So… you want to improve your English? You’re ready to work hard, make your dreams come true… Great! But… Where do you start?
There are so many resources, books, teachers, books etc it would be very easy to drown in all of that information!
Not only that, you only have x amount of hours to work on improving each week, how do you manage this time?
This guide is designed to find out what your goal is, give you a clearer idea of how to reach that goal and give ideas for the right resources for you along the way.
So… if you’re ready, let’s begin!
1. What Is Your Goal?
what is your actual goal? This is the first thing we need to figure out. (it needs to be more specific than “I want to improve my English”!).
Of course we want to be well-rounded in our ability and to do well in lots of situations. That being said, If we want to make use of our English in a specific area then we should focus on that one area.
📊Example 1 – We are wanting to improve our English for business reasons.
Should we study more formal and academic speech styles than casual?
The answer is… YES!
🎶Example 2 – We are wanting to understand the lyrics to our favorite English speaking (singing) band.
Should we focus most of our efforts on listening skills or reading?
The answer is fairly obvious right? LISTENING!
As well as making sure we study the right material, picking a goal means we have something to work for, something to motivate us to keep going. For this reason I recommend everyone to: –
- Find out your goal.
- Write it down.
- Review it regularly.
Reviewing your goal will remind you why you are working. Make sure to give it plenty of information and describe it vividly!
“People who vividly describe their goals are 1.2-1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals!”http://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2018/04/15/neuroscience-explains-why-you-need-to-write-down-your-goals-if-you-actually-want-to-achieve-them/
2. How Often Can You Study?
The next thing we need to do is decide how much time we can commit to studying / practising the language each day. It may seem obvious but I will say it here anyway.
The more time spent practising and studying the language, the faster you will improve!
So, the quickest way to master the language is to put as much time into it as possible. That being said it can be difficult to do when there are so many other time commitments in life.
The reason I said “how much time we can commit each day” is because mastering a language is a long game. It’s not about doing a big study session every now and then, it’s about the small investment we regularly put in. It’s daily study (no matter how small) that builds habits and these habits ensure you keep going even when you aren’t motivated.
For this reason you need to pick a time each day that you will study, no matter what! This time doesn’t need to be much (even 15 minutes is fine as a starting point). Once you have this time, you then have to stick to it. It may be hard at first, but every day you do this, the easier it gets. Over time, if you decide you want to do more each day then you can increase the number of minutes to 30/60/ maybe even more, it’s entirely down to what you can continue to commit to each day.
“One of the best predictors of long-term success is doing something on a regular basis. Language learning is no different. In particular, Figure 1 shows that most people who stick with language learning in the long run make sure to spend a few minutes practicing every day or two. On the other hand, people who slip to every 5 or 6 days are much more likely to give up altogether.”Research from Duolingo – https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/05/3-habits-of-successful-language-learners/
3. How Much Money Can You Invest?
Luckily you could learn English for free with access to things like the internet and libraries etc. It has never been easier to obtain massive amounts of information.
For those who are well motivated and can put the time in, you need never spend a single penny. That being said, there are uses to paying for certain things that can help speed up your learning journey.
- Textbooks – Sure there are plenty of resources online for free but… these can often contain spelling and grammatical errors, they may not be all that helpful and in some cases could even be downright harmful to your studies. Finding a well-written textbook from a well respected publisher means that you are much more likely to be using something useful and without picking up any bad habits along the way.
- Lessons – Self-study is great but it can be difficult to get feedback on things like pronunciation (highly important in English with its may spelling quirks). Either joining a class or even better, finding a tutor for private lessons means you can practise your speaking as well as having someone to point you in the right direction. Classes are usually cheaper but bear in mind you get less contact time with the teacher, meaning they may be less effective than a private lesson.
- Online courses – Similar to textbooks, online courses can be a great path for self-study. The advantage these have over books is that they can often include interactive content such as videos and audio. Again though, you need to be careful you go to the right places, check the reviews and make sure the course contains quality material before committing to it.
4. Where Are Your Weaknesses?
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Strengthening your weakest areas will make your overall English ability stronger. But where are these weaknesses? How can you find out where they are? There are a few methods to find out.
- Find an English Teacher – An English teacher has experience in finding problem areas for a student and working with them to improve those areas. You will most likely find better results with a private tutor than joining a class (where the focus is often mostly focused on following a set syllabus).
