How to improve your reading skills

Reading is an excellent way to learn new words, learn how native speakers write and improve your language level. Reading regularly can help develop a ‘feeling’ for English. However, reading is also a skill we can learn and there are some techniques that can make it easier. Here are a few tips I give to my students to help them with reading practice.

  1. Look for clues before you read.

Before you read a text, look for clues about what the writer will say. Look at any pictures with the text. What is the title? Will the writer give information or their opinion? Or is it a story? What do you know about this topic already? What words do you think you will see in the text? Maybe not all our ideas will be correct, but thinking about the topic before you read the text helps us to understand more.

2. Read the text more than once.

If you’re reading a short text or news article, read it more than once. The first time, just read quickly for the main points in the text. Then the second time, you can read more slowly and look at the details in the text.

3. You don’t need to understand every word.

It’s natural to want to understand every word when you read a text in your new language, but this isn’t necessary to understand the text. In our native languages there are words we don’t understand, but we still understand the sentence or text as a whole. It’s also a lot of work to look up every new word in the dictionary. Only look up a new word if it’s repeated a lot or if it’s important for the meaning of part of the text.

4. Use what you know.

If you don’t know a word, use what you know. Does it look like another word you know in English? Or does it look like a word in your own language or in Latin? Does the word have a prefix or suffix (groups of letters at the beginning or end) you know?

Use your knowledge of the topic. What would fit in the sentence? For example, in the sentence ‘At school the —— help the students learn’ I can use my knowledge to guess that the word is teachers.

5. Look at the whole sentence.

If we look at the whole sentence, we can often see what kind of word a new word is. For example, in the sentence ‘At school the —— help the students learn‘ the unknown word is after an article and before a verb, so I can guess that it’s a noun and the subject of a sentence. In the sentence ‘In the evening I —– TV’ there is no other verb in the sentence, so we know this word must be a verb.

6. Look back and ahead.

If we don’t understand a word or part of a sentence, we can often find clues in the sentences before or afterwards. For example, the unknown word in this sentence is not clear: ‘This city is known for its ——-.’ Lots of words could fit this sentence! But if we read the next sentence, we understand the meaning: ‘These small bears look for food in rubbish bins.’

7. Test your ideas.

When we have some ideas what a word could mean, we can test them. Put your idea into the sentence and continue reading. If the idea still fits, it could be correct!

8. Have fun!

My last tip is to choose a text you are interested in. Learning a language should be fun and it’s more motivating to read about topics you want to learn about. Here are some good websites written for people learning English, but there are also so many websites, news sites and blogs out there. There really is something for everyone.


What are your favourite things to read in English? Do you have more tips for improving reading skills?

Four websites to practise reading in English

Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary, see how structures are used and develop a feeling for a language and how native speakers write. Reading is also very easy to practise online by yourself; there are thousands of texts out there to read!

If you don’t feel confident enough to read news stories and other websites, you could try some texts for people learning English. Ideally, you should be able to understand the main points of a text without a dictionary.

My students often ask what they can read to practise, so I have made a short list of some of the sites I would recommend. (I don’t have any connections with these sites; they’re just my preferences.)

Breaking News English

Levels: beginner – advanced

Text length: short

I often ask my students to read texts from Breaking News English. Every two or three days there is a new story written at a number of different levels. Sometimes they are stories you read in the newspaper; sometimes they are funny or interesting stories from around the world. The great thing about this website is the texts are very short, so it doesn’t take long to read a story. Because each text is available at different levels, you can read the right level for you. For example, if a text at Level 4 is too easy, you can just switch to Level 5. (Level 0 is easiest and Level 6 is most difficult.)

News in Levels

Levels: lower intermediate – advanced

Text length: short – medium

News in Levels also has lots of short news stories. Each story is written at three levels. (Level 1 is the easiest and Level 3 is the most difficult.) The best thing about this site is that they describe the most difficult words at the end of the text, so you don’t need to look in a dictionary. There are also short videos that go with the texts. You can use these as listening practice or to practise pronunciation.

British Council

Levels: beginner – advanced

Text length: medium – long

The British Council has so many great resources for practising English. Their reading section is divided into levels. In each level, you can choose a text that interests you. The texts are about everyday life and general interest topics. What I really like about this site are the exercises for each text. You can do them interactively online, or you can download all the activities and the text as a PDF. You can also check the answers yourself, so it’s like a mini English lesson.

Cambridge English

Levels: beginner – advanced

Text length: short – medium

Cambridge English, who write lots of exams for people learning English, also have some nice reading activities. You can filter the activities by level and how long they last. Most of the activities are on everyday topics. In each activity, you read a text and then do a multiple choice quiz to check what you’ve learnt. It’s a great way to check what you understand.


