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How can I improve my English language use?

Be strategic

The short answer is: practise, practise, practise, but in a strategic way. It can be difficult to try to improve your English language use as a separate activity from your focus on your course content. Instead, use every opportunity to make use of your course resources and materials to practise your use of language. You are then, effectively, doing two things at once: you will benefit from learning your subject materials really well and will improve your language capabilities.

Also, use opportunities outside of your study time to practise further. Think about how your learning links into your life experience and daily living.

You as a learner

It takes time and energy to make improvements in anything. To ensure you're being as effective as you can in your efforts, it's a good idea to consider how you learn. Apply that self-awareness so you can expand your approaches to, and strategies for, developing your language capabilities to get the best results you can and to deal with the difficulties you might encounter.

Check Learning inspirations for a great range of resources dealing with the issue of how you learn and expanding your learning techniques to use them to your best advantage.

Self-directed language learning

It is important to use a range of strategies to develop your proficiency in English language use. Here is one such list, taken from the work of Peacock and Ho (2003), which investigates student language learning strategies across university disciplines. They found the following strategies were most strongly associated with higher proficiency; that is, there was a positive relationship between frequent use of these strategies, for these learners, and English language proficiency (p. 189).

Make your own language checklist

It is important to pay attention to what you're doing and how you're doing it, and then to use every opportunity to engage with the English language in your studies and your life.

Tick the strategies you'd like to practise for this week and click print to make a reminder card you can pin up over your desk.

This table describes the type of strategy and its importance in proficiency. In this case, the students were Hong Kong Chinese learners in a university in Hong Kong. The point here is that using a certain range of individual strategies is more likely to result in improved English language use. Consider how you might incorporate these kinds of strategies into your own active learning.

Select the starting date of your Plan: Day Month Year

Strategy Ranking (in importance) Tick the strategies you'd like to practise for this week
Strategies for cognitive learning - using all your mental processes
I practise the sounds of English 1
I try to talk like native English speakers 4
I use the English words I know in different ways 5
I read for pleasure in English 8
I try not to translate word-for-word 9
I watch English language shows or go to movies spoken in English 12
I try to find patterns in English 14
I write notes, messages, letters or reports in English 15
I look for words in my own language that are similar to new words in English 19
I find the meaning of an English word by dividing it into parts that I understand 20
Strategies for metacognitive learning - organising and evaluating your learning
I pay attention when someone is speaking English 3
I look for opportunities to read as much as possible in English 6
I try to find out how to be a better learner of English 7
I notice my English mistakes and use that information to help me do better. 10
I try to find as many ways as I can to use my English 24
I think about my progress in learning English 25
Strategies for compensation learning - ways to work around missing knowledge
I read English without looking up every word 11
If I can't think of an English word, I use a word or phrase that means the same thing 17
To understand unfamiliar English words, I make guesses 23
I try to guess what the other person will say next in English 26
Strategies for memory learning - remembering more effectively
I review English lessons often 16
I use new English words in a sentence so I can remember them 18
I think of relationships between what I already know and new things I learn in English 21
I remember new English words or phrases by remembering their location on the page, on the board, or on a street sign. 27
Strategies for social learning - learning with others
I try to learn about the culture of English speakers 2
I ask questions in English 13
If I do not understand something in English, I ask the other person to slow down or say it again. 22

Adapted from Peacock and Ho 2003, 'Student language learning strategies across eight disciplines', International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 13 (2), pp. 179-200.

Click print to make a reminder card you can pin up over your desk

Make use of Learning Support resources

Check Language and Learning Online for a range of online tutorials and useful handouts to help you improve your academic performance. This site includes samples of student writing in different subject areas and advice from lecturers, grammar-related activities, and provides guidance on the features of academic English. You can also make use of the resources and suggestions provided in Vacation English to improve your reading, writing, speaking and pronunciation skills at any time.

Try our recommendations for language practice resources available from the Library including digitised sample chapters.

Search the Library catalogue for additional resources using the subject English language plus terms such as grammar, problems, exercises, pronunciation, textbooks for foreign speakers, usage, conversation - Australia, intercultural communication, life skills, second language acquisition, vocabulary, and so on.

Check out the answers to other related questions:

  • How can I improve my use of academic language?
  • How do I improve my grammar?
  • Why should I improve my grammar?
  • What resources can I use to improve my grammar?
  • How can I use the ideas of others?
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