Learning Strategies and Tips from an English Teacher

Top Secret! How to Truly Learn the English Language

Have you ever wondered if there is a secret to learning a foreign language? Maybe there is some device that will help you to learn English overnight? The bad news is…well, truly, no there isn’t. There is no end-all-be-all method. But the good news is that there are many strategies that can help you to study more effectively, save time and enjoy the learning process. Let me give you some of my best kept secrets. Here they are, directly from the English teacher’s mouth….

Top Ten Learning Strategies:

1. Label things in your house with ‘post-it’ notes so that every time you go there, you can read the labels.

This is a strategy that my friend in Japan used when he was studying Japanese and it worked perfectly. Every item in his house was covered in vocabulary post-its. And now he has passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test—long term success through everyday practice. This is a memory strategy.

2. Filling in a learning checklist, saying how confident you feel in each area.

Have you made a checklist before? Please try it. It should always include the four main sections in language learning: speaking, listening, writing and reading. Do you know which of these are active skills and which are passive? Keep reading to find out! This is an affective strategy that allows you to gain control over your motivation and attitudes toward learning.

3. Seeking out native speakers of the language to talk to.

Or you could even find other students to speak with. This can be done online, face-to-face or on the telephone. The most important thing is practice, practice, practice. We are always available for you to do this. You can even invite a friend to participate in the lesson. Or why not do two lessons in one day? One lesson in the morning and one lesson in the evening is a great way to learn. This is a social strategy.

4. Paraphrasing when you don’t know the word you want when speaking.

So what is paraphrasing? I’ll give you an example. “What is that thing that you write with? No, it’s not a pen. Teachers use it. No, not a pencil either. You use it to write on the blackboard. No, it’s not a marker, but close. Chalk? Yes, that’s it. Chalk!” Paraphrasing is explaining something that you don’t know the word for. This is a form of fluency.

5. Ignoring unknown words when you are reading (just underline them).

I’m always doing this with my students. I urge them not to stop for every word that they don’t know, but rather to underline the unknown words and go back later. You can use the dictionary, or we can talk about it during our lessons. This is called reading for context.

6. Setting goals and time aside for language learning.

Goals are so important. What do you want to learn today? It can be very simple. For example, “Today I want to learn the directions: North, South, East and West. And I want to use these directions in conversation. I need to find someone to practice with. I know, I’ll call up my teacher. Ah, but he said you can also use Northeast, Southwest or even North by Northwest. Let’s try again!” This is a simple and achievable goal. But more importantly, a lot of small steps make one giant leap. This is how you learn English: make goals and make time for it every day.

7. Looking at notes taken in class and rewriting them.

I used to do this in my history class because the teacher would speak very fast and I would scribble down all the main points. Then I would go back and rewrite my notes using my textbook as a supplement. Can you guess what my grade was in that class? That’s right, A+. This is called another memory strategy called reinforcement.

8. Reading signs and notices in public places and trying to work out what they mean.

But, you’re thinking, “I live in Japan. There’s no signs in English.” I’m sorry but you are wrong. I know there are signs in English in Japan—they helped me to survive when I lived there. There is so much English all around you every day. You just have to look for it, keep your eyes open and more importantly, notice everything. This is called noticing.

9. Making notes before carrying out an English task.

I always suggest to my students to keep a notebook with them at all times, just a little one you can fit in your pocket. And then when you go home, if you want, you can transfer new words to a bigger notebook. And when you have a group of new words, look them over and practice them. Try to use them. Then, when you go to your English lesson—use these new words! This is placing passive vocabulary into active use. I told you, I would tell you…..reading and listening are passive skills. Speaking and writing are active because the language comes directly from the student. This is called pre-teaching, or planning.

10. Reading a magazine, watching television, listening to songs or the radio in the target language—in English!

This is called using realia. Realia is something in the English language that is meant for native English speakers, for example a film, a magazine, a newspaper. It is something that is not meant for students…but who says you can’t use it to study? Of course you can! If you can understand it, you are one step closer to being a fluent user of English.
That’s it! If you follow these ten steps, I know you will become a better English language user. I hope this has been helpful. I’m sure there are more strategies out there. Do you have any that you would like to share? Please tell us, so I can share with my students.

Never Give Up

Always remember that ‘practice makes perfect’ and ‘everyone makes mistakes.” But for me, when I studied Japanese, I always like the Japanese proverb, ‘Even monkeys fall from trees.’ So don’t worry about making mistakes, just get out there and practice. Happy studying!

These are based on Oxford, R. 1990 Language Learning Strategies: What every teacher should know New York: Newbury House, quoted in Richards and Lockhart Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, p63 – 65.

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