Posts by speakspokehavespoken

My name is Sarah and I'm an English teacher. I love helping my students improve their skills and understand how English works. I started this blog to share some tips on learning strategies, resources and tricky grammar points. I'm always happy to hear your ideas or suggestions for the blog!

Asking questions in the present simple

When we learn a new language, we learn lots of new vocabulary. We quickly learn to make sentences. But it’s also important to ask questions. We need questions when we are travelling, at work or at school. This post focuses on making questions in the simple present tense.

Questions with a helping verb

Let’s take a simple sentence in the present tense:

I like chocolate.
Subject – verb – object

The main verb in this sentence is like.

To make a question, we also need a helping verb. The helping in the simple present is normally do. This goes at the beginning of the question, and the subject and the main verb swap places:

Do you like chocolate?
Helping verb – subject – main verb – object

Here is another example:

They work in Manchester.

Do they work in Manchester?

Here is an example with the main verb do. It sounds strange because we say do twice, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb.

I always do my homework.

Do you always do your homework?

He/she/it

If the subject in the sentence is he/she/it (a person or a thing) we add an ‘s’ to the verb.

She plays tennis.

To make a question we use the helping verb does but the main verb does not have an ‘s’. We only need one ‘s’ in the question.

Does she play tennis?

Most verbs use do as a helping verb in the simple present, but there are some special verbs with different rules.

Questions without a helping verb

The verb to be doesn’t have a helping verb. To make a question, just swap the verb and the subject:

I am happy.
Are you happy?

He is here.
Is he here?

They are finished.
Are they finished.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs include can, must, should, etc. They are used with other main verbs in the sentence. They are like helping verbs. If there is a modal verb, there is no extra verb helping verb in the question. We just swap the modal verb and the subject.

I can speak Spanish.
Can you speak Spanish?

They should be here.
Should they be here?

We will see the film.
Will we see the film?

With W question words

If we use a W question word (when, where, why, what, etc.), this comes at the beginning of the question. After that comes the helping verb do.

When do you start work?
Where do you live?
Why do you like the film?
What do you think about the new project?


Extra practice
It can feel strange to use "do" to make questions, but it's 
important to practise this form. Make a short list of verbs 
from your course. For each verb, say and then write a 
question with "do" as a helping verb. 

What questions do you often ask at work or at school?

Present simple or present continuous?

English is famous for having lots of tenses to choose from. The first tenses to learn are the present tenses, talking about now. In English, we have different ways of thinking about what ‘now’ means. In this post, I’ve explained some of the main differences between the present simple and present continuous and when to use these tenses.

Form

Let’s take a look at the form of these tenses first.

The present simple is constructed like this:

I work. – I don’t work. – Do you work?

She works. – She doesn’t work. – Does she work?

When we form negative sentences and questions, we use the helping verb do. When we talk about he/she/it, we add an ‘s’ to the main verb (or helping verb in negative sentences and questions).

The present continuous is constructed like this:

I am working. – I am not working. – Are you working?

She is working. – She is not working. – Is she working?

In these sentences, we always need the helping verb be and the ing form of the main verb.

Facts

When we talk about facts and things that are always true, we use the present simple. For example:

Water boils at 100 degrees.

The town is 20 miles from the coast.

He has dark hair.

Routine

When we talk about routines and repeated actions, we use the present simple. There are some signal words that show this, including often, usually, sometimes, rarely, never, every day, once a year, etc. If we answer the question “How often….?” we use also the present simple.

I leave the house at 7 am every morning.

We go to the cinema once a month.

He usually has meetings on Tuesdays.

The company closes over Christmas every year.

Actions right now

When we talk about actions taking place at this moment, we use the present continuous. Signal words for this include right now, at the moment, at this minute, today, this morning, just, etc. For example:

I’m doing my homework.

Right now I’m finishing the report.

At the moment I’m trying to call the hotline.

Today we’re discussing the budget.

Actions around now

We also use the present continuous for actions around now. This means something might not be happening at this moment, but it is a temporary situation still ongoing. For example:

I’m learning Spanish.

We’re working on the new project.

She’s staying with a friend for a month.

Changes

To describe changes taking place now, we use the present continuous. For example:

Our customers are using our online chat more often.

More people are cycling to work.

Young people are becoming more interested in politics.

Future plans

We can also use the present continuous to describe future plans that are set and have been planned, often with someone else. For example:

I’m going on holiday in June.

We’re visiting our sister at the weekend.

They’re going out for lunch tomorrow.

Summary

As a general rule, it could be helpful to remember that if something only happens once or for a short time, we use the present continuous, and if it happens more than once, we use the present simple.


Extra practice
Make a short list of verbs from your course. For each verb, say
and then write two sentences with that verb, one in the present
simple and one in the present continuous. For example: 'work' -->
'I work from nine to five every day.' / 'I am working on an 
important project at the moment.' 

