During the last few months I received several requests for advice from learners of English eager to improve their English skills. In this column, I’ll give a brief overview of possibly useful resources that can mainly be found on the Internet.
Let’s start with reading. When asked to advise students what to read, I never recommend any novels or other full-length English books to students. In my experience, students who try to read English novels often get discouraged easily, unless their level of English is really good (we’re talking upper-intermediate to advanced here). Buying an 800-page Harry Potter book is usually a complete waste of money if their English is below intermediate. Instead, I’d recommend graded readers for students keen on reading English.
Graded readers are fairly short English books – often adaptations of real English novels – suited for almost every level. Graded readers usually come in five or six levels, from starter to advanced. I included links to a few of the major publishers’ websites at the end of this article. These sites give a good overview of what’s available and offer free downloads of extra materials (stuff to be used by teachers or students who bought the books). Unfortunately, there are no free book downloads available, but not to worry, as they are very affordable compared to full novels.
Apart from graded readers which have to be purchased in real shops with real money, there are of course loads of free reading materials available online. The choice is vast, so I’ll limit myself to two of the websites I find particularly useful: www.readbangkokpost.com and www.student-weekly.com. Both provide lots of authentic articles and provide a word bank at the end of each article, so there’s no need to waste precious time looking up words in a dictionary.
On top of tons of reading materials, the Internet provides many other opportunities. To practice listening, just tune in one of the numerous Internet radio stations. The BBC News website (www.bbcnews.com) – among a plethora of others - provides lots of high-quality news reports and radio shows. This same website also provides authentic video material as well as an abundance of world news. As this is not a learning website, elementary or even pre-intermediate students might find it too difficult though. They should rather visit the part of the site dedicated to education (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish).
Apart from the video footage available on the BBC site, there are many other sites which offer similar services – all for free. For students who prefer a US accent, once ground-breaking CNN and bigoted Fox News are just two American examples of news providers with massive content and good-quality video.
Other authentic video sources include YouTube and podcasts. Although popular YouTube with its millions of video clips offers the possibility to view and upload home-made clips, I think it has more entertainment than educational value. Podcasts – a kind of video (or audio) clip that can be downloaded and viewed off- or online - are now also widely available on the Internet. Pioneer Apple with its slick iTunes interface offers a fair selection of free podcasts; it is necessary to install the iTunes software though if you want to download and view them (make sure you have broadband as it’s a rather big download). Although podcasts are available straight from several other websites, I still enjoy the tastefully designed Apple software.
For students looking for more educational content and online courses instead of authentic materials, a myriad of websites provide free English lessons for all levels, ranging from beginner to advanced, from IELTS preparation to business English, from Pidgin English to skid row slang. Australian ABC and Australia Network for example offer very decent educational English content, entirely free. Better@English is another busy site full of useful stuff.
Although it might seem that the Internet only provides opportunities to practise passive skills (reading and listening), this is not really true. Email, instant messaging programmes, chat rooms, forums and message boards are all wonderful tools to practice writing skills in an informal manner and without the pressure of a classroom environment.
Moreover, with either an instant messaging programme and a headset or the use of an Internet telephone service (e.g. Skype) at ridiculous prices, learners can now even fine-tune conversation and telephoning skills. Why not talk to your online chat friend or give that anonymous cyber pen-friend a ring?
I could go on forever about the availability of decent material and opportunities on the Internet, but I won’t. Computer-savvy learners surely know how to use search engines to their advantage and uncover more hidden gems. Make sure to share that knowledge with others if needed.
www.penguinreaders.com (Penguin graded readers website)
www.macmillanenglish.com/readers (Macmillan graded readers website)
www.oup.com/elt/catalogue/general/readers (OUP graded readers website)
www.readbangkokpost.com (Bangkok Post site for learners of English)
www.bangkokpost.com (the real deal)
www.student-weekly.com (articles for learners of English)
www.bbc.co.uk/news (news, radio, video)
www.cnn.com (news and video)
www.foxnews.com (news and opinionated but good quality video)
www.itunes.com (Apple iTunes podcasts)
www.abc.net.au/vod/education (educational part of the ABC website)