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Everyone knows you can find the meaning of English words in a dictionary. However, a dictionary can only provide the most basic answers. Dictionaries really only provide hints about each word, especially words that have different uses or completely different meanings. Some words change their meaning depending on their role or function in the sentence. For example, when used as a verb "live" means one thing and is pronounced in one way. When used as an adjective, "live" has both a different meaning and pronunciation. Yesterday a student asked me about the word "civil." Because he had just taken a business training workshop, he knew about "civil rights" of workers that offer legal protection against discrimination. Civil rights are the topic of this cartoon. Civil rights in the U.S. became a common cause during efforts to reduce discrimination against people of color. More recently, civil rights have been extended to members of the military... read more

Many people trying to learn a new language hire a tutor for personal instruction and coaching. But some learners are between jobs or have little income to spare on education. What can they do to improve English? Today people have many choices. If they cannot afford one-on-one instruction, they can attend classes, where the cost is shared among many students. Even better are free courses. Newcomers to the U.S. may not know that the federal government sponsors free classes in English as a Second Language and U.S. Citizenship. Funding for these programs comes from the U.S. Department of Labor because our country needs a workforce that can understand and communicate in English. Free, government sponsored courses are available in almost every community. How do you find them? Contact your local high school's adult education department for more information. In some areas, these programs are offered through a community college or other non-profit organization. The free government... read more

Many sounds in English sound almost exactly the same in everyday conversation. Growing up in the U.S. we imitate our parents in how we shape our mouths to produce unique sounds. Actively engaging your cheeks, lips, tongue, and jaw will immediately improve your pronunciation. A lot of adults who learn English as a Second Language (ESL), have trouble mobilizing and coordinating their faces with the sounds they are speaking. Some hardly move their lips at all, as it they were paralyzed. Others try to talk so fast their mouths cannot keep up with their thoughts. Lip readers can understand spoken language without hearing it because each sound has a unique facial configuration. That means that the meaning of the words is contained in the facial shapes. Because they are activated my muscles, the mouth parts acquire muscle memory they call upon whenever they need to make a specific sound. If you try to intellectually remember the sound, results are much poorer. Say "P"... read more

I came across the Free Rice during my research on "games with a purpose" (GWAP). For every correct answer, the website donates 10 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program. Games have long been a fun and effective way to learn. Crossword puzzles are a game many enjoy that is also a fun way to learn new words and think about familiar ones. Sesame Street proved that children can learn and have fun at the same time. With the spread of computers and the Internet, teachers quickly adapted the new technology to instruction. Now, many websites and applications for children are both entertaining and educational. Free rice is the newest entry in a long tradition of making learning fun. The best thing about a good game is that people enjoy playing it for its own sake. In other words, people enjoy facing and overcoming challenges, no matter how simple or repetitive. The popular game Tetris because people achieve satisfaction by increasing their skill. This satisfaction... read more

TANSTAAFL This stands for "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch!" Something doesn't come from nothing is what this says. This has to do with thermodynamics somehow.Common expressions often use acronyms, the first letter of each word in a phrase. All workers know TGIF means thank goodness it's Friday. The email and texting have made acronyms even more popular, such as OMG for Oh my God! or LOL for Laugh Out Loud, etc. Reading English requires an extensive knowledge of vernacular language. We don't usually use acronyms when writing, except very informally. Best English usage is to explain acronyms the first time they are used. Subsequent uses don't require explanation. Insiders use acronyms as a short-cut that unintentionally excludes outsiders who are not familiar with the jargon of a particular field. Most of my tutoring students ask for help with the myriad expressions, idioms, and abbreviations of everyday English.

