Do you sometimes feel that you’re not moving forward with your English? “Why aren’t I making progress,” you think to yourself. Deep-down you might know the answer, but if not, here it is in two short sentences:
1. You’re not spending enough time on developing your skills in English.
2. You’re not spending that time actively and efficiently.
But of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that even if you feel you’re not making progress, you probably are!
It’s perhaps just that you feel you’re not progressing enough or as much as you would like to.
1. “So How Much Time Do I Need..?”
The more hours (and productive hours) you devote to English, the more progress you’ll make.
Let’s take the typical student here in the Czech Republic. If you attend a group lesson twice a week (90 minutes) – which is what most schools in Prague offer – you can reasonable expect to complete one linguistic level, starting in September and ending in June. For example, if you start B1 in September, you’ll usually complete it in June.
ie it takes about 100-150 focussed learning hours to complete a level – for the typical student.
In contrast, if you have individual lessons 3-4 times a week, then you should reasonably expect to ‘jump’ two (or close to two) levels in one year.
It’s all about focussed learning hours!
On top of this, if you speak English at work or integrate English into your private and social life, that’s also going to help *a lot*.
I can compare my own experience with Spanish this year. When I was having 8-9 hours a week, I was speaking better with each lesson. Then one teacher left the school, and so for a few weeks I was only speaking 2-3 hours a week.
My fluency dropped big time!
Now I’m back again doing about 8 hours a week, and I’m already improving again.
So I’d say from all my years’ experience as a teacher and learner, you need a minimum of 5 hours a week to make good progress.
In a nutshell, aim for 7 focussed learning hours a week!
Homework and English activities outside of class will boost your learning even more!
I believe it helps to have a teacher help guide your learning, but if you’re disciplined, you can still make this happen by being a great self-motivated independent learner.
So in answer to the question “why aren’t I improving that much?” most often it’s because you’re doing one or two hours a week and not 5-10.
However, with 2 hours a week you’ll still make progress – it just won’t be as noticeable.
That’s why the typical learner at B2 level in the Czech Republic seems to have been studying for about 10 years. In fact, it’s not really “10 years” – they’ve just been attending a regular course once or twice a week for 10 years.
If this doesn’t sound very motivating, spend one whole year doing 10 hours a week. You’ll cut years from your learning curve!
2. Being An Active Learner
Another way to get better quicker is to use your time more efficiently. In short, the idea here is to make every minute count. Ask yourself:
- “What am I doing now?”
- “How am I spending my lesson time?”
If you’re not really doing anything, then it means you’re not making the most of your lesson or learning time.
I’ll give you a few examples. Once I had a student who said she wasn’t making as much progress despite spending more time on English at home. I asked her more about what she was doing and it turned out she was doing a traditional translation exercise – she wrote a diary entry or story in Czech and then translated it into English (she didn’t get this idea from me, by the way).
Anyhow, I then encouraged her to write her story only in English and spend her whole time thinking in English. After a few weeks I could already see some progress in her active written and spoken vocabulary!
As well, she said to me: “But David I listen to the BBC News at home, and yet I don’t think it’s helping.”
This is because we found out she really had the BBC on in the background. She wasn’t actively listening to it. Active listening would be, for example, if she wrote down the main headlines for each story. Or if she listened to the news bulletin and wrote down 3 pieces of information for each story. Or if she could summarise the news for that evening.
It’s all about switching from a passive state to an active state.
Active Learning Activities
There’s plenty you can do either with a teacher or on your own! Here are some specific ideas below. In short, you’re giving yourself a learning task or ‘job’ while you interact in English. If you have any others, please feel free to leave a comment and share what works for you.
Studies have shown that if you summarise something you have read, you’ll remember it better than if you simply read it twice (eg source: Vocabulary Myths). I have also found this to be true from my own studies of French or Spanish.
Do you sometimes read an article and feel you ‘know’ the words, and yet you find it hard to put it all together ie to understand the text?
This is where summarising can help.
“What is the writer reporting or saying?”
TASK: Choose an article and then see if you can describe what it was about (if you’re B2 or higher, a article from the newspaper on a topic you’re interested in is a good place to start).
I’ve seen the benefits of this from my own learners in the Czech Republic, and I was quite impressed with how they went. Usually it was harder the first few times, then they got the hang of it.
Summarising can also involve writing a short summary for each main paragraph that you read. Or to at least reflect on what it is about. Then you can put it all together and present what you believe the writer was trying to communicate.
When my students did this I saw they used vocabulary from the article or perhaps re-phrased it, which meant they also benefitted from producing new language in class.
For students studying for an exam, presenting an article for one or two minutes can also help you organise your ideas and improve your discourse management for the speaking exams.
Other tasks you can do – and which may help you with a Cambridge English Exam or IELTS – include:
- Reading the headline and making predictions of what the article will be about
- Skimming the article (reading it quickly, not word by word) to get the general ‘feel’ for the article
- Deciding what you believe the writer’s attitude is (eg are they sceptical, humorous, critical, and so on) and underline parts of the text which back up your opinion.
- Underlining collocations (word that ‘go together’ to form useful multi-word items and phrases) to both improve your understanding of the text, and to build your active vocabulary.
- Beyond summarising an article, you can also present your personal reaction to what you’ve read (what points do you agree or disagree with? How did the article move you?).
