I have to say I am not particularly fond of exam preparation. I find that too much time is wasted trying to see whether students have reached a particular level and that not enough time is devoted in helping them to get to this level. To put it another way ‘Weighing the Pig does not Fatten it’.
So in this article, I have decided to focus instead on five strategies that learners can use (on their own!) to gradually improve their language skills. I have included one strategy for each of the four skills (Listening - Speaking - Reading - Writing), plus an extra one - just because I like Tassoula. Hope you find them useful. 😊
By Nick Michelioudakis, teacher and teacher trainer
LANGUAGE ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
[Speaking - Micro-skills]
Ok - so your grammar is good, you have a good vocabulary and you are quite fluent. Does this mean you can do well in a conversation? The answer is ‘No’. Interacting is not the same as being able to speak well. So, how can you get better? Here are some tips for when you are having a conversation:
- Keep it short: Do not speak for long. Say a few things and then leave the floor to the other person.
- Pass the turn: Do not just stop speaking. When you have said something, finish with ‘…don’t you think?’ or ‘I believe you need lots of time to study chess. How about you?’
- Ask questions: This encourages the other person to say more and it shows you are listening. ‘Yes, I agree. What other things do you believe one needs to improve at football?’
- Listen actively: When the other person is speaking, do not just listen silently. Encourage them by making short responses such as ‘M-hm’ - ‘Yes, I see’ - ‘Hm, that could be a problem’ - ‘It is, isn’t it?’
When practicing, focus on one of these sub-skills at a time. Record yourself and listen to the dialogue to see how well you are doing.
A FUN WAY TO PRACTICE WRITING
[Writing - Complete the Text]
Practicing writing can be a little boring. Here is a way to make it slightly more fun:
- Find a text online (e.g. a story). It should contain at least 4 - 5 paragraphs.
- Remove the last paragraph.
- Now read the text - what do you think the last paragraph says?
- Write your own conclusion to the text.
- Compare your conclusion to the original one.
The activity is interesting because of the element of curiosity, but it also has a number of other advantages:
- It takes very little time.
- You practice both reading and writing.
- You can practice by removing the introduction or a paragraph from the middle.
- You can practice with different kinds of texts.
- Very importantly, comparing your paragraph with the original one gives you some idea of how well you have done (e.g. how good your language is).
Naturally, it is best if you are working with a partner, as you can compare the two different versions you produce, which can be very interesting.
WHAT IF I DON’T HEAR SOMETHING?
[Listening – Coping with background noise]
A big problem with listening in real life, is that we might fail to hear something for whatever reason and then we panic; we try to guess what the speaker might have said and we miss what they say next, then we panic again, etc. etc. In fact, we do not need to hear everything - we think we do. Here are some tips for getting over this problem:
- Find a listening exercise at the right level for you.
- Read the questions first, and try to predict the answers.
- Listen to the track, from the beginning to the end. After 10 seconds, turn off the volume for 2 seconds, then turn it on again. Repeat every 10 seconds.
- Try to answer the questions. You will find that you can answer quite a few.
- Listen to the track again. This time, turn off the volume for 2 seconds after 15 seconds and then again every 10 seconds.
- Try answering any unanswered questions.
If you do this regularly, you will discover that your mind can automatically ‘fill in’ most of the gaps and you will stop panicking every time you miss something.
MAKING IT HARDER
[Reading – Coping with an incomplete text]
When training, the ancient Roman legionaries used to practice with wooden weapons which (crucially) were heavier than the real ones. In this way, when they actually had to fight, things all of a sudden seemed easier. This is the idea behind this strategy to improve your reading. Here is how it works:
- Find a text with activities online - one at the right level of difficulty for you (e.g. you can visit the site Breaking news English and select Level 3).
- Read the questions first - and try to predict the right answer.
- Copy the text and go to the site ‘Cloze Test Creator’.
- Paste the text into the yellow box.
- Select the number of words you would like to have deleted (e.g. ‘Every 7th word’) and click on ‘Submit’.
- Now use this new gapped text and see whether you can answer the questions despite the fact that some of the words are missing.
- If you find it quite easy, try another text. This time you can delete ‘Every 6th word’, etc.
This activity helps you cope with uncertainty and will help you overcome the fear of encountering unfamiliar words.
HOW CAN I FORCE MYSELF TO USE ADVANCED VOCABULARY?
[Vocabulary – Hide the Word]
Here is how you do it: you play a game (yes, you do need a partner for this one). ‘Hide the word’ works like this:
- You choose a word and you write it on a piece of paper.
- You talk about something for around 20 – 30 seconds and you have to use this word at least once.
- Your friend tries to guess which word you were trying to ‘hide’. They have three guesses: if they find it immediately, they score three points, if they find it with the second attempt, they score two, etc.
Here is an example: Which word was I trying to hide? [see below]: ‘Yesterday, at school had a test and I did quite well. I had done my revision and I hope to get a good mark’.
This was easy, right? But what if the word is difficult? Which word am I trying to hide here? ‘Some students in my class are lazy, but there is one who is very good. He is the most diligent student I know and he always gets top marks’. The word is ‘diligent’ of course.
This is the idea: if you ‘hide’ difficult words, you need to use some more difficult words in your story, otherwise your friend will spot them immediately! [Hidden word: ‘test’]