- Take an English exam – This is a slightly more costly option and can take longer but can show you where your stumbling blocks are. You don’t even need to do a full exam if you find some mock exams online, however, these mock exams likely won’t be able to mark your speaking and writing areas as a human is needed for that.
- Free placement tests – This is another great, free way to check where your weaknesses are. Useful for things such as grammar, reading and listening. Just like point number 2 though, you won’t be able to check your writing and speaking without paying someone to mark the test for you.
Once we have made note of our weaknesses we now know where we should make a start. Depending on where your weaknesses are, there are different approaches and this is where people will take different paths depending on their needs.
This step will need to be revisited often as once we have fixed our weakest link, the next weakest part is now the new weakest link! This is an endless game but it’s nice to know that every new weak link is slightly less severe than the previous one.
Grammar is one of the areas that is great for self-studiers. There are plenty of books and information online regarding grammar. We need to take the right steps to make these things stick though.
- Read about a grammar point and see how it is used in example sentences.
- After seeing examples, it’s time to use the grammar yourself and make your own sentences.
- Revise grammar point and make a conscious effort to use it on a regular basis.
A lot of people manage to do number 1 just fine but it’s 2 and 3 that really allow you to master a grammar point. Without making a sentence using a new grammar point, our brain will sometimes struggle to see the importance and may forget it just as quickly as we’ve read about it. Practising using a particular grammar point makes it real and will make it much more likely to stick. After that it’s a simple case of revising it regularly (if you don’t encounter it enough through immersion).
Reading is another area that is ideal for a student to build up alone. This is usually one of the areas a student will say is their strongest and for good reason. Reading is simply made up of vocabulary + grammar knowledge. If you don’t know a word then you can look it up, if you don’t know a grammar point you can find answers online very easily. This can all be done in your own time often as well which makes it even less stressful.
For anyone struggling with reading, you need to make sure you are reading at the right level. There’s no point trying to read extremely complex stuff if you have just started out. Although it is in theory possible, you would be looking up every other word and it would be both exhausting and tedious.
You should be aiming for material where you can understand most of a sentence with only 1 or 2 points that you need to look up. This will allow you to:-
- Keep a good momentum.
- Still give you enough new material to be learning.
- Have enough already known material that you can be practising.
Like speaking, writing can be a difficult area for some students. The nice thing about writing though is that unlike speaking, you usually have more time to think about what you are doing.
The main problem is feedback and knowing if we have done things correctly. It’s for this reason why a teacher is so useful to be able to say: –
- What is wrong
- How to fix it
If you don’t have the money available right now for a teacher then you could try to find a native language exchange partner or use an online service to correct your grammar issues. That being said, while both of these options could correct your mistakes, neither would necessarily be able to explain how to avoid that error in the future.
If you are wanting to improve your writing skills for something like an exam then there are plenty of resources online that give tips on how to get better.
Speaking is the most common problem area for students. There are usually problems with pronunciation, how to structure sentences and often issues with confidence. There are two reasons for this:-
- The pronunciation quirks in English that mean that some words sound nothing like the way they look.
- Not enough practice!
Most other areas can be practised alone, but with speaking this is impossible due to the very nature of needing at least two people for a conversation. Sure we can practise pronunciation along with audio and read out sentences but we can’t have an actual conversation unless there is another person there.
Natives find this area much easier because there are always opportunities to practise speaking with friends, family etc. For students in non-english speaking countries though this can be a lot harder.
But have no fear! There are still many ways to practise speaking: –
- Find a local English class (preferably with at least one native speaker).
- Find an online English Teacher.
- Find a language exchange partner.
- Find local friends who are also learning English.
Remember this area is only so difficult because it doesn’t get used enough. Start using it on a regular basis and watch it strengthen!
Finally another area which can be tricky for some. Listening, (similar to reading) is all about input. The difference though is that our eyes are a little more sensitive and so it’s a bit easier to read something than to listen.
We need to make a conscious effort then to give this area more training. Switch off the subtitles when watching movies, listen to podcasts instead of reading news articles and more immersion!
In fact immersion is the easiest with listening as we can do it in the background of a great many things.
- On the way to work? Turn on a podcast.
- Cooking dinner? Put on an English speaking TV show in the background.
- Doing exercises? Listen to some English speaking music.