- If you have a study buddy (someone you study with) you can each choose different articles and prepare comprehension questions for each other. This can make it more fun too.
- If the article is on a large sheet of paper, you can cut out each paragraph and then put the article back together. This helps build awareness of a text’s coherence and cohesion.
- You can check an article’s lexical coherence by underlining vocabulary that suits the topic at hand. For example, if you read a film review, you’ll see ‘film vocabulary’ such as scene, actor, special effects, drama, action-packed and so on. Lexical coherence is also something examiners look for in many international English exams.
“Should I read the article out aloud?”
If you want to take an exam, the general advice is not to do this as reading out aloud is not really a task for reading comprehension. However, to help with pronunciation, I believe this definitely has benefits, especially to help with connected speech (reading the words as collocations or ‘chunks’ that go together).
If you’re in a group class and don’t speak much, is it because you feel a little nervous or anxious? If so, you can give yourself realistic challenges each lesson, and build up from there (you can also find out more about progressive desensitisation on your favourite psychology website).
For example, if you’re shy to speak in front of others, you can start by speaking more with your partner in class, or in small groups eg “During the next five minutes of speaking time, I’m going to ask my classmate 1 or 2 or 3 follow-up questions based on what they’ve said” (the number of questions may depend on your comfort level and how long their answer will be).
Other tasks you can give yourself in a group class (or indeed with your own individual teacher):
- Asking your teacher how they weekend, day or evening was
- Doing the above and asking one follow-up question (eg “You went to see the new Kelly Brook film? Cool, how was it?!”)
- Doing all the above and then telling your teacher or classmates what you did/have done.
- Giving yourself lesson missions like “if I don’t understand something my teacher or a classmate says, I’m going to ask them to clarify or explain what they have said.” Again, you can do this once in the first lesson, then twice in the second, and so on.
With time and persistence, you should see some progress in both your speaking and how relaxed you are in class!
I know it sounds obvious, but the best way to improve your speaking is to…speak!
In short, the best way to get better at writing is to be active in the following areas:
- Spend a few minutes planning your email, story, report, or other written work first.Usually when I read a student’s work and it’s a little disorganised, it’s because they just started writing without thinking of a decent plan. So spend some time to consider what main points you’d like to cover, and in which order. Are there any examples which will support your ideas and views? Are there any arguments which you need to counter-argue..? Do you know which style and register the writing needs to be in? It helps to ask: “Who is going to read this?” If you’re writing a letter of complaint, for example, then the audience for this piece is going to be a manager. So you’ll need to write in a more formal register.Just thinking about this will help you answer the task more appropriately and improve your mark!Please note that you get marks for organisation, coherence and cohesion in international English exams, and writing an organised text will help you be better understood at work or in your private life too!
- It’s all about practice! If you want to take an exam and you need to be able to write a report, then I highly recommend you write your report, get some feedback on it from your teacher, and then write another one to see if you have improved in this area.
- What phrases, expressions and general vocabulary can you use from your English lessons in your writing?To practise at home, tt could be helpful to write your piece (essay, article, report, email, story, etc) while checking the vocabulary you’ve covered in class. Are there any useful phrases, expressions, collocations and so on which you could ‘steal’ for your own writing?Of course if you’re taking an exam, you can’t always do this. So I also recommend that you give yourself a time limit to how much you can get done within the required amount of time.
- Check out real-world examples of good writing and see if there’s anything you can ‘steal’ for your own writing. For instance, if you want to get better at letter writing, then keep a bank of letters or emails that you personally receive, and underline useful phrases and expressions you can use for *your* next letter!
- Keep all your previous writing homework so you can check for any mistakes you make frequently or to check to see if there’s anything to be on the lookout for!
Examples of being an active listener include:
- Listening to the news (eg on the BBC) and giving yourself a task to write down the most important information. Ask yourself: “What are the main headlines? What has happened in each news item? What numbers do I hear, and what do they represent..?” And so on.
- Would you be able to:
1. Write down the most important information in a news broadcast, and
2. Read it back to your teacher..?
- While you’re listening to the news or watching a programme on the internet, also listen out for some of the vocabulary you hear, and decide if any words and expressions could be helpful for your own speaking and conversation.
- Responding to the people you’re speaking with. Don’t just give a short answer in class, but really show you’ve been listening:
Kate: “I had a really nice time in Paris. Really liked the Kelly Brook Gallery..”
You: “Paris?! What an amazing city. I saw the Musee D’Orsay but I didn’t get to see the Brook one. How was it..?”
Referring to something that someone has just told you is one way of showing you have been listening – and are interested in what they’re saying.
There’s so much you can do in order to be an active learner. Is there anything you’d like to add below?
In short, you’ll get a lot better at English if you do 2 things:
1. Spend more time on learning English.
2. Use your time more efficiently so that you are active the whole time ie use your time as efficiently as possible so that you get value from every minute and so that you maximise your learning!
Also On Get Into English:
Put in = devote, to spend time doing something, to make effort in order to achieve something
Big time = a lot
Make it count and make the most are similar. The idea is to use your time so that you maximise or optimise your time and the effort you put in.
They got the hang of it = to get it, understand how to do something
Back up = support
Move = in this context, it means how did it affect you emotionally eg “That speech really moved me.”
Coherence and coherence = put simply, this related to how a text/article is put together so that it makes sense, that it is logical and understandable.
At hand = a topic at hand is the topic we’re presently discussing or dealing with