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 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!

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.

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?