by Marc Anderson

Stop Failing at English – How to Start Making Real ESL Progress T-O-D-A-Y

Man in western style is running to catch the train.

Progress lies in advancing toward what will beKhalil Gibran

  • Did you ever wonder what types of things really make a difference in learning English?
  • Did you ever wish that you could get a handle on the English language and listen, speak, write and read better?
  • Did you ever pause to think about what you can do to make a difference in your own ESL progress?
  • Did you ever think about your own confidence level and how this affects ESL learning?

Well, perhaps this article can help. It looks at several areas that can really impact learning English. Stop failing at English! Start Making Real ESL progress T-O-D-A-Y.

Have a Purpose to Learn English

Have you really thought of why you want to learn English? What is it that you want to achieve? Is it so you can study abroad? How about to get that job in an international setting or to be able to communicate better on the job you have now? Maybe you want to improve your listening comprehension or increase your vocabulary, have the ability to speak more casual English, write papers and other written forms in English, or read an English written newspaper?  Maybe you have an acquaintance, a business colleague, a friend who you need to communicate with? Whatever the reasons, it is important that they are your reasons. Sit back and really think about what the purpose is for you to learn English. What is your purpose to learn English?

Establish Clear Goals

Napoleon Hill in his popular book Think and Grow Rich says “The starting point of all achievement is desire. Weak desires bring weak results.”  It is important to write your goals down and then to create action steps to reach these goals. Lee Iacocca claims “The discipline of writing something down is the first step to making it happen.” Your goals should be tangible goals and written in a way that you can realistically move from one to the next. You are more apt to reach your goals if that is the case.

For example, if you want to be able to pass the TOEFL test by this time next year, your goals might be to study each of the sections for 2 months. This can be further broken down to studying every day for 1 hour in the evening and every day for 30 minutes on the commute to work. It would also include taking an online English class (2 times a week) in preparation of the TOEFL test after having taken a practice TOEFL test to target areas of need. You could then discuss with your instructor how you were going to spend the next 8 months of studying (i.e. 2 month per English area of reading, listening, speaking, and writing) and ask that he/she focus the ESL online instruction accordingly. After 8 months of study, you could then take another practice TOEFL test and determine what areas you need to study further for the remaining 4 months. If you are on your target to reach this goal, you could continue the plan as is. If you feel you need more study, you could increase any of the components (home study in the evening and add to/alter your online ESL class times). You might want to brainstorm additional resources to help you during the final stretch. You could hire a 1-1 ESL tutor, explore more resources online, etc. What are your goals? Have you written them down? Are they tangible?  Are they realistic?

Talk More

Once you have a few words in your English vocabulary, it is important to speak as much as you can. Speaking English will help improve your fluency and apply your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills so these skills develop. You will become more fluent and able to grasp English skills faster – whether it is listening, speaking, reading or writing. When you have any success (even a small amount) in communicating in English, this will undoubtedly play a motivating factor for you to continue learning ESL. You will begin to notice areas that you may need to study. It might be a catalyst to encourage you to look up a word to see how it is pronounced and what this word means, to ask questions about how the word is used, and to overall better understand the English language. If you have decided to enroll in an ESL class at a local university or online at one of the many online English courses available through a variety of language companies, it would be helpful to see how much English is spoken in that particular class. You could ask questions about the course of study before enrolling. Just how is the class structured to promote the idea of taking more English?  Some sites advertise as much as 80% of class time allotted to students’ speaking English. Certainly, this type of learning environment is optimal in learning English. How can you talk more?

Get More Involved

There might be ways for you to get involved with English-speaking activities. Is there a book club or other discussion group (in English) that you can join?  How about a sport facility or a community activity? Maybe there is a volunteer opportunity you can pursue or a hobby that you can do with other native speakers? It might be helpful to brainstorm possibilities where you live of how you can get more involved in using English. The telephone directory, local newspaper, and searching online for various experiences might be able to pinpoint specific places to get you started. Being more active is a wonderful way to meet people and form friendships. And if you are fortunate enough to find English-speaking activities, your English will make great strides. How can you get more involved?

