The most important things I have learned over the last decade to help my students!
This summer I am celebrating 10 years in business with The Edinburgh Experience! The company was born when after working in the industry for many years, I realised that many of my students had become demotivated and had stopped enjoying learning English.
I wanted to change that, and create courses which would motivate my students to learn the language through cultural, fun and practical lessons. But not only that – I wanted them to make real progress.
The last decade has been quite a journey
I’ve survived starting out on my own, managing a team, juggling my own business with becoming a mother, Brexit, and a global pandemic! And the company has taken a lot of different shapes along the way. I started by myself, renting out a room by the hour, went on to have premises and manage a team of 5 amazing teachers, and then moving to online teaching in 4 days!
The last 2 years have given me a lot to think about and consider what I want from my business and what I can give my learners. I realised that I was missing that personal connection with my students. And I also discovered that I love teaching online! As The Edinburgh Experience moves into a new decade with a new look, I thought I would share with you the top ten things I have learned to help my students over the last 10 years.
#10 – There are lots of different kinds of English!
I often have students who want to have a particular accent in English, or think that informal vocabulary is worse language, or think they need to have a “native” (ugh, I hate this word so much!) teacher to make real progress. It’s important to understand that there are lots of different kinds of English in the world, and that one particular kind isn’t better than another. This basically comes down to the inherent racism and classism at the heart of English teaching – yes, I said those words! This really deserves a whole blog post to itself (which I will do soon, I promise), but you need to understand that the English that gets taught in coursebooks and tested in international exams is one spoken by middle to upper class white people from England.
Now, obviously if you need to take an international exam, then you will need to emulate this. But there are so many different kinds of English! In the UK itself, the variety of accents and local vocabulary is crazy. And then we have the English spoken in countries all over the world such as India, Nigeria, Guyana, and Jamaica amongst many others! And the English spoken by many people as a second language for work purposes which uses a different kind of high frequency language. For example, phrasal verbs don’t really appear! All of these are valid forms of English, and discovering them will just make your learning experience richer.
#9 – You need to widen your range of language if you want to pass an exam
I have taught hundreds of students who had been living and working in Scotland for years. They were perfectly capable of managing their lives in an English speaking country and totally competent and fluent in their job. But when they started to prepare for the Advanced Cambridge exam, they got a real shock. They were missing so much vocabulary, they couldn’t produce the writing they needed for the test, and they really struggled with reading questions.
Why did this happen? Because while they were proficient communicators in their daily life, they had big gaps in their language skills and vocabulary on wider topics. This is totally normal! Ask yourself if you could write a report in your own language if you’ve never done one before. It also didn’t detract from their excellent level of English in their job. But if your goal is to get a C1 or higher certificate, then you need to be engaging with lots of different examples of language, and writing and reading regularly in English.
#8 – If your read regularly in your first language, you learn English better
Without fail, all of my students who are regular readers in their first language find it easier to learn English. Even those who don’t read a lot in English still make faster progress than those who don’t read a lot. Now, if you add in reading in English as well, then you’re on your way to becoming an English communicating superstar! Reading at even a slow pace exposes you to more sentences per minute than the average movie or TV show. Without realizing it, you are reinforcing language structures.
I’m sure you have noticed that regular readers in your first language are more articulate when they speak than those who don’t – it’s exactly the same in English. I also love reading, it’s one of my favourite pastimes, and a great way to discover another world, language and culture. It’s one of the reasons I feature a book group as part of my English in Action course. So get reading and see your progress improve!
#7 – Writing makes you a better speaker
As with reading, if you are a regular writer in English, you are going to be a better communicator. Over the last few decades, language teaching has moved towards a focus on speaking as the most important skill, and often sacrifices skills like writing for more speaking practice. But if you aren’t writing in English, you’re missing a great opportunity to become a better communicator. First of all, it forces you to see your errors. When we speak we can hide any language we don’t feel confident in, but when it’s on a page then it’s out there for you to see! You can begin to see where you are making repeated mistakes, and what you struggle with. It also raises your awareness of language appropriacy and tone, and teaches you how to better construct your ideas. Try writing for 5 minutes everyday. You’ll quickly see your written fluency improve, and your spoken fluency too!
