But I also recognise that it can be a little overwhelming to design your own English language course from scratch.
If you’re learning in a classroom, all that organisational work is done for you. A teacher has designed a curriculum that (probably) makes sense, chosen a textbook to read, provided you with coursework, given you vocabulary lists, and has even built in ways to evaluate your progress.
The teacher will also likely make sure you’re getting a balance of activities that help you develop all four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
All you have to do is sit back and learn.
But what if you’re doing it yourself? You have to create your own system.
Sure you know that there are tonnes of ways to learn English and what seems like a million different activities and resources. But which ones should you choose? It can all feel a bit overwhelming.
In a previous article, I talked about what kinds of activities you need to create your own English immersion course. That article is focused on the types of content you need—what activities you should choose and how to balance them.
In this article, I want to provide you with a guide on how to build the system. I want to help you think about how to create a learning English strategy and the tools you can use to do that.
What is a language learning system?
First, though, what even is a language learning system?
To me, having a language learning system means having:
- A goal, or what you want to achieve
- A strategy, or how you’re trying to achieve that goal
- A way to learn new words and phrases
- A way to keep track of the new words and phrases you learn
- A set of language learning activities that includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing
- A set of tools to track and measure your progress
- A set of tools to stay focused
Why do I need a language learning system and toolkit?
That all sounds a bit overwhelming… So why do you need a system?
You probably don’t need a system to learn English.
You probably could just listen to podcasts occasionally, read your favourite books, and chat every once in a while with your conversation partner. You could probably see some improvement without explicitly putting together a language learning toolkit.
But for me, I find having a system really helpful.
- A system helps me stay organised. It helps give me a road map and lets me see where I am in relation to my goals.
- A system helps me know what to do next. It helps guide me to activities that will help me accomplish my goals.
- A system helps me feel motivated. Tracking my progress helps me see that the effort I am putting in is paying off.
- A system helps me feel less overwhelmed. Language learning can sometimes feel impossible. A system helps ground me and focus on the next milestone.
- A system helps me continue. Routines and habits help me keep doing my language learning activities—even when they’re hard or I don’t want to.
I find that when I’m using a system, I tend to be more productive. And that’s consistent with the research, too: people that set goals and track them tend to be more successful at achieving those goals.
As an Englishteacher, I’ve noticed that my students that have had the most success learning English have had some sort of system to help them.
So you don’t need a system, but it’s helpful.
Components of your English learning system and tool kit
Great, so what could your system and language learning toolkit look like?
Here are some ideas based on my own experience and the tools that I use as a teacher and a language learner.
1. A set of goals
Setting language goals is, in my view, one of the most important steps to become fluent. Goals help you determine where you want to go and set the stage for how you measure your progress.
I always recommend to my students that they set goals that are specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bound. Here’s a guide on how to do that.
For example, my current goals for learning Portuguese are:
- Achieve a C1 level in speaking, reading, writing, and reading, as measured by the CIPLE, by March 2021.
- Read a novel that I haven’t read before in Portuguese by January 1, 2021.
Tools to keep track of your goals:
- Pen and paper. I use a notebook to keep track of my language goals. Here’s one way you can do that.
- Apps. There are tonnes of effective goal tracking apps out there if you’re looking for something a bit more high-tech.
2. A strategy for accomplishing your goals
This is your plan for accomplishing your goals.
Mine is made up of a set of habits and activities that, if I do them, will mean that I accomplish my goal.
I have several daily language habits that I like to accomplish, and then some other activities I like to make sure I do each week.
For example, my current strategy is:
- Use my spaced-repetition vocabulary app every day
- Read at least one page or article every day
- Listen to a podcast while making dinner
Because I speak with my friends and my partner in Portuguese every day, I don’t make a special effort to include speaking activities in my activities. And, I’ve decided that I won’t focus on writing in Portuguese at the moment.
Tools to keep track of your language strategy and habits
- Pen and paper. I have used a notebook to keep track of habits, although I tend not to these days.
- Way of Life. This is a daily habit tracker that I use to keep track of my daily and weekly language habits.
- Strides. This another habit tracker app. I have friends that use it and say that it’s good but I haven’t used it myself.
- Notion. Notion is a very powerful note-taking web application. You can use it for a bunch of language learning tasks including keeping track of habits.
3. A dictionary or another way to learn new words
I find it really useful to have a dictionary on hand to look-up and learn new words. The good news is that Leonardo English provides key vocabulary (just hover over the word) for every one of the 100+ episodes, which makes learning new words with the podcasts super easy.
But here are some other tools you might need.
Tools to learn new words
- Google Translate. This is my go-to. Here’s more on some of the lesser-known Google Translate features.
- The Idioms. This is a dictionary reference for a number of idiomatic expressions in English.
- A dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary is a classic, but there are lots of others like Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge Dictionary.
