At the Writing Center, we often meet with students who are already working to improve their English fluency, but who want guidance on how to make that work more productive. With that in mind, we designed this guide to help you learn more from your daily encounters reading and listening to English.
Many students study in places where English is not commonly spoken. They have to rely on recordings, videos, and/or a single instructor’s voice. For someone who lives in a place where English is spoken widely, though, the phrases you hear and read daily are the most valuable language learning resource you have.
By changing some of your current approaches to language learning, you can build your fluency—and hopefully find studying language more engaging.
Set specific language learning goals
Read with the express purpose of noticing, acquiring, and imitating the English other writers have used. Start by choosing a focus or goal for your reading. Here are a few examples.
- “I overuse long sentences in my writing, so when I read, I try to notice how authors express the same meaning more concisely.”
- “My professors gave me feedback that I need to work on transitions, so I notice how authors use discourse markers (i.e. however, therefore etc.).”
- “I am interested in creative writing in English (as this is something I do for pleasure in my own language). To structure my stories, I need to better understand how writers use time markers to organize a story (i.e. initially, after a certain time).”
Here’s an example of how setting a specific goal before reading helped an English learner notice a variety of time expressions in a text. Here, a teacher narrates his experience in the classroom.
“This class is called Media Studies,” I announced to the poker-faced collection of eighth graders who had just assembled before me. It was the first period of the first day of my fourth year as a teacher, the first time I’d begun a school year with a full-sized classroom of my own, and my first day of being at the helm of this newly invented, untried course.
I hate first days. When I was 8, I’d ended up in the hospital after a bike wreck during my family’s first day at a new house. A dozen or so years later, on my first day on the transportation crew of a feature film, I’d wrecked the wardrobe truck I was responsible for driving. On my first day as a substitute, the kids had run so many laps around the room and the adjoining coat closet that they had me searching the teacher’s desk for a checkered flag. During my first 6 years in the classroom, I never had a good first day…
Excerpt from Hollar If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie
Make a list of your own language learning goals. Try to be more specific than just “I want to improve my English” or “I want to learn English.” To set some clear goals about what language you want to learn, you can draw on feedback you have received on your English in the past, the kinds of contexts in which you are most likely to use the language, what you wish you could express or produce in English, or the kinds of texts, readings, or media that interest you.
In your notebook or document, write three goals.
Develop habits to help yourself remember new English words and phrases
- When you find a new phrase, repeat it: say it out loud, highlight it, and/or write it down.
- Pay attention to the small words, too (like prepositions and articles)! For example, the following are relatively meaningless without their smaller words:
- “head over to the…”
- “with the intention of…”
- “one of the most wonderful/confusing times…”
- You’ll want to record the phrase in a place where it is easily accessible to you. Because it is so important to return to a phrase after your first encounter with it, you might decide to carry a
small notebook or open a document on your phone where you are able to frequently and easily record and revisit such language.
- Take note of the larger context in which you encountered the phrase. Write down the full utterance or sentence.
Learn the most typical way a word or phrase is used
When we don’t understand a word, we look up its meaning. While this practice builds comprehension, we often need different kinds of information about a word to help us use it precisely and accurately. We need to know how most other speakers of English would employ the word and for what purpose.
Let’s take the example of the word “palpitate.” If you look up the word, you find definitions such as “beat rapidly” or “shake with fast, tremulous movements.” Based on these, we might reasonably come up with the following sentences:
I suggest that you palpitate the juice box before drinking from it.
Palpitating the body warms up the muscles before a workout.
These examples don’t quite work, though. One of the most frequent ways we use “palpitate” is when talking about the heart beating because of fear or excitement. Now, with this information, we know that palpitating a juice box in the first example isn’t quite right. Rather, we could say, “My
heart began to palpitate when I realized what was happening in the neighbor’s house,” which would be much more accurate.
So, when learning a word, try to fill in the following blanks about it:
We usually use this word when talking about …
When I think of this word, I imagine…
Choose a specific word or phrase that you have recently encountered and that is unfamiliar or semi-familiar to you. Using the following templates, write down your answers in your notebook or document.
What do you already know about the meaning of this word/phrase or how it is used? Write down your best guess, even if you’re not certain. ____________________________________________________________.
Take some time to look up the meaning of the word. Find examples of how this word or phrase gets used across many different texts or contexts. You might even ask a few proficient English speakers how they would use it. Now, see if you can fill in the following:
We usually use this word/phrase when talking about ____________________________________________________________.
When I think of this word/phrase, I imagine ____________________________________________________________.
This word/phrase commonly appears with other words such as ____________________________________________________________.
Learn words in groups or units
Instead of trying to learn words one-at-a-time, learn phrases. In the case of the word “preside,” for example, look out for surrounding words, such as “preside over a meeting,” “preside over a case,” or “preside over an empire.” Do you notice how “preside over” appears in all three examples? These are the types of chunks to pay attention to and learn.
You cannot always plug in a single word in a new sentence and expect its meaning to stay the same. By learning chunks (a few words grouped together), you are learning how a particular word is used across contexts. Most everyday language naturally occurs in chunks: “How’s it going?” “What do you think?” “I’m sorry” etc.
In the following example, we’ve modeled how you can move from noticing individual words to learning chunks of words:
Individual vocabulary: After numerous unsuccessful encounters with Martha where she showed disdain for me, I finally persuaded her to accept a dinner invitation at one of the most exquisite restaurants in town.
Grouped vocabulary: After numerous unsuccessful encounters with Martha where she showed disdain for me, I finally persuaded her to accept a dinner invitation at one of the most exquisite restaurants in town.
