Learning Strategies: The Pleasures of DIY’

(Reading time: 5 - 9 minutes)

By Ioanna Charalambous and Nick Michelioudakis


It is never too late to learn: There is this old man who lives in Poland. He lives alone with only his dog as company. Then one day he takes it into his head to learn English. So he buys himself an ‘English for Beginners’ course (who needs teachers?) and he designs his own learning regime. The story actually comes from an ad; it was a very successful and very moving ad – do watch it before reading on. Focus task: What strategies does the old man use? (YouTube: ‘English for Beginners – Polish Ad’).


Learning Strategies: Setting aside the moving content of the ad for a moment, the methods the grandad uses to learn English are quite interesting. Some of them are clearly old-fashioned and not much use (e.g. simply conjugating the verb ‘To be’ but others are good. So we thought (well – actually it was Joanna who thought) that perhaps we could use this ad as a springboard to familiarise students with some learning strategies.


First key idea - ‘Habits’: Contact time is never enough, so it makes sense for students to study on their own. But how can we do this? The idea is to show them some very simple, very easy ways that they can use so they can maximise their exposure to English and the amount of practice they get. It is vital that students feel this is something easy, something that does not take much time (max 10 min/day) so that they can turn the strategies into habits. Here are some ideas:


  • Labelling objects: One of the simplest strategies used in the video is to go around your house sticking post-it notes on objects so you can learn the words in English. This can be quite useful actually, especially if you test yourself as you walk into the room, before checking the notes to see whether you were right.


  • Exploring vocabulary: Another way of expanding your vocabulary is to visit sites about things that you like (e.g. chess). Each time your goal can be to read one short article and find 3-4 new phrases that you would like to learn. You can look them up and write them down on a page. You can write the meanings on another page (in jumbled-up order) and test yourself the next day: can you remember them?


  • Listen and repeat: Much maligned for being too mechanical, Listen and Repeat is actually quite a good way to practice pronunciation. The key is to keep the sessions very short and to focus on whole stretches of language – not single words. You need to focus on sound production as well as on prosodic features (stress, intonation etc.). NB: If you have difficulty producing a phrase, repeat it again and again.


  • Sing along to songs: This is much more fun of course. You can choose your favourite song (preferably one with lots of lyrics), find the clip with the lyrics on YouTube and sing along. Not only will you learn the words and phrases in the song, but the fact that you have to follow the music will force you to produce whole phrases without stopping after each word.


  • Using Readers: Time and again this simple strategy has proved hugely effective. With an abundance of titles at our disposal, you can choose the book you like at the right level for you and commit yourself to reading a little each day – say five pages before breakfast. Over a long term, this should pay good dividends in terms of language learning.


  • Watching movies: Grandpa’s method of watching movies or TV series is another excellent and pleasurable way of maximising your exposure to the language. It is even better if you choose to switch on the English subtitles as your eyes will naturally be drawn to the text. That said, you might want to choose different phrases when you want to practice with your bathroom duck… J


  • Who needs a partner?: Much of the language people need (esp. at lower levels) is survival/functional English. A useful strategy would be to take a simple dialogue (e.g. ‘At the Chemist’s’), reduce it to notes and use these prompts to practice both sides in front of a mirror. You can even record yourself and compare your version with the original (Feedback!).


  • Friendly chats: One of the best and least used resources around us are our friends. Why not use them? Choose a friend you see regularly (preferably one whose English is good) and inform them that from this point on whenever you meet you’ll be using English for the first five minutes or so before switching to Greek (NB: Your friend can give you Feedback).


  • Friendly messages: Similarly, you can choose another friend with whom you exchange messages on a regular basis and you can persuade them to switch to messaging each other in English in the future. The great thing is that if you do not know how to say something you can write it in Greek and they can send you back an approximate translation in English.


  • Friendly audio messages: But what about speaking? Well, what you can do with yet another friend is decide to send them audio messages in English. As none of us wants to lose face, chances are you will rehearse your messages again and again before pressing the ‘send’ button… [NB: It does help if your friends have a sense of humour… J ]


  • Facebook threads: Another great idea for engaging in real communication is to join FB groups about things that interest you. Then each day you can look through the threads and write a couple of comments or ask a couple of questions. This is an excellent real-life activity – and one which may well lead to further practice when people reply to you.


  • Using Quizlet: Quizlet is my favourite tool and a brilliant way for revising vocabulary. It is best if you record collocations on the cards (e.g. Side 1: ‘take…’/Side 2: ‘…an exam’ or Side 1: ‘attend…’ Side 2: ‘…a lecture’) and then you test yourself using the range of activities the tool offers. It helps if you also try to make short, personalised sentences as you practice.


  • Using Lyrics Training: Lyrics training is one of the most popular sites with students. You go there, you choose your level, you select a song and you are presented with the lyrics as a gapped text. As you listen, you have to fill in the gaps (and you get Feedback afterwards). The higher the level, the more words you have to enter. Excellent!


  • Using BNE: What about improving your reading skills? For me, the site Breaking News English is the answer. The great thing is that the texts are graded for level and they are more or less the same length. So what you can do is choose a text, read the comprehension Qs in advance, read the text, answer the questions and check your answers against the key. Every day.


  • Using ELLLO: For the development of listening skills, ELLLO is one of the best sites I know. The audio clips (dialogues – monologues) are again graded for level and each one is followed by some M/C Qs and – crucially – the script (for Feedback purposes). The clips are short (1-4 min long) so this is ideal for daily practice.


  • Using a Voice Recorder: One way of learning to produce longer turns (and activate topic vocabulary) is to prepare some notes on a topic (e.g. ‘My favourite book’) and then record yourself giving a 30-second mini-presentation. Then you can listen to yourself, focus on what you cannot say properly, look up some phrases or ask a teacher and do it again – and again.


  • Reflection – using Penzu: Good students do what they have to do; better students also think about what they do. Penzu is an online journal. All you need to do is sit down at the end of the day and reflect: What did I do? What went well? What do I need to change? If there is something you cannot write, you write it in Greek – and you look it up later.


Second key idea - ‘Feedback’: While all these strategies are good, some are better than others. The really good ones are the ones where you get feedback after doing something: ‘Did I do well?’ When you Listen and Repeat, unless you have a teacher with you, you cannot really tell how well you are doing; when using a Voice Recorder though, you can listen to your monologue again and see whether there is a problem somewhere. Feedback is the key to progress!


Last words: Use your Students!: There is one other thing that makes a strategy better than others: it is when students have come up with it themselves. So here is an idea; why not organise a competition in class? Each student will have to come up with their own learning strategy and the best one wins a prize (to watch a similar idea in practice, watch YouTube ‘McDonald’s – Make your own Burger – Case Study’). As advertisers say, things are moving from ‘Tell and Sell’ to ‘Participate and Play!’. There is a lesson for us there…



Joanna Charalambous graduated from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2010. She has a degree in English Literature. She has been teaching English as a second language for the past 8 years. She is also an oral examiner for Pearson. She has a passion for the English language and is interested in making language acquisition a fun process. In her free time she loves reading and exercising.


Nick Michelioudakis has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. He believes that to revitalise ELT we need to draw on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology. He is particularly interested in student motivation and humour (he has his own YouTube channel – ‘Comedy for ELT’). You can visit his blog at www.michelioudakis.org .






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