4. A way to keep track of and learn new words
When you find a new word or phrase, you’ll want to keep track of it. That way, you can create a personalised dictionary of all the words you come across so you learn new vocabulary more efficiently.
You might also regularly review the words you learn so that you actually remember them. Spaced-repetition systems are very effective for this.
Tools to keep track of and learn new words
- Pen and paper. This is the method I use—I have a written list of the words that I’ve learned or am learning.
- Brainscape. I also use the Brainscape app, which is a flashcard app that uses a spaced-repetition algorithm. I use this to help me actually remember new words.
- Anki. Anki is a lot like Brainscape, just with fewer features. I used to use it and it works well for lots of people.
- Make your own app. Alastair has a great tutorial for making your own vocabulary app in about 5 minutes for free.
- Notion. Notion can also be useful for learning new words. See how here.
5. Listening activities
Listening is one of the most important language skills. You can’t have a conversation if you can’t understand what someone is saying.
Our ultimate guide on improving your English listening has a tonne of advice on how to choose appropriate listening activities and where to find them. But here are a few of my top suggestions for tools to help you listen in English
Tools for listening in English
- English Podcasts. It may not surprise you that English Learning for Curious Minds is my favourite, and one I recommend to my students.
- Audiobooks. Try Open Culture, Librivox, or Project Gutenberg for free options.
- Radio. TuneIn can give you access to radio from all over the world.
- YouTube. Try Easy English, National Geographic, Story Corps, or TED.
6. Speaking activities
Speaking is one of the most satisfying skills to practise because it is fun to chat with others. And these days, it’s easy to find an English conversation partner online.
Even if you can’t, there are lots of activities you can do to improve your English even without a partner.
Tools for speaking in English
- Language exchange apps. These will help you find people to chat with. Try out Tandem, Speaky, or HiNative.
- Language communities. These can also help you find conversation partners. Feel free to join the Leonardo English community if you’re a member. Or check out communities on other sites, like Reddit or Facebook.
7. Reading activities
Reading in English is another powerful way to improve your language skills. No language learning programme is complete without some tools to help you read.
Tools for reading in English
- The news. Try Breaking News English at lower levels. At higher levels, try the BBC.
- Articles. Try Medium, the Conversation, or even the famous Leonardo English blog.
- Books. Get free ebooks at Librivox, Many Books, or Archive.org.
8. Writing activities
Honestly, if you’re not super focused on improving your writing in English, you can skip writing activities. I typically don’t make a large effort to incorporate writing into my language learning plan, but that’s because I don’t have to write that often in Portuguese.
For me, there are other skills that are more important to achieve my goals.
But especially if you need to write in English for professional purposes, here are some tools that can help you.
- Hemmingway app. This free, easy-to-use app helps you simplify your writing and picks up on your errors.
- Grammarly. This is another powerful tool to help you make sure you don’t have any embarrassing errors in your writing.
- Writing communities. There are several communities for people to look at each other’s work and give feedback. Some of these include Reddit, Critters, and Critique.
9. A way to track your progress
You’re regularly practising English… but are you improving?
It can be difficult to know if we’re actually getting better unless we build in systems to measure our English progress. There are several ways to do that, and here are some of my favourite progress tracking tools for language.
Tools to measure your progress in English
- English tests. The IELTS or TOEFL are probably the best for this, but they’re expensive. You can also try one of the many free online English tests.
- Bullet Journal. I use a bullet journal to keep track of my language progress. Here’s one way to do this. You can keep track of test scores, rate your own progress, how you feel speaking English, or anything else.
- Voice recorder app. Your phone has one of these. If you regularly record yourself speaking, you can go back and see your progress years or even months later.
- Can-Do Statements. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has a number of “Can-Do” statements that can be useful in measuring your progress.
10. A way to stay focused
Learning a language takes focused effort. Sometimes I like to use an app to help myself stay on task.
Tools to help you stay focused
- Pomodoro. This is a technique where you set a timer and work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. You can use any timer, including the one on your phone.
- Cuckoo. This is a free Pomodoro-style web app that I use a lot. You can use it by yourself or with a group of people.
- Forest. This is a surprisingly addicting app that helps you stay away from your phone and on task.
- My final one isn’t a tool, it’s just an easy trick. Put your phone in a different room (if you’re not using it for the activity), or if you are using your phone, disable all notifications.
There are a tonne of different ways you can structure your English learning. I’ve provided some advice and options based on my own experience as a learner and an English teacher.
But you’re not me, and my system may not work for you.
The point of having such a system is that it serves you; it helps you keep working steadily towards your English goals. Experiment, try new things out, and build a system that works for you.
And, as with your materials, make sure you like using the tools you choose. If you love using Notion to plan out your life, then great. If it feels overwhelming and scary, then forget it and try something else. Maybe the mindful practice of bullet journaling can work for you instead.
Make your English learning interesting, fun, and stimulating and it will be far easier to continue with it over the long term.
Have questions about building a language learning system and toolkit? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will try to help you out 😎