7 tips for learning English online

Pearson Languages
A man sat at a laptop with headphones on

Learning English online is very different from studying in a physical classroom, and there is not always a teacher looking over your shoulder. And more often than not, you have to motivate yourself and keep yourself on track.

In this blog, we’ll share seven tips to help you learn English online – including how to set goals, create a study schedule, and stay focused. Let’s explore:

1. Set SMART goals

Lots of students wonder how to learn English online. And we know getting started is often the most challenging part. So before you begin studying English online, we recommend setting some SMART goals. These are goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Let's say you:

  • Have an ultimate goal to get a high score in an English language exam (like PTE Academic), so you can study abroad.

You’ll need to plan how to reach this. An excellent way to start is to begin planning your short and medium-term goals. For example:

  • Short-term goal: Learn ten words each day
  • Medium-term goal: Improve practice test scores by 5% over the next month

2. Make a study schedule

Creating a well-thought-out schedule will help you to study English online and stay organized. It’ll also mean you dedicate enough time to each language skill – speaking, reading, writing and listening:

  • Pick times that work best for you – You may prefer studying at certain times of the day when you have more energy, or after doing something energizing like working out.
  • Stick to it – Once you’ve set a regular fixed time, stay with it to ensure it becomes a routine habit.
  • Make time – Give yourself as much time as possible to finish each task (especially in case life gets in the way) and some time to relax.

3. Create a comfortable learning space

Where you study can impact your cognitive performance. For example, sunlight can lead to better learning outcomes. Temperature and noise can also affect the way you learn. If you can, make sure that your learning space is:

  • well-lit
  • temperate
  • quiet (and private if possible!)
  • relaxing
  • organized

You might also want to decorate your study space, perhaps with an indoor plant – they can improve concentration by 15%!

Also, before you start, do you have everything at hand? Do you have water? Is your coursebook close by? And is your computer fully charged? Having all your supplies on hand will help you stay focused – and learn English online faster.

4. Eliminate distractions

To learn English online, you need to eliminate distractions. Logging off your social media accounts and anything else distracting you until you’re done studying is good practice. If you find yourself logging back in, you might want to use a focus app (like Leechblock, which can block up to thirty websites).
If you can, turn off your phone altogether and put it away and out of sight. If you’re tempted to pick it up again, ask yourself why. Sometimes, there’s no good reason, and it’s best to keep studying.

5. Try the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to break your studying into manageable chunks, which will also help you stay focused.

The technique:

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes
  • Each time the timer goes off, write a tick on a piece of paper
  • Take a five-minute break
  • Continue to set the timer for 20-minute intervals
  • When you've got four ticks, take a 20-minute break

This time management system works well because it gives you frequent breaks to look forward to and helps you concentrate. You can use this time to stretch, have a snack, take a walk – or do anything that gives your mind a rest.

6. Use self-study resources

There are lots of English learning materials available online – including worksheets, mock tests, games and grammar exercises. There are also various games and quizzes available online.

7. Find a study partner

We all know studying online can get lonely! That’s why we recommend you find a study partner. With a partner to work with, you can practice speaking and listening. You’ll have someone to check over your work. But most importantly – you’ll have someone to hold you accountable and help you stay motivated. Perhaps you know a friend or family member who is also studying English, and you can work with them. You can sometimes find local study groups or clubs depending on your location.

If you're unable to find a local study group or an in-person partner, there are many places to find a study partner online – for example, Mooclab or dedicated social media groups. You might also want to try out silent Zoom meetings; students and professionals keep each other focused by simply working together on mute.

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    Overcoming language learning plateaus: Strategies and solutions

    By Pearson Languages

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    Are you stumped by stubborn language learning barriers or plateaus? Everyone has those moments when it feels like they're not making any progress or are completely stuck in their studies. Let's dive into some of these challenges and explore ways to overcome them.

    Common language learning hurdles

    Plateaus in language learning often occur after initial periods of rapid progress and can be attributed to various reasons. For one, learners may have reached a comfort zone where basic communication is possible, reducing the urgency to improve further. Additionally, the complexity of advanced language structures can be overwhelming, leading to a stagnation in learning.

    The lack of measurable progress can also be demotivating, causing learners to lose interest and reduce their efforts. Moreover, insufficient exposure to the language in a natural setting can limit the ability to practice and reinforce new skills. To overcome these plateaus, it's crucial to set new goals, seek out challenging and immersive experiences, and employ diverse language learning resources and strategies that keep the language learning process engaging and dynamic.

