Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

March 14, 2012

My four Ps for polished performance in English language.

The idea for this post came out of a text chat discussion we had on Gapfillers a little while ago when, we came up with a formula for improving  performance and skills in English.

The title of the discussion was ‘How to get my English to a high level’ and the first three Ps to emerge (they all just happened to start with P) were:

Patience, Perseverance and Performance

and then the fourth and equally important Practice.

With this Posse of  Ps it’s hard not to reach your English goal (and hard to keep away from P-words too :-)! )

So let’s expand on them and see how they can help you to achieve your dream in English.


Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your English. If things take time to sink in, make sense or execute don’t worry. If you keep on at a steady pace then you will, almost without realising it, achieve the milestone that you are aiming for. One day you will suddenly realise that you know something, really know it in your muscles, that you have been struggling to master for a while. Remember that language learning goes in a series of plateaux and is not a straight, onwards and upwards, line. You may feel that you are not making any progress for what seems like a long time and then suddenly, almost overnight, you get it! With patience these steps will happen and you will see and feel them. This will give you even more confidence to keep going!


This attribute helps you to pick yourself up, even after you have had a setback, and push forwards. It is easy to give up. It is easy to say I’ll never do this. Let’s say you took an exam and didn’t get the result you wanted you can shrug your shoulders and say that you’re not ever going to get the grade you need or you can learn from the experience and get back on track. Sometimes when you have this experience you need someone to support you and help you to keep going and find out where you went wrong.  A mentor, however, can only show you the way and encourage you. At the end of the day YOU are the one who needs to draw on your inner strength and focus on your dream again and take action to move closer to it.


By performance here I mean actually using your language. Speaking and writing as much as you can and making sure that you have an audience to receive this performance and sometimes even rate you on it! I speak to English learners every day and many of them tell me how they don’t have opportunities to speak or they can’t find anybody to look at their writing. Then I speak to others who have found themselves language buddies online and they speak every day and assess each other’s writing! You have to try to create opportunities for yourself and it’s so much easier today with the internet.

Be brave if you can’t find a group then why not start one yourself!

The fact of the matter is that languages improve with use and so if you need to improve, then you have to use them. You cannot rely on your books alone you MUST get out there and speak and write.

The more you perform the better (especially if you have good feedback) your performance will get.


The difference between practice and performance is that one is ‘real’ and the other is preparation for real. If you speak then your purpose is often other than the words and sentences  – it is to communicate something to someone. When you write it is to convey and message, or information, or get an assessment in an exam. On the other hand when you practise you are trying to perfect your skills for the performance. It’s rather like training in sport or rehearsing in music. It is in the practice where you can experiment with new words and phrases or a new style or new ideas. Practice is the focused way in which you get your skills to performance level. It is here that you can try things out, experiment with new words and phrases or new approaches to writing. You can ask people if you are right or gauge someone’s reaction to your new style or new vocabulary. Try and test, test and try, and you will broaden your language for the ‘real’ times.

But both practice and performance work together to get you those high level skills that you desire.

So, here you are; the 4P approach to getting your language skills to shine and achieving your goals in language whatever they may be.

And in case you are interested, here is the ‘warts and all’ transcript from that PPPP chat!!



How can I get my English to a really high level?

Welcome to live chat.
09:02 Berni: Don’t forget GapChat at 13.00 GMT today! See you then 🙂

12:51 Berni: Hello and welcome to today’s GapChat. How can I get my English to a really high level? I’m very excited about this topic as I think Gapfillers is a perfect way to start!

12:59 Berni: Add your comments in the box and press send. Don’t worry about just watching what others

are doing. Add your comments when you feel ready.

13:00 Berni: Hi Blanca I hope you manage to stay with us today!

13:00 Blanca Morales: Hi Berni, I´m sure you have the clue to get my English to a really high level?

13:01 Berni: I was hoping you would give us your advice as your English is at a very high level already!

13:01 Blanca Morales: It seems to be working at the moment.

13:02 Berni: I think one point about you Blanca is that you keep going and always look for areas of your English to work on – this is very important!

13:03 Berni: Three words that I think are very important (and they all begin with P) are Patience, Perseverance and Performance

13:04 Berni: HI Cee welcome – any nuggets for today’s chat?

13:04 Cee: Hi. Just getting my brain into gear!!

