You’d like to give your English a boost? Why not give these tasks a try?
And if you do, don’t forget to give me feedback.
Here’s a simple and endlessly adaptable task.
- Set the timer to ten minutes and grab a pen and a piece of paper.
- Start the timer and start writing. Don’t stop. Don’t google a word or worry about grammar. Just keep going.
- When the timer stops, stop writing. That’s it!
- Count your words. This is the best way to measure progress. Keep track of your scores and feel very proud of yourself.
- Vary the topic. The possibilities are endless. Set yourself a little schedule of 20 different topics over four weeks, for example.
- Repeat the same topic. If you know you’re going to be reading lots on a particular topic one week, try doing a ten-minute writing session before you begin and again afterwards. See how much more vocabulary and how many more ideas you have.
- Check and improve. This is a fluency exercise, which means we’re more interested in the speed of your thinking than in your accuracy. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t spend ten minutes after you’ve finished reading back through and correcting or changing bits of your language. You could even do this a week or two later.
Read, Cover, Write, Check
Here’s a task which can work with absolutely anything you’re reading at the moment: news, articles, emails, novels, tweets or social media captions.
- Choose a short text which you have read before and understand well. You only want a small section. A paragraph will do.
- Read a short section (short enough to memorise—5 to 10 words). Then cover the text with your hand and copy it out from memory.
- Uncover the text to reveal the next short section and do the same again. Continue until you have copied out the whole text.
- Compare your text to the original and identify any differences there may be.
This is a great task for identifying vocabulary or structures which, while you may understand them passively, you are not yet able to produce yourself. Perhaps you can’t remember a word you thought you knew, or you forget to include a particular preposition. It’s amazing what you can’t remember even though you were just looking at it.
I encourage you not to try to check what you’ve written as you write. Just write what you think is correct and move on.
- Add a time limit. I suggest you set a 3-minute time limit. Then count the number of words you’ve managed to copy and also the number of mistakes you’ve made.. Your final ‘score’ is the number of words subtracted by the number of mistakes. (Feeling mean? Subtract 2 points per mistake!) This encourages you to write as quickly as possible while still maintaining accuracy. It also means you have a number at the end and, as you repeat this task again and again, you can track whether that number changes or not.
- Repeat the same text. Repetition is amazing. If you found a text a bit of a struggle, keep it somewhere safe and return to it a week or a month later and see if you do any better this time.
Listening to a recording of yourself can be a bit uncomfortable for lots of people. Is that what my voice sounds like? If we’re speaking in another language, this discomfort can be much worse. I can’t believe I made that mistake. Ugh, my accent is horrible. By familiarising ourselves with our own spoken English, we can move on from this discomfort. It eventually becomes normal, and we can start working on ways of improving our spoken English.
- Record yourself speaking English. About 30-60 seconds is ideal.
- Listen through and remember what you were talking about. Focus on the ideas.
- Now listen again and, pausing every 5-10 seconds, write down everything you hear. I mean everything. If you say ‘um’, write ‘um’. If you pause, write ‘…’. If you say ‘I go – went – went shopping’, write it. If you make a mistake, write the mistake.
- Read through and reflect on the language you used.
Somehow, seeing your speech written on the page is very different to simply listening to it. And you can often identify ways to improve your speaking much more easily when it’s written.
- Look for repeated mistakes. Try not to get distracted by mistakes you make once. Those are not serious. Instead, look for mistakes you make regularly. Do you talk about the past but use the present tenses? Do you confuse ‘his’ and ‘her’ a lot? What can you do to improve this?
- Think about your hesitations. Is there a pattern to your hesitations? is it because you simply don’t know enough words or phrases to speak quickly or do you have trouble forming grammatical structures quickly enough (e.g. I + should * have * gone …). What can you do to improve this?
- Think about your pronunciation. Everyone has an accent, so this shouldn’t worry you. You can, however, think ab out whether you’re speaking clearly. A common feature of English is that we tend to make ‘important’ words clearer than on-important words, for example. Are you making it easy for your listener to understand you?
This task is a spoken fluency development one where we use repetition and steadily decreasing time limits to encourage more and more focussed language. Don’t be tempted to change your story or ideas. It’s important that you keep the message the same.
- Choose a topic that you want to talk about. It could be a very general one like ‘family’ or a more specific one like ‘your most recent holiday’. Take a few moments to think about what you might like to say.
- Set the timer for four minutes. When the timer starts, start talking and don’t stop talking until the timer stops.
- Set the timer for three minutes. Repeat the exercise using the same stories, points or arguments you used before.
- Finally, do the same again but this time in two minutes.
Don’t be tempted to change your story each time you tell it. The value of this exercise comes in the repetition so it’s important that you keep the ideas the same, although the language you use may change as you think of better ways of expressing your point.
By reducing the time limit each time, we’re forcing ourselves to be more focussed and precise. It also pushes us to speak a little faster and hesitate less.