    How can I overcome my language learning slump?

    Hitting a language learning plateau is like running into an invisible wall — your progress seems to halt and the motivation to push forward begins to wane. Here are some ways to overcome this common obstacle and get back on the road to fluency:

    • Reassess your goals: Take a step back and reassess your language learning objectives. Are they still relevant and challenging enough? Setting new, clear and achievable goals can provide a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
    • Change your routine: If your current study routine feels monotonous, shake things up. Try new learning materials, switch to a different language learning app, or alter the time of day you study. A fresh approach can reignite your interest.
    • Incorporate the language into daily life: Find ways to make the language a natural part of your day. Label objects around your home, think or speak to yourself in the language, or change the language settings on your phone and social media.
    • Seek out real conversations: Engaging in conversations with native speakers can provide a reality check on your progress and expose you to the natural flow of the language.

    Techniques to help motivate your language learning

    One effective technique to break through a language learning plateau is the use of Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS). We've spoken about SRS before in our blog post' language learning techniques for beginners,' but be assured it is an incredibly useful technique that can't be recommended enough, especially for keeping out of a slump. This cognitive science technique involves reviewing information at increasing intervals to exploit the psychological spacing effect. As you learn new vocabulary, words or grammar rules, an SRS schedules these items for review at optimal times before you're likely to forget them.

    Here's how you can implement SRS into your language learning vocabulary practice routine:

    • Start with a flashcard app: Use an app like Anki, which is designed with SRS algorithms to help you review vocabulary and phrases at strategic intervals.

    • Create personalized content: Make your own flashcards with sentences and vocabulary that are relevant to your life. This personal connection can make the material more memorable.

    • Gradual difficulty increase: As you become more familiar with the content, increase the complexity of your flashcards. Add phrases or idioms instead of single words to challenge your comprehension.

    • Regular reviews: Be consistent with your reviews, even if it's just a few minutes each day. This regular exposure reinforces your memory and helps solidify the language in your mind.

    • Adjust according to performance: If you find certain items difficult to remember, adjust the intervals to review them more frequently. Conversely, items that you find easy can be reviewed less often.

    By incorporating SRS into your study routine, you can ensure a steady progression in your language learning journey, even when you hit a plateau. This method not only helps in retaining information but also in moving from passive recognition and pronunciation to active recall, a key step in achieving fluency.

    Boosting confidence and motivation in language learning

    Mastering vocabulary and grammar is crucial, yet overcoming the inevitable learning slumps and plateaus is equally vital to your language learning process. Motivation is a critical factor that can drive you past these plateaus, enhancing your learning journey and helping you reach your language learning aspirations. Regular speaking practice not only maintains motivation but also improves overall speaking and listening skills. These are often the first to suffer during a slump, thereby contributing to a resurgence in language skills.

    A strong correlation exists between self-confidence, motivation and language learning. Here are some key points to consider:

    • Self-confidence has been found to be associated with English achievement, speaking ability and self-efficacy.

    • High motivation in self-confident language learners also leads to purposefulness in language learning.

    • This purposefulness can result in better communication with native speakers.

    Embracing mistakes as learning opportunities

    Do you fear making mistakes when you're learning a new language? Sometimes, the fear can be its own obstacle to your learning. By embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can enhance your language skills by identifying areas that need improvement and boost your confidence through developing resilience against the fear of making errors. 

    Overcome the worry of language errors, avoid the trap of measuring yourself against others and engage in positive self-dialogue in the language you're learning to make slip-ups feel like a normal part of the learning curve. Tackling this apprehension is a pivotal stride on the path to language mastery.

    Recognizing when to take a break from language learning

    Sometimes, despite our best intentions, life throws us curveballs that can disrupt our study routines and make it hard to concentrate on language learning. Whether it's a demanding job, family responsibilities, health issues, or simply the need for a mental break, it's important to recognize when to step back and recharge.

    Taking a break can be beneficial for your language learning process. It allows your brain to rest and process the information it has absorbed. This can lead to better retention and a refreshed perspective when you return to your studies. It's crucial to listen to your body and mind and not to view breaks as setbacks but as a necessary part of a sustainable learning journey.

