How to Study English
If you grew up in an Anglo-Saxon country (e.g. United States, United Kingdom, Canada, etc.), speaking English probably comes as naturally as breathing. However, for many native speakers, reading and writing in English isn't so natural. Learning how to communicate effectively in written English requires a lot of education and study. Below we'll introduce you to several strategies and skills that will help you improve (and enjoy) your study of the English language – both inside and outside of the classroom.
If you want to improve your ability to read, then read. Spend at least 20 minutes a day reading books, newspapers, online blogs, poems, etc. The greater the variety of reading you do, the better. Regular reading will not only improve your ability to read, it will also improve your ability to write in English. In fact, there is no other activity that will improve your ability to read and write in English faster than reading a little each day. You'll be surprised how quickly your vocabulary grows, your reading fluency and comprehension improve, and how much better you're able to write just by reading a little each day.
Unless you're a reading buff, studying English can be boring and tedious. Especially for those of us who already know how to speak English. How many kids do you hear talking about how much they enjoy their English class? Not many. Among middle and high school age students, English is one of the least favorite academic subjects. When studying English, set clear study time limits. The key is to be consistent. A little study each day is far better than a lot at once. Don't attempt to read an entire novel overnight. Don't try to learn all the English grammar rules in a week. Take it slow and easy. Read a little each day. Learn a little more each day. Doing too much at once just leads to burnout.
A study produced by the University of California Los Angeles suggested that for 9 out of 10 students spacing out learning is far more effective than cramming. Cramming rarely works. And when it does, it's short lived. At best cramming leads to short-term rote memorization gains but rarely leads to meaningful learning and understanding. In most cases, the disadvantages of cramming outweigh the advantages. Cramming is especially problematic when it causes a student to sacrifice sleep. Students who sacrifice sleep in order to study more than usual are likely to perform worse academically, not better, the following day.
Get extra help.
If you want to improve your writing and mastery of English, then ask for help from your teacher or get an English tutor. English, especially written English, is one of those subjects that is difficult to "figure out" on your own. Learning how to write correctly is far easier, and more productive, when you're able to learn from those who've mastered this skill.
Take good notes.
Note taking is an important strategy for success in any academic subject, but it is particularly important when learning to read and write English. Note taking is essential to the study of English for several reasons. First, note taking forces you to write things down. As you write down important concepts, rules and ideas they move from your short-term to your long-term memory. Second, good note taking requires active listening which forces you to pay close attention to what is being taught and what's meaningful. Finally, you can use your notes to review and prepare for English exams.
The following are tips for taking good notes.
- Make sure your notes are clear and accurate.
- Focus your notes on what the teacher indicates is important.
- Come to class prepared and having completed all assignments.
- Compare your notes with those of other students.
- Try to avoid distractions (talking with friends, sitting where there is noise, etc.)
- Make sure your notes are organized (see the The Cornell System for Taking Notes)
- Use abbreviations and symbols for long words to save time.
- Write legibly so your notes are useful to you later.
- Review your notes immediately after class and then again before your next class.
- Write down any questions you have.
For more information on taking notes read Improving Your Note Taking.
Pay attention in class.
Regardless of whether you're in high school or attending college, go to class and pay attention. Paying attention in class seems like a no brainer, but it's a big reason students struggle in English. Not only do you need to learn English, you need to learn what it is that your teacher or instructor finds important. There is a science to English reading and writing, but the subject is also a bit objective at times. If you want to perform well in your class, you need to learn what it is that your instructor is looking for. The best way to do this is by attending class and paying attention.
Take advantage of online study guides.
There are a variety online study guides designed to help students with English reading, writing and literature. Some of these include Cliffnotes, Sparknotes, and Jiffynotes, to name just a few. These guides are chock-full of notes and information on English literature. They provide summaries, interpretations, essay tips, helpful hints, video tutorials and Old-to-Modern-English translations. Online study guides provide information that can help you better understand your textbooks, essay assignments and classroom lectures.
Form a study group.
Forming a study group is an effective strategy for improving your performance in your English class and earning a good grade. Forming a good study group will help you (1) improve your note taking, (2) learn from the knowledge and unique insights of other students, (3) develop a support system, (4) cover more material and (5) make learning English more fun.
The following are a few tips for forming an effective study group.
- Keep your study group to between 4 and 6 people.
- Select group members who are responsible and dedicated.
- Find a study area for your group that is free from distractions.
- Keep study sessions under 2 to 3 hours.
- Plan to meet with your study group at the same time and place each week.
You can learn more about developing an effective study group by reading Using Study Groups.
If there is one thing I learned from watching Big Bird on Sesame Street it is that, "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!" This couldn't be more true with respect to learning and studying English. If you have a question, ask your teacher or a fellow student. Make sure you've come to class prepared and that you're not asking questions you should already know the answer to from completing your textbook assignment, but when you don't understand something, ask. Even if your question seems stupid to you, never hesitate to ask. The only stupid question is that one not asked. If you feel uncomfortable asking your question during class, stay after and ask the teacher in private – but ask.
Prepare for exams in advance.
If you've kept up with your textbook readings, have attended class, taken good notes, and completed all assignments as they've been assigned, you should be ready to ace your English exam. Notwithstanding, we recommend that you start reviewing for your exam at least four weeks in advance. Meet with your study group each week, review your notes and essays, and make sure to get a good night's sleep the day before the exam. Again, avoid cramming at all costs. It will only stress you out and cause you to loose precious sleep time.
Other English study resources.
In addition to the strategies we've provided above, we recommend reviewing the tips and strategies provided by the following websites: