6 Tips to Help the ESL Student Study English

If I could share 6 of the most important tips with you in how to study English as an ESL student, this is what I would say:

Prepare in advance, review and ask questions

Use visual and verbal tools

Create mental images

Prepare early for testing

Change negative thoughts into positive


1.     Prepare in advance, review and ask questions

Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, and never know too much to learn something new.- Og Mandino

Be proactive and learn to take detailed notes in class or from your reading. Highlight the important text or information in handouts and online printouts. Ask questions before, during and after class. If there is tutoring or 1-1 sessions or even discussion/study groups, take advantage of these. Don’t just cram in one setting. Give yourself time to review and to ask yourself if you understand a particular skill or concept. Don’t worry about mistakes; view them as valuable learning tools.  If you are studying online and you have a teacher, make sure you communicate your concerns. Reread your information several times and then see if you can commit it to memory and explain it to yourself. Better yet, explain it to someone else. Write it over and over. Say it over and over. Teach it over and over. Practice out loud so you can hear the words in English and this will strengthen your memory of the English vocabulary and increase the understanding of that particular skill or concept. Take it from me that you will improve if you make a conscious effort to do so.

2.     Use visual and verbal tools

Order and simplification are the first steps towards mastery of a subject – Thomas Mann

Flashcards- Flashcards are a great way to reinforce learning. You can make them yourselves and put a word or phrase on one side, and the definition or question on the back. You can take these with you to study at the library, at school, work, on public transit, etc. As an alternative for you quizzing yourself, you could ask a friend or another ESL student to help you.

Study guides – Study guides are another worthwhile tool. Maybe your teacher has handouts of important terms for you to learn. Then reread this or have someone quiz you. The ones you don’t know you will need to keep reviewing or make flashcards for further study.

Matching exercises - You might want to try a matching exercise that helps with review. Use either two different colors of cards (paper will do) or two different colors of pens or markers. Write one set of words or terms to know in one color. Now write the answers in another color. Try to match them. You can number the answers on the back to check. For example, term #1 goes with definition #1, etc. Again, keep practicing. Separate the ones you know from those that are more difficult and then keep practicing the ones that are more difficult until you have mastery of all of them. Then move on to new information.

Review - From time to time, review what you have learned so you don’t forget it. And remember, use it.

Graphic Organizers - Another suggestion is using graphic organizers for you to help organize and remember information. Experiment with listing the information in a special way. Maybe you have a major concept in the middle of your paper, and then you list details around it. Maybe you use the same figure of speech words to describe the concept like all adjectives or all word that start with the same letter. Anything that you can devise in some structured way to help with your learning is worth considering trying.

Draw a picture - You can also draw a picture to remember or to help you better understand a concept. Your brain is more apt to remember the image than it is to remember isolated words.

3.     Create mental images

We are visual creatures. Visual things stay put, whereas sounds fade. - Steven Pinker

Pictures are easier to remember than words. So if you can try to create a mental image to recall what you have read or heard when studying, then that will be helpful for you to retrieve and use it when necessary.  Try some of these mental clues:

Acronyms - Acronyms are words that use the first letter of each of the words you need to remember. For example, HOMES stands for the five Great Lakes in the Northern Hemisphere. H – Huron, O – Ontario, M – Michigan, E – Erie, and S – Superior. By remembering the word HOMES, this will make it easier for you to remember the five lakes. Maybe you know of some other acronyms. You can create your own when you need some help with recall.

Acrostics - These are phrases or poems in which the first letter of each word or line is set up as a cue to help you recall the words you are trying to remember. For example, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” is helpful to remember the order of mathematical operations in a math sentence: parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.  Again, you might know of some of these and you can create them yourself. For example, the word “separate” if often misspelled in the English language. But if you remember the words “a”, “rat” in the middle of the word you will be right every time.

