Expand your vocabulary: Label your photos in English

Do you enjoy photography? If so, here’s a great way to expand your vocabulary and have fun at the same time.

Collect together some of your old photos and try to describe them in detail in English. Think about all the objects in the photo. Do you know what they are all called in English? How many adjectives can you think of to describe the photo?

Try and tell the story of what’s happening in the photo in English. Write it on some paper underneath the photo.

If you are a member of a photo-sharing site like Flickr or Picassa, use the comments section and labelling features to add your notes in English.

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For example: This photo was taken on a beach near my house. The sky is blue and there are no clouds. The sea is calm and it looks like it is low tide. The sand is white and it looks like it would be very hot to walk on.

There is a man sleeping underneath the tree so it must be a really hot day. The tree in the photo looks a little lonely standing there all by itself. It’s a strange shape, too. Maybe it has been clipped so that it doesn’t obscure the view of the ocean.

Using an image to practise vocabulary will help you remember because it puts the vocabulary in context and the image helps your brain remember. It’s fine to use other people’s photos if you want but using your own is more fun and reliving your own happy memories will help you remember the new vocabulary.

How to start an English book club

Reading is a great way to build your vocabulary by seeing new words and phrases in context. It’s fun, too. Sometimes, though, reading alone in another language can be a little lonely. One of the most fun things about reading is discussing what you’ve read with your friends afterwards.

If your friends can speak English, you can help each other with any problems you might have with understanding a book. Learning as part of a group is really motivational for some people and the support of enthusiastic friends can help inspire you to study, even if you are feeling a little down.

Starting a book club is an ideal way to get a group of learners together and learn loads of interesting vocabulary. How do you do it, though.

The first step is to decide what kind of books you want to read. Some book clubs like to focus on a certain genre or style of books. Other people find that challenging themselves to read a variety of books helps them discover authors they might not have heard about otherwise. A common method is for the members to take it in turns choosing books. This is great because it means you get to share your favourite books with the other members.

Once you have decided what kind of books you want to read, you will need to find some more members to join your club. If you have friends nearby who are studying English, you can ask them. If you don’t know anyone in your area who is studying English, you could put an advert for members in a local newspaper or on a local Internet forum.

For people who would rather keep their book club online, using a social networking website such as Facebook is a great way to start a book club. Just start a group, add friends you think may be interested, and leave all your comments and questions about the boos as online messages.

So, now you have your books and members all you need to do is decide which book you want to read first and start the discussion. It’s best to set a date that people can aim to finish the book by, then once you reach that date, meet up or go online and discuss the book.

As well as your personal opinions on the style of the author and the story, it’s useful to keep a note of any phrases or sentences that you don’t understand. You can discuss these with your fellow members and help them with any questions they might have.

When you have finished discussing a book, make a note of all the things that came up in the discussion in case you want to look back at them in the future.

Which book will you discuss first in your book club?

Today’s image is by Zsuzsanna Kilian.

5 reasons why you should practise English with your kids

The industry based around teaching kids English is huge. Millions of dollars a year are made by schools and publishing companies. There are so many reasons why it’s important for kids to learn English and if you have learnt English as your second language already, you will probably know all of them.

While it’s great fun for kids to go to an English school and meet lots of new friends, it can be expensive. If you can’t afford to send your kid to an English language school or can’t find an English class that fits in with your child’s schedule, why not practise with him or her yourself?

There are lots of ways in which learning and practising English together will benefit you and your child:

1. A comfortable environment in which to learn – Many kids find it difficult to speak English in real life because they associate it too much with being at school. Learning at home using objects and examples from around your house is a great way to help your child remember what he learns and put English into a real-life context.

2. Parent-child bonding – If you have a busy lifestyle, it can be hard to find time to spend with your kids. Sometimes, after a hard day at work, it can be tempting just to sit down and watch TV together. Kids don’t need you there to help them watch TV, though. Making the effort to do something of value with your child in your free time is a great way to make sure the time you spend with them is something you both find rewarding. Learning a new skill, be it a language, musical instrument or sport with your child is an experience you will both remember for ever.

3. It will improve your English, too – Teaching or explaining something is a great way to make sure you actually know it in detail. Even teaching your child a few simple phrases in English will help you remember them and enable you to discover more about the learning process.

4. Motivation and encouragement – Kids hate it when parents tell them to do their homework. However, if you take an active interest in what your child is learning and try to help, it shows that you really care. When kids can see that learning is fun and not a chore, they’ll start doing their homework without you needing to ask.

