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"I just want to improve this one skill..."

I often hear “I just want to improve my listening, I don’t want to do reading, writing, and all the other stuff”. Or “I just want to improve my speaking”. Basically, English students often request that we work on improving one skill alone separately from others.

Let’s talk about why this is an unreasonable request.

Students often think that listening (or speaking, or any other skill) exists in a vacuum, but it doesn’t.

If you want to be good at listening, these are just some of the things that you need:

— a rich vocabulary,

— an understanding of how connected speech is different from speaking very slowly or saying words separately,

— realizing how many different accents exist,

— ear training,

— fixing your pronunciation as it affects the way you are able to hear (think of people that can’t tell the difference between /i:/ in mEAt, /i/ in lovelY, and /ɪ/ in bIt because the difference doesn’t exist in their language).

There’s a lot more nuance, but I want to give you a few examples of why this is not possible without “all these other things” like reading and writing.

Now let’s look at your vocabulary’s role in improving your listening.

You can guess the meaning of some new words from the context, but if there’s a lot of new words, you’re pretty much shit outta luck (it’s a technical term, lol).

So how do you improve your vocabulary then?

We know too much about the neuroscience of language to just memorize lists of words — we know this is not an effective way to move the new words into your long-term memory.

So what do you do then?

First off, try learning words mainly through chucks. If you learn words separately, you won’t know how to put them together correctly and will to a high degree rely on translating stuff from your language. For instance, should say “do a joke” or “make a joke”? Learning it as a chunk will give you a phrase you can actually use.

For more reasons to switch to learning chunks, check out my video on this topic here:

Ok, you’re learning chunks, now what?

You need enough practice and exposure to actually remember chunks as well as to figure out all the less obvious things, like is this chunk formal or informal? Can you use it to talk about any topic or some specific topics? Can it be used to talk about people, animals things, or everything? Can we break it down into smaller parts or do these words come together mostly the way you learned them in this specific combination? If there’s a noun, is it singular or plural? Countable or uncountable? And so on.

Yeah, if you see a phrase and its meaning, you’ll already be better off and more prepared for hearing it, but is having it in your passive vocabulary your main goal? Or do you want to be able to use it?

So now that’s we’ve established that you need to amp up your vocabulary game, let’s talk about the best ways to do it.

Retrieval practice in various forms is the most effective way to help yourself remember something. This is when you force yourself to bring the new information back from your memory. That’s not underlining phrases in a text, highlighting them, and just staring at them for hours on end and rereading them. It’s doing all sorts of exercises — like filling in the gaps in a text, answering questions using the chunks you’ve learned, replacing phrases with a similar meaning with these chunks, covering the chunks in a text and trying to remember, creating opportunities to use them in writing and speaking, etc.

What about reading? Why do it if your goal is listening?

Reading exercises can give you more exposure to the vocabulary you’re trying to master.

Most ESL books are built in a way that you learn something, practice it in a bunch of ways (this variety is also crucial for your ability to learn efficiently), and then while you’re working on other skills like reading, you continue to see the vocabulary that you’d gone over, which serves as a refresher.

You then might do a test, the purpose of which is to revisit everything you’ve learned. Making mistakes is yet another way to learn by “retrieving” that information. You might need to review some stuff to do well, which, hey, offers you more exposure.

Most books balance the amount of practice given to all the different skills. If you want to give priority to listening, your teacher might offer you a deep dive into phonetics — transcription, words stress, sentence stress, assimilation, elision, you name it.

BUT, as I’ve tried to illustrate with my example on vocabulary, it’s not as straightforward as

I want to be good at listening —> I should listen more.

Listening is a skill intertwined with other skills, and this must be acknowledged if you want to address the challenge efficiently.

Same goes for speaking, which most of you want to be good at. It’s not as simple as I want to be great at speaking, so speaking is all I need to do to get there.

This is an example of why I’m always clear with my students on the fact that during our lessons we’ll be working on what they think they want and what I think they need, because very often these things overlap but don’t perfectly match.

You should make sure you realize that your English is a huge puzzle with a lot of pieces, and you can’t just ignore most of the pieces and get the whole picture — that’s just wishful thinking that won’t bring you the result you most likely want.

Tina is a professional English Teacher with a Cambridge education and 10+ years of teaching English to adults in-person and online.

She wants you and English learners like you to develop a solid understanding of what you need to do to start speaking better English faster (and not fall for English-in-a-month scams).


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