13:05 Blanca Morales: It is but it´s true my commitment to keep it going is high, that´s part of my life but when you´re just a learner is more difficult.

13:05 Cee: Would you add a further p – practise

13:05 Berni: Great idiom Cee! It means to get ready for action.

13:06 jay: Hi Friends..

13:06 Blanca Morales: I agree with these 4 P principles you two have just mentioned.

13:07 Berni: I agree Cee practice and performance go hand in hand you need to take opportunities to perform and then depending on the outcome go back and practise (note 2 spellings pof practice/practise noun/verb).

13:07 Berni: pof obviously? = of Lol!

13:08 rosamund: Hi, everyone! I’ll butt in when I have an idea – you seem to have got off to a flying start!

13:09 Berni: HI Jay welcome we are exploring what you should do to get your English to a high level and have come up the the 4P process! Pretty cool!

13:09 rosamund: butt in = interrupt, cut in. i suppose it’s a bit informal

13:09 Berni: Wow we’re producing great idioms today! Hello Ros welcome.

13:10 Berni: By the way cut in was our word of the day earlier in the week.

13:11 jay: This is first time chattting with you guys am new..Could you tell me about this use of chat..

13:11 Berni: So, how can we really use this process of patience, perseverence, practice and performance to push our skills?

13:12 Cee: Do you think getting your English to a high level is a staged process? – read, listen, speak. So that, in stages your confidence builds along with your ability?

13:12 rosamund: Hello, Jay – nice to meet you! What are your ideas about getting your English up to a high level? I think it’s important not to overlook the little opportunities that crop up (= occur) in your everyday routine. A friend of mine learned Polish while he was travelling to work on the metro eveyr day. It was the only free time he had, but he made use of it with a notebook, a list of vocabulary and sometimes headphones!

13:13 Berni: Jay we meet and chat each Wednesday about a topic on online English language learning

13:13 rosamund: Oops! typoe = I meant every

13:13 rosamund: typo – oh dear

13:14 Berni: The topic is voted for by Gapfillers members and then we discuss and look at ways we can use Gapfillers (and other things) to improve English skills

13:14 Cee: Great idea Ros. I have heard of people learning a language by listening to the radio – song lyrics as well as conversation.

13:15 Berni: We are looking at how to really make a difference to English language skills. I think to do something every day (even 5 or 10 minutes) will help.

13:16 Berni: The important things you have in thes example Cee is that this is authentic, real English and so is a good model.

13:17 Berni: The negative side of just listening to songs or radio is that in some way you need to convert this into an active skill – speaking or writing

13:17 Blanca Morales: Once you have reached an advanced level if you want to overcome that plateau level you feel at, you really need a professional to make your English progress. There I come to sth o learnt from Berni, which is brilliant: language auditing -is the spelling right?-

13:18 Berni: Yes, Blanca I agree you have to have someone chack that you are correct and that you don’t keep making the same mistakes – language auditing is a way of assessing your own language for the mistakes you make over and over

13:19 rosamund: Yes, Berni, i agree – what’s ideal is to be able to make the most of the time you have – the word of the day doesn’t take long for people to absorb – and the grammar exercises here on Gapfillers are also short. Some people like to make their own notes on reading or listening exercises to reinforce what they’ve covered – it depends on how your brain works, really. This can be a way of making the learning more active, to take your point, Berni. it’s not active active, but it’s not just passive – you’re taking sth and doing sth with it.

13:19 rosamund: did you mean ‘check’ Berni? My dictionary doesn’t have ‘chack’. (ho, ho!)

13:19 Berni: Jay what is your opinion on getting your English to a really good level?

13:20 Berni: Oh Ros Lol!

13:20 Blanca Morales: Can you see what I´m saying?

13:21 Berni: Yes Blanca – have you faded again?

13:23 jay: Berni..Actually i have a habit to improve my english skills.i used to find new word from dictonary and write it a pice of paper..i will read number of times whenever getting time on whole day…like traving ,roaming and somtimes while do bathing..!!!!

13:23 Berni: If you really want to improve your skills then you have to kep an eye on what ‘real’ speakers do – I find some students get to a reasonable level and then just go round in circles.

13:24 Blanca Morales: In fact, practice and awareness are important to boost the learning process.

13:24 jay: ‘real’ speakers means….native speakers?

