Good Learning Habits for Great Results!

Good Learning Habits for Great Results!

Now that the schools are back, many young people are having their first introductions to a foreign language.  Whether your son or daughter is starting out with a friendly, fun-based after-school club; or a more formal secondary school classroom setting, there are a few things that you can do to help your child get to grips with this new challenge and learn more effectively.

Firstly, no matter what you thought of language lessons at school, PLEASE do not tell your child that you were rubbish at languages, or that you don’t see the point of learning them.  Even if both thing are true.  If your child is in secondary school then they have several years of compulsory language-learning ahead of them, so it would be far better to encourage them to have a good try and see what they think for themselves.

At least to start with, learning a new language seems to consist mostly of lists of new words that you have to learn.  Colours, numbers, parts of the body… the lists seem to go on and on.  Many children seem to learn the words just well enough to get through this week, or the test at the end of the module, and the cheerfully forget them again.  As you may guess, this is a very short-term strategy that can easily come back to bite them if they continue the language to GCSE and beyond.  Help your child to start a vocabulary book and encourage them to keep it up, so that they can refer back to it when needed.  Give them little mini-tests or challenges throughout the year to keep the information fresh.  Why not do a treasure hunt using clues written (at least partially) in the key language?  Or play hangman?

At some point in the learning journey (probably fairly quickly) the subject of grammar will rear its ugly head.  Many adults recoil in horror at this point, especially those who were educated in the 1970s and 1980s when there was not such an emphasis on grammar learning in some sectors.  It is important to note that grammar does not need to be scary, or even hard to learn, as long as it is something you get a handle on earlier rather than later.  Indeed, it can be rather like being given the decoder so that you can decipher spy messages.  At least, that’s what I tell my children!  However, it can be a real chore to have to go back through old schoolbooks from several years ago in order to find a grammar explanation and revise the details.  It is a good idea to set up a grammar folder (just an A4 folder, in any colour you like, with dividers) and to write up each new concept on a sheet of paper to go in the folder.  This is a great way of revising as well as providing material to revise from in the future.

Homework – were you the type who saved all your homework until the last day before the deadline and then panicked to get it all done in time?  Or did you prefer to work methodically, tackling one or two pieces each night so you were never overwhelmed?  Well, learning a language can be a bit like that.  Of course it is possible to dash off the worksheets and exercises quickly at the last moment, but if you want the information to stick, especially for vocabulary, then you need to have a bit more method. 

If you try to learn all your new words in one mammoth session, then it is quite likely that you will forget them all very quickly.  Three smaller sessions of, say, 10 minutes each week, are much more likely to be effective. Essentially, “little and often” is best, as each time we practice a new task we get better at doing it.  Try to persuade your children to do their vocabulary learning in regular, bite-sized chunks.  You could help by testing them, or even just by reminding them.

It may be a bit of an effort to help your child to set these habits at the beginning of their language learning time, but it will almost certainly save time later on and hopefully help to streamline the learning process for them.

This blog post I wrote earlier gives some other great tips to help you learn your new language more easily:

Using festivals and seasons in language teaching

Using festivals and seasons in language teaching

Save stress later by starting these five learning habits now!

Save stress later by starting these five learning habits now!

School has started and many children are facing their first formal lessons in a second (or third) language.  These early days are the best time to start those great study habits which will stand them in good stead in the years to come, and hopefully save you a lot of stress and tutor fees in the future!

1.    A vocabulary book.  Way back when I was at school (not quite as long ago as Queen Victoria!), we had vocabulary notebooks.  These were brought out for every lesson and we carefully noted down the new words so we could learn them for our weekly vocab test.  Schools and learning methods have moved on but I still recommend one of these as you can take it with you from year to year, it gathers all the useful words together by topic and the teacher will never deprive you of it while they mark your homework.

How to set one up?  It’s fairly simple – buy a notebook (an A5 one will do and they are not expensive).  Fold the page down the middle, lengthways, so that you have two columns.  Write the title at the top and then the target language in the left column and your home language in the right column.  Bingo.  If you are tackling a short topic such as numbers, then one or two pages will do.  If you think the topic may end up as a long one, for example food, then leave a spare page or two so you can add extra words later.

Important – when writing down your new words make sure you include the gender and the plural if it is a noun, details if it is irregular, the past participle if it is a verb and any other useful information.  As one example, German has three different genders for nouns and you definitely don’t want to have to go back and re-learn them all in time for Year 11 exams!  You could try highlighting them in a different colour for each gender.

