Friday, December 21, 2012

Help with Writing Practice (Website Recommendation)

If you want some practice writing, then short stories are definitely something you should try. Not all writing has to be marked by a teacher to be useful. Your teacher isn't with you all the time to check your reading, speaking or listening.

One of the problems that some people have is getting ideas about what to write about. This is certainly true for me. However, I've found it just takes one little piece of help, a ‘prompt’ (something which helps you to think about other things).

So try this little webpage – Prompt Generator. It will give you the first sentence of your story and then you just need to continue your story from there.  Just remember that a short story doesn't need to be a book.

Here’s an idea for you:

Write a different short story each day for two weeks. Use the Prompt Generator for help if you need it. At the end of your two weeks you should have 10 stories - you don't need to write at the weekend. :-)

Now, take a look at your first story again. I'm sure you will see some mistakes in it that you can now fix. Maybe there will be some new vocabulary or more details you want to add. For the next two weeks, take a look at one of your stories each day and see if you can improve it. For 10 minutes a day (just over 3 hours in one month) I'm sure you will be impressed with how much you improve.

Let me know how you do with your writing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Phonetic Film Quiz #14

Here is the penultimate (meaning second last) film quiz of the year.  This quote is from a brilliant film about a real life event.

/hjʊstən wiː həv ə ˈprɑːbləm/

Do you know the movie?  Do you remember which character/actor said the words?

For the answer and some history of the event, click here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Help with Grammar & Academic Writing (Website Recommendation)

If you like grammar to be explained to you very clearly then you probably want to take a look at this website. 

The Lecturette is a website with short, simple slideshows (like Powerpoints) about grammar and academic writing. Just click on something you want more explanation about and the slideshow in the middle of the page will try to explain it. It looks like the website has most of grammar points that you would find in a grammar book. However, what I really like are the extra slideshows about academic writing. Definitely worth looking at if you are preparing for university courses in English.

If you are on Twitter you can also get updates about new lessons from Piet.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Backchaining for Speaking and Presentations Preparation

I sometimes struggle putting long sentences together. For this reason I get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience.

The sentence above can be difficult to say correctly the first time. When I give a presentation I certainly don’t know everything I’m going to say. However, there are some parts of a presentation that you need to practise a lot.

Usually, you want to know how you are going to start and finish your introduction and your conclusion. These are important sentences, especially the first sentence. If you present your first sentence well then you build confidence which helps you during the rest of the presentation.

So we don’t need to know every word we are going to say... but we do need to practise a few key sentences.


Backchaining. Here is an example of backchaining:

large audience. 
a large audience. 
to a large audience. 
present to a large audience. 
to present to a large audience. 
have to present to a large audience. 
I have to present to a large audience. 
when I have to present to a large audience. 
apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
I get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
reason I get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
this reason I get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 
For this reason I get very apprehensive when I have to present to a large audience. 

Research shows that backchaining is a great way to practice speaking and it is much more effective than starting at the beginning when you have a problem.

Here is another example of back'chaining:



You've just backchained the word ‘deterioration’.

So you can backchain with whole words or, if you are having problems with a specific word, you can back-chain the word alone. This method really helps learners to get the right stress and the right sounds (especially if you focus on the phonetics).

Think about how you might practise these example sentences (I've also provided the phonetic script to help you):

“Unfortunately, the deterioration of the city in the 80s led to a number of social problems.”
/ʌnˈfɔːʧnɪtli ðə dɪˌtɪərɪəˈreɪʃən əv ðə ˈsɪtɪ ɪn ðiː ˈeɪtiːz led tʊ ə ˈnʌmbə əv ˈsəʊʃəl ˈprɒbləmz/

“Good morning. Welcome to this presentation. Today I’m going to discuss issues of international trade and its relation to social welfare in various countries.”
/gʊd ˈmɔːnɪŋ/
/ˈwelkəm tə ðɪs ˌprezenˈteɪʃən/
/təˈdeɪ aiːm ˈgəʊɪŋ tə dɪsˈkʌs ˈɪʃuːz əv ˌɪntəˈnæʃənl treɪd ənd ɪts rɪˈleɪʃən tə ˈsəʊʃəl ˈwelfeə ɪn ˈveərɪəs ˈkʌntrɪz/

If you really want a challenge, try using backchaining to improve your speed and pronunciation of a tongue twister.

Remember, in general, good presentations are about
expressiveness, intonation and audience involvement.
A lot of this comes from good pronunciation and
good pronunciation comes from lots of practice!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Understanding How We Learn" is now "Understanding English"

I recently wrote my 100th post on this blog! I started writing my blog in February 2011 while I was teaching abroad (meaning in another country) and I'm pleased to say it's always been a lot of fun finding things to share with you and thinking about things to write. In September 2011 I returned to Britain and started doing a Masters in Applied Linguistics and Teaching. Unfortunately, my work and studies meant I couldn't think about my blog for a while.

However, a few months ago I decided to start writing and posting again and I'm pleased to see that you are still interested. I hope that what I'm posting is helping you in your studies of English. I will try to keep writing as long as people want to keep reading.

As for 2013, I have a few ideas about new things I want to introduce to the blog. I look forward to getting a few more of my excellent teaching colleagues to share their thoughts and advice with you as well. I am making one big change immediately.

Understanding How We Learn is now going to be called Understanding English.
This blog is mostly about learning and studying English so I think ‘it is about time’* the title should make that more clear. I hope you like the change. It's still the same blog, it's still the same author and none of the links should be affected.

I'm really looking forward to writing the next 100 posts but I thought I'd just give you a small summary of what made the first 100 posts.

You can still follow me on Twitter (@gscruton) and you can follow the blog and see other things I'm sharing on Facebook (Gordon's Understanding English Blog).

Thanks for following and sharing the blog with friends.  Keep visiting because there's more to come. :-)


P.S.  Here's a small explanation of a phrase I used in this post: "It's about time (that)"

* “it's about time (that)” is a phrase that means an event is late.  Here are some examples.

  • “The shelf has been broken for 3 months now.  It's about time I fix it.”
  • It's about time you arrived.  We've been waiting for you for half an hour!”
  • “I've decided to change the name of my blog.”  “It's about time.  You should have changed the name months ago!”

Monday, December 10, 2012

Phonetic Film Quiz #13

Staying on the theme of famous movie quotes, here's a famous quote from a series of films.  I think this one is pretty simple for you to recognize.

/meɪ ðə fɔːs biː wɪð jʊ/

What's the quote and which films is it from?  Here's the answer.  Follow the links below if you want to try a few other phonetic film quizzes.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dropbox (App Recommendation for Academic Students)

I have a 'cautionary tale' for you (this is a story which describes a problem you should avoid).

Last year, while I was doing my M.A. course, one of my classmates got into some trouble. He was working very hard on his dissertation. He had been working on it for a couple of months and it was about 15,000 words long. The deadline was 12 noon (midday) on a Friday. He didn't sleep any of Thursday night because he was still working hard to finish his dissertation on time.

At 9 a.m. (3 hours before the deadline) his computer crashed. It died. It stopped working. Unfortunately he didn't have time to get the computer fixed before the 12:00 deadline. He missed the deadline and when he did get the computer fixed, he printed his assignment and submitted it to the university. However, because it was late, it only got the minimum pass of 50 (the lowest possible pass score).

The problem for my classmate was this:

Universities do not accept ‘computer failure’ as a reason for late work. 

What can you do to avoid this?

Well, I don’t worry about this problem because I use Dropbox. When you put Dropbox on your computer it creates a new Dropbox folder. Anything you put into that folder will automatically be saved online.

If my classmate friend had Dropbox, he could easily have gone to another computer, downloaded the essay, printed it and he probably would have gotten 60-70%.

What else can Dropbox do?

Dropbox will keep every version of your documents. So, for example, if you have a 5000-word document and then you accidentally delete half the words and save it again, Dropbox will keep copies of the 5000-word version and the 2500-word version.

Most importantly, if you have a smartphone, a laptop and a tablet, Dropbox can be on all three computers and that means you don’t need to worry about USB drives and you don’t need to remember which computer has which file.

