How to Improve English

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Helpful tips on how to improve your English

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How to Improve Your English

June 2009, Michael Krigline,

Students often ask me: “How can I improve my English?” I tell them: Just remember that using a language is a skill, like playing a musical instrument or sport, and skills develop gradually with repeated use. If you do what your piano teacher or basketball coach asks you to do again and again, over time you reach a higher ability level, and the reward is beautiful music or a better game. There is no “quick and easy” way to learn to play basketball like Yao Ming, and improving your English is similar. However, if you combine motivation (the desire to improve) and some hard work, your reward will be greater competence and confidence in using English to broaden your worldview, pass important tests, enhance your professional qualifications, or communicate with others.

Just as you improve music and athletic skills by playing, you improve English by using it, and more specifically by reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Those four skills are listed in order from easiest to hardest (at least for most English-learners).

Internet-based Resources

One of the most convenient resources is the Internet. Dozens of free websites offer you the chance to practice each skill. Many websites are interactive (you have to make choices and answer questions), and students say some websites are even “fun.” Find one that you like and then visit often. Visit to find links to many helpful web pages, as well as descriptions of my former students’ favorite websites.

Reading and Writing

You improve your reading ability by reading, and by learning vocabulary. My advice is to read something you enjoy, and preferably something that has been professionally edited by a native speaker. There are many good articles on line, but there are also lots of terribly-written things. Unfortunately, several popular “test preparation” books also contain many errors, so it is worth the extra money to buy from publishers with a good reputation (like FLTRP/外语教学与研究出版社 or a “University Press”). Instead of going to a “student written” source, look for real newspapers/newswires like the China Daily, Reuters or the New York Times. These sources will not contain many English errors, and you should find plenty of well-written, interesting articles.

One student wrote: “I memorized thousands of words while preparing for tests like the CET4 and GRE, but now I have forgotten most of them since I haven’t used them for a long time. Should I study words that I’ll never see again?” Well, if you are planning to take a test (like the IELTS or CET6), then you should learn both common and uncommon words. But, as this student found, you will simply forget these words if you don’t use them. That means that you need to keep reading advanced texts if you want to remember advanced words. But you also need to know that most people do not use those uncommon words when they talk. If your goal is better oral communication, then spend your time memorizing and using common words.

Don’t forget that there are many types of English; read and write the kind of English that you want to improve. Plays and movie scripts are written like conversational English (trying to be interesting, but full of grammatical inconsistencies, broken sentences, and unorganized thoughts). That is just the way people talk, so these materials can help you understand spoken English. Academic essays and technical journals are often rather formal, and are highly organized. This is the kind of writing your teacher or test grader should expect (at least at higher academic levels). Business letters should be brief so that you don’t waste the readers’ time while clearly telling them what you need or want to sell. Advertisements and journalistic writing are organized in different ways to convince or inform, using styles quite different from conversational or academic English. If you want to learn more about these differences, get a copy of my book—Successful Writing for the Real World—or look at the brief information sheet at

Writing is the most difficult skill, and writing ability is very hard to improve without help. This means that you need a writing class or tutor, or you need to learn from a book. I have found a few on-line resources that offer free writing help (like OWL, the Chinese Online Writing Lab [broken link?]), but because editing a learner’s written English is very time-consuming, you will normally have to pay for this help. I created Successful Writing for the Real World for advanced English learners in a classroom setting, but if you put in enough time and effort, you can use this book as a self-help writing guide. The Better Writing Study Guide (four lessons within my book) is particularly helpful, because it can teach you to overcome common problems that Chinese students often experience. The “Further Readings” page at the back of my book also gives the names of other helpful resources.

Speaking, Listening and Pronunciation

In China, one of the best ways to practice speaking is to join an English Corner. Every city I’ve lived in has them (several of them), and most universities have them too. If you are afraid to talk, just go to listen at first, and then talk when you feel comfortable. Many English teachers also have weekly “office hours” or a “free talk time” (as I do). Your teachers and friends can help you find these opportunities near you.

Sometimes students say, “I don’t like English Corner because the other people don’t have good pronunciation.” I understand this, but it is the wrong way to think. English Corners are worthwhile (in spite of participants’ non-standard accents) because you get the chance to talk and interact. Sure, it would be great if you could talk to a native speaker, but China has millions of English-learners and very few native English speakers. Just remember that “talking to other English-learners” is better than talking to no one. 