5. It’s fun – One of the best things about teaching kids is that there are so many interesting things you can do with them to make learning fun. Kids are naturally curious and if you can capture their imagination, they really enjoy learning languages. That fun is contagious. Even if you are in a terrible mood, spending 10 minutes with some kids having fun will cheer you up again.

NOTE: There are so many great activities you can do to practise English with your kids that I have decided to make a separate site entirely dedicated to it. It will take me a couple of months to get it all set up but I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

Today’s image is by Aline Dassel.

How to make English vocabulary index cards

We’ve discussed different ways of making notes in English before on the World of Words. This week, I’d like to go into more detail on how to make yourself a set of index cards for learning new vocabulary.

Index cards are very easy to make, all you need is a printer, a pair of scissors and something to hold the cards together. Here’s how to make them:

  1. Download my free index card template and print out as many copies as you think you will need.
  2. Cut along the black lines on the template to make your individual cards.
  3. Punch a hole in the top-left corner of the cards and use a keyring or paper clip to hold them together.

You can use these to make notes on all the new vocabulary you see every day. Then, when you have remembered the new vocabulary (here’s my method for learning new vocabulary), tear out the card and throw it away. It’s a really effective way to make notes in English, and it’s free!

This post was featured in the Make it from Scratch blog carnival.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes in English

Fear of making mistakes in a new language is a common problem and holds a lot of people back from developing their speaking skills.

Obviously, if you are in an exam, you need to make sure your grammar is accurate in order to get a good mark. If you’re just practising, though, making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process.

An easy way to think of this is like a child learning to walk. Even with a lot of help from their parents, toddlers always fall over now and then when they are learning to walk or run. It’s a natural part of the process.

Sometimes, toddlers fall over because they are walking too fast. Sometimes, it’s because their balance isn’t quite right yet. Whatever the reason for falling over, they learn from their mistake and it helps them move onto the next level with their skills.

It’s exactly the same with learning a language. In my experience, the aspects of languages I’ve learnt that I remember best are those that I’ve made mistakes with and had to learn from my own mistakes. I’ve observed the same thing with students in class, too.

When speaking outside the classroom, there’s another important reason not to be afraid of making mistakes – most people won’t notice. Most of the time, when people are listening to another person speaking, they just hear the main ‘key’ words that carry the most important information.

For example, if you said “Where ya yo” with the ‘where’ nice and clear, and the ‘ya yo’ quiet, most people would respond “I’m going to (place)”. Because they hear the key word and something afterwards that sounds a little similar to ‘are you going’, their brain puts it in context and automatically makes them think of the correct answer.

Of course, if you make a mistake that interferes with the meaning of your sentence, someone might not understand you. If this happens, nobody is going to get angry with you (When was the last time you got angry with someone who said something you couldn’t understand?). People will just ask you to repeat whatever you said. Then you can rephrase it and learn from the experience.

I am not saying that it’s not important to try and learn how to speak accurately. I’m just trying to show that sometimes, worrying about the negative things (fear of mistakes) and not focusing on the positive things (having fun expressing yourself) can hold you back.

Learning a language is like learning a sport or musical instrument. It’s important to do a lot of exercises and preparatory work, but, very often, the time we make the most progress is when we relax.

Today’s image is by Ramona Gaukel.

How to take notes in English

A lot of the tips for learning English that I mention on this site rely on taking notes. Everyone likes taking notes in different ways and different methods of note-taking suit different lifestyles.

Today I thought I would go through all my favourite ways of taking notes when learning a language.

1. A notebook. Notebooks are great because they never break and are easy to carry anywhere. You can also look back on your notes later on to see how much progress you have made.

My favourite brand of notebook is Moleskine and I like their squared paper pocket notebooks best of all. The squared paper is great for writing sentences on or making tables of vocabulary and they have a little pocket at the back to keep other pieces of paper or notes in.

2. Index cards. Index cards are cheap and easy to make. You can throw them away when you are finished with them or keep them and use them to track your progress. They aren’t as durable as a notebook but they are lighter and cheaper.

3. An iPhone/iPod touch. These little gadgets are great and there are so many interesting applications being developed for them all the time. It’s easy to use one to take notes and you can even download flashcard applications to help you remember all the new vocabulary you write down.

If you like gadgets, though, it might be worth waiting for an iPad rather than buying a new iPod. It will have more space on the screen for reading and you can attach a keyboard in case you need to make more extensive notes.