These are just a few of the many websites out there. I’d love to hear about the websites you use to practise reading! 🙂

Four apps for learning vocabulary

We have our smartphones with us all the time, so what better to learn new words than with vocabulary apps. When we learn new words, it’s important to be active and to review them regularly. Apps are perfect for practising for short periods of time wherever you are – and having fun at the same time! Some apps have sets of vocabulary to learn; others let you add your own. There are so many out there, it can be hard to choose one. I’ve made a list of my favourite apps for learning new vocabulary on the go. (I don’t have links to these apps; they’re just my preferences.)

Quizlet

I love using this app with my students. You can create your own sets of vocabulary or use sets made by other people. I would recommend organising the sets by theme, such as restaurants or shopping, and writing a description for each new word in English instead of translating the word into your native language. This will help you to think in English. You can also add pictures from the Quizlet library to help.

Once you’ve created sets of vocabulary, you can test yourself by looking at the ‘cards’, playing games or testing yourself with a quiz. It’s possible to share sets of vocabulary too – perfect for learning with friends and classmates.

Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge (British Council)

This app is excellent for reviewing vocabulary for certain situations. There are three modes: grammar, words and spelling. In the words section, you can choose from different categories, such as restaurants, hobbies, shopping, idioms, etc. There are three levels for each category (but ‘easy’ is not suitable for beginners). You then play multiple-choice quizzes against the clock. When time is up, you can review the vocabulary from that round.

The spelling mode is also a good way to check you know how to write words. Here, there are no categories; you are given a random selection of words. You choose the correct word from two options.

In addition, the grammar mode provides multiple-choice questions on grammar topics such as prepositions, irregular verbs, modal verbs, and many more.

English Essential Vocabulary Builder

The Essential Vocabulary Builder helps lower level learners practise the most important words needed to communicate in English. First, you work through a selection of words and mark which ones you know and which ones are new. You can then complete multiple-choice activities to check you know the meaning and spelling of new words. The apps gives simple definitions and examples in context, and it’s easy to track progress over time.

WordUp Vocabulary

When you start using WordUp, you take a test to check your level. You can then decide how many words you would like to learn each day and whether you would like to see translations of words you’re learning (I would recommend English definitions).

The app then suggests words to learn. You can learn by reading the definition and example sentences. What I really like about the app is that it shows famous quotations and lines from films and songs that include this word. This is great for remembering new vocabulary!

When you think you know a word, you can test yourself with multiple-choice question or simply say you already know the word. The app will then show the word a few days later so you can review it.


What are your favourite apps for learning vocabulary? I’d love to hear about your experiences with these or other apps!

How to get the most out of online language classes

Have your language lessons moved online? Or have you started taking a new course with an online platform? Learning online is becoming more and more popular, and in many areas it may be the only way to take classes at the moment. However, it can feel a little different to a face-to-face course, so I’ve put together a checklist to help you get the most out of your online classes.

Practice makes perfect

Before starting online lessons, check what platform you’re going to use. Find out if you need to download any software and if possible, test it before the lesson. There are also lots of YouTube tutorials on how to use platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Webex or Hangouts.

Equipment

If you can, it’s best to use a laptop or desktop computer. The screen is bigger and it’s easier to type or share documents. However, a phone or tablet will also work well with most platforms.

Headsets can help to make sure you can hear your teacher well and they can hear you. They also reduce background noise. The headset that came with your mobile phone is fine for this!

If possible, connect to the internet with an ethernet cable rather than wifi. This will make the connection more stable by linking your computer directly to the router.

Lights, camera, action!

It will help your teacher if you use a camera. They can see if you understand well, and it makes the lesson more natural. If you’re in a group, it’s also nice to see your classmates. It’s best to sit somewhere light, and position your camera at eye-level. Don’t sit too close to the camera.

Preparation is key

Aim to come to the ‘classroom’ five minutes before the lesson starts. That way, if you have problems connecting, you won’t lose any lesson time. This is especially important for the first online lesson.

Close any documents or programmes you don’t need as they can slow down your device.

Prepare your workspace as you would if you went to class: make sure you have paper and a pen, a drink, and switch your phone to silent.

Keep calm and carry on

Don’t worry if you have problems with the platform or your device. Often leaving the platform and coming back again solves the problem. If there’s a problem with your device, you could try restarting it. If the connection is bad, try using an ethernet cable or turning the router off and on again.

If you can’t hear the teacher or other students well, try using the chat box to ask for help or give others tips. Here are some useful phrases to use in online classes.

Organisation

Check with your teacher which notes they will send you, so you know what you should write down during the lesson. Your teacher may send you notes or homework after your lesson, so it’s a good idea to have a folder where you save all these documents together. Some students like to print them out too.

Staying in touch

Check you know how to contact your teacher or school outside of the lessons. This is important in case you have questions, can’t come to a lesson or have technical problems.