13:24 Berni: This is a great idea Jay if you keep looking at the word and using it you will remember it! Make sure you look, listen, speak or write even a little every day.

13:25 Berni: Yes that’s right or very good speakers (they may not be native) I think having a good model is important that way you don’t ‘learn’ mistakes

13:25 rosamund: Yes, Jay – that’s a good idea. Do you ever put the word on a post-it? They’re little bits of sticky paper that you can stick on the fridge, or the bathroom mirror, so you look at them regularly. I have different colours, as i find even that can help words to stick (= sink in = become absorbed / learned).

13:26 jay: but whenever iam trying to speak in english ..iam always used to form sentence in my monther lang..then iam transalate it…some times i cant trsnalate what am thinking..

13:27 Berni: So to summmarise – we need to be patient and persevere, we need to practise and perform as much as possible, we need to have good language models and finally we need to expose ourselves to some English every day

13:27 Cee: Ha ha – some of the English used in the media is really quite poor!

13:28 Berni: Aha Jay now this is important – try not to do this as it rarely comes out right – use what you already know in English and start with simple sentences – what do you think Blanca?

13:28 Berni: I agree Cee it can be awful but there is still enough that is good to use I feel.

13:28 jay: Yes…Rosamund..used to stick papers on my walls,TV and bike!!!

13:29 Berni: Jay, you sound as though you are already doing everything you need to do to improve your English! Now try and ‘think’ in English!

13:30 Berni: Right so how can Gapfillers help?

13:30 Cee: Jay , my friend had a rule when learning French – If I wish to speak in French I must think it French too! She said it was very useful.

13:31 Cee: Whoops, ‘Think IN French’, not it -another typo

13:31 rosamund: It’s a much better idea to simplify what you’re thinking in your own language and base what you say on sth you know is right. It’s always interesting wondering how you would actually say sth in your own language – often it would be really difficult, so better not to translate too much of the time, just occasionally. It’s essential to vary your different types of learning, too. You can get bored and stop taking things in.

13:32 jay: sth means?

13:33 Berni: it means something (an abbreviation often used by teachers!)

13:33 Cee: Sth is an abbreviation of the word- something

13:33 jay: Fine

13:33 rosamund: sth = something – sorry, Jay. sb = somebody so = someone. You’re talking to someone who has spent too much of her life in different dictionaries.

13:34 rosamund: That’s why i know how much time you save doing work on this site and not having to look things up! I’ve been there and done that! (= That has been my own experience.)

13:34 Berni: I love the picture of you living in a dictionary Ros! I am sure this would improve language skills a lot!!

13:35 Berni: Jay, where are you joining us from today?

13:35 jay: From India

13:36 Berni: I’m in cold wet UK!

13:36 Berni: How often do you use English actively?

13:36 rosamund: Wow! Do your friends and family all call you Jay – or is that short for another name?

13:37 jay: Actually we used to speak in english in office hours..

13:37 Berni: Is that a rule or just your habit in your office?

13:37 rosamund: Was that for fun, or because you had to, for work purposes?

13:38 jay: because in india more than 500 native language is there..so English is gobal language for Indians.

13:38 rosamund: The idea of 500 native languages makes my head spin!

13:39 Berni: I think English has been a common language in India for a very long time – how do you feel it compares with English in the UK?

13:39 Cee: Wow, 500 native languages!

13:40 rosamund: In a typical secondary school in the UK we might have 12 – 15 different native languages – only in some would there be more than that – but I can’t imagine there being 500!Top of Form

13:41 jay: Berni..We used to follow UK English only

13:41 Cee: Jay, do you have to speak some English before you start employment, or do you learn it whilst you are working?

13:43 rosamund: What sort of English do you usually need – presumably social English, and also some sort of work-type English, vocabulary and phrases to do with meetings, correspondence, pay and conditions?

13:43 jay: from working environment only…Actually here lot of pepole good in English…

13:44 Berni: Good question Ros – it does depend also on what you need/want to learn – you can plan your programme to reach this goal.

13:45 rosamund: We have a lot of material on the site which should be useful in a work context, Jay.

13:45 jay: I want both !!!! Social as well as Work-type

13:45 Berni: Jay, this is the best answer – everything! can I ask you how you use the Gapfillers site to help youo improve your English skills

13:45 rosamund: Yes, we always laught when people who haven’t learned a language say they want ‘telephone English’. i mean, what do you want to say on the telephone?!!

