What can I do to improve my English? (3/4)Posted: July 7, 2014
In addition to their homework, students often ask me what else they can do in their spare time to improve their English. Therefore I decided to gather some tips together and post them here.
In this four-part series, I’m going to talk about activities which can help you to develop your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. This is not a comprehensive list, so if you have any ideas that you would like to share, you can post them in the comments section.
For many students, speaking is the most difficult activity. This is why I made a point of not leaving it till last! For some people, speaking activities require extra effort because they have to overcome their inhibitions about speaking another language but if you really want to improve, you need to speak!
Five ways to improve your speaking skills
1. Find someone to talk with and do it regularly
Whether you enjoy speaking English or need some more confidence, regular conversations with a language tandem partner, either face-to-face or online, will give you the chance to develop your speaking skills.
There is more information about language tandems in the
how to get the best out of language exchanges article
A conversation is about speaking and listening, so make sure you do both. Sometimes people may have understood what you said to them but they need a bit more time to process their thoughts – so give them this time and don’t try to repeat the question or find another way of saying it unless you are sure that the other person did not understand. As the other person is also a learner, they should do the same for you and you will both be able to focus on the areas that you need to develop. A native speaker can introduce you to idiomatic language and show you how the language is used in everyday conversation. They can also point out mistakes and correct your sentences and you can do the same for them. However, not all native speakers know about grammar and the reasons why certain errors are wrong – in most cases they won’t be teachers, so although you should try to find someone who speaks their native language well, keep your expectations realistic in terms of what you want from them.
2. Learners can help one another
Whilst it’s good to have English practice with native speakers, learning and speaking with another learner can also help you to improve your fluency. The other learner may not be able to help with accuracy but you will be able to have a conversation in English, to discuss topics of interest and to communicate your ideas.
Try to find someone who is on a similar level so that it doesn’t become a lesson. Of course if there is someone who is more advanced than you and they want to help you, that is great. However the idea of a small study group is that you learn together, which is why it helps if you can build and understand sentences on the same language level.
Speaking with another learner is sometimes easier because you know that they are learning as well. They shouldn’t mind waiting for you sometimes as you will no doubt have to wait for them and you know that you will both make mistakes, so there is no need to feel shy about speaking!
3. Practise on your own
Sometimes you can improve your speaking skills without a conversation partner. Pets such as dogs or cats make wonderful listeners. They may well go to sleep in the middle of your story but they will never laugh at you or point out bad grammar. You could read to them or tell them about your day. Talking to pets can help because you are speaking aloud and this also gives you the chance to hear yourself speaking another language – something which can take some getting used to.
Most people don’t want to listen to themselves but recording your voice can help you to identify any pronunciation difficulties and it can also help you to measure your progress if you do it regularly.
Sometimes it’s not necessary (or practical) to speak but you can practise thinking in English whilst you are doing other things. This helps you to build sentences, describe things, ask questions or give your opinion without actually having to do it. The benefit here is that you are developing your sentence forming skills so it will become easier for you when you need to use these skills in real conversations.
4. See what’s going on for English speakers in your local area
If you have the chance to do this, spending some time in an English-speaking country will really help you to develop your speaking skills because you will be surrounded by people who speak English. This could be attendance at a language course or a short break. If you do this, try to speak English all the time and don’t try to find others who speak your language.
It isn’t possible for everyone to go to an English-speaking country but don’t worry, there are other things that you can do locally.
Many towns and cities have English-speaking meet-up groups, either for people who want to improve their English or for native English speakers in other countries. See whether there are any local groups or activities that you can join.
Although films and plays in English would generally come under the “listening” section, if you attend them, you may get into some interesting conversations whilst you’re there.
5. Look for opportunities to speak
Unless you have to use English regularly at work or in some other situation, it’s easy to avoid speaking if you don’t feel confident about doing it. Often it’s necessary to be proactive and to look for opportunities to speak. What’s the worst that could happen? Unless you become friends, you won’t see your conversation partners again so it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake or don’t find the right words. Most of the time, people won’t laugh at your mistakes and if they do, it reflects badly on them, not you.
Sometimes we don’t like the sense of vulnerability that comes with beginning to speak a language but after a while, this feeling subsides as we grow in confidence.
Other articles in this series
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