Use English in a Meaningful, Realistic Way

Think of how you can use English in meaningful, realistic ways. Can you subscribe to an English newspaper or magazine? Is there an English speaking channel on television that you can listen to on a regular basis? Are there movies and videos you can check out? Have you looked at what is available at a local library – maybe books in English, books on tape, CDS in English? Have you thought of ways to use English on a daily basis? Maybe you can keep a journal, write a letter or email, make lists, speak on the phone, visit an English-speaking establishment (coffee shop, restaurant, bookstore, etc.). Spend some time asking yourself how you use your native language and then see if there are avenues for you to use English in the same ways. The more you use English in a meaningful, realistic way – the more you will increase your ability in the language. It is that simple. It might be hard at first, but keep at it. How will you use English in a meaningful, realistic way?

Ask Questions

Try not to be hesitant when you have a question about what a word means or how to pronounce something. Is there someone you can go to and ask? Do you have available resources (dictionary, thesaurus, etc.) to help you when you are unsure? If you are in a business setting or classroom setting where English is used, are you hesitant to ask questions of any nature? Would it help to prepare your possible questions ahead of time?  Think of ways that your questions can be best answered. What makes a good question?  It’s okay that you don’t have all of the answers. It’s okay to make mistakes. Benjamin Franklin was a lifelong learner. He claimed that “…being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.” Strive to learn. Ask questions.

Learn More Vocabulary

Let’s face it. The more words you know, the easier it is to express yourself. It also helps you see that you are learning new things. Your listening skills increase. You can speak better. Your reading level improves. Your writing skills are enhanced.  What does it take to learn more vocabulary?  Some people read the dictionary. Some people study so many words a day. You can put words on homemade flashcards and study on the way to work or school, or when you have a few minutes of free time. You can keep a journal of new words and work on how to pronounce them, what they mean, and how to use them. You can have certain goals each day, week, or month to use so many new words. The more you use these words, the more they will become part of your working vocabulary. What are you doing to learn more vocabulary?

Videotape Your Language Journey

There is something said to charting your progress so you can see how far you have come in learning English. A suggestion is to videotape yourself using English like speaking casually about something, and then to do this again in a few weeks. When you watch the videotape, you will see your progress and this will be a motivator to learn more English. Any encouragement and positive reinforcement that you can give yourself along the way will pay off in the long run. Try positive self-talk or something tangible like a new magazine, book, CD, etc.  Learning a new language is difficult, so seeing progress towards your goal is important to keep the momentum. How about videotaping your language journey?

Listen to Others

By listening to others we can improve our listening skills and our overall English skills. Maybe you will hear a word or phrase that you have not heard before. Maybe you will understand the meaning of something you were unsure of. You can use this time in listening to others as an avenue to ask questions. This will sharpen your English-speaking skills, too. Figure out their point of view. Paraphrase what is being said. Clarify what is being said. Summarize what is being said. Listening to others speak English has great advantages. Capitalize on these. How well do you listen to others?

Pay Attention to Pronunciation

How are certain words or phrases pronounced? By listening to others English speech (television, radio, movies, casual conversation, etc.) you can pick up some pointers. Are there some letter combinations that are difficult for you to say? How about any specific words? Watch the response of others around you. Do they grasp the intent of what you have to say? You might have an English-speaking friend who can point out areas that you can practice. Listen to others speak and then continue trying to work on your pronunciation. How are you paying attention to your pronunciation?

Learn Hesitation Expressions

There are some words that you can interject in your speech that will allow you to gain thinking time. You could say any of these words and then pause to retrieve a word or phrase you wanted to say or just use the time to gather your thoughts before speaking again. Try the words uh, um, well, you know when you need to “hesitate”. See if that helps you. This technique just might help you speak more fluently. Do you know other hesitation expressions?

Use Technology

There is a lot to be said of technology. There are wonderful online resources to help you on your way to learning English. You might want to set aside some time each day or some time during the week to look for helpful tools to learn English. There are online tools that help with all facets of language learning including speech recognition. You can join a chat room to discuss topics, you can use Skype to talk, you can take an online English class from a myriad of options available. How are you using technology to learn ESL?

Practice Everyday English

Are there some English phrases you can use everyday at home, school, work or in the community? It might pay off to organize these phrases in some way to help make them part of your speaking repertoire. You could write these phrases down on note cards, in a notebook or on flashcards and study them. You could take out the phrases and read from them in certain situations. The structure and emphasis on vocabulary will push yourself forward in your English language learning. It will help you know when to use formal or casual English.  How are you practicing everyday English?

