Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reading for Pleasure

This post was inspired by Jez Uden's British Council presentation on reading for pleasure.

Important Note: This is a long post but if you are learning English and you want to enjoy reading more and you want to improve your English, then this might help you a lot!  Keep reading, thanks.

So this week was going to be part 2 of Favourite Websites for English Practice, this time looking at reading, but I have postponed that until next week.

I was watching a British Council seminar last week and it started me thinking about reading for pleasure (if you are interested, here’s the link to Jez Uden’s presentation and his blog).  Personally, it is something I have to make myself do because I never feel that I have the time for it… but… when I do “get into a book” (really have an interest in the story) it is all I think about and I actually start fantasizing about the next opportunity I’ll get to pick up the book and continue the story.

I’ve recently got a Kindle and I love it and that has “re-sparked my interest” (re-started my interest) in reading.

But is this possible with another language?  Yes.  The problem that many people have is when they try to do too much when they pick up a book.  Think about how you read in your native language and think about these questions.

Is it a challenge?  No.

Why do we usually read a story in our native language?  For pleasure!

What do you do when you are reading a book which is difficult to follow and therefore uninteresting?  I usually abandon it and move on to something which is more fun.

Now think about some possible answers for why we read in a second language.

Is it a challenge?  Yes.

Why do we read a story in a second language (English, for example)?  It is not available in my native language / I want to improve my English reading skills / I want to improve my English vocabulary

What do you do when you are reading a book which is difficult to follow and therefore uninteresting?  I usually keep reading it and finish it but it was difficult / I give up trying to read the book and feel depressed because I my English was not good enough to finish the story and enjoy it.

Do you see the difference?  You are focusing on trying to finish the book, learning vocabulary, improve your reading skills, etc. but you are not reading for pleasure and you probably feel disappointed if you don’t finish the book.  If you finish a boring book then you have done well… but then how do you feel about reading in English?  Your experience was negative.

So, how can you change this?
Cambridge English Readers!  These are original (new) and adapted (already famous) stories for learners of English.  There are lots of different levels and the brilliant thing is they use high-frequency words a lot (high frequency words = words used a lot in English).

So what level should you use?
Well actually, you should NOT try to challenge yourself with a high level book!  The goal here is to enjoy using the English you already have, not improve it (don’t worry, it will improve naturally if you do this).  So really you want to have a book where you already know all the words (or at least 99.9% of them).

So what is your level?
Upper Intermediate, B1, Elementary, Advanced, Proficient, C2, Pre-Advanced, Beginner, IELTS 6.5, IELTS 5.0, TOEFL 103, etc, etc, etc.; what do all these names and grades mean?  What IS your level?  Well, Cambridge has a test for you to know what level of English book is appropriate for you.  Don’t worry if they suggest a level lower that you expect – remember, the goal is to have something that is easy to read. :-)  Just click on the link to go straight to the free level test.

And then?
Choose a book and start reading.  Maybe try to get a group of friends to join you.  You can all buy one book and then swap them around.  This means if you are reading a book you don’t really enjoy, you won’t have it for long.  Reading is something we usually do alone, but that doesn't mean you can't make it social.  If you have a group of friends who want to improve their English, try forming a book club (practise your speaking skills, perhaps!). :-)

And then?
Let me know how it goes! Post your reviews here on this blog if you want.

But Gordon, I don't have time to read a book!
Are you sure about that?  I never feel I have time to do anything but when I start reading a book and really get into the story I suddenly realize I have more time for it than I thought.

But don't worry.  These Cambridge readers also come with audio CDs if you want.  An audiobook to listen to instead of read.  On the way to school, work, at the gym, on the bus or train or even plane.  There are lots of opportunities.  For another opinion about audiobooks, take a look a Warren Ediger's recent blogpost about them.

As always, I look forward to your comments,


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of Getting it Wrong! (Additional)

Ha!  By complete coincidence, I found this quote from the Dalai Lama, speaking in Japan recently.  If the Dalai Lama and I are in agreement, then I must be saying something right! ;-)

Thank you very much to David Deubelbeiss, who tweeted this, and to the EnglishCentral blog.  As they say in the blog, the Dalai Lama is talking about the Japanese but really this is good advice for everyone!

Click on the picture to go directly to a listening/speaking exercise on the EnglishCentral website.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of Getting it Wrong!

