English Outside of the Classroom

Learning in the Real World

I made changes recently with my private English language student. And she totally agreed with me. Here’s what we did.

Her book-learning English is strong and she knows her grammar rules very well. Sometimes even better than me! We have progressed from the basic language book and are currently working from an intermediate level English book. We meet twice per week in person and she does excellent with me, but needed more practice in the outside real world. It was time to take our lessons out of the “classroom” and into actual situations. We decided to go to shops or restaurants for live English practice, with me there as backup.

Barnes & Noble Booksellers (our local big bookstore)

Our first “field trip” was to the local Barnes & Noble bookstore after our regular class. She wanted some extra vocabulary practice and purchased a book herself at the bookstore. I showed her where the language books were located and where to find the information desk if she needed to ask any questions. She learned she could go to the bookstore any time it was open, could look over the books for practice, and ask questions if necessary. This was the first step.

Our next trip outside the classroom was this past Thursday. I showed up ready for class and she asked to go to the garden center for some houseplants and gardening tools. She had selected a local shop, Chaves’ Gardens and Florist, and off we went to look at houseplants. Their plants were gorgeous, strong, and healthy looking. She chose a rubber tree plant but didn’t know the price. Here was her chance to interact with an English speaking native about prices.

Buying a rubber tree plant

I went to find the lady for assistance and explained to her that this was my language student and I wanted all questions to come from her. I was there for help if needed, but the discussion was between my student and the employee. Both of them did amazing! The employee asked what she was looking for, and when my student asked the cost and how to take care of the plant, I was smiling from ear to ear. She purchased the mid-sized rubber tree plant for about $45 but couldn’t find a pot that matched her home design. So off to Home Depot to check out their products.

Home Depot also didn’t have the desired decorative pot to place the rubber tree into, but she purchased her gardening tools there. Once back at her home, we pulled some weeds and discussed the difference between soil and dirt, and then weeds and plants. Weeds are just plants we don’t want, or ones we didn’t plant ourselves. We reviewed the correct vocabulary words for houseplant, soil, spade, shovel, hoe, rake, and weed.

It was an impromptu lesson and gave her the knowledge that she can go into shops and ask questions of the employees. Her English level is high enough for clear communication and these little outside trips proved to her that people understand her English and are willing to help. Now is the time for her to start spreading her wings and putting all of her book learning into practical use. I love it!

Remember, all learning does not need to take place in a classroom. Be creative and make your lessons practical for your students. If they actually use the skills you help them learn, they will retain that information much better.

International Students Abroad

Chinese International Students

In my quest to find out why so many international students want to study abroad, I started by asking some of my most recent students. These are young Chinese women wishing to pass the TOEFL or IELTS exam and become an international student. These are their own words.

“I want to study abroad and the universities ask us to have the certificate of IELTS or TOEFL. The certificate is like a ticket for Chinese students to study abroad.” (Queeny, Foshan)

“Although I haven’t gotten a perfect score and it sometimes makes me frustrated, I am still amazed at how much I have got in each part of this year. A year ago, I found it difficult to read the English articles and websites, but now I am able to handle them almost without any help. It also gave me the confidence to speak with others rather than being afraid to make mistakes.” (JingJing – Jessica, Guangzhou)

“First, I think compared with the tests for English in China, IELTS or TOEFL is more reliable when it comes to evaluating a student’s English level. When I was still in high school my teacher suggested to me to take the exam annually to monitor my improvement in English.

IELTS focuses on a student’s output of a language, stressing the importance of using a word in an appropriate context. Tests in China highlight the volume of a student’s vocabulary, pushing students to memorize as many words as they can. Teachers here use the old teaching strategies and students have no idea of the right way of learning. Even students who are now preparing for the test after years of being out of school, still use these old-fashioned strategies.” (Edith, Guangzhou)

Turkish International Student

Another student I worked with last year was a Turkish student wishing to study abroad. As an international student he would be able to learn more of the culture and language to assist his father in running their international clothing business. He came to the United States to take his last year of high school in Rhode Island, and to prepare for the TOEFL exam. He took the test twice before he began studying with me. He failed with a very low score both times before working with me because he was just not ready. His language skills were not high enough to understand the details of the exam. Even after working with me, he failed another two times because his family was pushing him to pass the exam before he graduated from high school.