Following the model above, notice the “surroundings” of each highlighted word, and identify appropriate chunks.
- Despite the considerable hardships over the last few months, I am pleased to report that I have made the decision to relocate to a nearby town where I will start afresh.
- True to her nature, Samantha did not inform me of her plans, and as a result, we could not meet the deadline for the project.
Learn phrases you can use across many contexts
Much of the language in academic writing gets recycled over and over again. This means that even if you are writing about a new topic, you can return to certain phrases you used in an earlier paper. You’re never really starting from scratch.
Many examples of common academic language offer metadiscourse—language about the writing itself. This includes phrases like, “This paper will discuss ,” or “By analyzing ____________, the authors argue ____________,” or “At the same time, ____________.” It is very likely that you have already come across many of these phrases without knowing how important they are—look out for them actively and reuse them in your own writing.
As you read, start to notice metadiscourse more actively. Take a look at the following example:
In particular, the researchers found that the high levels of consumption of trans fat and cholesterol pointed to a need for more health-focused programs for ageing adults in the community.
The bolded phrases have an important framing role. The first phrase tells the reader that the information to come will present a key finding from a study. The second phrase connects this finding to its larger real world application. Taken on their own, though, the bolded phrases don’t have much meaning, which is why they can be so usefully reused across many writing contexts.
In the following paragraph, look for examples of metadiscourse — language that helps to frame the ideas. Highlight the phrases as you read the paragraph (we’ve done the first for you). (In this summary, researchers examine “intonation,” which refers to how our voice fluctuates when we speak.)
In this paper we examine two intonation rules which are commonly found in standard textbooks, namely those for intonation in lists and intonation in questions. We begin by arguing that the standard rules are inadequate descriptions of what actually occurs in recorded natural data. We then go on to offer an alternative analysis, using a discourse model based on that originally proposed by Brazil (1984,1995). In conclusion we suggest the implications of the alternative description for materials writers and modifications to classroom procedures.
Excerpt from Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching
Learn phrases to help you soften your speech or writing
A skill you may not realize you need is softening or hedging—in order to indicate uncertainty, humility, hope, or complication.
Being able to nuance or soften your utterances is crucial when you want to be polite, make suggestions, offer advice, or make requests. Say you want to request an extension on a paper. Knowing what you want to say, you may send off an email asking “Can I have an extension on this paper?” Your professor might find the email a little inconsiderate. However, if you say, “Given these reasons, I was hoping that you would consider granting me an extension…,” it communicates a needed degree of politeness and consideration.
Hedging (or softening) is also commonly used in academic writing in order to introduce a level of uncertainty or doubt to your argument. Read the following examples to learn how to modify English to make it less abrupt or direct:
|Can I have an extension on this paper?||I was hoping you would be able to grant me an extension on this paper.|
|The author concludes that increased activity on social media is a key cause of mental illness.||The author seems to suggest that increased activity on social media is a key cause of mental illness.|
|We can implement the following changes in our teams.||We might consider implementing the following changes in our teams|
I would recommend implementing the following changes in our teams.
In the following memo to management, transform the recommendations you make so that they are more clearly suggestions (rather than directives) to higher ups in your company. We’ve modeled a couple of examples in the first paragraph.
Dear Ms. Temple,
I am writing to bring an issue to the attention of management. [I am writing because I would like to bring an issue to your attention.] I am concerned that employees have been working overtime since the start of the new Scarsdale project. Can we address this issue soon? [I hope that it would be possible to address this issue soon.]
Our team can respond in a few ways. We should start by acknowledging the strong performance of select employees on the current project. This will help to boost morale and improve employees’ overall contribution to the project. Next, we will create incentives in the form of time-and-a-half bonuses to those employees who work extra hours in a week. This will result in increased employee satisfaction.
Create your own phrase notebook
Besides studying grammar, you also need to build your vocabulary to increase your fluency in English. Rather than finding an existing vocabulary list to study, though, create a personalized vocabulary notebook of your own. For one, the words and phrases in an already compiled list may not reflect how people actually speak and write in your social circles or in your academic discipline. Further, building these lists in response to words or phrases you’ve already encountered can reinforce your ability to remember them.
Of course, you cannot possibly record all the language you need to know in one go. You’ll add to this notebook as and when you encounter especially useful language.
You’ll also want to identify categories to help organize your notebook and make it meaningful to your own academic, personal, and professional life. You might create categories around:
- A subject or topic you are studying such as “climate change” or “The Great Depression”
- A purpose you have for speaking or writing such as writing down phrases you can use “to apologize,” “to express doubt or uncertainly,” “to speak to a potential employer,” “for email correspondence with professors.”
- Discipline-specific phrases. A discipline-specific phrase is one that someone outside your field may not fully grasp or be able to use. For instance, sitting in a class as a prospective finance major, you can keep a running journal of phrases in your field such as “rate of return” or “create value for shareholders.”
Brainstorm headings for a few sections of your individual vocabulary notebook (feel free to create one on your phone or computer, too). You can create headings related to a topic, discipline, or purpose you have for speaking or writing, as expressed in the examples above.
Start a new phrase notebook by writing at least four possible headings for vocabulary to track. Whenever you encounter new language that relates to one of your headings, record it in your phrasebook.
Baruch College’s Tools for Clear Speech program has a wide range of resources for developing oral intelligibility in English, which means working to make sure your listeners understand you. If you’re looking to work independently, we recommend their interactive exercises and resources.
This resource from the Baruch College Writing Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to share, adapt, transform, or otherwise use this material in any medium, with attribution.