I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago about how the C.I.A. in the United States is investigating language learning.  If you don’t know, the C.I.A is the Central Intelligence Agency and very basically they are spies! Obviously, multiple languages are very useful for this.

Well, the article was not as interesting as I expected (click here if you want to read it) but this article had one paragraph that "jumped out" at me (it got my attention).  Here is the important part for you:

“Another surprise came from studies of Spanish-speaking immigrants, because neither age nor language proficiency seemed to predict how quickly the immigrants picked up English. Instead, the fastest learners showed both the greatest motivation to learn and a willingness to use English at every opportunity despite being bad at it (at first).

Ok.  So in general, the people who achieve the most in learning a language are those who find motivation and are not afraid to use their bad English.  It is like a muscle in your body: the more you use it, the stronger it gets, and we all know the phrase “Use it or lose it!”.  Well maybe we can change this phrase; "It's better to use it badly than lose it."  So I  return to the topic of motivation and opportunity for learning English, something I talked about a little bit in a previous post.

Finding Motivation

This is difficult.  Personally, I don’t think I have this.  If I look at myself as a Spanish language learner, I see a lack of motivation.  I want to learn and improve my Spanish but I don’t need to improve it.  But if I knew that I needed to become much better for a test or for a job, then that would give me much more motivation.

Finding Opportunity

For me, this is easy: I’m living in Argentina!  I’m staying at a Bed & Breakfast where they don’t speak English!  I have lots of opportunity to practise my Spanish here.

So, is Gordon improving?  No, not really.

Why is he not improving?  He has opportunity but doesn’t really have motivation.  He needs both!

Now, I am NOT saying that you need to move to another country to learn the language (although that does help).  You can find opportunities everywhere, especially with the Internet.  Motivation can only come from you.  For me, that’s what I am working on.

What do you do to help motivate yourself?  I would love to know your ideas.


P.S.  One final point about getting it wrong and making mistakes.  Yes, of course you will make mistakes and you will make lots of mistakes.  Nobody does anything perfectly without lots and lots of practice, and practice is when we make mistakes.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

EXTRA – IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

Challenge: Can you understand what I've written below?

Bigger Challenge: Can you reply to what I've said in the phonetic alphabet?

Type IPA Phonetic Symbols for English and Macmillian's Phonetic Chart with Audio

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Well I was teaching today and the class couldn’t have gone better!

Oh!  That’s a difficult piece of language: “couldn’t have gone better”.   You might ask, ‘what does that mean?’  Well let’s look at it in two parts:

“gone better”
This is from the phrasal verb, “go well” which means if something is a success.  You want some examples?
“My IELTS speaking test went really well!  I think I probably got a 9.0!  Really, it couldn’t have gone better!”
“Portsmouth beat Manchester United 4-0!  What a result!  It was a brilliant game!  It couldn’t have gone better for Portsmouth!”

“couldn’t have”
This is the part that tells us it was basically perfect.  Think about it like this.
“It was a good party and it went well.”  (It was 80% but it wasn’t 90% or 100%)
“It was an excellent party and it couldn’t have gone better.”  (It was 100% and there is nothing better than 100%)

Okay.  Are we happy with this?  I will assume the answer is yes.  But how do you say it?  If you want to sound natural you certainly don’t say “it… couldn’t… have… gone… better”.  No, we say it like this:

“it couldn’t have gone better”
“it couduntav gonebetta”
“it cudunav gonbeda”
“it cuduna gonbeda”
“i cudunagonbeda”

These are NOT the spellings but how you should say it.  For those of you who know your phonetic alphabet, it looks like this:


For these more difficult grammar points (this is a present perfect modal of speculation or deduction) I think it is more important to know how to say it and use it than to understand the grammar of it.

You see the words, you see the context, you hear the sounds, and you produce!  Let’s look at some others:

“James had a job interview this morning but I saw him at lunch time and he looked pretty down.” (*pretty down = very sad)
“Oh dear, his interview couldn’t have gone well.”

Do you remember how to say it?  Practise the phrase five times before you continue reading.  Okay.  Let’s change the sentence.

“Oh dear, his interview must have gone badly.” 

Don’t worry, this sentence means almost exactly the same as the previous sentence.  But how do you say it?  How about this:

“must have gone badly”
“mustav gon badly”
“musta gon badly”
“musdagon badly”

In the phonetics, this ‘musdagon’ looks like this (well, it looks like this when I say it):


Okay.  I've done most of the work now.  I will leave you with a few situations and a few phrases.  See if you can see what the words are and build the sentence because I will only give you the modal + have + past participle (e.g. must + have + gone).  The situations and the speculations are in the same order.

Maria looks really tired.
Michael’s face looks bruised.
Benjamin isn’t here.
Andrew’s iPhone is missing.
Kathleen and I were talking on Skype but she suddenly disappeared.

cudabeen = /cʊ̈dəbi:n/
mayabeen = /meɪʌbi:n/
mydamist = /maɪdʌmɪst/
mydaleft = /maɪdʌleft/
cudalost = /cʊ̈dəlɔst/

Good luck.  Let me know if it goes well for you.  Now with all the examples you saw, all the times you repeated those words and sounds, you have a lot of those necessary 75 times.  :-)

As always, I look forward to your comments.


P.S.  Remember, if you are interested in learning more about the phonetic alphabet then go here where you can select the sounds and listen to examples.  Or just click here to download the small program onto your computer.

P.S.S.  I’m reluctant to put links to this song because American Country & Western music is NOT my cup of tea.  However, if you want to hear some examples of “couldn’t have”, you might want to listen to Johnny Duncan’s ‘It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better’.  If you want more reading practice then simply try doing a Google search for “couldn’t have gone better” or “must have gone badly” to see how people use it.  Alternatively, try the British National Corpus.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Successful English (Blog Recommendation)

I would like to recommend this blog.  If you are really interested in English and wonder about learning in general, then I think you will find this blog a very useful place to read regularly!  I will follow this blog carefully.

Here are a few examples of some good articles:
Frustration to Success (a discussion about how an English language student failed and then succeeded to improve their English).

The Basics – Introduction (an introduction and explanation to how we learn, or acquire, language).

More pleasure, more English (discussing attitudes about reading and strategies to improve).

A word every language learner should know (a piece of advice for learners about their learning/acquisition of English)
Like I said, I will watch this blog carefully.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

75 Times

Yes.  In this case 75 is the magic number.  It is believed that a learner needs to hear a word about 75 times before they have acquired it.  If you don’t believe me, look here (

First, let’s look at learned vs acquired.  There is a BIG difference.

Learned - How many times have you learned about the rules of the present perfect?  How many rules have you written in your notebooks?  How many times have you got it wrong when speaking?  How many times have you needed to stop and think if you should use present perfect or past simple?

Probably you have had LOTS of lessons about present perfect vs past simple.  You’ve learned it and you know the rules but you still need to think about it and sometimes you know you get it wrong.  That’s because you haven’t acquired it.

Acquired – Ok, now if I say to you, “Hey, how’re you doing?” then you will probably say something like “I’m fine thanks.”  Now, were you thinking about the grammar? 

Were you thinking, “Is it ‘I fine’ or ‘I am fine’?”   Probably not.  You don’t need to think about that because you have acquired it.  You have heard it so many times, from so many different people.  You don’t think about it, you just do it, you just know it, you just have it.

That’s the difference between learning and acquiring.  I never really learned English, I simply acquired it.  We don’t learn our native languages, we acquire them.  Yes, of course, we learn about our languages at school but we already know them because we have already acquired them.

So how long does it take to acquire new words and phrases in English?  75 times, more or less.  You need to hear the word, the phrase, the context approximately 75 times before it is comfortably part of your English.

But remember this is not only passive hearing.  It is active listening.  You can help yourself and speed up this process by actively listening.  I know lots of students who don’t have very advanced English, but they know every single exact word to their favourite English-speaking songs.  How many times do you think they listened to those songs?

It is important to learn the rules of a language we want to use well.  It helps our understanding.  However, you also need to make an effort, use the language you’re not sure about a lot, make sure you are corrected a lot and make sure you do lots of active listening for what you want to understand better.  Past tense verbs, phrasal verbs or conditionals, for example.

So, that English podcast you listened to, that TV show you watched, that IELTS listening practice you have… have you listened to them enough times?  Almost certainly not.  Just listen to it one more time, go on!

What do you think and what is your experience of learning and acquisition?  As always, I look forward to your opinions.

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