A teacher can most definitely help you get a better score on the TOEFL exam, but you must have the basic skills to enable you to succeed on the exam. Please make sure your English skills are at least a B2 level before attempting to pass this test. It will definitely save you time, frustration, and money for testing fees.

Improve Your Career Options

All of these students may not wish to remain living in an English-speaking country, but the skills and experiences they gain while living as an international student will help improve their lives. A TOEFL or IELTS certificate can help these students in their current careers and open doors to more important positions withing their own company. They are putting in the required time and effort to improve their English with the hopes of acquiring an international college education. I wish the best of luck to all of my students, past, present, and future!

Grammar Perfection

A recurring problem that I experience with students I teach is a reluctance to speak if their grammar isn’t perfect. I have also heard this same complaint from some of my students online.

Working together and not worrying about grammar. Have fun!

This problem of grammar perfection is much worse with higher level students. They understand more of the English grammar and how it all works together in a sentence, and they are scared to death to make a grammar mistake.

Listen to me! Speak more and don’t worry about your possible mistakes! Everyone makes grammar mistakes while speaking, even me.

Conversational English

Speaking conversational English is the goal of so many students, and they also want to be fluent in the language. But you simply cannot let the fear of making a little mistake get in the way of your speaking. Conversational English is all about communicating. If you understand my questions and I can understand your responses, then we are communicating. In English!

Working together, and talking, to look at the clues and solve the mystery

We Learn From Our Mistakes

Many students don’t wish to speak out loud in class because they are afraid of making a mistake. They don’t want to pronounce a word wrong. But I ask this question…if you don’t try, how will you ever be sure of how to make it better? How do you correct an error if you don’t let someone know how you might say it? I often tell my students that they may know the answer and need a slight adjustment of pronunciation or meaning. But I won’t know how or what they’re thinking if it just stays inside of their head. I have to hear it or see it to possibly help them correct it.

Most of the time, conversation is just basic communicating between people sharing the same language. Your knowledge of grammar doesn’t make you any more qualified to tell me what you just ate for dinner. Will you make a mistake? Maybe. But I will still understand what you are saying to me. And if you feel comfortable with me as your teacher, or your friend, then ask if you made a mistake. Asking for corrections makes your conversation partner feel more at ease to share possible improvements. You must have those converations, as many as possible. Get talking!

Focus on learning how to engage in basic conversation, and then increase the difficulty of the language and the topics to challenge yourself. Once you are more at ease with speaking aloud in English, then slowly pay attention to the grammar to possibly make it smoother and more grammatically correct. Start with the basics and then progress from there, slowly and steadily with plenty of practice.

Remember, written and spoken English are often very different. We will discuss the specifics needed in written English, and academic English, in another blog post very soon.

Let and Make

Let and Make Usage

Some students instinctively understand the differences between let and make quite easily, and others just need a little more time.

I’m going to explain the basic usage of let and make and then share some practice exercises with you.


Let is used most often when we are given permission to do something we want to do. For example: My mother lets me stay up late on the weekends.We want to do it and she says it is ok to stay up late. The negative form of this is: My mother doesn’t let me stay up late during the week. Even though I want to stay up late, she tells me no.


Make is used most often when there is something we really do not want to do, but somebody forces us to do it anyway. For example: My mother makes me clean my room every week. We really do not want to clean the room, but she insists we do it anyway. The negative form is: My mother doesn’t make me clean the whole house.We do not want to clean all of the house, and she says that we do not have to.

Rules for using let and make

Here are some practice sentences using let and make that will use one of the forms discussed here, including the negative form. (Answers at the end of the post.)

1.  My boss _______________ me arrive at work on time every day.

2.  My boss _______________ me take a coffee break each morning.

3.  My boss _______________ me leave early on Friday afternoon.

4.  My boss _______________ me stay late for overtime every night.

5.  Why does she _______________ me call her every night just to say goodnight?

6.  Why doesn’t the coach _______________ me play on the team? I have been practicing!

7.  My teacher _______________ me write a 1500 word essay every week.

8.  My teacher _______________ me play with my cell phone in class.

9.  My father _______________ me drive the car on the weekend.

10. My father _______________ me clean the car when I’m done using it.

Keep practicing and listening to how native speakers use the forms of let and make. Very soon you will automatically know which one to use because you will be able to hear if it sounds correct.