2.    A grammar folder.  There will be lots of grammar concepts to learn in the new language.  These will probably come in steady dribs and drabs over the next three to four years and believe me, it is a real pain having to flick through old exercise books from several years ago in order to find something.

 How to set one up?  Buy an A4 folder, in whatever colour you like, and a set of dividers.  Each time you learn a new grammar concept e.g. the present tense, adjective endings, word order etc you write it up onto a sheet of paper.  Use highlighter pens, underlining, diagrams or whatever seems appropriate.  Then file it in your folder under an appropriate subject heading e.g. “Tenses”.

 3.    Sticky Notes.  Whether you use them for your shopping list, or to leave messages for the family, sticky notes are a common sight in many homes.  Whether you get plain yellow ones, coloured ones, funny shapes, or the ones which look like speech bubbles, they can be fantastic for vocabulary learning.  The obvious idea is to label the items you are trying to learn e.g. “door”, “table”, “toaster” but you could also just write any other word that you need to learn and then stick them up around the home as a regular reminder.  Move them around regularly so you don’t get too used to them – or write your target language on one note and your home language on another, then try to match them up.  Invest.  Invest in sticky notes, now! 

 4.    Regular practice time.  Trying to learn a new grammar idea, or a list of words is much better done in several short bursts each week rather than one mammoth session.  It is much more likely to stick if you have practised more than once.  You could try focused learning for 10 minutes, three times per week.  Or do as some of our students do and put your list near the kettle (or on the back of the bathroom door) so you see it regularly.

 5.    Vocab tests. Whether or not your school does regular testing of vocab, it is a simple thing to write a list of the words you are learning (just your home language) and then slip it into a folder for later.  When it comes to revision time you have a handy set of tests you can use to see how well you know the topic.

It may be a bit of an effort to help your child to set these habits at the beginning of their language learning time, but it will almost certainly save time later on and hopefully help to streamline the learning process for them.

Seven tips to help you learn a new language

Seven tips to help you learn a new language

As social media is flooded with back-to-school pictures of angelic-looking children in shiny, new (rather large) school uniforms it can be a time for many of us to think of new beginnings.  Here are seven tips for those learning a new language to help with those initial stages:

1.     Learn your vocabulary!  It may seem a bit silly when you only know 10 words, but if you start with good habits from the beginning then you will see that vocabulary grow to 100 or 1000 words before you know it.  Write lists, make flashcards, invest in sticky notes and label everything you own – whatever works for you and your style of learning.

2.    If the language you are learning uses a gender-system for nouns, then get to grips with it sooner rather than later.  It may seem a lot of trouble for something you aren’t familiar with, but gendered nouns tend to lead to gendered adjectives and before you know it, it becomes important to know whether “the table” is masculine or feminine!  Try highlighting the words using a different colour for each gender (French has two, German has three) and see if it helps you. Time spent at the beginning, learning each gender as you learn the noun, will save much heartache later on as you get more fluent.

3.    If the plural isn’t always “s” – then learn the plural at the same time as the singular.  You may think that English is easy as every plural is made with “s” – but that isn’t always the case!  “Sheeps” or “Fishs”, anyone?

4.    Listen to as much of your new language as possible.  Music-heavy radio stations will provide limited opportunities, but a good discussion show or news report will give you a great exposure to the natural rhythm of the language and its intonation, even if you aren’t too sure what they are talking about.

5.    Practice little and often.  Three shorter sessions in a week will be easier to digest than one mammoth session – and practice makes perfect!  Try carving out some scheduled time in your diary for study, revision and vocabulary learning.

6.    If you like technology, then use it.  Just don’t get obsessed with it!  There are many language learning apps available.  Some of them are even free.  They can be really useful for vocabulary and even sentence practice, but none of them are as good as finding someone who speaks the language really well and having a conversation with them (with regular corrections and a dictionary to hand!)

7.    Face up to the grammar monster!  A substantial number of my students tell me they don’t want to learn grammar, they just want to learn how to talk.  Well…… if you don’t want to risk sounding like a three-year-old, or inadvertently offending your key client by being overly familiar, then you will have to face grammar at some point.  There are many good grammar guides available to help you with the basics and it may be worth considering a tutor, at least for a few sessions, to help you with anything you are finding tricky.

There you go – seven tips for learning a new language.  Now go out, and HAVE FUN learning, because if you enjoy it then you are more likely to make a success of it!