song has very few lyrics that are related to the holiday!

Mistletoe: a plant that is placed in houses around the holidays. Tradition says that you must kiss someone if you are standing under the mistletoe together!

NSYNC, “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays”

This song covers Christmas and the other holidays with the lyrics “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.”


Christmastime: the Christmas season (December).

Have you read our article about the difference between saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays?” N’SYNC uses both salutations in this song!

Christina Aguilera, “This Christmas”

Christina’s beautiful voice makes this traditional Christmas song even more enjoyable . . . and the lyrics to this song provide some excellent English collocations related to the holidays.


Hang the mistletoe: to put the mistletoe in a high place (so that people can walk under it and kiss). 

Trim the tree: to decorate the Christmas tree. 

Fireside: the area next to the fire. 

Britney Spears, “My Only Wish (This Year)”

Of course the “Princess of Pop” has a Christmas album! You can read the lyrics here.


Christmas Eve: the night before Christmas.

Sleigh: a cart that is pulled by horses along the snow.

Bow: the beautiful (usually red) ribbon around a package.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, “Winter Wonderland”

The song isn’t exactly one you’d think of when you think of pop music, but this combination of pop star Lady Gaga and crooner Tony Bennett lyrics


Winter wonderland: a common expression for landscapes covered in snow. 

Snowman: a “person” built out of snow.

To build (or make) a snowman: another collocation! When you create a snowman, you are building (or making) one.

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Last Christmas”

The lyrics to this classic song are short and easy. The lyrics also provide an easy way to practice the Simple Past tense, since the singer is talking about what happen “last Christmas.”

Wrapped it up: a phrasal verb meaning to wrap a gift. This phrasal verb is separable. 

Would you like to learn some more holiday-related songs? Check out our post on Popular Christmas Carols.

Happy Holidays to our students and staff!