If you are taking English classes, then your classmates are another resource. Hopefully, they have an English level similar to yours. Therefore, make an appointment to get together outside of class. Some classmates eat a meal together once or twice a week, and agree to “speak only English” during that meal. Others get together to read a book or news articles, and then discuss them. Others choose to watch an English movie together. Do what you like to do, but do something, and it is even better to do it with others who are interested in learning.

“But Mr. Krigline, people can’t understand me when I talk. How can I improve my pronunciation?” Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to change pronunciation without a coach. Imagine a flute player who has learned to play with her fingers covering the wrong holes. She will never move to the next level if she doesn’t stop doing the wrong thing, but “the wrong thing” has become very comfortable. By the time my students get to college, many have been mispronouncing THINK and USUALLY for so long that the wrong sounds have become an unconscious habit. The best solution is to find a speech coach who can help change the way your tongue and lips form words. Another option is to compare the way your mouth looks (using a mirror) to the way a native speaker’s mouth looks (on TV). Some people can change bad habits by comparing their recorded voice to a native speaker’s voice saying the same thing. Some speakers improve by simply listening (over and over again) to large amounts of correct speech. It takes time and deep concentration to change poor pronunciation, but if that is your weakness then clearer speech is worth the effort.

How to use Tapes and Movies to Improve Your English

Two keys to improving your listening ability are “comprehensible input” and repetition. In other words, you need to understand most of what you are listening to, and you need to hear it more than one time. I’ve seen many books and magazines that offer a tape or CD, along with the printed text of a recorded message. Crazy English materials are one example. There are also things like this on the Internet (sometimes the recording is an mp3 file or downloadable podcast). To use these materials, first, select something you are interested in, and that does not contain too many unfamiliar words. Don’t choose something too long—five to fifteen minutes would be good, depending on your English level. Second, listen without using the printed text. If you understand only 50%, don’t be discouraged. The goal is to see what you can understand with your ears alone. Third, if there is a translation available, read the material in your native language (but do not look at the English text yet). The fourth step is to listen and read the English text at the same time. Mark the words you need to look up in a dictionary, but don’t look them up yet. At the end of each paragraph, try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words by looking at the words around them. After you finish listening this time, then use your dictionary. Finally, listen one more time, looking at the text only when you can’t understand what is said.

Another practical and fun way to improve your English is through English movies. However, you will need to watch more than one time for this to really help you. I suggest that you see each film at least three times. (1) First, watch the film in Chinese (i.e., with spoken Chinese or Chinese subtitles). This is just entertainment, getting you familiar with the story. (2) Watch the second time without any Chinese, but look at the English subtitles while you listen to the actors speaking English. (3) The third time, just listen to the English without any subtitles. By now, you know the story, so you can concentrate on listening to what they say and (just as important) how they say it. (4) For a real speaking-challenge, watch the movie again without any sound. Instead, try to read the English subtitles out loud. It will be hard to keep up, but if you can, you will be speaking at the same speed as a native speaker. To help my fellow movie-lovers, my website has over a dozen study guides for great movies. Most of them include vocabulary lists, dialogs, discussion questions and more. Take a look by visiting

Perhaps you are thinking: “It is too expensive to buy DVDs and tapes/CDs with both English and Chinese text/subtitles.” Try to find four or five friends who want to improve their English, too. If each of you buys one disk, and then you agree to exchange them after a week, you will get to use five resources but only have to pay for one!

Fear, Aptitude, Pressure, Grammar and other Problems

Like Olympic gold medalist Liu Xiang, we all face hurdles (跨栏). As a teen (then competing in the high jump), Liu was told he “lacked potential.” But a veteran coach urged him on, leading to Liu’s 2004 gold medal as Asia’s first world-class hurdler. Even in 2008, Liu chose to compete until a serious injury made it impossible to continue. Such commitment, combined with his generosity, earned Liu Coca-cola’s “Live Positively Award” at the 2008 Beijing games. “Hurdles” for English-learners include fear, pressure, distractions, and a lack of aptitude, but a positive attitude and hard work can help you reach the goal of English-language proficiency.

An English-learner who is afraid of making grammar or pronunciation mistakes is like an athlete who is afraid of hurting his arm or of seeing blood once in a while. Neither will become a champion. When I meet Chinese students, they are often afraid to open their mouths in class. They don’t want to lose face, and they are afraid that classmates will laugh at them. But I tell them that fear, not losing face or facing laughter, is their biggest enemy. Once you realize that mistakes are normal (everyone makes them) and decide not to be embarrassed when you talk, then your English level can makes great progress. In other words, your attitude (the way you think) is often more important to English fluency than how much grammar or vocabulary you have memorized.