Here is a short video to demonstrate:

If you think this is something that would help you, click on the Dropbox icon below or follow this link.

I prefer Dropbox but there are other systems you can use, like Microsoft’s SkyDrive or Google Drive. The important thing is to make sure that you are never in a situation where your computer has the only copy of important documents you need.

Hope this helps a few of you.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Coherence in Academic Writing (University Preparation Tip #3)

Here is a short comic.  The hairy character is called Irwin and the woman he's telling his story to is Broom-Hilda.

Broom-Hilda by Russell Myers
I hope you see there is a problem with Irwin's story, specifically about the structure and about the topic of the story. If you don’t see the problem, read the story again. Look at each picture and try to answer this question: What is the main focus of the story in part 1, in part 2, in part 3, etc?

Do you see the problem now?

Part 1 is about the Young Princess, whereas Part 2 is about Uncle Hernando and Part 3 is about the Great Depression. The story has no focus... no coherence.

Make sure you don’t have this problem in your writing by:
  1. Deciding on one specific topic. 
  2. Making sure the topic and conclusion sentences of each paragraph tries to connect the paragraph’s idea to your essay topic. 
  3. Re-reading your work several times to make sure you have clear coherence in your writing. 
  4. Getting a friend/colleague to read your essay and asking their opinion about the coherence of the work. 
If you want a bit more help understanding this topic, you might want to take a look at an earlier article I wrote - Cohesion and Coherence.



Monday, December 3, 2012

Phonetic Film Quiz #12

This is another famous quote from a movie.  Can you remember the name of the film and the character?

/ə ˈsensəs ˈteɪkər wʌns traɪd tə test ˈmiː/
/aɪ eɪt hɪz ˈlɪvər wɪð sʌm fɑːvə biːnz əndə naɪs kiːjænt/

It's an American accent and definitely not from a film suitable for children.

See if you can figure it out and then check your answer here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

World AIDS Day and Aaron Myer's Mission

Today is World AIDS Day and to recognize this and support the work that is being done to combat AIDS is sub-Saharan Africa, Aaron Myers is doing something special.

Aaron is another teacher with an excellent website and great attitude to language learning.  He sells learning guides to help people build their language skills even if they don't have a teacher or regular face-to-face classes.  For the whole month of December, Aaron is going to donate 100% of the money he makes to Blood:Water Mission, a charity which helps communities in Africa to deal with HIV problems as well as water crises.

If you have been following my blog for a while then you will know how much I believe in trying to support charities.  I think this is a great thing Aaron is doing so I encourage you go over to his website and learn more about what he is doing to help support World AIDS Day this month.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Open Dyslexic Fonts

  1. Wikipedia Article on Dyslexia
  2. Telegraph Article on Dyslexics in Britain
  3. Open Dyslexic Free Fonts
If you want this on your word processor (like Microsoft Word) then you can follow these instructions.
  • Download the Open Dyslexic Fonts (click here
  • If you are using Windows, open the Open Dyslexic folder, select the 4 files and copy them. Then go to Start > Settings > Control Panel > Fonts (if you can’t find Fonts, switch to ‘Classic View’). Now paste the 4 files into this folder. 
  • If you open Microsoft Word, you should see the Open Dyslexic font as one of the options. 
If you want this on your iPhone or iPad, then follow this link.

If you want to put this on your computer, then follow these instructions.

Hope this helps some people.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Accent vs Pronunciation

Teacher, what should I do? I really want to improve my accent.

No, you don’t. You want to improve your pronunciation.

There is a difference between pronunciation and accent and I think it is quite easy to explain. Pronunciation can be good or bad, but accent is accent and there isn't a good or bad accent really.

Everyone has an accent. Accents vary from country to country, city to city, and town to town. It is possible for an accent to change but it takes years, even decades for it to change significantly. However, what is most important is that it is not necessary to change an accent. French people speaking English will almost always have a French accent (unless they are totally bilingual), Thai people will always have a Thai accent in English, Chinese will always have a Chinese accent.

If you are learning English and you are worried about your accent, then don’t. However, what a lot of students need to improve is their pronunciation. Here is the difference between a strong accent and bad pronunciation in my opinion.