5. Planning Your Study Sessions
Now that you know where your weaknesses are and how to fix them, we need to think about how to divide our week. It makes sense to spend more days on the weakest areas to try to balance them and spend less days on the stronger areas. For example if speaking is the weakest area, listening is somewhat ok and reading and writing are the strongest areas then we could construct something like this:-
It doesn’t matter what order they are in really, you could save the easier subjects for the weekend to give yourself more of a rest or rearrange them any number of other ways. The important thing about this example is that we have 3x sessions dedicated to speaking (our weakest area), 2x sessions for listening (our 2nd weakest) and then x1 session each for our strongest areas.
So far we have just looked at studying English but there are actually two ways to improve our language ability.
Learning is what allows us to discover new things, find new ways of expressing ourselves and understanding what is happening in a situation.
Practice is what allows that which we have learned to sink deep into our brain and make things that much easier. It’s a bit like if you were to learn how to play a song on a piano. At first you would be figuring out what notes you would need to play and in what order. When you first play it may sound kind of right but it will take a lot of focus and mental energy to even get this basic performance right. It’s a different story however after you’ve played through the song 1000+ times! Now you aren’t really thinking the same way you were before. Things are just flowing and if you do focus then it’s on more subtle things like whether you want to speed up or slow down certain parts or play softer or louder.
This is the same with language, the more practice we put into it, the less we need to focus on the basic things like what words to use or what order to put them in. We can begin to become more expressive and choose more specific, expressive words and play around with the sentence structure to make our sentences more eloquent.
Practice even helps with the learning process. If you have a sentence where you “sort of know some of the words” and there are some new words you don’t know, then you will struggle trying to figure out what is happening. When you confidently know everything in a sentence except one word, you can often have an educated guess as to the meaning of that word and in the process learn something new in an easier way. This is a very natural way of learning and is what happens often when a native learns their mother language. Never underestimate the power of practice!
We mentioned immersion earlier and it is something that needs a lot more attention. Immersion gives natives one of the biggest edges over a foreign learner of the language. Immersion means that you are able to use the language as often as possible and allow it to grow at rapid rates. Here are a few reasons why we want to be as immersed in a language as possible while learning: –
- It trains your brain to see the use in learning the language. If you learn some English but don’t use it outside of lessons or study time then your brain sees no reason to really retain any of that knowledge. Our brains are incredibly efficient and if there is no use for holding on to a memory then it will get discarded a lot more easily than something it deems more useful.
- Repetition. The more often you see a word and its meaning, the stronger the mental link between these two things. If you learn a new word in a lesson and then don’t see it again then you are highly likely to forget it. Immersion means you are much more likely to encounter this word and keep it in your memory.
- You use the language more. Learning a language is a bit like going to the gym. If you don’t go for a while then your muscles will begin to weaken and you’ll lose the progress you made. Immersion means that we are constantly using the language and strengthening what we have.
Another important reason for immersion is that it will train the brain to use the same brain patterns of a native speaker. Give enough time this can help us to “think like a native” instead of translating everything into our first language (which is both inefficient and exhausting!). Here is an excerpt regarding a study on immersive learning: –
“The subjects were split into two groups. One group studied the language in a formal classroom setting, while the other was trained through immersion.Dr. Ullman – https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/how-immersion-helps-to-learn-a-new-language.html
After five months, both groups retained the language even though they had not used it at all, and both displayed brain processing similar to that of a native speaker. But the immersion group displayed the full brain patterns of a native speaker”
Living in an English speaking country means that you will naturally have a high amount of immersion, all you need to do is walk outside! But for those that don’t live in these places it becomes a bit harder. There are still plenty of ways to increase immersion though.
- Switch your computer and mobile phone operating systems to English.
- Find English speaking podcasts, radio channels and music.
- Find English speaking TV shows, movies and youtube channels.
- Find English speaking local friends, online penpals or teachers.
- Read the news in English via an app or websites.
- Play video games, mobile apps etc in English.
- Write your diary in English. If you don’t have one then start one!
- Write anything else you can think go in English such as Calendar, shopping lists, reminders etc.
The basic idea is that if something can be done in your mother language then most of the time there is a way to do it in English. At first it may make things slightly more difficult than usual but over time these things will become just as natural and easy.
Phew! That brings us to the end of what we need to do. It was a lot to take in so here’s a diagram to show everything a little more simply. Some sections need only be encountered once (1, 2, 3 & 5). After they have been set you can basically ignore those unless a change in circumstances happens (e.g you have more time to spend on studying or maybe your goal changes as you are moving to an English speaking country.)
You will be spending most of your time eventually with section 6 (while periodically revisiting section 4 to iron out any problem areas). Feel free to print out this diagram and stick it somewhere you will see it to remind you.