13:46 jay: Because its makes bore if you speaks only work-type english with friends..Am i right?

13:46 rosamund: laugh – sorry!

13:46 rosamund: I agree, it is boring – and you can be a bit of a bore, too.

13:47 Berni: I think you are right Jay the more widely you use English the better it will become – is there a P word for this?

13:47 Berni: Also, doing things that are not work-related will keep you interested and often you learn more because you are enjoying the topic!

13:48 Berni: Lol Ros, especially if people can only talk about their jobs!!

13:49 rosamund: Shall we invent a term for using Englihs as widely as you can, over as many areas and fields as possible – what about calling it ‘parachuting’?! Jay, Blanca, I’m being silly here, just ignore me.

13:50 rosamund: English – I meant to type

13:50 Berni: Actually parachuting could just work!

13:50 Berni: So, Jay how did you find out about Gapfillers?

13:50 Cee: I can see Potential for some typing lessons here, people!! We are all making lots of typos!

13:51 rosamund: Folks, I’m sorry, but I have to go. Good to chat – thanks for your ideas – I’m going to go and have another think about some of this. have a good week, everyone.

13:52 Cee: I like the term ‘parachuting’, Ros.

13:52 Berni: Bye Ros and thank you for your ideas and thoughts – see you next time!

13:52 Cee: Bye Ros.

13:53 jay: Its really good!

13:53 jay: Got some new word from here

13:54 Berni: I think you are doing the right thing with your practice Jay – maybe you can formalise it a bit more so that you have an idea about the progress you are making. Do you get the word of the day?

13:55 Cee: That’s the good thing about coming onto Gapchat – you see people using everyday, ‘real’ English including idioms, slang and abbraviations. It’s all very useful!

13:55 jay: yes..

13:55 Berni: Which area of your language do you think you need to improve the most?

13:55 Cee: AAghh, abbrEviations! Sorry

13:56 Berni: Lol Cee!

13:57 jay: Simple sentence format and vacabulary

13:57 Berni: In speaking or writing?

13:58 jay: both

13:59 Cee: I have to leave, now. Nice to ‘see’ here today Jay. Thanks again Berni. See you all next week.

13:59 Berni: I see – how much listening practice do you do?

13:59 jay: Bye Cee….

13:59 Berni: Bye Cee thank you for all your input it was very helpful. See you soon 🙂

14:00 jay: i have no extra listening proctice! just i will intract with my co-workers and friends ..nothing else

14:02 Berni: I think this is something you can do to improve – try to find some listening exercises on Gapfillers (or another site you use) make sure there are some exercises so you can test yourself but this will help you to get exposed to good English models in different topics.

14:03 Berni: As you hear more of these examples you can use them in your own speaking and writing and this shoudl help you with your word order and grammar – but be patient it won’t happen overnight.
14:13 jay: Thank you so much for your support..

14:14 jay: Have a great time..Bye

14:16 Berni: It is my pleasure – see you soon! Bye 🙂

Do you need help with your IELTS exam?

As a former IELTS examiner and with over 15 years of experience preparing and coaching people for the exam especially at Bands 7 and 8 I know what it takes to achieve these scores.

I work a lot with professionals (especially doctors) who need high band scores to move on with their careers.

Using my own Advanced English training site, Gapfillers and my own expertise in IELTS I can help you to get the score you are looking for.

Join my IELTS Group in Gapfillers and get regular updates about preparing for the exam and also the chance to join in my teleseminars and seminars and all the other IELTS training opportunities I offer.

Joining is easy;  follow this link, register (it’s absolutely free), (don’t forget to tick the IELTS group button) and that’s it!

As soon as you register you will have access to my free 1-hour presentation THE TROUBLE WITH IELTS – the link is on the welcome page. Watch or download it, it’s your choice.

I hope to see you there 🙂




November 16, 2010

Grammar is dead – Long live grammar!

Grammar seems to have featured a lot recently in discussions on language teaching:

  • Is it important?
  • Should we teach it?
  • Is it better to let it be absorbed?
  • Does it put students off learning?