Group Errors into Types

It might help to group the areas in English that you need help with and then study one area at a time. For example, you might need help with past tense verbs or with understanding business jargon. You might want to learn how to ask better questions or how to speak on the phone, etc. Then concentrate on this area until you have mastered it and built confidence in this area before moving on to the next area. If someone has edited your English writing, you can rewrite the piece and explain the edits to that person (friend/colleague/tutor/teacher) or you can self-explain the edits to yourself. You can always come back and review. This way you will be more apt to build this language into your long-term memory and retain it. Again, if you are studying with a buddy or a tutor, or studying in a class or online, that person listening can be invaluable to you by pointing out area(s) that you might need help with. You could always have an online English assessment, and from this test, a list of skills developed that you can work on. This will streamline your learning process as the skills you already know can be put aside and you can concentrate your time specifically on the areas that you need. Have you thought of the kinds of errors you make? Look at making errors as one valuable way to help you improve your ESL skills. Look at common errors that others make.  Can you group these errors into types?

Take Notes

Taking notes is a great way to improve your English. You can take notes when you read, when listening to a presentation, or after any experience in which you might want to summarize or build memory. This will sharpen your ability to focus on what is being said, to condense and summarize the main parts, and to provide details. It will help in vocabulary and grammar, as well as thinking in English, spelling and writing skills. You can also take notes first before any sustained conversation. This will lend you help in knowing what to say. What can you take notes on that you feel could help your English growth?

Role Play – Simulate Real Conversation

You could role play situations by yourself or with others by using English. This practice will help you when you are actually involved in a similar situation. Make a list of the places you generally go and how you could use English. Then role play one of these a day. For example, you stop at the coffee shop before work. You can role play ordering your coffee or asking what’s on the menu. You can role play paying for gas at the gas station, or depositing money at the bank. You can role play basic conversation about the weather or how someone is feeling so when you are standing in line at the grocery store or the movie theater, you can chit-chat with those in line.  You can role play answering the phone and replying to a solicitor, the wrong number, ordering something, etc. You can role play asking questions in class or making a comment at a business meeting. You could polish your business jargon.  All of these will increase your ability to speak English when the “real” situation comes up. They will increase your confidence, too. How about role play and simulating real conversation?

Work on Puzzles, Word Games, etc.

There are many language puzzles and word games that can help you with English. The local library and bookstore can start you off in a good direction. You can stop at a learning shop or look online and find something that will work for you. Even grocery stores and discount stores offer a selection of cross word puzzle and word searches for all language levels. Your local paper may have a daily or weekly puzzle. You might want to try your hand at making puzzles online. Many options are free. This just adds to the variety of ways to help you learn English. It might pay to mix-it-up a bit and try a different approach. This is one of my favorite language games. How about working on puzzles, word games, etc.?

Spend Time with Native Speakers

This is one of the best ways to learn the culture and the language. You will increase the time you spend with listening and hopefully speaking English. You can outlaw the use of your native language and only use English. This is a sure way to improve your ESL skills and quickly at that. What are some ways to cultivate friendships with native speakers? Is there a hobby club or sport you can join that has native speakers as members? Is there a class you can take or a group of some sort that you can join? What possibilities are there for you to spend more time with native speakers?

Guide Your Practice (Present, Memorize, Recite, Repeat)

The last tip is to spend some time helping guide your ESL practice. After you have some language, can polish it in some way and bring it to the next level? Can you work on a presentation? Are there some things to memorize and you can use this content later? Do you recite quotations, poems, everyday speech, questions, and parts of conversations to improve your language? Do you repeat after public broadcasts, news shows, etc. so you can copy the rhythm of the phrases? So you can polish your pronunciation? So you can work on your English accent?  Remember the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti and how life and learning go hand-in-hand, “The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die is a process of learning.” What are you doing to guide practice to learn?

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T-O-D-A-Y is the day to move ahead in your ESL learning. What will you do to make progress happen?

  • Have a purpose to learn English
  • Establish clear goals
  • Talk more
  • Get more involved
  • Use English in meaningful, realistic ways
  • Ask questions
  • Learn more vocabulary
  • Videotape your language journey
  • Listen to others
  • Pay attention to pronunciation
  • Learn hesitation expression
  • Use technology
  • Practice everyday English
  • Group errors into types
  • Take notes
  • Role play – simulate real conversations
  • Work on puzzles, word games, etc.
  • Spend time with native speakers
  • Guide your practice

How can I help you maximize your ESL progress? Drop me a note using the comments section below. I’ll be glad to help you start T-O-D-A-Y.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.