Answers 1-10

Eating Out with Chinese Friends

When I lived in China as an English teacher, I quickly learned that eating out with friends is quite a social event. And usually so cheap compared to eating out at a Western restaurant! Let me share some of the most memorable dinner dates I have shared with my Chinese friends.

Eating Out – a roast pig

One Month Celebration for Baby

One of my coworkers, who is originally from England, celebrated the one month birthday of his baby girl, Josephine. It is a Chinese tradition that the mother and baby stay at home for an entire month, then they have a large celebration for everyone to meet the baby. This celebration was held in an upstairs banquet area of a large restaurant and the food and company was amazing. The roast pig was brought out for everyone to eat the crispy skin, and then returned later with all the meat cut up into small pieces on a platter ready to eat.

Crispy Roast Pig
Everyone relaxed after a great feast.

Eating Out – the pub with my coworkers

Before I returned home, I celebrated my birthday in the largest Irish style pub in Guangzhou, called McCawley’s. This pub was also conveniently located on the ground floor of my apartment building. This was just an impromptu meeting after work of my boss and 3 of my fellow teachers. There is an unhurried atmosphere to eating in China, whether it’s Western style restaurants or a Chinese restaurant. We ate, had a drink or two, and just relaxed to enjoy each other’s company.

Miss you guys!
Burger and fries.

Eating Out – traditional Chinese dinner

I think my favorite kind of meal was the traditional Chinese dinner where platters are brought out until the table is covered with delicious food. I have gone to this kind of dinner for a team meeting, to celebrate a friend’s wedding, and just for an everyday group dinner. I have seen whole fish covered in spicy peppers and sauce, strange vegetables I have never eaten before, and some dishes of strange body parts that I refused to eat! It’s all an adventure, so I have tried frog’s legs, intestines, strange cockles, and weird tasting meat and vegetable mixtures.

Team Building Dinner
Spicy Fish
Josephine and Kaki enjoying their meal and some conversation.

Eating out in China was definitely one of my most favorite activities when I lived there. I miss it since I returned home to the United States. Perhaps I just need to find a new restaurant with plenty of dishes to try, and a relaxed atmosphere so I can enjoy time with my company.

English Adjectives


An adjective is a describing word and gives us more information about a noun or noun phrase. It is normally placed in front of the word it is modifying. The adjective helps describe the noun and tells us more details about it.

Adjective: a word or phrase added to or related to a noun to modify or describe it. (Dictionary definition)

Without adjectives, our sentences would be very boring. Just take a minute and try to talk about something without using any adjective at all. It cannot be done! Adjectives are vital to making our words come alive.

An adjective will answer the questions: What kind is it? – I like the soft blanket. 

How many are there? – I have 2 sisters.

Which one is it? – Can I please have the blue notebook?

Colorful Adjectives

When we use more than one adjective in a sentence, there is a certain order we should follow.

  1. Determiners — articles, adverbs, and other limiters.
  2. Observation — post determiners and limiter adjectives (a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (beautiful, interesting), or objects with a value (best, cheapest, costly)
  3. Size and shape — adjectives subject to objective measure (wealthy, large, round), and physical properties such as speed.
  4. Age — adjectives denoting age (young, old, new, ancient, six-year-old).
  5. Color — adjectives denoting color (red, black, pale).
  6. Origin — denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (French, American, Canadian).
  7. Material — denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (woolen, metallic, wooden).
  8. Qualifier — final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover).

Practice Exercises

Choose a favorite adjective to complete the sentences. If you keep thinking of the same one, then really concentrate to try and come up with new adjectives to expand your vocabulary. (A suggestion is to use a thesaurus to give you synonyms for commonly used words.)

1.  I asked for a _______________ sweater for Christmas. (color)

2.  Susan bought _______________ gifts for the holiday party. (quantity)

3.  She has a _______________ apartment in the city center. (size)

4.  My mother has a/an _______________ table she inherited from my grandmother, and she polishes it daily. (age)

5.  I wear a ________________ helmet when I ride my bicycle in the city. (use)

6.  My friend went on a _______________ vacation to the South of France last year. (opinion)

7.  I want to buy _______________ apples. They look so delicious! (demonstrative)

8. My _______________ friends can speak both Cantonese and Mandarin. (origin)

9. I want to wear my _______________ jacket today. The weather is going to be very cold! (material)

The 7 Methods of Learning

How do you like to learn?