At first I was quite shocked to see these discussions, as for me as both teacher and learner, grammar had been at the heart of language learning. I was probably the last generation to be taught English grammar formally at primary school and I loved it – it’s what got me hooked on language! I studied English as part of my university degree and grammar lectures were compulsory – at this level I found some of the grammar quite difficult and it was only when I began teaching that I was able to make sense of a lot of it. My training as an English language teacher was also focused on grammar and how to approach the skills, functions and notions of language within a fairly grammatical framework.

Having seen the discussions, looked at more recent course books and read various blogs and commentaries I began to feel that perhaps there had been a revolution which I had missed in language teaching and that my approaches were seriously flawed! The absence of grammar signalled something rather chaotic to me and this is what I began to see in many of the course books – a melee of structures thrown together, not enough (to my mind) practice before moving on to the next thing, a lack of concept checking and an all round failure to be really cohesive. There was, however, a riot of colour and sound, support across a myriad of supplementary books and CDs but alas it made me feel very dizzy!

During this period of doubting I watched and questioned my students very carefully on the matter of grammar. From 16 to 60 they all wanted to include grammar in their lessons. It grounded them in something familiar. Terms like imperatives, present perfect, gerund and participle were familiar to many of them and a good working jargon. Those who had not studied grammar quite so formally in their own language nevertheless expected it and felt that it was part and parcel of their language learning. In fact I think, from my straw poll, that students expect their teachers to be well-versed in grammar and might suspect those who are not.

Grammar lessons

So where does this leave things? During a recent #eltchat many teachers didn’t like the idea of grammar lessons but what exactly are grammar lessons? What is the role of the grammar book in language learning? I hope, it is a reference book and not a bible! For me grammar is a magical toolbox, the ‘hammer’ and ‘chisel’ a teacher (and student) can use to put language together. Once students know how the tools work they can take them out again and again to fix their latest language inventions. Whether they know the terminology for the present simple tense or not they will know to use the structure when they need to talk about habits, or states or facts. If they have a pressing need to tell a story they can take out their set of narrative tenses and combine this with the packet of shiny adverbs of frequency that sit next to the prepositions of place. You get the idea. The terminology is a shorthand which, for those who know it, can save time, but the actual grammar tools can be used by everybody.

So, grammar lessons (banish the thought!) would be no more than naming tools without demonstrating their use. A hammer has no meaning unless it is used to bang in a nail!

Grammar progression

Present simple to present continuous, to past simple, to present perfect simple ….. 

Do we need to start with the tacks before we move on to masonry nails? If you are fixing a chair what good is having a masonry nail? Is the past perfect really more difficult than the present perfect? Is the concept of completed actions in the past more difficult to grasp than that of actions which straddle past, present and future? After all there are ways of  expressing all these concepts in every language.

The idea of a step by step progression is an old one. Underlying it is the belief that there is a homogenous elementary, intermediate or advanced type of student and somehow they all find themselves in the same class! Language is not like that, things come from right, left and centre. Learners are not like that, they come with baggage – linguistic, experiential, emotional and personal! So why not start with the learner and their current requirements – now there is a novel idea! Even in a large class there can be some way of finding a consensus. What is it that this group is going to have to go out there and do first? A grammar toolbox needs to be full of shiny, useful tools not a collection of rusty old keepsakes!

I like grammar. I think it is important. I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of language learning, but please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!!

See these posts on grammar

Prepositions – pearls of great price

English verbs that confuse!

Countable and uncountable nouns

and on books

Choosing dictionaries and grammar books

March 2, 2010

How to keep motivated in language learning.

How can you keep motivated when learning a language? This is a million dollar question! If everybody was highly motivated then we would all be multi-lingual! Whenever I attend an event and we do the round robin exercise of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’  the discussion following my ‘bit’  inevitably moves on to the number of ‘tapes in the car for Italian, Spanish French etc., the number of course books at home, how many online course started and not finished and even, how many evening classes started and not finished!’ It is very clear that there is a desire for language learning but what happens to all those good intentions?

I have to come clean myself, I’m learning Chinese and I am not being a very good student! I did two lessons and then stopped for two weeks and haven’t done my homework! In fact the thought of writing this post has made me book up my next 4 lessons IN ADVANCE!!

Why did I need this external motivation? I enjoy languages, it’s my field, I know what to expect and I really do want to learn this. Here are my excuses:

  • It was half term, kids at home and I had a busy week (first miss)
  • Actually I was ill which accounted for the second miss but I could have done my own study
  • I haven’t had much time
  • As a beginner it is quite hard!