- If you’re preparing for an interview or presentation, why not use this to practise answers to common questions? If you think the final time is too long or too short, simply scale up or down: 3-2-1- or 7-6-5 will also work.
- Make it real! Get your friends or colleagues to help you. It can feel a bit weird talking to yourself so ask them to listen and ask you questions at the end.
- Record yourself. Listen back and become familiar with the sound of your own voice and what you typically say. Perhaps there are phrases you repeat a lot or mistakes you often make.
Memorise and Read
This task, like many others here, tests your memory of language and structures that you’ve read and understood. It can help draw your attention to parts of the text you’re less familiar with as well as support your pronunciation development as you read out loud.
Choose a text that you’ve read a couple of times and understand well. You’ll only need a short section—50-100 words is perfect.
Read the text out loud a couple of times. If there are any words you don’t know how to pronounce, use the internet or a good dictionary to help you.
Take your hand and cover a small section of the text—perhaps the final inch of each line—and read again.
Gradually move your hand across the page, reading the text out loud each time, until you are able to recite the whole text from memory.
As you’re reading, you’ll probably notice that some parts of the text are more difficult to remember than others. You might be surprised by how you are able to ignore these words when you’re reading for meaning and you only notice the gaps in your knowledge when you have to memorise them.
Personalise it. Choose a text which is relevant to you. Perhaps you can find something suitable in a book you’re reading. Or you find a text on the Internet.
Digitise it. It says ‘cover with your hand’ above, but clearly, this can be done on a computer. I recommend taking another window and pulling it in front of the window you’re reading from.
Randomise it. Instead of covering one side of the text, take some coins or small objects and drop them over the text. They will cover small areas of the page, leaving others clear to read.
Focus on Sounds
This is an interesting task and one which I don’t think learners do often enough. When we’re listening, we are so programmed to focus on what the speaker means, that we often overlook the sounds used to produce this meaning.
- Choose an audio text that you have listened to a couple of times and understand. It’s a good idea to choose one where you have a transcript available. You only need a short section—30-60 seconds is ideal. But you might choose an even shorter section
- Listen again and, this time, focus on the sounds, rather than the words. Close your eyes and picture the speaker’s mouth. What shape is it? What movement is he or she making? Listen 3 or 4 times.
- Now look at the transcript and read and listen at the same time, still focussing on the sounds. Does the speaker pause between words? Link some sounds together? Say words quickly or slowly?
This can be a useful task for pronunciation as well as listening. All learners are aware that the way a language is spoken can be quite different from how it is written and familiarising yourself with spoken English is very important.
It’s worth noting here that you don’t have to listen to native speakers. Strong English speakers should be able to understand a wide variety of accents so it’s worth getting used to how different people speak. Also, there might be particular accents which are more relevant for you. If you work with lots of people in France, you might prioritise listening to French speakers of English.
There are no better or worse accents. Choices should be based solely on what is most useful for you at this moment. If in doubt, I’d recommend a variety.
- Make a note of your observations. If you have a written copy of the transcript, use a pencil to mark areas where the words are connected, letters that ‘disappear’, words which are spoken particularly clearly, and so on.
- Practise your speaking. Try copying the speaker’s rhythm and their ways of connecting words. Record yourself and compare it with the original speaker.
This is such an underrated activity but I couldn’t imagine learning a language without it. Lots of people complain they have no one to practise English with, but you have yourself! There’s no pressure from an audience, you can repeat yourself a hundred times if you want to, and you have control over what you talk about.
- Talk to yourself.
That’s it! When you’re at home, doing the washing up and hanging up the laundry, have a little chat in English with yourself.
- Prepare the questions. Have a few questions (you’ll find lots of them on the Internet) and practise answering them. You can repeat the same answer over and over again, playing with different ideas.
- Practise conversations. Are you meeting colleagues later and are nervous you won’t know what to say? Run through an imagined conversation. Think about possible questions they might ask you and how you could answer them, or come up with some questions to ask them.
- Say it in your head. You might not want to talk out loud when others are in the house. That’s OK. Have the conversations in your head!
Memorise and Write
Here is another fantastic memory-based task. After reading a text, write down everything you can remember. It’s a great way of identifying which parts of the text you understood and which you haven’t quite got yet.
- Choose a text which you’ve read a couple of times and understand well. It shouldn’t be too long. One paragraph or two is plenty.
- Read the text over once again, focussing on the main points.
- Cover the text, and write down everything you can remember.
- Compare your version with the original. Did you forget anything?
- Focus on the language. The task above prioritises the memory of ideas, but you could easily change this to prioritise the language used. Take a slightly shorter text and try to write as similarly as possible to the original text. When you compare, identify structures and phrases which you changed, is your version correct but different, or did you make a mistake?
- Make it relevant. Choose a text which is useful for your life: an email or an article on a topic in your field, perhaps.
- Get competitive. Give yourself a score—perhaps the number of points you remembered or the number of phrases you successfully remembered. Wait a day or a week and repeat the task with the same text and see if you can improve on your score.
