I get a lot of messages from English learners. One of the most popular questions is, “How can I improve my English?” After 8 years of teaching English, I still don’t have a complete answer for that question, because the answer depends on the person asking the question and his/her current level of English.
One thing I have discovered is that most English learners need to change the way they learn English.
Many English learners think they need to memorize grammar rules and memorize lots of new words. They think that reading should be difficult because if it’s not difficult, they won’t learn anything.
That’s how many people learned English in school.
Is that how you learned English? Now, as a result, you know a lot of grammar rules and you know a lot of words, but you struggle to put a sentence together and you can’t understand natural spoken English.
You are not alone. This is very common.
You need to become an independent English learner. You need to learn how to learn English.
1. There is no magic secret to learning English. Stop waiting for one.
I get the feeling that many English learners want me to tell them a secret. They think that once they know this secret, it will be easy for them to learn English quickly.
There is no quick and easy way to learn English. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, because there are a lot of things to learn!
The easiest and quickest way to learn English is to learn English like you learned your native language. (Your native language is sometimes called your mother tongue.)
You didn’t learn your native language by memorizing grammar rules. You didn’t learn your native language by talking to other people who were also learning your native language. You learned your native language by listening to the people around you: your parents, your family, people on TV, people in movies. You may have learned some grammar rules in school, but you could already speak your native language by the time you started school. Over time, you improved with more listening and reading, and a lot of practice.
That’s what you need to do in English.
2. Stop memorizing and obsessing over grammar rules.
Native speakers don’t memorize grammar rules. In fact, in some English-speaking countries, we don’t even learn grammar rules in school! I had never heard of a gerund or the present perfect tense until I started teaching English.
Of course, you need to understand English grammar. You need to understand how English grammar is different from grammar in your language. The worst thing you can do is think in your language and then try to translate that into English. Your sentences end up sounding strange and unnatural in English.
For example, in Latin languages like Spanish and Italian you don’t need to say the subject of the sentence because it’s part of the way the verb is conjugated. I hear a lot of Spanish and Italian speakers say in English, “Is good.” What is good? “Is good” sounds fine in Spanish and Italian, but it sounds lazy in English, because an English sentence needs a subject. That’s important to know!
However, not everything in English can be explained by rules. Sometimes, when the question is “Why?” the answer is “Because that’s the way it is.” Asking “Why?” or obsessing over small details and exceptions to rules is not going to help you improve your English.
Native speakers don’t always follow grammar rules anyway.
I am not going to publish many grammar posts on this website anymore. I want students to focus on learning sentences instead of rules. I closed the comments on existing grammar posts on this website because so many English learners were worrying about small details and it was taking up a lot of my time answering questions that were not going to help anyone improve his/her English.
You will learn more English grammar by reading and listening, not by memorizing grammar rules.
3. Focus on core vocabulary and collocations.
You need to learn vocabulary, but memorizing long lists of words is not going to help you improve your English.
First, learn the right words. There are over a million words in English, but some words are more important to learn than others.
Ninety percent of everything that native speakers say and write comes from just 7000 words. That’s not a lot compared to the total number of words in English.
These 7000 words are the core vocabulary of English. These are the words you need to learn.
Next, you need to learn the words that go together, like “throw a party” or “pay cash (for something).” These are called collocations. Collocations are words that go together in a way that sounds natural and correct to a native English speakers.
The most important thing to know about collocations is that English collocations are very different from collocations in your language. That’s why you can’t just translate words from your language into English. We don’t say “make a party” or “make sports” in English. The collocations in English are “throw/have a party” or “play sports.”
When you look up a new word in a dictionary for English learners, like the Macmillan Online Dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, it will tell you the collocations for that word, too.
Here are some collocations that I have used in this blog post:
(it) depends on
put (something) together
a lot of
as a result
follow a rule
4. Read. Everything. Anything.
This is the part that English learners often avoid because they can’t find something to read at their level, or they think reading has to be difficult.
When I was studying French, I thought reading had to be difficult if I was going to learn anything. I thought that I needed to learn as many new words as possible. This is not true! You should not be reading a book that has more than one or two new words per page.
Again: You should not be reading a book that has more than one or two new words per page.
Reading isn’t fun or interesting if you have to stop and look up new words in a dictionary every sentence. If there are more than one or two new words on a page, you won’t be able to remember those words or, worse, you will mix up the meanings of the words.
When you read for fun, you learn English without even realizing it. You get used to natural English sentence structure. You can understand new words without having to look them up in a dictionary.
This is where I will be focusing my efforts now. I will help you find interesting books at your level that you can read for fun.
Learn more: Improve your English by reading children’s book series
5. Listen. To everything. Anything.
Listening to a native speaker for just 15 minutes a day can make a difference, even if you don’t understand everything the speaker is saying. (Fifteen minutes is the minimum amount of time you should be listening to English. More is better!)
