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Three New Tricks for Your English Study

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

If you haven't been following along with my English Unstuck series on social media, I recommend you check out those videos here!

So, you know you need to improve your English and you've decided to give it a couple of hours every week. You've gathered some materials you find interesting and relevant, and you've got a list of 3 or 4 activities you can do to work on your language.

But... after a week, you find it all gets a little... boring.

Studying can be like that sometimes!

So, here are three twists you can put on your activities to change the focus and add a little bit of variety to your routine:

1. Focus on FLUENCY in your English study

Fluency is about speed - but not in the sense of speaking as fast as you can!

Instead, you can think about fluency as how quickly you can process English (when reading or listening) or produce English (when speaking or writing).

Developing your fluency is essential if you ever want to, you know, actually use your language! Fluency is the difference between knowing things in theory and being able to use them in the moment. It's the skill that allows the right word to come to your mind at the right time (or the skill which quickly offers up an alternative if you can't find the one you need!)

So, training your fluency is fundamental.

In order to train your fluency, we need to understand that fluency is all about prioritising timing and quantity. We're not throwing all thought of "correctness" out of the window, but it cannot be our primary concern. We have to be OK with making mistakes. In many ways, training your fluency is also training yourself to be OK with making some mistakes or missing some ideas.

Fluency Adaptation 1: Add a time limit

One great way to focus your attention on your fluency is to impose a time limit on an activity.

Reading an article? Give yourself a 5-minute time limit.

Writing an email? Give yourself a 3-minute time limit.

Rehearsing an answer for a job interview? Give yourself a 2-minute time limit.

(The times above are random - I'd recommend reducing the time you give yourself to a point where you can complete the task to about 80%, and can rush to finish it.)

By adding a time limit, you force yourself to put getting the job done over any lingering perfectionism. You simply cannot get everything right under those circumstances - which is exactly the condition you need to work on your fluency.

Fluency Adaptation 2: Measure success in quantity not quality

Another great twist to a regular activity is to change how you measure success. (Spoiler: "right" and "wrong" are not the only options!)

So, I might set myself a goal of increasing my reading every night from 1 page to 20. Every night, I'll read one more page than yesterday. As long as that number has increased, it's a successful activity!

Equally, I might choose to write in my diary. On the first day, I'll manage half a page so "success" the next day would be three-quarters. And succsess on day three would be a whole page.

I'm shifting my focus from worries like:

  • how much did I understand?

  • how much did I NOT understand?

  • how many mistakes did I make?

  • how "advanced" was my vocabulary?

to the simple question of quantity. Am I writing, speaking, reading or listening to MORE than I could before? Great!

2. Focus on ACCURACY in your English study

Accuracy is about “correctness” and, if you're anything like the majority of English learners, you're probably already pretty familiar with focussing on this!

When you’re focussing on accuracy, you’re curious about what language other writers and speakers are using and how they’re using it, and you’re taking the time you need to make decisions about your own language use.

Importantly, it's possible to focus on accuracy without actually knowing whether your answer is "right" or "wrong". You can prioritise this without having to use a grammar book with an answer key in the back.

Here's how:

Accuracy Adaptation 1: Repeating activities

By repeating a task multiple times, you give yourself the space to consider language more closely - even if you don't consciously do this.

Think about the first time you're reading an email from your colleague. You're naturally going to be asking yourself "What is this person saying?" - you're focused on the message and the meaning.

This is absolutely the correct focus for this task!

But, by prioritising the message, you probably didn't notice some of the language your colleague used to express it. You'll have noticed the keywords, the most important meaning-making parts of the texts, but less obvious elements like verb choices, collocations, or word order probably passed you by.

By reading the email again three or four times, you're increasing the likelihood of you noticing these things, because you're less pre-occupied with disentangling the meaning.

Accuracy Adaptation 2: Asking "Why?" a writer has used a certain word or form

Following on from the previous adaptation, something you can do once you've understood a writer or speaker's message is to consciously investigate their language choices.

  • Why did they choose that verb form? Why not another?

  • What would I have chosen to say in that section? What would the impact of that change be?

  • What effect does that choice of vocabulary have on me, the reader/listener?

I said a second ago that you didn't need to use a grammar book with an answer key, right? That is TRUE.

Yes, there are going to be times (maybe the majority of cases!) when you don't KNOW why a writer chose a word or structure and that's OK.

The goal is not to answer but to ASK.

Accuracy Adaptation 3: Slow down activities you'd usually do quickly.

This is the opposite of imposing a time limit for fluency focus. This time, we're spending longer than we think we need and giving ourselves the time to think, check, and play around with different language options.

So, if your study activity is to write a page of your diary and this usually takes you about 15 minutes, give yourself 25 minutes and challenge yourself to really go slowly.

REMEMBER: this is a TWIST on an activity, not the activity itself. If you find yourself regularly spending ages completing simple tasks, then this twist is not what you need right now!

3. Focus on COMPLEXITY in your English study

Complexity is about how many different things you have to do at once, and the intersecting challenges each one poses.

For example, delivering a presentation to your bathroom mirror isn’t too hard. But add in an audience, an unfamiliar office or meeting room, and a potential job promotion based on the result and suddenly things are much trickier!

Similarly, listening to a familiar podcast presenter might be easy. But if they invite two guests onto the show, with new accents, to talk about a topic you know little about AND you’re trying to listen in your headphones while someone on the bus is blasting out music….that’s much harder!

Complexity is the natural state of being in the "real world" but it can be one of the hardest things to replicate in your safe and stable study environment.

Here are some ways of doing it:

Complexity Adaptation 1: Set multiple goals in one activity

The first twist is simply to set multiple goals in one activity. This can take some imagination but it's worth the effort.

Let's say you're going to record yourself answering an exam question in this study session.

A typical piece of advice I'd give would be to choose one element to focus on, e.g. organisation of ideas, pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.

To add complexity, however, you'd pick three or four different elements and consider what success would look for all of them:

  • pronunciation: I want to speak clearly and emphasise the most important words.

  • organisation: I want to have a clear "opinion + develop + reason" structure

  • grammar: I want to include at least four different verb forms

Record your answer, then listen back and grade yourself on each criterion.

Complexity Adaptation 2: Play distracting background noise

Experiment with different styles or volumes to see which is most effective for you - you're looking for something where you notice the difficulty increase but which doesn't prevent you from completing your task.

Perhaps you could have a TV show on while you're trying to read in English, or play "café noises" on YouTube while listening to a podcast on your phone.

Complexity Adaptation 3: Involve other humans

Complexity isn't all about what you're doing, it also involves the social aspect of language. The pressure of an audience, potential judgement, the unpredictability of someone else's actions and speech.

This is why there is nothing more helpful for your language development than actually getting out there and doing something in English.

Where you live will impact your options but, with the internet, there isn't really any excuse for not using English with other people.

  • Join a sports team or exercise class. You'll be listening to your teammates or the instructor, moving your body and - if people are friendly - making friends!

  • Join an online book club. You can find them for literally ANY genre of book and loads have monthly Zoom calls where you can chat about it. If you're feeling a bit shy, maybe pick one run by an English teacher or coach because you'll know that other people are there to improve their English as well.

  • Find a study buddy. Set up a weekly call with a friend who is also working on their English. You can set each other homework to read articles or watch videos and then get together to talk about them.

How will you adapt your English study?

Don't forget to check out the English Unstuck social media series:

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