📚 Most people who struggle with English (or anything else they're trying to learn) face difficulties in part because they're sort of like doing it with their eyes closed - they don't have any idea about how learning actually works. And learning is NOT intuitive, meaning what feels like it's helping is often not actually helpful. In this post I’ll share with you the basics of what you need to understand to become good at learning.
This first part is a quiz that will help you better learn what I'll be sharing with you below.
Write down the correct answers in the comments, in the notes on your phone, on a piece of paper, or anywhere else. DO NOT just go over the list and mentally give an answer. Trust me on this, you want to write down the answers.
Based on research,
1. What is one thing you should do before learning a new piece of information to help yourself better remember it?
a) take a hot shower and drink a tea
b) take a shot and see if you can understand what it means before reading/learning about it
c) read the explanation at least two times and then practice
2. What is an effective way to learn and remember information?
a) Reading through the material multiple times
c) Highlighting important sections
3. What should you avoid when trying to learn something new?
a) Making it easy for yourself
b) Struggling with it
c) Taking a break before you fully mastered it
4. How can learning that feels difficult impact your brain?
a) It can make you forget what you learned
b) It can change your brain and make you smarter
c) It has no effect on the brain
5. What is NOT an effective way to practice?
a) massed/blocked practice = working on the material for as long as it takes to start to feel comfortable with it
b) interleaving = switching up the stuff you’re working on
c) spaced repetition = spacing out study sessions
6. What should you focus on when encountering new vocabulary or grammar rules?
a) Memorization - if you memorize it, you will eventually understand it well
b) Understanding the context
c) Highlighting important words
7. What do we mean when we use the term “noticing skills” in English?
a) Paying attention to specific aspects of the language
b) The ability to focus only on the big picture and ignore the details
c) The ability to multi-task effectively and juggle multiple exercises at once
8. How can you better retain and apply what you learn?
a) By engaging with the material actively
b) By reading through the material twice or three times
c) By highlighting important sections
9. Do flash cards suck?
The keys are at the end of this post.
Here're the 11 principles you need to understand and use to succeed at learning:
1️⃣ Try to understand something before you study it.
Go ahead and let yourself struggle with a completely new piece of information first, before you study it. For instance, you could try to understand it or predict something about it. Only then look at the answer/explanation - this can make it stick better in your memory.
2️⃣ “What was that word/phrase/rule?”
The act of trying to retrieve information from memory is one of the most effective ways to learn and remember information.
You should should actively practice recalling vocabulary words, grammar rules, and other language concepts from memory.
Quizzing/self-quizzing is a great learning tool to help you with that. Even if you give a wrong answer to a question, you’ll learn whatever it is you’re working on better as long as you get the right answer in the end.
Using flash cards is another surprisingly powerful way of practicing retrieval. Just don’t move them into the “I know these” deck before you’ve completely mastered them. Ideally you want to use them a few times a week, then a few times a month, then once a month, then, after you’ve mastered them, still do go back to them every so often. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
3️⃣ Don’t try to make your learning easy. It’s either hard or a waste of time.
Easy learning might feel good in the moment, but it's not good long-term. You’ll forget what you thought you learned as fast as you learned it.
So “fun” lessons - if they’re fun because they’re purely enjoyable and are not at all challenging - are likely not beneficial for you long-term.
4️⃣ You can literally rewire your brain.
Effortful learning can actually change your brain and make you smarter. The more you do, the more you CAN do.
5️⃣ Don’t use massed/blocked practice (= don’t work on the same thing for a long time). You will feel like you’re learning, but that’s an illusion of mastery.
6️⃣ Mix up things you learn (= use interleaving) and space out your practice sessions over time (=use spaced repetition) instead of trying to cram everything into one long session. When you reach the point where you sort of understand something new you’ve been working on but don’t quite feel comfortable, move on. It will feel like you’re not doing enough what it takes to really grasp it, but it’s the opposite.
For the learning to happen some forgetting needs to kick in. Then go back and work on this again in a different way. It will feel difficult, but learning can’t be easy. If it is, you will soon forget this thing you’ve been working on.
Struggle is part of effective and efficient learning. Sometimes we learn some concepts and don’t realize just how much difference they can make in our lives. So reread the first sentence of this paragraph; it’s not some motivational bullshit, it’s a fact about the way learning and memory work.
Rereading and highlighting (in most cases) is NOT an effective study strategy. Use retrieval practice - stuff that forces you to recall the information you’re trying to learn. Like I’ve said, that can be quizzing, flashcards, fill-the-gap exercises, pausing while you read and summarizing what you’ve just read before you move on, etc.
7️⃣ Focus on understanding, not just memorization.
Understanding the meaning and context of language concepts is more effective than rote memorization. You should strive to understand the context in which you encounter new vocabulary or grammar rules, rather than just memorizing them.
8️⃣ Work on your noticing skills.
This is one of those things most of you have probably not even thought about, yet it’s something that can make you much better at learning. You want to develop an ability to pay attention to and recognize specific aspects of the language, such as grammar rules or vocabulary usage, certain peculiarities of connected speech, etc., as you encounter them in reading, listening, or speaking. Was that the schwa sound at the end of “community”? Is it “to break ice” or “break the ice”? Does “few” have a negative connotation as opposed to “a few”? Can we say “equipments”?
Our brain is efficient. It doesn't waste energy on everything around us - it has enough vital stuff to deal with. Which is why, for example, when you're a passenger in a car, you're a lot less likely to remember the route than when you're driving. Still not convinced? Check out this test of selective attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
9️⃣ “How am I doing?”
Seek out feedback from teachers, tutors, or language exchange partners to help you identify areas where you need to improve. There’s no efficient learning without feedback. Ideally, of course, you want professional feedback; if that’s not possible for whatever reason, get what you can - from you buddy, a person you met online, etc.
🔟 Build connections between new and existing knowledge.
Making connections between new language concepts and existing knowledge can help you remember and apply what you've learned more effectively. English learners should look for ways to connect new vocabulary, grammar rules, or other language concepts to things they already know, such as their own experiences or cultural references.
1️⃣1️⃣ Use active learning strategies.
Engaging with the material actively, such as summarizing, explaining to others, or applying new knowledge to different situations, can help you better retain and apply what you learn.
🤐 Let me share a little secret with you here: these facts about learning that I’ve shared with you are part of why I’m sharing this with you.
Some of these facts I learned a long time ago, while others I learned recently. To put together all this information I need to pull up what I’ve known for a while from the depth of my memory, combine it with what I’ve learned, organize it in my head, and simplify it to share it with you here. So I’m actively engaging with the new information, relate it to what I already have in my long-term memory, retrieve all of it, summarize it, and write it so both of us can benefit from it - it’s a win-win.
Which of these did you find surprising? Would you add anything else to the list?
Keys for the quiz: 1.b, 2.b, 3.a, 4.b, 5.a, 6.b, 7.a, 8.a, 9.b
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).