I’ve heard them all from students and they are valid and understandable.

I hope that I am now back on track and won’t need to write another confession on this blog!! But…..

What is it that makes some people motivated to keep going and others fail at the first hurdle?

I think there are 4 main factors in this.

  • Expectation
  • Approach
  • Curiosity
  • Reward


Learning a language takes time, patience and perseverance (rather like learning a musical instrument). There are no quick fixes or magic bullets. You are in it for the long haul. I think this has to be accepted.

Some examples: of unrealistic expectations

  • I once had a student wanting to learn a new language before he left to take up a new post in that country. It turned out that he had 4 days before departure plus all that a move of this nature entailed to organise! He had pencilled in one afternoon for language training.
  • A second student wanted to learn French, Italian and German all at once having never studied a language before!

Making sure expectations are realistic is a key factor in success. If you don’t know what you are in for you’ll be disappointed.


One of the problems I have with my Chinese is I’m not organised yet. I haven’t got a folder where I can keep my crib sheets etc. I don’t have a notebook or dictionary and I haven’t got my head around a personal study schedule.

Some common problems:

  • Students turn up to lessons without paper, notebook or even a pen!
  • Each lesson is seen in isolation and no reference is made to past activity or future study.

Learning a language involves a lot of recycling! When I taught French in a primary school I was teaching colours ‘We’ve already done this.’ the children refrained. Languages don’t work like that, learning is more cyclical.

The basic toolkit for a language learner is a notebook/folder organised by skill type (reading, writing etc..) or date to enable revision or referencing, a dictionary, a grammar book and whatever coursebook or materials are being used. It is possible to have ‘off the cuff’ and impromptu lessons – these can wonderful but unless you are at a quite advanced level, they will be ephemeral if you don’t have some sort of record to refer to. (see my post on choosing books)


For me this is a key factor in any learning. It is the ‘What if…’ and ‘How about…’ questions that lead you beyond the classroom and into your own learning which will move you further towards your goal and provide the incentive to learn more.

If you have this curiosity factor it will help to keep you motivated. You will want to re-work sentences and find other synonyms. You’ll be interested in how everyday notions and functions work in the target language. You’ll look for patterns and use these to build and test new sentences and you’ll want ultimately to get out there and use what you’ve learned.

When this curiosity is lacking or absent you may hear:

  • I’ve been through all the practice books for the exam, when is the next one going to be available?
  • I haven’t got time to read that poem, listen to that discussion… I have to learn more vocabulary.

Without curiosity learning a language can become a very dull and dry exercise. Languages aren’t academic subjects they are living, breathing entities and only there by virtue of the people who speak and write them.


Rewards in learning are very important and take many different guises, from small personal rewards for mastering irregular verbs for example, to success in examinations. Rewards are motivating but the level and nature of the motivation differs with level and nature of the reward.

  • External rewards such as exam grades, promotion, even a potential love interest make the language learning a vehicle for something else. While this can be very motivating indeed, it is often short-lived. How many people learnt a language at school which is now long forgotten?
  • Internal rewards – those we set ourselves are more effective and last longer. How many things are we good at and remember because of the sheer love we have of learning and doing it?

This may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’ or ‘wishy-washy’ I’m not suggesting you have to fall in love with your English learning in order to make progress. What I am saying, though, is that with some committment you will come to enjoy it and become expert in it so that your language skill may, in turn, become the vehicle for the things you really do love!

An extension to this in a learning sense is that when we are immersed in a task or topic we are really interested in we often absorb the language without realising it. So, don’t eschew literature, jokes, songs or other ‘frivolous’ activities,  throw yourself into them and enjoy them – the language development often happens by osmosis!

Some jokes to conjur with!

Here are some other posts with similar topics:

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

Making progress as an advanced learner

Thinking in English – how to make it happen

December 1, 2009

Create a PLN

You may have come across this acronym which is being talked about a lot at the moment but if not, it stands for Personal Learning Network. This is a group of people with whom you have a connection and from whom you are able to progress your learning.   Many of  these networks are found on social media sites such as twitter but learning networks can effectively be anywhere. Your network might be at school or work or you may find them at a club or social group. You may have several networks all for different aspects of your personal learning development.

Your PLN can even be anonymous!!

