How can you improve your English over time? How can you make real progress, so that you don’t keep forgetting and relearning the same things? The solution is not easy or fast, but it is simple: read more and listen more in English. Reading and listening in English regularly are essential if you want to improve your English skills. OK, you say, but what about my speaking? What about my writing? I need to learn to speak in English! Fine, but where will your vocabulary come from? Where will your sentence structure come from? These building blocks of language don’t come from nowhere. They come from things you read or hear. The more you read and listen, the more tools you’ll have when you’re speaking or writing. But, many English learners don’t read or listen enough. Sometimes, they say things like: “It’s too difficult to read in English.” “There are too many unknown words!” “It’s too tiring! I get bored!” You’re going to see an idea to help you deal with these problems, so you can take control of your study habits, and make real, deep improvements to your English over time.
When you read or listen, especially in a foreign language, there are two basic approaches you can take. Let’s call them “high-intensity practice” and “low-intensity practice.” What do we mean here? High-intensity practice means you give 100% of your focus. If you’re reading or listening, you try to understand as much as you can. You repeat the same task several times. Low-intensity means that you relax. You don’t worry about understanding everything. You do as much as you want. So, what’s the big deal? Why think about this? To improve, you need to read and listen regularly. You also need a balance between high-intensity and low-intensity practice. This is where many English learners make mistakes. They don’t get the balance between these types of practice right, and this affects their results. If you do too much high-intensity practice, you’ll burn out. You’ll get tired and bored; you won’t be able to motivate yourself to study and practise regularly. Then, you won’t spend enough time practising, and you’ll struggle to improve.
On the other hand, if all your practice is low-intensity, you also won’t improve much. You won’t learn a lot from your reading or listening. Again, in the long term, this leads to frustration and loss of motivation to study English. In the rest of this lesson, you’ll see how to apply these ideas to your English reading and listening practice, and how to find the right balance between high-intensity and low-intensity practice. You’ll also see how to make a sample study plan to maximise the results you get from your English study time and improve English study habits.
First, let’s talk about listening and how you can improve English study habits there.
Think about four different ways to practice listening.
One: you watch a film in English, with English subtitles. You don’t pause it or check words which you don’t know.
Two: you watch fifteen minutes of a film in English, without subtitles. You pause and rewind to re-listen to sections. You use a dictionary to check words which you don’t know. Afterwards, you watch the same section again, with subtitles, so that you can check what you heard.
Three: you listen to a podcast or radio station in English while you’re working, or maybe while you’re doing some housework. You’re concentrating on what you’re doing, so you aren’t really listening most of the time.
Four: you do an IELTS listening exam. You check your answers and give yourself a score.
We’ll ask: which are high-intensity and which are low-intensity ways to practise? Hopefully, the answer is obvious. One and three are low-intensity ways to practise; two and four are high-intensity. When you’re listening to something in English, what does high-intensity practice mean? It means: you focus 100% on what you’re listening to, you try to understand as much as possible, you use a dictionary to check new words, and you also repeat the same task at least twice, or possibly more. High-intensity practice should also include feedback; you should be able to check if you understood what you heard correctly or not.
In example number two, above, you do this by rewatching the clip with subtitles. You use the subtitles to check if you heard everything correctly. In example number four, you get feedback by checking your answers against the answer key. This is a key part of high-intensity listening practice. There should always be feedback. You need a way to check if you heard correctly or not. There’s one more important difference: high-intensity practice is time-limited. You aren’t trying to watch a whole film; you’re working on a 15-minute clip. Obviously, IELTS exams are also time-limited.
By contrast, low-intensity practice can go on for any length of time. If you’re listening to English podcasts while you’re cleaning your house, you can go on listening for as long as you want. What about low-intensity practice? What does this look like? Remember the criteria for high-intensity practice. What were they? 100% focus, try to understand as much as possible, use a dictionary, repeat the same task, and get feedback. If you’re not doing these things, then it’s low-intensity practice. Now, can you think of other examples of high-intensity listening practice and low-intensity listening practice? Remember: both sides are useful! Pause the video now and think about your ideas. Try to get three methods for high-intensity practice, and three for low-intensity.
So, what did you get? There are many possibilities, but here are three suggestions for high-intensity practice:
One: listen to a song twice, trying to hear the words. Then, listen with the lyrics, check any words you don’t know in a dictionary, then listen again.
Two: do listening exercises from an English textbook.
Three: do a conversation class with an English teacher, so you have to understand and respond to the teacher’s ideas. Try a lesson with an Oxford Online English teacher.
What about you? Did you get similar ideas, or different? By the way, please put your suggestions in the comments and share them with other learners!
Next, what about low-intensity practice? Here are three ideas:
One: make a playlist of English songs, and listen to it regularly, for example in your car, or while you’re on the bus or the subway going to work.