Obviously it is more enjoyable if you can understand what the speaker is saying, but even if you can’t understand what the speaker is saying, you are still learning something about spoken English: You are getting used to the rhythm of natural spoken English.
You are also learning to match sounds with words. The pronunciation of an English word often does not match the spelling of that word. You can’t look at an English word and know how it is pronounced. In English, you need to hear the word to know how it is pronounced.
If you don’t know the correct pronunciation of a word, how will you know when you hear that word? You will think you are hearing a different word.
When you encounter a new word, look it up in a dictionary for English learners, like the Macmillan Online Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary. Click on the speaker icon to hear someone say the word. Try to imitate what you hear. Both dictionaries also include the IPA transcription of words, so if you know the IPA, you will now how to pronounce the word.
The best way to learn is to listen to a native speaker while reading the words, and then try to imitate what you hear. The best way to learn is to listen to the English Teacher Melanie podcast, my series of listening lessons.
6. Speak. Write. Try not to make mistakes.
Listening and reading are inputs, information that you receive and take in. Speaking and writing are outputs, information that you produce from inputs. You cannot speak or write in English without listening or reading first. You need to listen to English and read English before you can speak or write in English.
In the blog post 4 Truths About Learning English, I said that native speakers don’t care if you make a mistake. This is true. It’s OK to make a mistake.
Try not to make mistakes all the time. Try your best to say or write something properly. If you are not sure of the spelling of a word, take the time to check a dictionary.
If you make the same mistake over and over, it becomes a habit. Habits are very hard to change or break. It becomes very difficult to improve your English if you first have to change what you know. Your brain gets used to speaking or writing English, even if you’re doing it wrong. It’s difficult to train your brain to do something differently.
I have taught many students who said they wanted to improve their English, but they didn’t want to change the way they already spoke English, even if they were wrong. It’s very hard to change the way you speak English, even if you’re wrong, if that’s the way you have spoken English for a long time.
In English-speaking cultures, it’s rude to correct someone’s mistakes. A native speaker who is not a teacher will not tell you or correct you when you make a mistake. This is important to understand.
In a perfect world, everyone learning English would have their own English tutor who could correct their mistakes. It is possible, however, to learn English without you’re own private teacher.
You need to read. You need to listen. You need to focus on core vocabulary and collocations. You need to be an independent learner.
I agree and would like to revive some info about book to read! Because so far the ones that I’ve picked I could never finish reading! Exactly because I had to stop every one sec to check the dictionary so I got boring!
Clicerio Muñoz says
Dear Melanie: Thank you very much for your valuable advices. Learning English (or “to learn English”?) is a wonderful journey and having your insights makes it easier. Thanks again!
You are right, I guess. Anyway, you are the teacher and must know what would be a better way to learn English. Also, I miss your podcasts, just saying.
Thank you so much.
thanks for your post and I’ll probably change the way I have been studying, now I will take advantage of you advices.
Nguyen vinh says
Thank you so much .
Thank you for such a great post. The
ways to improve&english are exact and clear. I got much useful information from that article. That was what I needed.
Thank you very much for help.
Dear Melanie, I read your post in which you have given all English language learners some great tips on how to improve English. Learning a new language is a process that takes time and effort. Practice is the key to success. Students should not be afraid to make mistakes at the beginning of learning English as it is through the mistakes that a learner is able to master the language. Reading books written in English according to one’s level of command of the language is vitally essential.
I think you’re absolutely right. I learned English at school for a long time but I wasn’t able to speak.
I try to read and listen English stuff every day. But I wonder if it is also important to practice speaking??!! It is difficult to find a person, a native speaker who is interested in helping to improve :-) improving??:-) my English skills.Online lessons are very expensive. Do you have any ideas?
Birgit from Germany
important to practice speaking??!!
“It is difficult to find a person, a native speaker who is interested in helping me improve my English skills”
There are a couple things you can do. You can try to find someone to do a “language exchange” with, i.e. you help someone with their German & he/she can help you with your English. Do you live near a city or university? If there is a German language or English language department at the university, you might find an English native speaker (professor or student) at the university who needs to improve his/her German & may be willing to help you with English.
Another thing you could try is recording yourself speaking English & compare it to a native speaker. For example, you could record yourself reading one of my listening lessons, & then you can compare your pronunciation to my pronunciation. You can try googling “recording apps” to find something for your phone or computer. Actually, you have given me a great idea for a new blog post: How to Record Yourself Speaking English!
Hi Melanie! Thank you for this blog! I am really interested in improving my english
Diệu Đặng says
Thanks so much for your helpful advice.:)))
Hi Melanie, thank You For The Present, I’m Chuffed To Bits. Many English Teachers Do No Explain More About Collocations Because They’re A Bit Hard To Fugure Them Out and Traducing Them By Unnatural Speekers. I Have The Same Problem, Please Help Me! I Agree With You About Reading Books, But What’ll Happen If I Learn Two Languages?
