How to Improve Listening

Unless you’re an advanced speaker, the most effective way to improve your listening comprehension in English is to listen together with supplementary exercises. The best exercises guide you to a global understanding first, and then focus on more specific details and other important sub-skills of listening. The idea is that there is a difference between what students know and what the listening demands. One key purpose of the supplementary exercise (and of the English teacher) is to reduce that difference, and facilitate the understanding of that spoken language and content when necessary. A less effective alternative is to listen to something for the first time and immediately fill in the blanks of a transcript of the words spoken. When used as a first or only activity, this approach proves to be unnatural and artificial, and many students finish this kind of exercise not understanding what they just listened to. So they often need to pause and re-read the exercise, even if they filled in the blanks correctly! On the other hand, this type of approach is effective when used as a later activity of a listening exercise sequence. Another questionable alternative is a sink or swim method, in which no help is provided at all except for maybe an impromptu pause and the teacher explains or repeats. There can be moments for this, but when used exclusively it has limited value, especially for students with an intermediate or lower level. Even when I do this occasionally, I see that my students rarely remember anything the next class or even the next day, unless they take notes and have an efficient way of retrieving this information. Our students are provided with an effective way of doing this for any exercise. At American English with Natives, we have a lot of authentic material (television shows, news clips, movie segments etc.) for which we have created original supplementary exercises to facilitate the understanding of the language and allow our students to enjoy and understand authentic material. Our students end up learning about the content, as well as the language, of our authentic material. We believe the teacher’s role is to facilitate, not only the material itself, and not only the vocabulary it contains, but also the learning and understanding of it as a whole.

How to Improve Speaking

There are two fundamental ways to improve your speaking:

  • improve your fluency (how easily and naturally you speak)
  • improve your accuracy (how correctly you speak)

One good way to improve fluency is through guided and unguided speaking practice. This practice may include learning new vocabulary. However, learning more and more vocabulary items does not necessarily increase a person’s fluency! Let me explain. Active and Passive Vocabulary Native speakers with a good education “know” thousands and thousands of words, in the sense that when they hear or read them, they can understand them. However, these same people probably use only about 2,000 words in normal daily conversation. So you could communicate well in an English speaking environment even if your vocabulary is only 2,000 words – if your command of these 2,000 words is complete and comprehensive, and the 2,000 items are the right 2,000! Therefore, after 2,000 words, “learning” extra vocabulary becomes less and less useful. In spite of this obvious fact, many teachers and students believe that increasing their vocabulary will improve their fluency. This is simply not true. “Knowing” a vocabulary item is a rather difficult process. It means much more than just memorizing the new word or phrase. From a passive point of view, it means recognizing its meaning when it occurs in context. This is relatively simple. But for you to add the word to your active vocabulary, you need to know the contexts in which it can occur, the possible and impossible collocations of the word (words it can, or cannot, co-occur with) as well as more information regarding the connotational meaning of the word. In spoken language there is a range from “standard” English, through colloquial and idiomatic use, to slang. Students who are going to use their language with native speakers may in fact need to understand (i.e. passive vocabulary) certain idiomatic and colloquial language, possibly even a certain amount of slang, but as a general rule they will sound extremely strange if they incorporate slang into their own active vocabularies. So when learning new vocabulary, it’s important to distinguish which language will help you with your active vocabulary, and which will become part of your much larger passive vocabulary. Keeping in mind this distinction as you practice will help you achieve fluency more quickly, because using your time effectively means spending more time with vocabulary you hope to add to your active vocabularies. Free conversation, used appropriately, can help improve fluency. But if used exclusively there is no guarantee you will speak more correctly, even after years! There needs to be a method for improving speaking accuracy. Otherwise the mistakes can become a habit of speech in the learner, and therefore more difficult to correct (this is called fossilization). In other words, there is a time and place for free conversation and vocabulary learning, and this will help a student’s fluency some, depending on how it’s done. We have many activities designed to improve our students’ fluency and accuracy when speaking. One example is our system of personalizing the English our students want to express, complete with correct grammar, vocabulary, intonation and pronunciation. (See Truly Personalized.) This has been very effective in quickly bringing to our students the exact vocabulary and grammar they want and need. This method helps guide and facilitate the process of speaking correctly, helping to avoid sink or swim and creating bad habits. This is a very popular method amongst most of our students and has brought them concrete results. Distinguishing which vocabulary you will use actively or passively, and balancing guided conversation exercises with some free conversation, has proven to be a powerful combination for improving speaking.

Home Study from Netflix, Blu-rays and DVDs

DVDs can be more effective or less effective, depending on how you use them. The best way is if your teacher can provide you with supplementary exercises to facilitate your understanding of key vocabulary and structures, along with related speaking exercises that you can do in class. (See How to Improve Listening.) If supplementary exercises are not available, what can you do? Many learners I know like to watch the DVDs with English subtitles. This could be helpful, especially if it’s the second time you’re watching the DVD, or if you’re taking notes, and your objective is to learn spoken structures and vocabulary. But most people don’t do this, and consequently, they don’t gain very much from the experience. It’s important to keep in mind that if you read the subtitles, you’re doing very little to practice your listening! You’re mostly practicing reading. This could be a good thing, but it’s important to be clear about your objectives. One more point: If you use subtitles to facilitate your understanding, please keep in mind that many times the English subtitles are wrong! Sometimes very wrong! On the other hand, sometimes subtitles are correct, and are in fact a useful tool. It varies from series to series. Ask your teacher about the quality of subtitles in your favorite DVD series. In conclusion, if you don’t have supplementary exercises, then it’s best to watch the first (or only) time without subtitles, as long as you understand the general idea. Then, if you can, go back and watch again and read the subtitles. If you take a few notes, it’s even better. This approach becomes possible, depending on the difficulty of the material, once you reach an intermediate level or higher.

How to Improve Reading

Reading is an excellent way to improve your vocabulary. I highly recommend it! But since your time is limited, it’s important to think about which vocabulary you want to improve. (See active and passive vocabulary.) The vocabulary and grammar in reading can be quite varied and complex. If you want or need to understand it, then do it. But if you attempt to read all kinds of English, you’re going to need to invest a lot of time reading. One example is reading news articles from major US news sources, like CNN, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc. If you want or need to understand this material, then you should definitely be reading this material. It’s excellent. Supplementary exercises increase its effectiveness. However, you should understand that the vocabulary and grammar of news articles and headline news can be very different from spoken English. Many articles include words I never use when I speak! (See active and passive vocabulary) The most important goal for many of my students is to improve their speaking and listening, and they don’t really need to understand news. In these cases, their time is much better spent reading other things than news. In general, it’s best to read something you like. Also, whenever possible, try to read spoken English (e.g. transcripts of interviews, conversations, dialogues, etc.). Perhaps the ideal is when you can do both at the same time: reading a dialogue of spoken English about something you like or that interests you. Try it!