Table of contents
The first time I came to Brazil, my roommates took me to something called “rodízio de pizza”.
A rodízio is essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet. Brazilians have rodízios for all of their favourite things: pizza, sushi, pasta, feijoada… There are even rodízios for desserts.
An all all-you-can-eat pizza experience sounds great when you’re hungry. But the problem is that you eat too much. And then you feel a bit ill.
I’d like to propose that the smorgasbord of English learning resources that exist on the Internet is a bit like the pizza rodízio I went to in Brazil. It’s great—at first. The variety and volume of choices are enticing.
But the result, eventually, might be feeling a bit ill at the overwhelming number of options.
In this article, I’ll try to give you some guidance on how to separate the wheat from the chaff and decide which resources you’re going to use—and which you’re not.
There’s no better time to learn English
I want to be clear—the vast quantity of options really is a good thing.
Even 10 years ago, it was much harder to find high-quality resources to use to learn English.
These days, we’re spoilt for choice.
You can find videos on YouTube, Netflix series, entire libraries filled with ebooks or audiobooks, what seems like a million different language apps, and a tonne of language learning communities.
There are entire courses online for free, and many more you can pay for.
And you can even pay for English tutors anytime you want.
This really is the golden age of language learning.
Mistakes that come from having too much choice
But as with the rodízio, having unlimited access and choice can be a problem if we’re not careful.
Here are some mistakes that I see English learners make in the face of such limitless options.
- They default to what’s easy. I see so many people sticking with Duolingo for years and never getting very far in their language learning. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used Duolingo and really enjoyed it. Their version of gamified language learning is very satisfying. But once you’re past a beginner level, you need to move on to other activities to continue to see growth.
- They try to do everything. You might call this “shiny object syndrome”. New language learners often jump around from one resource to the next without a clear plan. It’s good to try things out… but at some point, you need to commit and continue with a single thing to see real improvement.
- They always opt for free content. Sometimes free content is really great. But free isn’t always what’s most effective. Sometimes you’ve gotta invest a little to see returns. Benjamin Franklin wasn’t joking when he said “An investment in education always pays the highest returns”.
There’s never been a better time to learn English, but choosing how to learn it has also never been more confusing. And this is especially true for independent learners who don’t have a teacher guiding them.
How to choose from the English language buffet
So, here’s a quick guide for how to filter through the vast number of learning resources, identify the ones that work, and then discard the ones that don’t.
1. Start with a goal
Setting goals is essential.
Goals help you really think about what you want to achieve. They help you figure out your roadmap—what you actually have to do to accomplish your goal. And they help you stay motivated.
I recommend using a SMART goal system: making your goal specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and with a specific time-bound deadline.
Some examples of what that looks like include goals like:
- I want to be able to have a conversation with my English mother-in-law at Christmas and not feel like I’m having any trouble or exhausted.
- I want to read an English novel in the next two months.
- I want to score at a C1 level on the English test that I will take in July.
2. Choose where to focus
Once you know exactly what you’re aiming for, you know where you need to focus your studying efforts.
If your goal is reading, you’ll want to focus on reading, activities.
If your goal is to score well on an English test, you’ll probably focus on each of the skills—speaking, reading, writing, and reading—as well as put some dedicated effort into mastering some relatively complex grammar forms.
In each case, your focus should be consistent with your goal.
Of course, even with a primary “focus” you still probably want to make sure you’re getting some practice with each of the four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Each builds on each other and helps you develop an all-around strong language ability.
So understand where you’re aiming and what your focus is… but also build in a diversity of activities.
3. Choose your activities
Now, choose your activities.
Of course, this is the difficult part.
With so many options, which activities should you choose?
The activities that are most appropriate for you, in particular, will depend on a number of factors besides your goals like your level of English and your interests.
My advice is to start with the resources you find first and that you think could work. Try them. And then, after a while, re-evaluate and change.
For example, if you want to work on speaking, your focus should be on speaking and listening (you need to be able to understand someone to have a conversation with them). So choose a listening activity that you think you’ll like, like listening to English podcasts, and a speaking activity, like shadowing.
Try them earnestly for some time. And then re-evaluate (see the next steps).
Here are some ideas for activities for each of the four language skills:
- English listening activities. Our favourites are podcasts, audiobooks, and watching YouTube videos. But we’ve created a massive guide on listening activities if you need more ideas.
- English speaking activities. Our favourite is simply finding a conversation partner and actually speaking. Shadowing and recording yourself speaking alone are other good options. Check out our guide to speaking activities that you can do alone for more ideas.
- English reading activities. We love Medium for engaging articles, but nothing beats a good ole’ fashioned book. Check out our massive resource on reading activities for more ideas.
- English writing activities. We love to journal because it’s easy and you can do it anywhere. But you can be creative about what you write. Here are some rules for writing well from George Orwell.
4. Make them part of your routine
The secret to learning English is to stay engaged with it, regularly, over a long period of time. It’s exactly like going to the gym: you’ll only notice an improvement when you work out consistently.
Building language learning into your daily routine can help develop that consistency.
For example, you might:
- Listen to your English podcast while you eat your breakfast in the morning.
- Read a book while you’re on the commute to work.
- Have your English conversation with a colleague on your lunch break.
- Watch YouTube videos while you’re on the treadmill at the gym.
- Listen to an audiobook while you’re washing the dishes.
And so on. If you pair your English activity with something you already do each day, you’re more likely to actually do it.
5. Measure your progress
Because measuring your progress is one way you’ll be able to figure out which of the resources that you’re using actually works. If you choose an activity and do it for months, but don’t actually get anywhere, you might want to try something else.
Measuring your progress helps you know when you’re actually moving forward… and when you’re not.
6. Re-evaluate your activities
If you’re not making progress, that’s one clear sign that you should reconsider the activities you’ve chosen.
But there are other signs as well.
Maybe you find that you don’t really like one of your activities. Or maybe you notice that, despite your best efforts, you have trouble actually making time for it. Or maybe it’s too hard for you. Or even too easy.
Any of those could be a reason to make a switch. If you decide one’s not working for you, go back to the English resource buffet and try another.
But don’t switch if it actually is working.
Again, this is another mistake I see my English students making.
They start one online course, make some progress, and then get curious about what other ones are like. So then they try Duolingo from the beginning. And they spend a month doing that, getting to the same place as before. And then they change again.
Then they aren’t sure why they never get past the basics in English.
If you are making progress and you like the activity, stick with it. Don’t leave something that works just because you are curious about another app.
Find a few activities that work… and stick with them
You really do have unlimited options for learning English. And that’s mostly a blessing.
But it can be a curse.
The trick to navigating all the options is to:
- Be clear on what your goals are, and the skills you’re focused on building. That will point you towards the kinds of activities you should start with.
- Find a manageable set of options and just start somewhere. We’ve tried to help with that by creating guides for reading, speaking, and listening skills—that’s a good place to start. Pick a couple from the list and try them out.
- If they work, keep doing them.
- If they don’t work, pick the next one on the list.
The reality is that your options are like a huge buffet: if you try to do everything, or you just opt for the dishes that are closest to you and easiest to reach then you won't make the most of it.
Instead, systematically try them out until you find something that you love and that is working.
And when you find that, like me at the rodízio, you should stop looking for more.