Helping Students With English Study

As a teacher, I must often think about the central question of how to help my students with their English study efforts. Many of my students recognize that they need to work hard outside of the classroom to improve their overall English ability.  The question of “what to do” then becomes central in their minds and once a semester, an eager students will approach me after class and ask THE QUESTION, which is: “How should I improve my English?”

The implications of this question are enormous.  In a place like Japan, there are very few native English speakers and learning English has traditionally been associated with solitary book work, cram schools, textbooks, and grammar exercises all aimed squarely at scoring as high as possible on the university entrance test.  Without this test as a guide for what to study, students find themselves suddenly adrift. They are painfully aware that all of the work they did to study English was completely useless in actually learning the language. They have a vague objective of “improving their English” but they don’t know what exactly they should be doing and how.

Quite often, my students will have heard from somewhere that doing things they already enjoy doing in their free time –  in English – is a good way to improve their abilities.  For a teenager or young adult, the idea of listening to English music and watching movies in English sounds like a relatively painless way to soak up the language and hey – anything is better than sitting at a desk for hours a day.  The problem is that this doesn’t work very well and most students will try some variation of this only to give up after a short time.  Some of them will quit because they get frustrated at their own lack of progress while others stop because they lack the self-discipline needed to find a method of study that works for them and stick to it for the long term.

When it comes to improving overall English reading ability, I try my best to give my students a fighting chance in their independent studies.  If you’re a teacher in a similar situation, you may find this advice useful.

First of all, I ask a student for what reason they are attempting to improve their English ability.  If their objective is to study abroad, this will inevitably involve passing a standard English test like TOEFL so they can gain acceptance into a foreign university.  In this case, I usually refer them to the Academic English section of  I tell them to choose a level with which they are comfortable reading at and then reading all of the articles in the level, using the vocabulary worksheets to learn new vocabulary.  I generally stress vocabulary-learning as this is the key to doing well on most standardized tests.  I also recommend they read general academic content such as English course textbooks at the junior high school or high school level.  I might also recommend that they get acquainted with some popular magazines like National Geographic or Time that deal with test topics like biology, nature, and world events.

If a student is learning English simply to improve their English – with no end game in mind, I usually end up referring them to graded readers.  Graded readers are a good way of getting students to read in another language and progress at their own pace.  Although much has been written about graded readers, the general advice is that students should be very careful when choosing a book that matches their ability.  A graded reader should be easy for the student to read.  Students should almost never need to consult a dictionary while reading and their reading pace should be fairly brisk.  If you’re looking for more information about helping your students choose an appropriate graded reader, there’s a great article by EFL author and teacher Rob Waring over here.