You have bad pronunciation if people often say:

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are saying.” 

“Could you repeat that?” 



“Sorry, what did you say?” 

“What’s that?”
You have a strong accent if people often say:

“Where are you from?” 

“Oh, are you from X?” 

“I love your accent. Where do you come from?” 

“How long have you been here?”

Hopefully, you can see that you have a pronunciation problem if people don’t understand you. However, it is possible to have a strong accent that people understand perfectly. If you are still not sure here are a few different examples of the wonderful variety of accents in English.

21 Accents

First of all, this is a video of an actress doing 21 different accents, some of them are from English speaking countries and some of them are not.  Here is a task for you while you watch this video:

Listen and write down the city or country of each of the accents.

Something to notice is that some of the most difficult accents to understand are native speaker accents. Believe me, this doesn't mean they are ‘better’ accents because they are more difficult.

I.D.E.A. (International Dialects of English Archive)

Now, you could also listen to some passages from the International Dialects of English Archive. I've selected a few different recordings, all non-native speakers of English, all speaking English with ‘foreign’ accents and all of them are completely understandable and clear.  The two texts that the people read are 'The Rainbow Passage' and 'Comma Gets a Cure' (you can click on the links for the transcript if you want to listen and read).

French Accent (The Rainbow Passage)

Ghana Accent (Comma Gets a Cure)

Iraqi Accent (The Rainbow Passage)

Japanese Accent (Comma Gets a Cure)

Korean Accent (The Rainbow Passage)

Mexican Accent (Comma Gets a Cure)

Polish Accent (The Rainbow Passage)

Accents are not something to improve, pronunciation is. But remember, if you have no problem with communicating with others in conversation, then you don’t need to worry about accent or pronunciation.

I love all the different accents I hear as an English language teacher, so please don’t try to lose them. :-)

What are your feelings on accents and pronunciation?  Comments anyone?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Phonetic Film Quiz #11

This is a famous little speech from an epic historical drama made in 2000. I've put the speech in phonetics. Can you identify the film from this quote?

/maɪ neɪm ɪz 'mæksɪmɪs 'desɪməz me'rɪdɪjs/

/kə'mɑːndə əv ðiː 'ɑːmɪz əv ðə nɔːθ/

/ˈʤenərəl əv ðiː fiːləks ˈliːʤənz/

/'lɔɪəl 'sɜːvənt tə ðə truː 'empərə 'mɑːk
əs ɒ'reɪlɪjs/

/'fɑːðə tʊ ə 'mɜːdəd sʌn 'hʌzbənd tʊ ə 'mɜːdəd waɪf ən aɪ wɪl hæv maɪ 'venʤəns ɪn ðɪs laɪf ə ðə nekst/

Click here if you want to watch the answer.

Remember, if you have a smartphone, you can download the Interactive Phonetic Chart from Macmillan for free.  Follow this link or scan the QR code below.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Plagiarism – So What? (University Preparation Tip #2)

Plagiarism is stealing ideas from other writers without explaining in your text that these ideas belong to another person. It can be a whole chapter, a section, a paragraph, a sentence, maybe only part of a sentence. It is a BIG academic culture shock to many students and probably one of the most complicated academic ideas to completely understand.

I will probably write more about plagiarism in the future but this is a short post to say this: Plagiarism is a serious problem in many countries. Here is my evidence:

Pál Schmitt (Picture from BBC)
This is Pál Schmitt. He was the President of Hungary from 2010 to 2012. In April 2012, Schmitt had to resign as president of the country because it was discovered that his Ph.D. was mostly plagiarised from Bulgarian and German sources. You can listen to the story from the BBC or click here to listen and read it.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (Picture from Wikipedia)
This is Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He was the German Defence Minister and many people believed that he would be the next Chancellor of Germany. Unfortunately, in March 2011, Guttenberg was forced to resign when it was discovered that he had copied more than half of his 475-page Ph.D. thesis from other sources.

Ioan Mang (Picture from Twittweb)
This is Ioan Mang. He was the Education Minister of Romania until May 2012 when he was forced to resign because of multiple counts of plagiarism in many of his academic papers.