Another hurdle is aptitude, or “natural ability.” Michael Phelps won all those Olympic gold medals because he worked hard, had a great coach, and had long arms. Without long arms, no amount of practice would have put him in first place at the swimming pool. Similarly, you know that some of your classmates just have a “heaven-sent ability (天才)” to remember new words and understand new grammar easily. Your lack of aptitude doesn’t mean that you can’t learn English (or swim)—it simply means that to make progress you will have to work harder than others. It also means that you will probably not be the top student in your English class. That is why you can’t compare yourself to your classmates. You have to judge your progress and your effort, not the results. You can’t change your aptitude—your natural strengths and weaknesses—but you can (and must) constantly determine to study with a positive attitude.

Pressure is another hurdle that slows down English-learners. One student wrote: “The pressure is terrible. My parents want me to pass; my relatives laugh at my grades—that makes me cry. I really don’t want to disappoint others. My poor English makes me feel like a stupid person, so I want to give it up. What can I do?” The pressure from relatives, teachers, and grades is real. There is nothing you can do about what other people think or say, but you can change the way you feel in response. If your English is good enough to understand this article, then you are not a “stupid person.” If you are in college, then you are in the top 1% of humanity (99% never get to go to college). So don’t judge yourself by your ability to speak English—I hope you don’t think you are a “stupid person” because you can’t play basketball like Michael Jordan! Well-meaning teachers or parents sometimes think that “more pressure” will help you study harder, but this doesn’t work for many people. I recommend three steps to help you jump the pressure hurdle. First, look at your habits. If you are wasting time playing Internet games or shopping every weekend, then create a schedule and stop wasting time. Second, don’t be afraid to get extra help from a teacher, tutor or classmate. Third, make a firm choice to judge yourself by your effort, not the results. If you are really doing your best, then no one has the right to be disappointed (if they are, it is their problem, not yours).

A focus on grammar is another source of pressure. Studying grammar is important, but many of my students understand a lot of grammar without being able to speak or write correctly. Sometimes, students complain that when they talk or write, they are always thinking about grammar, and it distracts them. They are correct—this will slow them down and make them afraid of mistakes. So, when you talk, try not to think about grammar (you don’t think about it when you speak your native language, do you?). The goal of oral speech is communication; if your partner understands you, you have succeeded, no matter how many mistakes you made. Similarly, I’ve heard it said that you write your first draft with your heart, and then revise (rewrite) with your head. That is, don’t think about grammar when you begin writing. Let your passion for the topic flow onto the paper. But don’t give that draft to your teacher! Let it sit for 24 hours, and then go back and get it organized; add topic sentences, move thoughts into paragraphs with a united idea; throw away thoughts that have no support; check the grammar/spelling with the help of software, dictionaries and other writing tools. Yes, this takes a lot of time, but the result will be “better writing” instead of just words that fill a page.

Closing Thoughts

In the end, the rate at which your English language skills improve will depend on your attitude (especially about those hurdles) and how you choose to use your time. If you are a medical student or if you are already working full time, then you won’t have much free time, but (as the saying goes), “Everyone has time for what they think is important.” The first step is to stop telling yourself that you are “too busy,” even if that is true! Like a muscle, one’s English level must either get stronger through use, or get weaker because of lack of use. You have to convince yourself of this: “I have worked on this too long and too hard to just let my English level get worse and worse.” Also, set reasonable goals. Just as you will probably never win an Olympic medal, don’t aim to “speak English without any problems.” To reach that goal, you would have to live in an English-speaking environment for a year or more. Instead, watch for improvement, and celebrate when you notice positive changes. Brag to your friends after successfully understanding an English movie without any Chinese subtitles. Throw a party if you realize you were speaking English in a dream! A colleague says that “practice makes progress” long before “practice makes perfect.” Remember that we learn through repetition, so practice, practice, practice! Use the Internet, CDs, and DVDs to strengthen your English. Learn new words and use old ones. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. With hard work and the right attitude, your English level will improve, opening doors of opportunity and expanding your understanding of the world outside your native culture and language.


Michael Krigline, MA (Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Intercultural Studies) teaches English at Kunming Medical University, Kunming, Yunnan. He is also the co-author of Successful Writing for the Real World (2008, 外语教学与研究出版社).

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