I discovered a great new PLN last week ! I live on the outskirts of a small village in North Yorkshire (see my blog Fleetham Life) and last week I took my first ever ride on the local bus to the nearest town about 12 miles away and what a journey it was!!

For the first couple  miles we were just two passengers plus the bus driver.  After getting to the village a few more people boarded and then the information share began!

1.   First on the agenda was an update on the secondary school run and how the children had dressed up and one had left some money on his bus. He knew it was one of two children and had made arrangements for it to be returned by the evening driver!

  • Lots of good examples of conditional sentences here, narrative tenses and some modals too: She must have been worried.  If only I’d seen it before they all left.  The children had been told to dress up,

2. We then moved on to the local weather. Our bus driver/PLN moderator gave us the low-down on which areas had been flooded, which bridges and roads were closed and the local forecast in the coming days.

  • Present continuous for weatherIt’s raining in Thirsk. More modalsRichmond should be clear by this afternoon. FutureThe next few days will be fine.

3.   Next we had a few jokes just to jolly the journey along. These mostly from the driver but one or two ‘regulars’ joined in too! I was a lurker, listening and laughing.

  • Jokes can be very useful listening practice, do you get it? Do you understand the puns (check out Gapfillers joke section)

4.   The next topic of conversation was about a recent large lottery win and this sparked a discussion about ‘What I would do if I won the lottery’ I’m sure you’ve all done this exercise in class at some stage but here it was in real life!

  • Good uses of conditionals!!

5.   The next topic was about the local housing market – which houses had been sold, which were for sale, how much etc…

  • Great use of passive, That cottage was sold last week. Present perfects They have been trying to sell for 6 months.

6.   We just had time to discuss health and fitness before we reached our destination! The driver, it turned out was a bit of a jogger! Other people proffered their own preferred methods of keeping fit.

  • A lot of present perfectI’ve been …. for ….. use of the present simple for routines I run 5 miles every day.

This is all well and good you may say but what is the significance?

For me it was a true PLN giving me all the local news and information that might be important to someone living in the area. It was also a very jolly and enjoyable journey.

For learners – never under-estimate the value of any language experience (this could be on TV or online too). The use of language that you have learned in class in a real context reinforces it and you are also likely to pick up something new!!!

October 5, 2009

Advanced learners – re-visiting Nouns

Back to the knitting!

After a few posts about general issues around language learning I think it’s time to get back to the knitting (this expression means to do what you are known for or good at) and discuss some more points of English grammar and skill and how to improve these.

I was marking my students’ essays recently and discovered several errors around the use of nouns.  You may, as an advanced student,  find mixed conditionals and ellipsis rather more sexy grammatical concepts than nouns, in my experience, however,  it is often the ‘easy’ aspects of English grammar that create errors. So, ‘yawn, yawn’ I will romp through a quick reminder of nouns, some of their forms and their usage!


Nouns come in different shapes and sizes:

  • singular/plural
  • concrete/abstract
  • compound nouns
  • collective nouns
  • proper nouns
  • countable/uncountable

I hope you are familiar with these terms and understand the differences.

In the next few posts we will look at some of these categories (countable and uncountable has been explored in a previous post)  in more detail and point out the pitfalls for advanced students.

1. Singular and Plural Nouns

These are the nouns you probably think about when you hear the word noun. They are usually accompanied by a definite (the) or indefinite (a) article and only change their form in the plural.

  • a/the book – the books

They are countable or uncountable  and concrete or abstract.

Much of this is probably ‘old hat’ , however, the areas which it is worth spending some time on are those of  plural uncountables or nouns which don’t have a singular form and pluralisation of ‘foreign’ words in English.

Nouns with no singular

Typical groups of these nouns are:

  • clothes – trousers, pyjamas, tights, knickers, jeans
  • tools – scissors, binoculars, scales, goggles
  • school subjects/activities  – maths, athletics, economics, physics
  • games –  cards, dominoes, darts
  • other –  conditions, manners, thanks, goods etc…

We don’t use numbers with these nouns but they can be made countable with the addition of phrases such as a pair of or a set of etc…

  • You need a pair of warm trousers and two pairs of pyjamas.
  • I’ll bring a set of dominoes and a pack of cards.
  • Can you pass me that pair of scissors?

Some plural nouns lose their plural ending when combined with other nouns e.g. pyjama trousers, trouser leg etc..