#6 – If you can produce a sound, you can hear a sound
This is one of my favourite mantras to teach! I find that most students have a defetest attitude towards listening in English – ”I can understand it written down, but I don’t know what people are saying”. I hear this all the time. The problem is that people think that listening and pronunciation are two different things when they are totally connected.You need to understand how English pronunciation works if you want to improve your listening. If you don’t do any work on it, then you aren’t going to improve. Exposure is key here too! Very often people just don’t listen to things because they have already decided that they won’t understand! Learning about English word stress, sentence stress, and connected speech all help you develop listening strategies (click on the links to see the free video lessons I did on these). And practising individual sounds is also a great way to get you understanding more!
#5 – Stop focusing on grammar structures
English is very often taught from a grammatical perspective, and this causes a lot of problems. If you want to learn the language properly, you need to stop obsessing on how you structure it, and consider why you actually use it. This is called pragmatics, and it explains the purpose of language structures. Take the second conditional, a stucture my students struggle a lot with. I find people get so obsessed with how to put it togther that they fail to understand why we even us it (to express hypothetical situations now or in the future if you were wondering). If you don’t understand why you use a structure, you’re never going to be able to apply it properly.
Not only that! We (and examiners) associate grammar structures that are harder to put togther with more complex language. My students get obsessed about how they can stick a third conditional into their speaking exams. But this doesn’t reflect the real use of language, because although it’s hard to assemble, third conditionals don’t come up naturally in English as often. We end up focusing on difficult strucutures that we won’t actually use with much frequency.
Focusing on structures also has a negative effect on pronunciation because you don’t learn to contract auxiliary verbs, and consequently affects your listening too! And, English is different from a lot of other languages as we don’t really have tenses. So trying to learn it through the lens of say Spanish grammar rules means you are never actually going to use it naturally! I’m not saying that grammar isn’t important – but we need to look at it from a different perspective.
#4 – Online classes are amazing for learning languages
Two years ago, if you had told me I would be not only teaching online full time, but also happy about it, I would have told you you’re crazy! Like many teachers and students, I thought online learning wasn’t the best way to learn. But thanks to Covid, I was thrown right in, and I have to say both the experience and the results have been amazing. There are so many advantages to online learning when it comes to languages, as long as it’s done right! Simply transferring a face to face class to online isn’t enough. You need to use the amazing tools available, and hybrid methods of teaching.
It’s especially great for exam preparation courses because it means you don’t have to battle through difficult exam practice at the end of a busy working day. It means you can get much better feedback from your teacher and have both flexibility and accountability in your learning. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend it. I am a total convert, and don’t see myself going back!
#3 – You need a supportive community
If you really want to meet your language goals, like with anything in life, you need a supportive community behind you to cheer you on. My students who get themselves a study buddy are not only more motivated, but more likely to pass their exams.
Regularly attending class is of course important to this, but it’s also great to have a group chat or regular meet up to keep you going. I believe this is so important that I now run monthly learner training sessions to give each other advice and support as part of my English in Action course. And some of my students are still friends with their study buddies years after passing their exams!
#2 – You need to be exposed to authentic language
I worked one summer in a big Edinburgh language school which shall remain nameless, and was amazed that despite some pretty awful teaching going on, students were becoming much more fluent in English. Some of these students were barely speaking English, hanging out with people who had the same L1 as them. So how did they make any progress? Because they were being exposed to Real English constantly in their daily lives. If you are serious about learning English, you need to interact with real English, not a text or listening exercise in a course book. Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier or cheaper to do this. Watch everything in English, read the newspaper in English, listen to music in English. You can choose content for whatever level you are at so it doesn’t freak you out, and do a little every day.
#1 – The number one thing holding you back is your confidence
How worried are you about making a mistake when you speak in English? Are you embarrassed because you think you should be more fluent? Do you think your accent is terrible? Do you constantly focus on your errors instead of your strengths? Without fail, the number one thing that affects my students ability to progress and reach their English goals is how they feel about their ability. They don’t think they’re good enough, they think they need to be a proficient speaker to be a successful communicator, and they are scared about making mistakes. There are so many myths around what is success, and what you need to be able to do to be proficient in a language.
A lot of that has to do with testing and exams which create a measuring tool in language proficiency which has little basis in reality. Defining your own version of what being a successful communicator in English means to you, setting yourself realistic goals, committing to reaching them, and being kind to yourself are going to transform your language learning journey! And if you are ever feeling bad about yourself, remember that 62% of people in the UK only speak English. Compare that with the 51% of EU citizens who can have a conversation in English!