April 17


How to learn English

By Gordon Gaffney

April 17, 2018

How to learn English

Many students want to know the best way to learn English, especially how to learn English by yourself. I have been a teacher of English since 2013, teaching in Uruguay for 7 months and then in Brazil for 3.5 years. In that time I have gained good experience in how to teach the language but I have also learned some Spanish and Portuguese along the way. I know what it is like to be both a student and a teacher so here are my tips when trying to learn English.

Learn English by Yourself at the Start

If you are a beginner you can learn English by yourself for free nowadays with lots of great websites out there, apps such as Duolingo and books. You can find material in your native language which will help. You don’t need to spend money on classes just yet, if you want to you can, but it is not necessary.

However, like most of my students you probably have already studied English in school, but perhaps your English is not that good. I completely understand, I studied French for 6 years in school and it is terrible, I can barely speak a word of it.

However, I still say you should study yourself at home, find your old school books of English vocabulary and grammar. Now that you are older and more motivated, see below, read over them to refresh your memory a little. Study the basics until you can form simple sentences. When you can do this, then you can take a class. I believe that 1-on-1 classes with a private teacher is the best method for most students and I strongly recommend it.

Find What Type of English Classes Work Best for You

There are two options, in a classroom with other students or 1-on-1 private classes with a teacher. Some people learn better in a classroom in a large group, others prefer 1-on-1 classes. In general most of my students are unhappy with their progress in a traditional classroom environment and decide to hire a private teacher like myself.

From my experience, the traditional teaching method used in schools doesn’t work efficiently, although I believe it has improved over the last 20 years as more research into learning and education has been done.

In general, it is better to pay for 1 or 2, or more, 1-hour classes 1-on-1 with a private teacher per week instead of going to a school and sitting in a class of 16 or more students for 4 hours a day 5 days a week.

This gives you time to study outside of class as well, which is very important, so that your English will improve a lot quicker, though I understand this is a lot easier said than done.

Classroom environments can be frustrating, boring and inefficient. The teacher might be teaching what you already know and you don’t have a choice on what you want to do in class. You might be doing something you are not interested in or you might not be getting your questions answered and it’s possible you won’t speak English that much.

However some classroom environments are good and other people prefer them, they feel they learn better and they like meeting new people in the class as learning a language can be treated as a fun hobby instead of something serious.

Practise Speaking English

I believe, and most of my students believe, that speaking is the most important area when learning a language and unfortunately the traditional model of teaching is terrible.

That is the model that I had in secondary school from when I was 11 until 17 years old. The teacher wrote grammar or vocabulary on the board, you copied it down in your book, then you did some fill in the gap and other exercises using your grammar books and textbooks. You never really formed the words and sentences in your head naturally and we almost never spoke in class.

In my case, this led to me hating learning a language in school. We also got a lot of homework and we spent most classes just correcting exercises. We didn’t use the language ourselves, but it is difficult in a class with 32 students.

I left school in the late 90s and when I started teaching English in English language schools in South America in 2013 I was glad to see that things had changed.

There was more interaction with the language, it was more dynamic with students participating more in class which made it more interesting and fun.

However, I believe it still isn’t the most efficient way to learn the language.

You teach yourself the language, a teacher doesn’t teach you, and a good teacher guides you as you teach yourself. This blew my mind but it is true. I believe the very best teachers of a language out there do very little ‘actual’ teaching of a language in class. They don’t stand there sending the language into your brain as you sit passively.

Use Strategies and English Tips

Learning off lists of rules is a dreadful way to learn a language. Instead, I always try and use strategies such as visual aids, charts and diagrams and perhaps memorise some keywords or key ideas to help you.

In my classes I try to remain silent as possible, the focus is on the student speaking. I also avoid interrupting a student, but I can point and make gestures without speaking or interrupting which will help correct or guide a student. You can read more about my methodology and what a typical class is like here.

A couple of visual aids to help you is far better than reading through 6 units of grammar and trying to remember rules. A great example of this is the preposition triangle, which is explained in my 2016 eBook and 2020 video course, compared to the units in a grammar book.

You can download a high-res version of the triangle suitable for printing here.


This is the most important factor when learning a language. I mostly taught English to adults so they were all motivated to learn the language. However, not all of them studied at home outside of the classes which was a shame.

If you pay for classes and then don’t study after class then you are not maximising your value for money, as you won’t improve as quickly as you could. To get the best value for money you should also study outside of class but I know that this is easier said than done. I found it difficult to study Portuguese after my Portuguese classes in Brazil.

English Conversation

You learn to speak by speaking. So speak! Have a natural conversation with your teacher, I know this can be hard for shy people, so it is important to have a good relationship with your teacher. But even beginners can talk about the weather, then about your day, what you did before class, how you came to class, what you will do after class. I like reading the news, so I always find it interesting to talk about this. But you can talk about gossip, sport, movies, books, it doesn’t matter! What is important is that you talk about what you are interested in.

Another great resource for this is to check out conversation classes in your area where people go to practise their English in a bar or cafe.

Use Online Tools

There are many free online tools available to help you. You can use TransOver to read what you are interested in and this will also help you learn vocabulary at home.

Prepare Before Class

Have your questions prepared for your teacher, if you write them down you can ask them in class or even better email them to your teacher before class. Teachers will be happy to read them before class so they are prepared.

If you want to do something specific for your class, do send your teacher an email or text message before class. We don’t like surprises! Plus we don’t know EVERYTHING about the language “off the top of our heads”. So give us some time to prepare, also teachers are always glad when a student makes a suggestion. That way we know the student is motivated to learn this topic and will get great benefit from the class, that’s what we want.

Don’t Do English Reading or English Listening in Class

In general, I say don’t do reading or listening in a private class. I think this is a mistake. If your student is reading or listening then you as a teacher are not doing anything. You are daydreaming, deciding what you will have for dinner after class. If a student is paying you for a 1-on-1 class then the least you can do is give them good value for money, to make them learn more so they will keep coming back to you.

The student can read at home using TransOver, they can add to their vocabulary notes, and then make notes to ask you in their next class. You don’t need to do this in your class.

Likewise, with listening, there are lots of YouTube videos of teachers teaching so you can hear the language being spoken. Then there is the option of watching some TV shows or movies. This is great as it doesn’t ‘feel’ like studying. Again you don’t need a teacher around you to do this.

Tell Your Teacher What You Want To Learn

Be very clear with what you like and don’t like. What you want to do in class and what you don’t want to do. If you come to class with an idea of what you want to do then tell your teacher before the class, the day before would be perfect. Teachers will be happy as they don’t have to plan a lesson! And the fact that you are happy will make them happy.

You can also read here my reviews of the TOEFL Exam Simulation Software. 

And read here about easy poems to learn English.

What type of class do you prefer?  How do you study English?  Please like, share and feel free to leave a comment below

Gordon Gaffney

About the author

Gordon is The Irish English Teacher, creator of this blog and many products to help all students learning English as a second language, but with a focus on Portuguese speakers.

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