Try this Gapfillers exercise on Noun Collocations

Plurals of ‘foreign’ words in English

Where words have been imported into English, especially from Latin and Greek, plural forms sometimes follow the original language.

Latin forms:

  • ending in -us           alumnus =alumni, terminus =termini
  • ending is -um         millennium = millennia, curriculum = curricula, datum = data
  • ending in – ex/ix    index = indices, appendix = appendices    
  • ending in a               formula = formulae, antenna = antennae    

Note some of these words appear differently in general usage corpus = corpuses, forum = forums, datum and medium are rarely used (data and media), indexes is sometimes also used. The latin forms are, however, still used and sometimes preferred.

 Greek forms:

  • ending in -is     hypothesis =hypotheses, axis = axes
  • ending in -on   criterion = criteria, phenomenon = phenomena

Phenomena and criteria are sometimes used as singular forms.

A word on agreement:

Failure to agree the verb with the subject is one of the most common mistakes made by students of all levels. Remember to check your nouns when used as subjects and ensure that you use the correct verb form.

Check for more detail in your grammar book. It isn’t possible in these short posts to cover every example. My aim is to give you a snapshot of some the English language areas you could be exploring to improve your skills.

August 14, 2009

Choosing dictionaries and grammar books.

All dictionaries are equal but some are more equal than others – comparing them can be interesting!

All my students have to have an English to English dictionary and a good grammar book and, if possible, a thesaurus. I insist on it! These are the basic tools of a serious student along with a notebook and er, of course, a pen (you’d be surprised!). I’m often asked which are the best and I feel that, like cars, food and mobile phones there is an element of personal preference here and you should see which ones you are most comfortable using.

My beloved grammar book is the Thomson and Martinet (I’ve even created a noun out of it!). This was my bible when I began teaching and I still have my battered old copy (probably very out of date now). An other old favourite in my armoury is a book called Meaning and the English Verb by Geoffrey N. Leech (it is particularly good on Future tense usage) this along with the T & M grammar has trotted across the world with me ). My dictionary of choice is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

For serious grammar contemplation I consult  A Comprehensive Grammar of English Quirk and Greenbaum  (my cherished copy of the University Grammar of English was given away to a German boyfriend in a fit of amour many years ago!) or the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English which is a new friend but becoming a firm one! I also have the large two-volume Oxford Dictionary but you really have to have a good breakfast before attempting to consult it!

Collins Cobuild English Usage is a great quick fix and a copy of Longmans Advanced Learner’s Grammar Mark Foley & Diane Hall,  obtained at an IATEFL conference is now well-thumbed! This last book I do recommend to advanced students; the diagnostic tests at the beginning really help to highlight areas for further study. Finally, I know I have to mention Murphy  (Essential Grammar in Use Raymond Murphy) – the global grammar of choice. I have a copy and I recommend it to students . I think it has the clearest explanations but I’ve just never really got on with it especially.

I expect many of you are saying ‘Oh no, how can you use that book!’  Macmillan  (I like this too) is much better, easier, smaller etc.. -I rest my case –  it is a matter of personal choice – however there are some things I think you should look for when making your choice.

Two years ago I was working with a very advanced student (she was herself an English teacher in Spain) she had a vocabulary exercise to complete and complained to me that the dictionary she was using did not have all the words. I assumed that she had written them down wrongly but when we checked they were indeed missing from her advanced dictionary yet contained in mine (the Longman). We also discovered that my dictionary gave many more definitions and explanations so it’s definitely worth checking before you buy!

My top tips

  • Don’t rely on a bilingual dictionary unless it is a VERY large tome
  • Be realistic – will you need to carry the book around with you? The very best could become a burden if it’s too big or heavy
  • CD Rom and on-line dictionaries are great – are you going to have access when you need it – use the same criteria to choose
  • See how detailed the dictionary definitions are and get one with as much information as possible
  • With grammar books – can you follow the explanations, is everything well laid out, for advanced level work does it push you a bit further
  • Check any exercises, sometimes they can be very repetitive and so not very challenging
  • Make sure they’re all up to date (I keep my old grammar for reasons of nostalgia) dictionaries and grammars change quite frequently
  • If you can’t decide then borrow from the library first and ‘test drive’ them!


My choices may be a little old fashioned. Let me know if you think I should check out something newer and whizzier – I’d be more than happy to ‘test drive’ too!

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