Two: watch an English TV series with English subtitles, without worrying about whether you understand everything or not.
Three: listen to English-language radio while you’re working. Often, low-intensity practice means you listen to something in English while you’re doing something else. That’s valuable, because you don’t need to make time for this kind of practice—you can combine it with other things. Now, you should have some ideas about high-intensity and low-intensity listening practice.
Next, let’s look at ways to improve English study habits in reading.
A question: what does high-intensity reading practice look like? What about low-intensity reading practice? You can answer this with many of the same ideas you heard about listening practice. High-intensity reading practice means: you read everything carefully, you read sentences and whole texts several times, and you use a dictionary. Low-intensity reading practice means you don’t do these things: you read something once, you don’t worry about unknown words, you don’t worry about whether you’ve understood everything or not, and you use a dictionary little or not at all.
So, is there a difference between high-intensity and low-intensity practice in reading and listening? There are two small differences. First, you need feedback for high-intensity listening practice, to check if you’ve heard things correctly or not. When you’re reading, you can see the words, so this is less important. Second, you can do low-intensity listening practice while you’re doing something else. You can’t do this with reading. You need to make time for all reading practice, including low-intensity reading.
Let’s think about another question: should you choose different things to read for different types of practice? Or, should you read the same things whether you’re doing high-intensity or low-intensity training? What do you think? Probably, you should read different things. When you do high-intensity practice, you should read something that’s challenging, something right on the edge of what’s possible for you. On the other hand, for low-intensity practice, you should read something that’s relatively easy, so you don’t need to focus too hard.
Want an idea? Read children’s books, or comic books. A lot of learners we talk to are against this, because they think it’s childish or unhelpful, but we disagree! Children’s books can really help your reading, especially if your English level is lower. In any case, find something you can read without much effort, so that you have something you can use for low-intensity practice. What about you? What would you do for high-intensity and low-intensity reading practice? Again, please share your ideas in the comments. Maybe you’ll get some good tips from other viewers!
Next, let’s see how you can use these ideas to make an effective, realistic study plan to improve your English study habits.
3. Making a Study Plan
Let’s start with some basic points. First, you need to make time for high-intensity listening practice, and both high-intensity and low-intensity reading practice. Second, you need to think of ways to get as much low-intensity listening practice as possible. Remember that you can do this while you’re doing something else. Third, you need a good balance of high-intensity and low-intensity practice. What does this mean? You need some high-intensity practice, ideally a little bit every day, but not too much! High-intensity practice is tiring and probably not fun. You need to concentrate hard. It’s work. So, schedule high-intensity practice for your best time of day. Are you a morning person? Do it as soon as possible after you wake up. Are you a night owl? Schedule your practice late in the evening. Set a time limit for high-intensity practice. This will help you to focus. Start with fifteen minutes, and then increase it slowly if you think this is too little.
For low-intensity practice, do as much as possible. A good way to do this: take things you do every day in your language, and replace them with English. For example, do you read the news every day, maybe while you’re having breakfast? Read the news in English, instead. Do you listen to podcasts while you’re walking around? Listen to English podcasts, instead. Remember: low-intensity practice shouldn’t be stressful. It shouldn’t be hard to motivate yourself to do it. The idea is to expose yourself to as much English as possible. That’s it. Don’t try to do more. Keep high-intensity and low-intensity practice separate.
Here’s a possible study plan for one day:
High-intensity listening: watch a 5-minute clip from a TV show, like Friends. Watch once without subtitles, then again with subtitles, and check any new words in the dictionary. Watch a third time to ‘fix’ the new vocabulary in your head. Low-intensity listening: put a playlist of English videos on in the background while making dinner.
High-intensity reading: read a short news article on a technical topic. Read once, check new vocabulary, then read again. Low-intensity reading: browse the comments under a news article on a topic you’re interested in.
What do you think? Would this be realistic for you? The high-intensity parts here should take maybe 10-20 minutes each. The low-intensity reading can take as little or as long as you want. That means you need maybe one hour a day total. It also means you don’t need to sit at a desk and study for hours. You need to focus for maybe 20 minutes at a time. That’s not so bad, right? Could you do this? If you could follow a study plan like this regularly, your English will get better over time.
Of course, you should give yourself different things to do at least some days, and you probably won’t be able to do this seven days a week, 365 days a year. But, maybe you can do it three days a week, or four. Maybe even five! This will still help you. Make a realistic study plan, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t stick to it perfectly. Do as much as you can, as often as you can.
What about you? Could you make a study plan for yourself using these ideas? Think about your English level, your interests, and what’s easy or difficult for you. If you want, share your daily study plan in the comments. Sharing your ideas might help other learners improve English study habits, and you can also get tips from other people!
It is also a good idea to take a Level Test to check where you’re at now so you can begin at the right place!
Thanks for watching!