Back to basics means making sure you have a good foundation. Many non-native speakers can communicate more or less in English but fall short of their potential. For example, when reading an article, they miss part or even most of the meaning because of certain vocabulary words or expressions they do not understand. Vocabulary means knowing both small and large words. Knowing them means you can spell the word, pronounce word, and use it in a sentence correctly. If you cannot do this, you don't truly know the word. Try reading a child's book written in English. Unless you know every word, your knowledge remains less than that of a child born in the U.S. Small words like in, of, at, on, etc., are used in specific ways, as even young children master them by the time they enter school. Vocabulary is one basic that merits attention. Other basics to consider are grammar, study skills, reading comprehension, error correction, and writing. More on those to come!

Most of my students studied English from textbooks in their native country. Some can read and write basic English well but few have practiced pronunciation or conversation. Fluent spoken English takes a lot of practice. In the past, audiotapes provided a model of learners. Later, VHS videotape language instruction we introduced. Today, learners can buy instructional DVDs, watch YouTube, or use numerous websites to develop their speaking skills. Watching TV or cinema does not improve English fluency at all in my opinion. After all, this dialogue is all scripted and rehearsed in all dramas. Characters in drama sometimes speak in eccentric ways. Vocabulary in drama tends to be most basic, so even less educated people can enjoy it. When you keep in mind that literacy in the US has declined, you can be sure that less common words are not used in popular media. Finally, do you want to speak like yourself or like some actor in a drama? A better idea is to use a webcam to video... read more

Today my job was to listen to a senior IT engineer read from one of his kids' books. His children are about 3 and 5 years old. As usual, these books were written simply and accompanied by colorful illustrations. The engineer has lived in the U.S. for 26 years, but was born in Asia. He realized that he did not feel confident reading the book to his children. He knew he could not pronounce some words properly. He could guess the meaning of some words but others drew a blank. Finally, even if he knew all the vocabulary, he could not read the sentences in a flowing, fluent manner. Instead he stopped frequently, added syllables not in the actual text, or neglected words that actually were there. His books are intended for children 6 years and under. On each page there was at least one play on words, a pun. This frustrated dad could not recognize or chuckle at word play intended for young children! This dad has a sincere motivation that gives him the confidence to master kindergarten-level... read more

Not a native speaker? No problem! I am starting this blog because so many non-native speakers want to take their English communication skills to the next level. I don't have time to meet with them all individually, so I decided I can share some useful techniques with more people. Unless you were born here or came as a child, English is one of the hardest languages to learn. Though you know basic English, you miss the meaning of many expressions, and don't know how to put words to your own ideas and feelings. My students have taught me so much over the years and I hope if you are reading this blog you can share your experiences with me, to improve my understanding.

Many non-native English speakers function very well for working and living in the U.S. Even if they are college graduates, many have never studied the material tested by the GED. Specifically the Language Arts portion of the GED requires reading comprehension, identification and correction of writing errors, and an essay. GED curriculum also is provided for free in all high school districts, part of the federally funded adult education effort. Lots of resources, on line and in print, help people prepare. Students can pre- and post-test with sample tests as many times as they want before having to take the real test. Even advanced speakers of English as a second language rarely receive this specific sort of instruction. Without it, progress in higher education is slowed dramatically because students do not understand entirely what they are reading and have no instruction or practice in writing. The internet has many free resources for GED study.

Students want specific outcomes when they pay for individual instruction, just as when they pay for a meal at a restaurant. No instructor can guess in advance what even one student wants, let alone students in general. Only students can identify their own motivations. Then, they can express these motivations to the instructor. Only then should the instructor start to form any concept or approach to engaging the student. You can see by my ratings, that I have mostly succeeded in accomplishing what the student wants. If I only knew for what reasons some students did not rate me highly, I would be able to work on improving that area. Without that input, I must try to discover my weak points on my own, through self-examination. In what ways do I fall short? What are my strong points? By asking these questions often I try to discover what each new and continuing student wants, each time we meet or interact.

By honing your English language skills, you can improve how well people respond to you. Conversely, using incorrect words, pronunciation, and grammar only create roadblocks to communication, mutual understanding, and respect. Some believe that long, uncommon words and complicated sentence structure will enhance their image, while the opposite is generally the case. In fact, "less is more" when it comes to language. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is just one example history provides.

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