    Remember, it's about balance. While consistency is key to language acquisition, overworking yourself can lead to burnout. A well-timed break can reignite your passion for the language and enhance your ability to focus. So, when life gets in the way, don't be too hard on yourself. Embrace the pause, take care of what's important and know that the language will be there when you're ready to return.

    How can I keep my concentration while studying a language?

    Quite often, when you meet obstacles, you might get frustrated and your concentration suffers. Maintaining concentration while studying a foreign language can be challenging but is critical for effective learning. Here are some strategies to help you stay focused:

    • Create a distraction-free environment: Find a quiet space where interruptions are minimal. Turn off notifications on your devices and consider using apps that block distracting websites during your study time.

    • Set specific study times: Schedule dedicated time slots for language study. Having a routine can help your mind get into the habit of focusing during these periods.

    • Break down study sessions: Instead of long, drawn-out study sessions, break your learning into shorter, more manageable segments. This technique, known as the Pomodoro Technique, involves studying for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break.

    • Stay hydrated and well-rested: Drink plenty of water and ensure you're well-rested. Your cognitive functions, including concentration, are significantly better when you're hydrated and have had enough sleep.

    How can I fit studying a language into my very busy routine?

    Fitting language study into a hectic schedule can seem daunting, but it's entirely possible with some clever time management and the right strategies. Here are some tips to help you weave language learning into your busy life:

    • Utilize microlearning: Break your study into bite-sized chunks. Even 5 to 10 minutes of focused study can be effective, especially when done consistently.

    • Use technology: Use language learning apps that allow you to study on the go, like during your commute or while waiting in line.

    • Combine activities: Listen to language podcasts or audio lessons while exercising or doing household chores.

    • Stay organized: Plan your week in advance and identify pockets of time that can be dedicated to language learning.

    • Prioritize learning: Make language study a non-negotiable part of your day, similar to how you would prioritize eating or sleeping.

    • Seek out passive learning opportunities: Surround yourself with the language by changing the language settings on your devices or watching shows in the target language with subtitles.

    Remember, consistency is more important than the length of your study sessions. Integrating language learning into your daily routine allows you to progress without overwhelming your schedule.

    Summary

    Overcoming plateaus is crucial for progressing in fluency and keeping motivation high. Re-evaluating goals, diversifying study routines, integrating the language into everyday life, and engaging in conversations with native speakers are all effective strategies for pushing past these stagnant periods. Employing techniques like Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) can greatly enhance vocabulary retention and be an aid in overcoming learning obstacles.

    Building confidence and staying motivated are pivotal for success in language learning, with self-confidence having a strong correlation to language proficiency. Viewing mistakes as chances for growth fosters continuous improvement and builds resilience. It's also important to acknowledge when a break is needed, as it can actually improve retention and provide a fresh outlook when studies resume. A balanced approach to language learning that includes regular practice and the ability to adjust to life's interruptions is advocated for sustained achievement and pleasure in learning a new language.

    For more tips and guidance, check out our blog where we cover a variety of topics, including posts that offer language hints and tips.

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    Goal setting: A path to achieving team fluency

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    We know businesses that invest in skills development are more likely to retain top talent, and see many other benefits as well. Upskilling your team's English proficiency can have a transformative effect on the business, leading to new opportunities, growth, and a more engaged workforce. However, implementing a corporate language learning program can be challenging. Using traditional goal-setting frameworks can support you and your team on this journey. Here's how:

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    How can gaming support language learning?

    By Jacqueline Martin

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    Academics and teachers have been writing about the benefits of using games in the language classroom for many years. Wright et al (1984), Lee Su Kim (1995), Ubermann (1998), Ersoz (2000), Yong Mei and Yu-Jin (2000) and Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga (2003) all pretty much agreed that games provide a useful and meaningful context for language use; encourage students to interact and communicate; can both challenge and reduce anxiety (as the emphasis is on the message, not the form); provide practice in all four skills; and help students to make and sustain the significant effort involved in learning a language.

    Kim and others have also noted that games can offer a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class. Playing a game after an intensive test or with over-excited students after break time can help re-engage learners instantly in your lesson, and you'll maximize your time with them.

    Lengeling and Malarcher (1997) took the list of potential benefits of games in the classroom even further.