Everybody can learn, but what is the best way for you to learn? Have you ever thought about it? Do you like reading and taking notes, or perhaps watching a film and then talking about it? 

There are seven methods of learning. Most students prefer one or two better than others, or use a combination of them. We are all individual in the specific way we like to study and learn new information. They are listed below with a brief definition.

Visual – Also called spatial. The visual method means you like to see to learn and like movies or pictures. You like to watch a demonstration of an activity and then can remember it best.

Aural – This is using your listening skills to help you learn. It also includes using music to help remember. Using Audible, or other recorded books is a great choice for aural learners.

Verbal or Linguistic Learning

Verbal – People who prefer verbal, or linguistic methods like to use words in speaking and writing. After learning new materials, you like to discuss the topic with others, or write about it.

Physical – Also called kinesthetic, and this means using your body to physically learn how to accomplish a task. You need to do it or feel it. You learn best when you are physically trying to accomplish the task shown in the lesson. This could be cooking, or trying a new sport.

Logical – It’s a mathematical method and relies on logic and reason to figure things out. Looking at facts and details are required for this kind of learning.

Social Learning

Social – People who prefer this method like to learn and share questions with others in a group. Learners can ask questions of other students, or listen to their opinions and gain even more knowledge from somebody else.

Studying alone (Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash)

Solitary – Just as it sounds, these students prefer to learn and study on their own privately. They do not gain anything from listening to conversations with others on the topic. Solitary learns may find that being in a group setting actually distracts them from the topic.

Most traditional schools use the logical and verbal methods to educate their students. Both social and solitary teaching is used in public schools as well. I remember a mix of many methods during my education, but mostly aural, verbal, and logical in my post-secondary years.

How can this help you in studying for the TOEFL or IELTS exam? If you understand which method works best for you then you can adapt your training to your personal preference. If you like studying alone, then signing up for a group class is not in your best interest. You will feel resentful of other people’s questions and not learn as well. 

If you prefer visual and aural learning, then videos would help you retain the information best. Find an online course based mostly on videos, or search YouTube for videos on your topic of interest. 

Think about how you do your best studying and the answer should come to you. Use this information to make it as easy as possible to prepare for your exam, or to learn something new, no matter the subject.

(I personally prefer a mix of aural, visual and verbal methods. I especially like taking notes and then rewriting them. This helps me remember details more clearly.)

Find your best way and let it help guide you!

Playing English Word Games

Use games to help improve your language skills, and to have fun.

Scrabble Board for My English Abroad
My English Abroad’s Scrabble Game

Word games are for students of all ages and abilities. Most people either love word games, or they hate them! Here’s why I love them as a teacher, and as a player.

Scrabble – A Perfect Word Game

One of my favorite word games is Scrabble. A very simple game where you try to make the highest scoring word on the board to win the game. I taught this game to my beginner students and most of them loved it. They learned how to form new words and also learned which letters go together to blend sounds. The pure happiness I saw on their faces as they created their own little words made me smile. As a teacher, that is a great lesson learned. I realized they were truly “getting it” when they would try to use the high double and triple letter scores to beat their friends.

As a player, I have always loved Scrabble. It reinforces my spelling skills and reminds me of words I haven’t used in a very long time. I have also learned new words from other players. A close copy of Scrabble is the online app Words With Friends. I usually have several games going at the same time and am constantly learning new words. The app posts a daily word on the main page which is a fantastic way to increase your vocabulary.


As a young teenager I used to play a game called Boggle with my word nerd friend Kim. This consists of 6 sided cubes with letters on all sides. You place the lid on the box and shake until the cubes settle into the base. Then you opened the lid, flipped the little timer and created words from the letters. The only rule was that words had to be at least 3 letters long and could only be made by cubes next to, or diagonal, from each other. If you both have the same word, then they cancel each other out and you earn no points for that word. The person with the most words wins.


The classic Hangman can be played anywhere with a piece of paper and something to write with. I have played this word game with my children while waiting in a restaurant, and with my students to reinforce vocabulary words. With a little extra time at the end of a class and a blackboard or a whiteboard, you can easily start a game. Using this game to help study new vocabulary words is a fun way for both teachers and students. It focuses on common English letter usage, consonants, and vowels. A great little lesson packaged up as a game.

Hangman game
What’s the answer? Can you figure it out?