Remember that you only need to use capital letters at the start of a sentence or for a proper noun, like the name of a person or the name of a place. It’s difficult to read your message where every word starts with a capital letter.
Are you worried that if you read books English, you will lose your skills in your native language? Or are you learning two languages at the same time? I read an interesting article years ago about a French woman who was also fluent in English. She would alternate reading books in French & English. She read one book in French, then read one book in English, then a book in French, and so on. I don’t think learning another language will affect your ability to read in your native language.
Eduardo Torres says
I found your post very thoughtful and thorough. My message to learners is that they should use the new language as a new tool to do what they do. I mean if they are students, they could help themselves by using the new language to complement their coursework and to expand their knowledge. They should find things to read, and listen they enjoy and that open new horizons in their learning experience and life. And of course, they should participate with their ideas by writing and commenting on the things they enjoy and learn. Learning a new language (or two) should be a way to learn more, to experience life in different ways with foreign eyes. Thanks!
Thank you for your advice
Hello dear Melanie,
your post was very fantastic, I really enjoy that.
I am wait your other post.
respect, Sayed Mohammad
You are absolutely correct of what you said in your post, and I found it very informative, educational and interesting. Looking forward to your other post.Thank you very much.
Hello Teacher Melanie
Yes your are right, I or should I say we English learner need to listen,write and listen anything about English. I remember those words back in my school days.Thanks a lot Melanie.
P.s. by the way I’m from Phil.
Hi Teacher Melanie,
You are absolutely right, and thank you for your advice. Every day I improve my English by reading books, watching English films. I really worry about my sentences when I write or speak I afraid it’s not correct.I know and understand but sometimes I don’t know how to speak it out. Do you feel me?
Thanks a bunch for your useful post, I really appreciate it
hi Melanie, I m from Morroco and I study english this year. I saw your advices,its really helpful but I don’t know what s kind of books can help me. could you please tell me some books. ..thaank’s
Thanks for your help. I am waiting for your new programs.
Very clear and excellent explanation.
I will enjoy.
I wish you all the best.
Best regards, Megan
What a wonderful, fantastic post/advice. I really like it because it was written in a simple and easy English, I think anyone can understand and enjoy your post. I think, high authority should give a reward of best Teacher 2015 to Melanie.
Sabrina @ Speak English Live says
I especially like your point #5: listen to everything (in English). Specific podcasts for English learners are great, but you can also find podcasts in English on whatever topic is interesting to you (fishing, business, fashion, news, etc.!)
If native level podcasts are too advanced, watching children’s stories be read aloud on YouTube is a great practice for beginner/intermediate students.
I’ll be sharing your post on Twitter!
I have got used to learning english from a grammar book.How can h give up this habit? Do you think it is high time I gave up learning to speak english with the help of a grammar book? Whenever I want to memorize sentences why do i start to feel lazy?please help!
Memorizing sentences is not lazy! It is much more effective than memorizing grammar rules.
What kind of grammar book are you using? If it’s a grammar book that teaches grammar in context, i.e. teaches grammar as you are reading a text, that’s OK. If it’s just a standard grammar book, it’s time to put it away.
It’s a habit because that’s the way you studied English in school. That’s how you got good grades in school. That’s why it feels like work, while memorizing sentences feels like laziness.
I read somewhere that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Put away your grammar book for 21 days. Memorize sentences for 21 days. See how you feel after that!
All the best,
Cineas J. Basile says
Hi Melanie, I like your english lessons, the are simples. Thank you so much.
Thank you Melanie :)
Thank you very much. I’m from Iran and i have many problems in speaking as you say( translating my taught!!!) but i try because i love English language. I’m 54 and i have studied english since i was 15!!! again thank u dear.
Thank you for all your tips, I really love your teaching!
I have noticed that when I stay with people who’s English is on a lower level than mine, my English is getting worse immediately. When I speak /or take part in a conversation/ with people whose English is much better than mine – the way I speak English improves immediately. It’s like my brain accelerates when challenged and I like it:)
Thanks for your tips!
Have a nice day,
carlos romero says
muchas grasias Melanie
Thank you so much for all the great advice.
I will follow your advice and do my best.
Hi Melanie ,
I hope you’re doing fine. I haven’t heard anything from you since last November !! I’ve been waiting another episode…..!!!!
Thanks for your tips
Thank you teacher you are not only a teacher,you are also knowledge which God has brought us to improve our English through it ,,,, thanks for this post teacher
foad amini says
thank you dear melanie. i have found your website recently, and i find it very usefull . i will join the email list to get the lessons. thank you
I really enjoy reading englishteachermelanie.com !
I really want to learn English just with your methods everyone knows it’s great.
Dear Melanie thank you so much :-*