4. A computer. If, like me, you work in front of a computer all day, why not use it to make notes on new vocabulary as you come across it? Using a Firefox addon like Quicknote is a great way to make a note of new words and expressions without disrupting your workflow.

5. Voice notes. A great idea for auditory learners. You could use your cell phone or a voice recorder to make your notes. This is a god way to practise your speaking skills, too.

6. A whiteboard. Whiteboards aren’t just for teachers. If you hang a whiteboard on your wall at home, you can write notes on it then wipe it clean when you are finished. Whiteboards are cheap and easy to maintain.

7. Post-it® Notes. These little sticky pieces of paper are another cheap way to make notes in English. The great thing about learning English using post-it notes is that you can stick them somewhere really obvious so you don’t forget whatever you have written on them.

What’s your favourite way to make notes when you are learning English?

Today’s image is by Elisa Nobe.


The English habit: How to reach your goals in English

Habit forming is a great way to learn new things. I used habit-forming techniques to teach myself to get up early, go four times a week, and learn two languages. It really works and it’s a great way to get motivated and really reach your goals.

Here are seven great tips on turning learning English into a habit:

1. Practise for short periods but do it often. It’s better to practise for 15 minutes and really concentrate than spend an hour looking through a book without paying attention. It is also easier to find time to learn English if you keep your practise sessions short.

2. Stay regular. Practise at the same time every day to help yourself for a routine. Choose a time of day when you can concentrate well. I prefer the mornings but I know there are also some night owls out there.

3. Tell the world. Telling people you are learning English puts you under pressure to actually do it and improve your skills. Telling people online is a great way to make sure you stick to your plans. Write a blog or tweet in English to let everyone know how you are getting on.

4. Find your motivation. If you are a visual learner, put a photo of something related to your goal on your desk. If you are an auditory learner, listen to your English theme tune before you start studying.

5. Enjoy the process. Learning English should be fun. If you can make learning English fun, practising won’t seem like a chore.

6. Set achievable goals. It takes a long time to become completely fluent in English. Break your goals down into smaller ones. For example, certain sets of vocabulary, units in your textbook or or specific situations in which you want to be able to express yourself clearly.

7. Don’t skip a session. This is the most important rule of all. Skipping one practise session is all it takes to break your habit. Even if you are really tired, make sure you practise every day you have promised to.

How to improve your English pronunciation: Speak loudly

shoutingMany of you (especially those in China) will have heard of Li Yang the ‘shouting’ English teacher. He hosts workshops for hundreds of people (paying hundreds of dollars per ticket) where he and the audience shout phrases over and over again.

Li Yang’s system seems like a good way to improve your English pronunciation but there are some problems with it.

I can see how this would be good for helping people who are not naturally confident. Being part of a group can be very inspirational and I’m sure shouting together helps them overcome their inhibitions. This may or may not have an impact on people’s confidence in real-life situations.

Li Yang also claims that his shouting sessions help people develop their ‘tongue muscles’ and impoves their English pronunciation. I’m sure this must be true, too. Doing any activity at a higher-than-normal intensity will develop the muscles we need to do that particular activity.

The problem is, though, speaking actually uses different muscles from shouting. Our throats are wider and we usually adopt a different position when we shout. Practising shouting is great if you want to end up sounding like an action movie star – Vin Diesel and Sylvester Stallone (in his early moves) are good examples of this – but for normal people, it would just make us sound too aggressive all the time.

The best way to improve English pronunciation, and build your confidence at the same time is to speak in a loud but controlled manner. That way, you will be building up the muscles in your mouth you need for good English pronunciation, developing breath-control and building your confidence to speak up in real life.

Want to give it a try? Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make sure you are in a place where you feel comfortable and aren’t going to disturb anyone.
  2. Take a deep breath. Suck the air into your lungs by pushing your stomach forward rather than lifting your shoulders.
  3. Say “I am fantastic at speaking English” as loudly as you can without shouting.
  4. Now, say it again. At the same time, squeeze your stomach muscles while you are speaking as if you were doing a sit-up.
  5. Now, say it again, trying to sound like Barack Obama
  6. Now, say it like an actor in a Shakespeare play.
  7. Now, say it really quietly, still remembering to squeeze your stomach muscles.
  8. Now, say it loudly again in your own voice.

How do you feel? Pretty good, yeah?

Remember, you can use any phrase to practise this way. Try starting with a positive one each time then move on to a phrase using a sound you have difficulty with.

You don’t need to speak loudly in real life but practising it in private will help your pronunciation a lot more than shouting ever would.

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Today’s image is by Tatlin.