My relationship with grammar is … complicated! I’m aware that many of my coachees consider grammar a priority and expect to study it as part of a language course, but I’m also aware that explicit grammar teaching (like: ‘fill in the gaps’ or ’complete the sentence’) has been shown not to have a big effect on learners’ ability to use these grammatical structures accurately. This task is my compromise!
- Choose a text which you have read a couple of times and which you understand. It doesn’t have to be very long—maximum one page but it could be much shorter.
- Read through the text again, this time focussing on the grammatical structures that you see. Choose a particular structure, for example, the present continuous (am/are/is + verb-ing), and highlight all the examples you can find in the text.
- Now look at those examples and try to identify why the writer has chosen that structure. If you changed it to, say, present simple, would the meaning change? Would it still be ‘correct’?
- Repeat for any other aspect of grammar: pronouns, adjectives and adverbs, conditional structures, relative clauses, etc.
Don’t worry if you don’t know why a particular structure has been chosen. The why isn’t hugely important for this task. What is important is the question itself. By asking why this is written like this (or pronounced like this or spelt like this, etc.), you’re developing a curiosity about language which will allow you to start noticing linguistic patterns more quickly and enable you to make links between the grammar ‘rules’ you know and the texts that you read and listen to.
- Start with the text. Instead of looking for a particular structure, reverse the task, and try identifying all the structures the text uses that you recognise. As before, ask yourself why the writer has chosen that structure.
- Record useful examples. If you see a phrase or structure which you think you’d be able to use in your everyday life (perhaps it’s the ‘correct’ version of a sentence you say a lot!), write it down on a vocabulary card and add it to your collection of ‘phrases to learn’.
- Create a game for yourself. If you’ve decided to focus on pronouns (he, it, themselves, someone, etc.), why not delete all the pronouns from the text and, a couple of days later, come back to the text and see if you can complete it?
Keep a Diary
Easily one of the simplest of all the tasks here and one which can have a really big long-term impact on your language. Keep a diary.
- Find yourself a beautiful notebook and pen that you enjoy writing with (or open up the notes section of your phone, or grab a scrap piece of paper from the mess on your desk—it’s really not important).
- Write about your life today. What did you do? What’s on your mind? What are your plans for tomorrow?
- Set a timer. If you find writing in English intimidating, start by giving yourself a time limit. Five or ten minutes isn’t very long, but if you repeat it regularly, you’ll see a big difference in how much you can write and how easy you’ll find it.
- Measure your progress. Save all of your old diary entries and look back on them over time. On a day-to-day basis, it’s very difficult to see our own progress, but if you look back on your writing from six months ago, it’ll probably be very clear how much you’ve improved.
- Make it complex. Just because it’s a diary, it doesn’t mean it has to be limited to “yesterday I went shopping”. Use the time to consider the big questions taking up space in your mind at the moment: politics, gender theory, artificial intelligence, the future of humanity—all of these can go in your diary if you’re thinking about them!
This is a lovely task for training your ear to hear the different sounds of English and the ways that we pronounce phrases ‘differently’ to how they’re written. Quite often, a language we’re learning can sound like a long stream of sound, with only a few words identifiable within that. This task allows you to practise ‘decoding’ this stream into individual words.
- Choose an audio text that you have listened to a couple of times and understand. It’s a good idea to choose one where you have a transcript available so that you can ‘check your answers’. About 30 seconds is ideal, but you might choose an even shorter section.
- As you listen, write down the words that you hear most clearly. (Try listing these down the middle of your page so you have space to write to the left and right of them.)
- Listen again, adding any other words which are said before and after.
- Repeat until you think you have all the words. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to listen.
- Compare your text with the transcript.
This can be a useful task for pronunciation as well as listening. All learners are aware that the way a language is spoken can be quite different from how it is written. And familiarising yourself with spoken English is very important.
It’s worth noting here that you don’t have to listen to native speakers. Strong English speakers should be able to understand a wide variety of accents so it’s worth getting used to how different people speak. Also, there might be particular accents which are more relevant for you. If you work with lots of people in France, you might prioritise listening to French speakers of English, for example.
There are no better or worse accents. Choices should be based solely on what is most useful for you at this moment. If in doubt, I’d recommend a variety.
- Think about grammar. If you only heard ‘Where you going?’, think about the grammar of this question. It’s missing the ‘are’, so listen again and see if you can hear it. Spoken English often has really small or subtle grammatical words so it might simply be a tiny ‘uh’ sound that you didn’t hear. (Of course, the speaker might not have said ‘are’ at all because their particular dialect doesn’t use it, they misspoke, or they were feeling tired that day!)
- Practise your pronunciation. When you’ve finished and have the transcript in front of you, try to repeat the text, copying the pronunciation of the speaker. Record yourself and compare it with the original version.
- Check your spelling. This is a listening task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also work on your writing. Check your spelling and, if you made any mistakes, make a note of them to study later.