There are other cases or plagiarism where the politicians still have their jobs but many people want them to resign; Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Russia’s Cultural Minister Vladimir Medinsky and German Education Minister Annette Schavan.

Tony Blair (Picture from Wikipedia)
This is not only something that individual people do. Countries have also plagiarised. In 2003, the British Government, led by Tony Blair, copied the work of Dr. Ibrahim al-Marashi to make a document that Britain and America used to ‘prove’ that Saddam Hussein was making WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq. Al-Marashi’s academic work was plagiarised and then used as military intelligence and this document helped to start the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

All of these cases of plagiarism have been found quite easily now with the latest plagiarism-checking software that nearly all universities use.

Plagiarism is becoming easier and easier to identify and it is causing big problems for very powerful people. So my advice to students from other countries is that this is important and you need to spend some time thinking about it and you need to make sure that you understand what it is 100%.  If you don't understand, you need to speak to your tutors/lecturers/supervisors/teachers and get them to explain it to you so you do understand.

Not understanding plagiarism is not an excuse for plagiarising.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reading Exercises (Website Recommendation)

Nasreddin (Picture from Wikipedia)
Here is a piece of advice. Read something short and fun. Learning and language progress happens more often when you do a little bit regularly. It might feel good to do 4 hours of language study one night each week but you will learn more if you do just 30 minutes every day. 

This means that if you are trying to improve your reading you should be focusing on short reading passages.

Here are some great short stories with reading activities about a Turkish wise man called Nasreddin. (If you click on one of these, remember there are two more reading activities so click on ‘Next exercise’ at the bottom of the page.)

Nasreddin and the Pot

Nasreddin Goes Shopping

Nasreddin and the Beggar

Nasreddin and the Smell of Soup

Nasreddin the Ferry Man

Nasreddin's Visitors

As extra practice to help your English, when you finish exercises try to write one of the stories a few hours later and then compare the story you wrote with the story on the website.

These stories are for Lower Intermediate level students of English but there are more exercises for different levels:

Upper Beginner (2 stories)

Pre-Intermediate – Nasreddin (6 stories)

Intermediate – Urban Legends (5 stories)

Upper Intermediate (5 stories)

Advanced – Pulp Friction (1 story)

I love the Nasreddin stories. I think they are short, enjoyable and often educational. I hope you enjoy these.  This website, University of Victoria - English Language Centre Study Zone, is a great website with vocabulary and grammar exercises as well.  Very helpful to improve your English!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Phonetic Film Quiz #10

I have changed the way I do the Phonetic Quizzes now.  You can now find all of the quizzes on this page and you can find all the answers as well.  I will also put the answers on that page at the same time as the quizzes so you don't need to wait.  I think this is probably much more helpful for people.

Anyway, this week is a Sci-Fi (Science Fiction) movie from the 1970s.  I've given you the main characters (not the actors).  Can you figure out which movie it is?  Enjoy!

/'əʊbɪːwɒn kə'nəʊbiː/

/lʊːk 'skɑɪwɔːkə/

/hæn 'səʊləʊ/




/dɑːθ 'veɪdə/

/'prɪnses 'leɪə/

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Useful is Translation? (University Preparation Tip #1)

The simple answer is... very useful.

However, there are some major problems. Here is a paragraph in a variety of different languages. I've selected languages of students I've had in my pre-sessional classes in recent years.

First of all, can you guess what the different languages are? Your options are Vietnamese, Korean, Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian and Arabic.


وقد ترجمت هذه الفقرة باستخدام جوجل. يمكنك ان ترى على الأرجح أن هناك عدة أخطاء واضحة، وربما كنت لا أفهم بالضبط الأفكار أحاول أن أنقل هنا. لهذا السبب، جوجل ترجمة هو بالتأكيد خيارا سيئا لكتاباتك الأكاديمية. كنت أفضل حالا بكثير استخدام وتطوير المهارات الخاصة بك في اللغة الإنجليزية.

