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Some tips on learning English

by Mike Shelby

How to Practise English Listening Comprehension and Speaking Skills

In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories). It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking in the following sequence:

  1. Listen to each sentence several times. At the same time see each sentence in the transcript.
  2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
  3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you heard it. Without being able to repeat a sentence, a learner cannot understand it.
  4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.
  5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption several times, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you said to the transcript.

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Learning English Idioms

In my view the best way to learn English idioms (fixed expressions) is by topics with explanations of meaning, examples of usage and subsequent exercises. Practising idioms can be done through exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. I suggest the following sequence of learning English idioms (5-10 idioms per lesson):

  1. Read clear precise meanings of idioms with usage examples in several realistic sentences in a good thematic dictionary of English idioms.
  2. Make up your own sentences for using idioms in real life situations.
  3. Do ready-made exercises from text books in idioms practice. Exercises in idioms practice can include dialogues, narrations (telling stories), thematic texts, questions and answers with idioms in various situations, discussions, talking points and expressing opinions and views on real life topics and issues.

The most comprehensive aids for learning English idioms are dictionaries of English idioms that contain thematic arrangement of idioms. Below is the list of the most important dictionaries of English idioms:

  1. Longman Idioms Dictionary (over 6,000 idioms; choose the right idiom with the unique Idiom Activator).
  2. Longman American Idioms Dictionary (over 4,000 idioms).
  3. Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (7,000 idioms ; with 15 topic classification of idioms).
  4. Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Idioms (6,000 idiom expressions, has a thematic index of idioms)
  5. Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (over 5,000 idioms, with a thematic index of idioms).
  6. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (volumes 1, 2).
  7. Oxford Idioms Dictionary for Learners of English (10,000 idioms).
  8. NTC's Dictionary of Everyday American English Expressions (over 7,000 expressions presented according to topic and situation).
  9. NTC's Thematic Dictionary of American Idioms (900 thematic headings).

The English language is rich in idioms, and although it is possible to converse correctly in non-idiomatic English, a student with only a superficial knowledge of English idioms will find himself (or herself) at a serious disadvantage in his (her) reading, and even more so when he (she) takes part in discussions and debates. Ready-made copious usage sentences of English idioms taken from real life offer guidance on the most effective way to use them. The English Idiom Dictionaries  listed by me in this post provide clear idiom usage explanations and several realistic idiom usage sentences. Many native English speakers, especially when they converse among themselves use idioms, informal colloquial expressions and slang.

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Ways to Master English Vocabulary

I believe the best way to learn English vocabulary is by topics with explanations of meaning, examples of usage and subsequent exercises. It is possible to practise English vocabulary through exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.

  1. Learners of English should have lists of difficult word meanings and of phrases (expressions) on every topic with usage sentences. They must read those ready-made vocabulary usage sentences many times if needed. Longman Language Activator Dictionary (unique English Idea Production Dictionary) covers this issue thoroughly. It is essential that learners also make up their own sentences with that vocabulary, taking into consideration real life situations.
  2. Students of English can learn a lot of vocabulary on every topic from thematic English dictionaries. Good thematic English dictionaries provide clear word usage explanations and also a few usage sentences for each word meaning, which is especially important. It is essential that students of English also make up their own sentences with difficult vocabulary. They should think about the real life situations where and when that vocabulary can be used.
  3. Do ready-made exercises from textbooks in vocabulary practice. Exercises in vocabulary practice can include dialogues, narrations (telling stories), thematic texts, questions and answers in various situations, discussions, talking points and expressing opinions and views on real life topics and issues.
  4. Learners can also master new English vocabulary by reading thematic texts (materials), first of all on everyday topics with important content, for example: Practical Tips and Advice to Make Everyday Life Easier and Better (practical solutions for everyday problems). Such self-help books on settling everyday matters are available at book stores.

Learners must write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences. It is essential that they practise telling the content of the texts that they have read. As people say, practice makes perfect.

Thematic General English Dictionaries (extremely important for logical and quicker vocabulary acquisition):

  1. Longman Language Activator (Unique idea production English dictionary, very valuable for solid vocabulary acquisition).
    There is also Longman Pocket Activator Dictionary. Longman English dictionaries are the most authoritative.
  2. Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English.
  3. The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary (by J. Pheby, 1995, 816 pages).
  4. Oxford Learner's Wordfinder Dictionary.
  5. Word Menu (dictionary by Stephen Glazier, Random House, USA, over 75 000 words arranged by subject matter).
  6. Cambridge Word Selector/Routes.
  7. NTC's Dictionary of Everyday American English Expressions (over 7, 000 phrases arranged by topics).

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How to Learn English Grammar

In my view learning English grammar in the following sequence ensures firm solid thorough knowledge of English grammar:

  1. Read a short clear easily understandable explanation of a grammar rule.
  2. Study several practical usage examples (sentences) illustrating that particular grammar rule. Check yourself whether you have mastered the examples.
  3. Do several exercises for that rule with communicative content (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).

Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures.

Grammar practice should also include exercises in listening comprehension and speaking, not just in reading and writing.

Grammar exercises must help learners not only form correct sentences, but also use them correctly in context in real life situations. Contrastive and contextualised exercises give practice in form, meaning and use.

It is very important to learners for practising English grammar on their own that there are answers provided to the exercises (the key) in the grammar practice book for self-check.

A learner of English can't rely on real life communication alone to be proficient in using grammatically correct English. Learning English grammar from books, audio and video aids is equally indispensable to substantially accelerate mastering of English grammar.

Correct oral communication in English is based on knowledge of English phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, and on practice and experience in communicating with native English speakers in real life. I would argue that first a learner must master at least basic English grammar from books with exercises before being able to communicate grammatically correctly in real life with native speakers of English.

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Practising English on Your Own

In my view motivation and needs for learning English are a driving force (paramount factors) for dedication, interest and success in learning English.

Of course everyday long-term talking to native English speakers on a multitude of topics is a top priority and a paramount factor for developing good English speaking skills by learners of English. However, in addition to this, self-study and practising English on one's own are indispensable, and substantially accelerate success in English. Communication with native English speakers can't encompass all aspects of mastering English adequately and thoroughly, especially vocabulary, grammar, potential in-depth content of conversations suitable for real life needs of students for using English. It's possible and effective to practise English (including listening comprehension and speaking) on one's own through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids.

I believe a debate on practising English by learners ought to focus on how learners can practise the following aspects of using and improving English skills: listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. In my view, to thoroughly explore this issue, it is important to take into particular consideration aids, methods, activities, exercises and tasks for practising and improving English skills. Certainly, practising English listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing is based on English phonetics, grammar and vocabulary skills. They must be included in practising English.

Have you noticed that interpreters have to possess the most thorough knowledge of a foreign language (especially of conversation, vocabulary and grammar)? Perhaps foreign learners of English can achieve fluency in English also through oral translation from their native language into English with the activities described in my articles on learning English. It is possible to exercise self-control (that is to check yourself) this way when practising speaking in English every sentence in ready-made materials with both a foreign language and English versions. I also believe that the value of oral translation from a foreign language into English with self-control (self-check) is underestimated by English teaching specialists for self-study and self-practice of English conversation, vocabulary and grammar.

My views in this regard do not apply to classroom teaching and classroom learning of English, because an ESL teacher teaches English to students from various ethnic backgrounds and therefore oral translation into English is simply impossible. But I firmly believe that oral translation into English is effective in practising on one's own English speaking, vocabulary and grammar with ready-made materials (using self-check)  in a more logical, thorough, in-depth way as to content than casual talking to native English speakers. Practising English on one's own through oral translation into English with self-check may be a quicker way for developing fluency in speaking English than casual talking with limited content in English to native English speakers. Anyway practising English on your own accelerates mastering of English.

In my opinion learning English with the help of a teacher is necessary but it's only a small part of the cake. If one really wants to master a language with its various aspects (including idioms, accents etc..) one has to work on one's own. This is, unfortunately, what many people seem to misunderstand. If one just attends the courses and doesn't practise a lot, it will take years to become finally fluent, if that ever happens.

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Reading In English

Extensive reading in English with the help of a good English dictionary on a variety of real life topics is one of the ways to learn English vocabulary. Since there is an enormous amount of reading material in English, a learner of English has to prioritise reading in subjects according to learner's needs for using English to encompass first the most necessary, relevant and frequently used vocabulary. Day-to-day topics ought to come first in reading.

Reading materials can be arranged by level of difficulty of vocabulary - for learners at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels.

Learners can master the most important English vocabulary by reading thematic texts (materials), first of all on everyday topics with important content, for example: Practical Tips and Advice to Make Everyday Life Easier and Better (practical solutions for everyday problems). Such self-help books on settling everyday matters are available at book stores.

In addition to thematic informative texts (materials), learners can read thematic dialogues (samples of real life conversations between people), narrative realistic stories, fine literature, newspapers, magazines, Internet materials, books in various subjects, general thematic English dictionaries, etc.

Good general thematic English dictionaries arrange vocabulary by subject matter (topics) and provide clear word usage explanations and also a few usage sentences for each word meaning, which is especially important. English synonym dictionaries provide usage explanations and usage examples for words with similar meaning. Thematic general English dictionaries combined with English synonym dictionaries are a valuable tool for mastering English vocabulary logically, comprehensively and intensively for real life needs of learners.

Good public libraries have a wide selection of English reading materials.

It is more useful for learners to write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences. It is important that they practise telling the content of the texts that they have read. Learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on the text that require long answers to make easier for learners to tell the content of the text. I believe it is a good idea to read each logical chunk or paragraph of a text and to narrate each paragraph separately, and then the whole text. As people say, practice makes perfect.

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About the author

Mike Shelby is a former ESL teacher.

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