Copyright 2005-2021 Sally Jennings at Speak-Read-Write.com

How to Boost Your English Skills

by Sally Jennings

Note: this is written for North American English as a Second Language students.

British, Australian and South African learners will have to adjust the country and book title information.

If you are studying English as a foreign language, you can still use many of these suggestions. Many resources are available free on the Internet, including books online, dictionaries and thesauri. Even if you cannot buy books or borrow library books in English, you can still find written and audio material to learn English online.


Are you stuck at the intermediate level of English?

Can't seem to learn as fast as you did when you were first learning English?

You need to build more complex grammar patterns in your brain.

You need to have a larger vocabulary of single words, and of combined expressions (idioms).

The more correct English you see and hear, the easier it will be to speak and write English correctly.

If you want to write essays well, you have to read essays and study their structure.

If you want to write essays well, you must study patterns of all kinds, from the overall structure of compositions, to the smallest structures within sentences. The competent use of pattern combined with appropriate word choice results in powerful writing.

Finally, if you want to write essays well, you must practice writing. There is no escape from this step!

As a tutor of ESL, I offer this advice to boost your English skills:

1. Buy a good grammar book with examples of usage such as the Little Brown Handbook, and a good dictionary (The Funk and Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary, or The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and use them to look up grammar or words you don't know.

2. Buy a paperback Roget's Thesaurus and look up synonyms for words you already know to increase your vocabulary. My links page at https://www.speak-read-write.com/links.html has a link to an online thesaurus.

3. Try using a fill-in-the-blank book for grammar exercises. Choose one with answers in the back, or with a CD. Using a book like this establishes patterns you need when you are writing and speaking.

4. To improve your spoken English, search the Internet for an audio ESL site. Some search terms to use would be "learn English audio".

5. To improve your vocabulary in the discipline you are studying, read essays and magazine articles in that discipline. If you are studying business, read business magazines. If you are studying science, read science magazines. You need to learn the patterns and expressions (technical jargon) used by the professionals in your field of study.

6. Keep a book to write words and phrases you learn, and review it from time to time. Write down phrases you want to learn to understand, and search for them online.

7. Read articles in the newspaper or online to improve your grammar. The Associated Press and other news agencies provide news written in standard English. Look for the words "Associated Press" or "AP", or "Reuters" between the headline and body of the article.

8. Read news online and newspaper columns for idioms. The columnists are expressing personal opinions, so they are free to use non-standard, less-formal English. If you are looking for idiomatic casual speech expressions, read what the columnists write. Columnists may show a byline with their own names above their articles, or have their names at the end of their articles. Another newspaper source for idioms is the editorial page, which usually includes the "Letters to the Editor" section, and a column written by the newspaper's editor.

9. If you are a university or college student, you may be able to take an ESL course at your school. Do they have free ESL tutors at your school? If not, you may want to hire a private English tutor.

10. If you are a student, write essays when you don't have to, just for practice. Read three or four articles or essays on the same subject, then put them away and sit down and write a short essay on the same subject. It helps to write when you are not under pressure to earn grades. If you know you will have to write an essay exam of a certain number of words in a certain time, practice writing essays that size in that length of time. If you are using an English tutor, have them proofread the essays.

11. Read a paragraph from an essay out loud to hear the way it sounds. Have someone read the passage to you, while you write it down, phrase by phrase (this is called dictation and transcription). This may help you to remember the idioms, grammar, and patterns in the paragraph. Read it out loud again from your written copy when you have finished.

12. Keep a children’s TV program on in the background at home so you can hear English when you are doing housework. If you have time, stop and listen closely to it from time to time. Children's TV uses basic grammar, simple vocabulary, idiomatic English, clearer, slower pronunciation than everyday street speech, and visual material to explain the action. English TV is especially important for children who do not speak English at home, or who have parents with intermediate or beginner's level English.

13. Listen to TV interview shows (like CNN or Headline News), the late-night news, and talk radio call-in shows. You might also try listening to a radio news channel where you can hear the same news every hour. That way if you miss anything you can hear it again. Practice repeating phrases of the material when you listen to it the second time.

14. Read teenage novels if you are at that level of English. In general, avoid British and Australian novels, and instead read North American books, preferably published after 1950. Ask a librarian for suggestions.

15. Read blogs and forums online to learn informal English, and idioms.

16. Finally, don't give ever up. Even when you aren't studying English, your brain is working on learning what you have studied. You really are learning English all the time, you just don't realize it. It is necessary to continue to work at it to keep your confidence level up, since you will learn more when you feel successful doing it.

If you have a good library nearby, you can use the book reviews at an online bookseller to decide whether you want to borrow the book at the library. You still might decide to buy the book after you have read it. Buying books online does not have to be expensive; many online booksellers have used books as well as new books.

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