How often have you heard that question as a teacher? Over the years, for me, it’s come up repeatedly. Why? Because ESL learners are trying to figure out what works. Just like the latest diet trend, there’s always someone selling or recommending a new angle on how to learn English. And it can get confusing!
As teachers, there are times when we may be at a loss on how to answer that question. Today’s blog will give you a few ideas. We’ll look at the answers from different viewpoints: what students say, from observations, and even a little research.
Then, we’ll look at what works and what doesn’t seem to work as well. Finally, we’ll try to integrate all of these concepts into our ideas below. So, let’s get started!
1. Students Should Enjoy English
First things first—learners should enjoy learning English. How many times have you heard students say, “I hate English,” as a teacher? We even have a blog that addresses that comment.
Dr. Stephen Krashen, whom I refer to as the grandfather of English language teaching addresses the concept of enjoying English language learning. He’s written extensively over the decades on the subject of language acquisition. In his Five Hypotheses of the Theory of Second Language Acquisition, Krashen suggests that learners should have a connection with the material they’re learning.
That means they should have comprehensible, interesting, relevant, and meaningful lessons. In other words, our students should be enjoying their lessons. Neither should learners be humiliated for trying to use the language, even when it is in error. Along with that, they should be allowed opportunities to use the language in realistic settings or situations.
For the classroom, that means practical activities, role-play, dialogue, interaction, and conversation. And these points have always been my guide when answering this question. So, if students ask me how they can improve their English skills—my answer: ENJOY it!
Immersion is well-known to be a very good method of acquiring or developing English skills. But from my observations and interviews with learners, not always. In immigrant communities within native-English speaking cultures, English acquirers often stay with their own cultures where it’s comfortable.
That’s where classrooms come in: They can be safe and practical environments to be immersed in. They can move students outside of their comfort zones. So, in a sense, classroom instruction can outperform simply being within the English-speaking culture.
In answering questions about how to improve, we can suggest learners enroll in English language classes. Why? Because they offer safe environments for learning and practicing the English language.
From my own conclusions, feedback is key to improvement. Think of it as sharpening a pencil. When the pencil starts to lose its tip, we sharpen it to a finer point. Feedback helps to sharpen learner skills by showing them specific areas they can improve. So, when asked, “how can I improve …,” we can suggest learners seek feedback.
4. Read, Read, Read
I nearly always tell learners to read. But I tell them not to read English grammar books (unless they really want to). I suggest they read materials that are interesting to them. That may mean reading a blog on financial security, a news article on staying healthy while working from home, or any number of possibilities. Much of it depends on what learners are into. It can also depend on what they do career-wise. Whatever they read, it must be something they can enjoy.
Stephen Krashen has written fairly extensively about what he terms, free voluntary reading. I refer to it less technically as pleasure reading for my students. And from my own observations, it works.
When I encounter higher-level or fluent speakers, I routinely ask them how they achieved such levels. In a majority of cases, those who haven’t been immersed in English speaking cultures respond with something related to reading.
Those that don’t, often reply with English songs. And a slim few, as in one or two over seventeen years, hundreds of learners, and cultures around the world, have responded with English videos (movies, shows, etc.).
So, pleasure reading is definitely a major factor in developing English skills. How? It allows them to read for enjoyment, not the, at times, grueling task of learning English. Meanwhile, they pick up specific jargon, structure, and expression without really thinking about it. Additionally, as they read, their reading fluency improves. This may or may not directly impact speaking fluency, but it does seem to be related.
So, when a student asks you how to improve his/her English, you can say READ (of course, with a smile)!
5. What About Songs?
Songs cannot be excluded from developing English skills. Over the years, the musicians I’ve taught have an interesting grasp of intonation. Even those who are not musicians but simply enjoy listening to English songs do.
How? Maybe because they mimic the songs they sing. Those songs could imprint the rhythm and sound of the lyrics that are often found in products of immersion (again, in my experience).
So, the next time students ask how they can improve their English, you can suggest they learn a few songs: SING (in a nice way)!
6. What About Movies or TV Shows?
Usually, I don’t recommend using movies to learn English. It just seems too difficult and discouraging for learners, especially at beginner and intermediate levels. Why learn English from a movie you should be watching? There may be some fans among our readers of using movies and shows. But from my experience and observations, they’re often beyond learner capabilities.
The language used in movies and shows is frequently filled with idioms. Add to that, the levels of intonation that take no thought for non-native English viewers. And you’ve got a recipe for frustration and discouragement. So, I rarely suggest movies or shows when asked this question.
7. What About Writing?
We’re not just talking about traditional pen and paper or writing long letters here. Students can seek out chat mates, write emails, join an interest group, contribute to blogs, construct articles, write journal entries, write a few love notes, etc. Having practical outlets for applying English they’ve learned may very well be of great value to them. At the very least, they can be used to improve structure and vocabulary.
Sometimes, when someone asks me how they can develop their English skills more, I tell them to WRITE (nicely of course).
8. What About Learning the Technical Way?
Some students come to you who are logical thinkers. They look for patterns in the world around them. So, believe it or not, they may actually prefer and embrace learning English as a system of rules.
That means you can help them by breaking down grammar structures into formulas. Or by explaining why some comparatives use “more” and why others use “-er,” etc., they can get it. This is simply how they learn.
In these cases, you might want to suggest a good grammar book. I personally like the English Grammar in Use series for technical learners who ask.
There are many possible ways learners can develop their English skills. This blog offers several ideas. If you want to know more, you’ll need to experiment with and observe what works for them.
In the end, they’ll choose the method they prefer based on their interests and learning styles. But at least now you have some options as well as reasons why. You can discuss them with learners who are searching for the best way for themselves.
We welcome your thoughts about this blog. Maybe you’ve discovered options on how learners can improve that are not listed here. Or, if you have other ideas, feel free to share them with us.
To learn more about how learners acquire language, how to teach English as a language, or what teaching methods are out there, contact OnTESOL today. We’ll be glad to help you decide which TESOL training course is right for you.