    Affective

    • Games lower the affective filter
    • They encourage the creative and spontaneous use of language
    • They promote communicative competence
    • Games are both motivating and fun

    Cognitive

    • Games reinforce learning
    • They both review and extend learning
    • Games focus on grammar in a communicative manner

    Class dynamics

    • Games are extremely student-centered
    • The teacher acts only as a facilitator
    • Games build class cohesion
    • They can foster whole-class participation
    • Games promote healthy competition

    Adaptability

    • Games can be easily adjusted for age, level and interests
    • They utilize all four skills
    • Games require minimum preparation after the initial development stage

    It is important to bear in mind that when the above was written over 20 years ago, it was with reference mostly to more traditional games. But more recent evidence seems to indicate that the same principles apply. Some additional benefits cited by teachers I've spoken to are that:

    • Games could make language lessons less threatening for less confident pupils as their concern about getting sentence form wrong was reduced, and so their production greater.
    • Students learn more than just the language of the lesson when playing a game; they may learn instructional language through discussion or rules and sometimes negotiation skills and a lesson in cultural differences too.
    • Students can form a greater variety of emotional connections with language through playing games, for example acting out a word or seeing another student do so, or remembering a clue for a word.

    So, playing games can help students learn a language – but is just playing them enough? Some teachers like using games with less motivated classes who won't engage with straight practice activities and will willingly use key vocabulary and structures in a game, gaining much-needed practice without even realizing it. In today's language-learning context, though, is that a good thing?

    Motivating the unmotivated

    In recent years, much research has shown that students learn better when the intention or objective of the lesson is clear to them. In short, they understand what they're supposed to be learning and why and, when taking it to the next level, can assess their own learning and be actively involved in planning their next steps.

    Would knowing that the games they play are actually a way of doing some additional language practice make these students engage less? Opinion differs, and some discussion seems to center around the actual activity involved. Some games are thinly veiled group-work tasks, but other games that are at the right proficiency level (or slightly above) and take into account factors like cultural context, available time, learning topic and the classroom setting are generally considered to have a positive impact.

    Another major influence on improving motivation is the feedback a student receives, and this is something games can also support. Online games can provide richer simulated learning experiences and immediate feedback to students in a variety of ways.

    Above all, the main issue for the less motivated students is usually that they can't see why they need to learn English. Playing games not only simulates 'real' contexts but also helps them understand that they can accomplish a variety of tasks using English as a medium, which is motivational in itself.

    As teachers, there is a responsibility to explain how or why games will help students learn. This can equally motivate learners (or parents) who fear that playing games is just frivolous time-wasting. For example, informing even adult students that a simple hangman or hot seat game helps them improve spelling skills, gets their brains focused on recognizing the shape and structure of new words, and facilitates their learning of new vocabulary soon helps them see the value (Simpson 2011).

    Can games help learners acquire 21st-century skills?

    Maybe we can draw the conclusion that games can positively impact learning – but is that even enough? Today's teachers have to ensure not just that their students learn but that they acquire the skills they need for life and jobs in the 21st century. Can games help here too? This is a newer area of research, but evidence seems to indicate that games can help students learn a variety of important skills such as critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork and good sportsmanship.

    These ideas were taken seriously by Robert Morris University Illinois, who offered an e-sports scholarship for the first time in 2014. They studied two groups of students – football players and gamers – and found that levels of competitiveness, perseverance, focus and determination were very similar. Both groups showed a similar desire to excel as part of a team. Both 'sports' required the team members to be detail-orientated, have good hand-eye coordination and have a strategic mind. The only difference was in the level of cardiovascular activity. Both groups received performance analysis and tactical advice from coaches and both subsequently made improvements.

    How many universities will start to offer these types of programs remains to be seen. Still, the idea that online competitive gaming can improve performance is being brought to the workplace too. Think about what virtual teams could learn from playing role-based collaborative games. Team members have set roles and clear and shared goals and have to work closely together to formulate an action plan to achieve them. Teamwork, skill, strategic thinking and communication are essential.

    All these are important skills for today's workplace, so maybe gaming can provide an opportunity to hone these in a lower-risk environment and improve business performance.

    These examples are clearly far from the norm, but they do seem to indicate that using gaming to support learning in the classroom is not a waste of time. When you get the right mix of gaming and learning, it develops a student's autonomous learning skills and encourages them to spend more time on task – both of which greatly impact learner outcomes.

    Need language learning game ideas for your young learners? Read our post 5 quick and easy ESL games for teaching young learners.