Word Searches and Crossword Puzzles

Word searches and crossword puzzles are another good tool to use. There are many available at all ability levels, and you can create your own word searches and other puzzles using online sites. I often create word searches to go along with lessons that are heavy with vocabulary words. Looking for the words reinforces the spelling of the new words.

Using word games to teach isn’t a new practice. These games can take a rather boring lesson and turn it into a competition, something fun, for the students to actively engage in. Learning which letters combine easily and understanding consonant and vowel patterns is crucial to becoming a better speaker and writer. And any time you can get students to engage and interact within a lesson, then that is a plus for everyone.

t e s v t j q r f e j s l w e               
o l h t o s h m a e m a d r t 
e b g c u c e q o m n w r i a    abroad            puzzles
f b h n r d a t r o m l o t c    boggle            reading
l a a u i a y b i e i a w i u    college           scrabble
u r n u i k e t u s a b r n d    conversation      search
n c g y k i a s t l k d b g e    educate           speaking
i s m c o n v e r s a t i o n    English           study
v c a m r l n h p m f r h n z    grade             teacher
e e n e e i s f q s k s y d g    grammar           test
r k t a n i m e g a u g n a l    hangman           toefl
s n r g l e g e l l o c o t k    international     university
i n k g p u z z l e s g m w b    language          vocabulary
t m n t e a c h e r e d a r g    learn             word
y e d a o r b a b o g g l e k    listening         writing

Don’t Give Up on Learning Something New

Learning isn’t just for students…

Here is my story…

I am currently on a working holiday. I am trying to use my time to enjoy the beautiful country of the Dominican Republic, while still working on creating materials for my students. And I have already learned some big lessons doing little things.

Playa Alicia, Sosua, Dominican Republic

I rented a studio apartment for the first week and the stove is a bit temperamental, which means it doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to work. The burner won’t stay lit, the gas surges out of the burner and blows out the match, or I can’t get anything to even light at all. Just a cup of tea!

Finally got the gas burner lit after 6 matches.
I finally got the burner lit!

Starting to get frustrated, and staring at the 5 burnt matches that hadn’t managed to light the stove yet, I took a deep breath and spoke to myself out loud. “Stay calm. You tried these 2 burners, so why not try this one back here?” And with my sixth match I had the flame burning and quickly heated up my water for tea. Then I laughed aloud because I often give this kind of advice to my students.

I tell them it may seem as if nothing is coming easily in learning English. You can’t remember the vocabulary words, your sentences are confusing, or you can’t understand other English speakers even though you are doing everything you have been told, or have been taught.

Reminding myself of this made me smile as I sipped my hot tea and realized I didn’t give up and just walk to the restaurant for a cup of tea. I stopped, thought of what had already happened, or what I had tried, and just tried something new. Success felt so good for something so simple.

My first cup of tea in the Dominican Republic.

So please don’t give up in your quest to master a new language. Keep trying, ask for help from different people or sources, and if that doesn’t work, then try something different. One of these methods will be just what you need to make it one step higher on your way to speaking English.

Improve Your Listening Skills

What are you listening for?

Black headphones on a bright yellow background
Practice your Listening Skills –Photo by Malte Wingen on Unsplash

Listening for basic comprehension is the first kind of listening we learn as a child. This means we are just listening to understand the definition of the word or phrase and how to use it in a sentence. 

When listening to prepare for the TOEFL exam, we do it to:

1. increase vocabulary

You need to start this step first. Take the time to increase your vocabulary daily.
2. focus on content and flow, and not the speaker’s way of talking

Listen for the flow of the sentences, or for the rising and falling sounds in the sentence.

3. anticipate what a person is going to say next

Play a game to see if you can guess what they might say next. This will prove that you are comprehending the conversation and following the general tone of the conversation.
4. ask yourself, “What is this person trying to say?”

Why are they speaking to the other person? What do they want to tell them? Or are they just talking together to share what they did yesterday?

5. create headings called “main idea”, “major points”, and “important details” and then take notes during the lecture and place the information under the correct heading

This will definitely help you when listening to lectures on the TOEFL exam. Learning to determine what is important to remember, and what is not, makes it more clear when you must answer the integrated exercises.

6. create an outline of the talk or lecture while listening and then write a brief summary

Learning how to summarize properly is a skill important to the TOEFL. This question is asked during all parts of the exam; reading, listening, speaking, and writing. 

Plan for your study and you will plan for your success. Many of these tips will also help on the other parts of the exam.