ย่อหน้านี้ได้รับการแปลโดยใช้ Google คุณอาจจะเห็นว่ามีข้อผิดพลาดที่เห็นได้ชัดหลายและคุณอาจไม่เข้าใจความคิดที่ว่าฉันพยายามที่จะสื่อความหมายที่นี่ ด้วยเหตุนี้ Google แปลเป็นมั่นเหมาะตัวเลือกที่ดีสำหรับการเขียนบทความทางวิชาการของคุณ คุณมีมากดีกว่าการใช้และพัฒนาทักษะของคุณเองในภาษาอังกฤษ


Perenggan ini telah diterjemahkan dengan menggunakan Google. Anda mungkin dapat melihat bahawa terdapat beberapa kesilapan yang jelas dan anda mungkin tidak tepat memahami idea-idea yang saya cuba untuk menyampaikan di sini. Atas sebab ini, Google translate adalah satu pilihan yang buruk bagi penulisan akademik anda. Anda adalah jauh lebih baik menggunakan dan membangunkan kemahiran anda sendiri dalam bahasa Inggeris.

Ayat ini telah dijabarkan dengan menggunakan Google. Anda mungkin dapat melihat bahwa ada kesalahan yang jelas beberapa dan Anda mungkin tidak persis memahami ide-ide saya sedang mencoba untuk menyampaikan di sini. Untuk alasan ini, Google translate jelas merupakan suatu pilihan yang buruk untuk menulis akademis Anda. Anda jauh lebih baik menggunakan dan mengembangkan kemampuan Anda sendiri dalam bahasa Inggris.

Khoản này đã được dịch bằng cách sử dụng Google. Bạn có thể có thể thấy rằng có một số lỗi rõ ràng và có thể bạn không hiểu chính xác những ý tưởng tôi đang cố gắng truyền đạt ở đây. Vì lý do này, Google translate chắc chắn là một lựa chọn tồi cho văn bản học thuật của bạn. Bạn đang tốt hơn nhiều bằng cách sử dụng và phát triển các kỹ năng của riêng bạn trong tiếng Anh.

단락은 Google 사용하여 번역되었습니다. 당신은 아마 여러 가지 명백한 오류가있다는 것을 있으며, 아마도 바로 내가 여기 전하기 위해 노력하고 아이디어를 이해하지 않습니다. 이러한 이유로, Google 번역은 확실히 당신의 학문적 작문을위한 좋은 방법입니다. 당신은 영어로 자신의 능력을 사용하고 개발에게서 훨씬 있습니다.

Here are the answers:

A – Chinese

B – Arabic

C – Thai

D – Japanese

E – Malay

F – Indonesian

G – Vietnamese

H – Korean

How many did you identify correctly? One of them might be your native language. Did you notice how it doesn't look very good? The language is not very good and this is because I used Google Translate. This is the original English sentence:

This paragraph has been translated using Google. You can probably see that there are several obvious errors and you probably don't exactly understand the ideas I'm trying to convey here. For this reason, Google translate is definitely a bad option for your academic writing. You are much better off using and developing your own skills in English.

If you are using Google Translate too much, then it is important to know that the paragraphs you give your tutors are of similar quality to the examples I've shown you here.

If you want another example of this problem, follow these instructions:
  1. Go to BBC News
  2. Choose any article. 
  3. Copy and paste a paragraph into Google Translate
  4. Translate the text from English into your language. 
I hope you will notice that the translation is not perfect. Some of the translations might be very good (and some of them might be very bad as well) but all the translations will have some errors that will be obvious to you.

So what are the problems with this translation? 
  1. A university tutor or pre-sessional teacher cannot help a student who uses an online translation website. A student who uses a website like Google Translate does not understand the grammar and vocabulary they are giving their teacher, so they will not understand the corrections they are given either. 
  2. If a student needs to use a translator for their work then they are using non-English sources of information. This is useless for a university degree in Britain. How can your university tutor help you if they cannot read the original information you are using? Using an online translation website is often a sign of plagiarism, (I will always put this word, ‘plagiarism’, in red on this blog because it is a serious academic crime). Even if you have not plagiarised, using a translation website looks very suspicious and your tutors might not trust your work.
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