Do you have any more tips and tricks to remember which tense to use?

Top tips for learning vocabulary

Whether you’re learning English with a teacher, a course book or through self-study, one of the hardest things is learning all the new words and phrases you need. Which words should you learn? How should you record them? How often should you practice? Here are my top tips for vocabulary-learning success.

Find a system

When learning a language we hear and read lots of new words and phrases. Before we can memorise the words, we need a way to record them. There are lots of systems people use to write down their vocabulary. There is no right or wrong system, but here are some examples:

  • a traditional vocabulary book:  a list of English words and either translations in their language (sometimes translations are not possible!) or descriptions
  • flashcards: the new word of phrase on one side of the card and a description, picture or translation on the other
  • mind maps: the topic in the middle of a page and related vocabulary sorted into categories, e.g. ‘restaurants’ and then the categories ‘verbs in a restaurant’, ‘phrases to order food’, ‘food types’, ‘objects in a restaurant’, ‘adjectives to describe restaurants’, etc.
  • spreadsheets: a list of English words and the translation or description in the next column.
  • apps: there are lots of apps available to help with vocabulary. Some let you add your own words; some already have set categories.
  • post-its: label objects around your house with post-it notes, or have a wall/door where you stick up words you are trying to learn. The words can be colour-coded according to word type or situation.

Start small

Take five new words you would like to learn, the most important words for your job or everyday life. Every day when you are eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner, make a sentence with each new word. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well. The next week you can try new words. If five words are too easy, try eight or ten words. It’s better to start small and then make it more difficult if needed.

This is a good method because we remember new words and phrases better when we actively use them. It also means that you don’t need to find extra time in your day to learn vocabulary. You can practise when you are doing something else. Follow the link to read more about practising English you don’t have much time.

Practice makes perfect

When we have worked hard to learn new words, we want to remember them for a long time. It’s good to regularly review vocabulary using the systems above, for example, by covering the English words and then testing how many you remember. Instead of just saying the word or writing it down, try to put it in a sentence. You can also try to make a story with groups of words. Learning vocabulary is an active process.


Do you have any more tips for learning vocabulary? I’d love to hear them in the comments below! Also, let me know if you try out any of these methods.

Easy English: How to practise when you have no time

One of the most common reasons people give up learning a language is because they do not have enough time. They have a busy job, a family to look after, friends to visit and they play sports too. When should they practise English?

It’s true that learning a language needs work and takes time, but there are lots of things we can do to practise that take no extra time from our day. Here are some tips for fitting language learning into your schedule.

Vocabulary

Learning new vocabulary doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Make sentences with new words when you are doing something else, like eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well, then try new words. Apps are also a good way to quickly practise vocabulary for a few minutes each day.

In addition, write down a few words you want to learn on post-it notes and stick them somewhere easy to see, like a mirror. Every time you look at the mirror you will see the words you want to learn. It’s even better if you can make sentences with these words too.

Here are some more tips for learning vocabulary effectively.

Reading

You don’t need to do anything extra in your day to practise reading in English. Change your phone, laptop or social media account settings. This way, you will be reading English regularly with no extra work. It’s also a good way to learn some new vocabulary.

Lots of us like to read the news in the morning when we have breakfast or are on the bus or train. Instead of doing this in your own language, why not read a short article in English? It’s also a great way to keep up-to-date with news in different countries.

Listening

I am a big fan of podcasts when it comes to learning languages. There are podcasts for every level and interest. Some are made for people learning English, but more advanced students can also listen to general podcasts too. Choose a short podcast to start (5-10 minutes) and listen to it when you are on the bus/cooking dinner/cleaning your house.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything first time – you can play it through again.  Remember we don’t need to understand every word to understand the main ideas in the podcast. This is a great way to practise listening to different accents and to get a feeling for the language.

Speaking

Speaking is probably the hardest skill to practise regularly if you do not live in an English-speaking country or need English in your job. If you have a friend or family member who speaks English, you could always speak to them in English, or choose one day of the week to be ‘English day’. It feels strange at first but it’s a great way to practise together.

If there is no one to speak to, you can practise on your own too. For example, every day when you come home from work you could talk for two minutes about what happened during your day. You can get used to speaking English, and there is no pressure from other people.

Writing

Write to-do lists, shopping lists and notes for yourself in English. We write these things anyway, so it’s not extra work. It may take a little longer the first time, but you will quickly learn the words and phrases you often use.

If you have a friend or a family member who speaks English, you could also message or email them in English for extra practice. This way, you can help and correct each other too.


These are my tips for learning a language when you don’t have much time. I’d love to know if you try any of them. Do you have any more ideas?