As a private English teacher, I find the biggest issue with my students is that they don’t take their work home with them. In other words, many of them assume that spending an hour a week with a teacher is enough to help them grow as English learners.
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Just like anything else that takes time and effort – exercise, diet, a musical instrument, etc. – becoming a better English speaker requires studying at home, by yourself.
Fortunately, though, many of my students realize this. However, how to use that time wisely is not always so easy to figure out. I get lots of great questions from my students about how to utilize their time effectively.
Here are the top 5 most common questions I get from my students about studying:
Question #1: Should I study everyday?
But, more realistically speaking, you should study as often as you can. In order to develop your memory and, more importantly, recall, the mind needs to practice the skill repeatedly, preferably in novel ways. The more often the skill is practiced, the faster your mind will become used to it and the easier it is to recall the ability. Too much time in between study sessions and the connection will weaken. Even just 5-15 minutes a day is better than nothing.
Question #2: But I’m so busy every day. What if I just study a long time once a week?
Answer: This is largely a waste of time.
Again, without consistent and constant practice, you will only retain information short-term. It may help you to remember some things for a few days, even a few weeks, but not much longer than that. Remember, English is not just information, it’s also a skill. Usually after about an hour, our ability to retain what we learned declines rapidly. Trying to practice it for long periods of time will just result in burn out.
Think of it this way: If you want to be a good tennis player, should you practice regularly, or once a week? If you want to build muscle, should you work out for three hours once a week, or 3-4 times a week even for just 30 minutes?
Question #3: Sometimes I’m not really motivated to study. Shouldn’t I only study when I feel motivated?
A: No. You should study regularly.
Certainly, it’s more fun to study when you’re motivated, and you’ll probably learn more, but it’s also really important to develop a habit of studying. The longer you do anything consistently, the easier it is to do it even when you don’t feel like it. In fact, if you continue to study long enough, you may even hate missing a day of studying!
It’s perfectly natural for your mind to resist studying regularly at first. If you’re doing it consistently for the first time, your mind actually has to exert effort to develop this new habit, and that can feel extremely tiresome. You will probably think of a wide variety of other things you could be doing, or rationalize why you don’t have to study today, or why it would be better to start tomorrow. The sad thing is, tomorrow often never comes. Start today, and take that first big step towards developing a life-changing habit.
Having said that, it is important to rest sometimes. If you are burnt out, or exhausted or going through something difficult, don’t force it.
Question #4: What is a good way to study?
A: This question often means two things, one of them very good, the other not so much.
The first question is usually: “Can you provide me with some examples of good study methods? I’m open to trying anything.” This is a great question.
The second question is “What is the ultimate study method that is 100% proven to be better than any other study method in existence?“ This is a limiting question, because it makes some assumptions that aren’t true.
- Assumption #1: There is one method that is better than all others.
I’m sorry, this simply isn’t true. Which methods work best is highly dependent on what type of learner you are, what your goals are, what your experience and current ability is as well as what areas of language competence you want to improve.
- Assumption #2: All methods are equally effective for all people.
On its surface, it seems quite obvious that this cannot be true, and yet this is one of the assumptions being made when asking this question. If it were true, I could answer this question: I could provide the same answer to everybody who asks this question, regardless of their personality, current abilities or goals. But I can’t. I need to know you better: why do you study English? What can and can’t you do now? What do you want to be able to do? What kind of person are you?
- Assumption #3: One method will take care of every aspect of English learning.
This is probably the most common assumption I encounter. Many people look at languages as one thing, rather than a composite of numerous elements that each require specific skill-building methods and all come together to create a competent speaker. Building your listening is different from building your vocabulary is different from building your grammar. There is no single method that will address all of these things.
Because this is such a complex question, I will be addressing it in a future blog all on its own.
Question #5: Should I use this textbook/newspaper/CD/whatever to study?
Answer: Maybe. It depends.
Follow up question: It depends? Well… what does it depend on?
Follow up answer: Several things.
- Your current ability. Is the material too easy for you? Too difficult?
- Your goals. Why are you using that material? Did you determine it would be best for achieving your goals in language learning? Or did someone else tell you that material would be best?
- Your interests. Do you like the material? Is it interesting to you? Do you enjoy reading, watching or listening to it?
Depending on your answers to these questions, the material may be perfect for you, or it may be worthless. The key points is:
- It should be challenging, but comprehensible. It should push you to look up new words and build new skills without taking too much time to do so.
- It should be in line with your motivation for studying English. If you want to learn how to chat with foreigners, then a newspaper is not really going to help you with that. It will bore you and you will lose motivation. On the other hand, if you are looking to build your vocabulary, a newspaper will probably help you achieve that goal.
- Most importantly, It should be interesting to you. Please do not begin reading a 600 page textbook on chemistry if you don’t care about science. Likewise, if you love fiction, go ahead and try reading that John Grisham novel.
There you go! I hope this was helpful and informative. If you’d like any further references for my answers, or if you have any further questions, hit me up in the comment section, or find me on twitter! I love helping learners out!
I want to leave you with this YouTube video:
This guy has some great advice on English learning!