If you don’t already have one, you could set up a group chat on an instant messaging app for everyone in your class. This is a good way to catch up on anything you miss in class or homework. It’s also great for practising the language with your classmates.


Learning online may feel different to face-to-face lessons, but it can be a great opportunity to stay in touch with others and keep learning while many of us are at home.

Do you have any other tips for online language classes?

Essential phrases for your English class

Starting a new class can be scary. What if I don’t understand the teacher? What if I forget how to ask for something? What if I can’t talk to the other students? Being prepared can help us feel more confident in a new situation. Here are some phrases to help you in the classroom.

To the teacher

  • What does… mean? (You don’t understand a word.)
  • How do you spell…..? (You don’t know how to write a word.)
  • How do you say this word? (You don’t know how the word sounds.)
  • Can you repeat it?
  • I’ve finished.
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • I don’t understand this question.
  • Where is….?
  • I didn’t hear…
  • What page are we on?

Getting to know other students

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your job?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Have you been to this school before?
  • Have you long have you been learning English?

Working together with other students

  • Shall we work together?
  • What do you think about question …?
  • Can you help me with question …?
  • Would you like to do question/role …?
  • Do you have a pen/piece of paper?

Discussions

  • What do you think about…?
  • What’s your opinion?
  • I agree/disagree.
  • I see your point, but …
  • That’s a good point.
  • Have you thought about …?

Online classes

  • Can you hear/see me?
  • How do I turn on the microphone/camera?
  • How do I leave the meeting?
  • How do I mute the microphone?
  • I can’t hear/see you (clearly).
  • The connection is poor.
  • The connection stopped.
  • I will re-start the meeting.

Which of these phrases do you use in class? Can you think of more to add to the list?

Top podcasts to learn English

Podcasts are an excellent way to practise listening skills. There are podcasts out there for every level and interest, and often they are short, so you can listen more than once to understand as much as possible. Many podcasts also come with an audio script or even interactive activities, so you can read along as you listen or test your understanding. Another great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else, like travelling to work or cooking dinner. This means you can practise English without finding extra time in your day.

My top tip for working with podcasts would be not to worry about understanding every word. Even when we listen in our native language, we miss words or we don’t understand a phrase. It doesn’t matter because we understand enough information to know what the presenter is talking about. This is the same when we’re learning a new language: we don’t need to know every word. Instead, it’s better to try and understand the main ideas. If we listen again a second or third time, we can pick up more details.

There are plenty of podcasts specifically for learners on particular topics or grammar structures, but we can also use more general interest podcasts in English to help improve our skills. I have collected some of my favourite podcasts for English learners below.

British Council

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate +
  • These podcasts are like radio shows.
  • The LearnEnglish podcasts discuss different topics from every life and also follow the story of a student moving to the UK.
  • There are also podcasts aimed at professionals, as well as ones focusing on writing skills and British culture.
  • On the website there are online activities and transcripts (can also be downloaded as a PDF).
  • The LearnEnglish Podcasts app shows the script of the podcast and highlights the sentence so you can read along. It’s possible to make the audio slower. There are also interactive activities for each episode.
  • Average length: 5-30 minutes

BBC 6 Minute English

  • Aimed at pre-intermediate + (depending on grammar topic)
  • 6 Minute Grammar podcasts are short, understandable podcasts from the BBC are a great way to help you understand tricky grammar topics. Each episode includes a short, clear description, lots of examples and a short quiz at the end.
  • 6 Minute English is like a short radio show on general interest topics, such as politics, the economy and psychology. There are also notes on key vocabulary and a question to answer when listening.
  • 6 Minute Vocabulary focuses on different vocabulary topics, such as words for particular situations or words easily confused. It also gives tips on how to use the new words.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are also available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 6 minutes

BBC The English We Speak

  • Aimed at upper intermediate +
  • These are short podcasts on special expressions or idioms to help you sound more natural when speaking English.
  • The transcripts are available in the BBC Learning English app.
  • Average length: 2-3 minutes

TED

  • Aimed at native speakers, for upper intermediate and advanced students.
  • These talks are on a range of topics, including science, technology, the economy, society, the environment and personal development.
  • The talks are usually clearly spoken and well structured, making them easier to follow. They are also a good way to get used to different accents.
  • In the app, it’s possible to shows subtitles in a language of your choice (I recommend English) and to reduce the speed.
  • Average length: 15-20 mins (Radio hour 60 mins)

Luke’s English Podcast

  • Aimed at intermediate +
  • Relaxed talk shows on a variety of topics, including British culture,general interest and the presenter Luke’s life.
  • All the podcasts and transcripts are available in the app.
  • Most of the podcasts are free, but there is some premium content.
  • Average length: 1 hour

Which podcasts do you listen to? Share your favourites in the comments below.

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?