Narratives - You can make up a story with the words throughout the narrative to help you with memorizing. Then you think of the story and all of the specific words/concepts, etc. that you needed to remember are embed in the story. It will be easier to retrieve and easier to retain the information.

Rhymes - Rhyming words are a fun, helpful tool to use. For example, the rule in English where words are spelled “i” before “e” except after “c” or sounded like “a” as in “neighbor” or “weigh”, helps you to spell all of those difficult “ie” (example:  chief, mischief, friend, etc.) and “ei”  (example:  neighbor, receive, weigh, conceit, etc.) words correctly. There are lots of other spelling rules to ensure correct spelling.

4.     Prepare early for testing

Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. - Confucius

Are you planning on taking an international exam for English study, a job placement or advancement in your career?  If the answer is yes, the best advice is to prepare early. ESL research shows that students who prepared for these tests a minimum of 6 months or more in advance performed higher than those students who did take adequate time to prepare. It is also a good idea to take some practice tests to get a feel of the kinds of questions, the overall expectations and the pacing of the actual test. There are sample tests online or in hardcover format (check out you library or school library, or a bookstore) of IELTS (International English Language Testing System), TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), GRE (Graduate Record Examination), LSAT (Law School Admission Test), SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), and Cambridge ICFE (International Certificate in Financial English). There might be some general English tests for you to take at different levels or professional English exams for various fields of employment, too.

Many online English classes, programs or schools offer an opportunity to practice these tests and to have your test scored. This might be a wise investment for you so you can see what areas you might need to spend more time on before the actual test.  These companies can then design individual instruction based on the areas of need so you are better equipped to meet success on the “real” test. In addition, there are many reference tools to help you study. There are online versions and hard copies of dictionaries and thesauruses that will assist you moving forward in your study.

5. Change negative thoughts into positive thoughts

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you'll start having positive results. - Willie Nelson

If you are thinking “I can’t do this” or “I’m not going to do well”, you will be overcome with anxiety. Changing the channel of negative thoughts to positive thoughts is a helpful tool to alleviate that anxiety. You could repeat a positive thought or statement over and over inside your head, even starting a few days before a test, presentation, or project is due. Tell yourself a positive message: “I can do this”, “I know the information”, “I’ve studied very hard” and “I am prepared to do my best.”  Believing in yourself goes a long way to doing well. We have probably all heard the quotes about attitude and perseverance. Keep those positive thoughts and as Willie Nelson says, “…You’ll start having positive results.”

6.     Practice

Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people. - Jim Rohn

The final tip is PRACTICE. The more you practice English, the more confident you will become and your skill level will increase. Try to carve out time each day to practice. Use your time wisely maybe before your day gets busy. Or maybe try at lunch time or a break time during the day… maybe right after school or work. Or, if you’re like me, late evening time seems to work out. Then focus your time on areas that you need to review.

The important thing to remember is that you will never run out of things to learn.  Be honest with yourself. What is it that you need to improve? What areas must you improve?  Then outline what you need to do, and do it. Practice the areas you need help with. It might be in the listening, speaking, reading or writing area. It might be a combination of these areas. You might have a weakness in your vocabulary or your grammar. You might have trouble pronouncing certain words or you are worried that your accent is too strong. Whatever the case may be, practice will help you overcome these areas that you perceive as “deficits”.  And as you make a habit to practice… your consistent and targeted study habits will become second nature. The practice times will begin to pay off and you will see yourself making steady progress towards your goals. In time, you will become a more fluent, confident ESL student.


I sincerely hope that these 6 tips will help you reach toward your ESL goals. Feel free to write to me using the comments section below about any of these tips to help ESL students learn English. You might have a few things to share yourself. What has helped you the most in learning English? What are your goals? And remember, I am here to help you learn English. Just write to me in the space below and ask. You can inquire about TalktoCanda.com or anything specific related to ESL or to your individual situation.  Let me help you learn to learn.

And remember… Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, and never know too much to learn something new.- Og Mandino

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