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.

Improve Your TOEFL Listening Skills Part 1

Tips for the TOEFL Exam

Beats headphones on a bright blue background with a white pencil.
Always be ready to listen.

Listening is one of the four parts of the TOEFL exam and is considered an integrated skill. This means that after you listen to a passage on the exam, you must then read and answer questions, write an answer, or speak an answer or opinion out loud. The skill to improving your listening abilities is to practice often and to use the integrated actions.

The listening section tests your understanding of spoken English in an academic setting, which includes university lectures and conversations. The TOEFL Guide Book states that listening is done for basic comprehension, for practical understanding, and for connecting and synthesizing information. That means you listen to see how all the information is related and understanding the meaning.

The test provides academic lectures and longer conversations in which the speech is at a natural speed. The exam usually offers 4-6 lectures, each about 3-5 minutes long, and 2-3 short conversations. The academic lectures usually include a professor speaking, a lecture and then a professor and student speaking, and then conversations between people in a college setting. These conversations deal with a typical student issue, such as course requirements, grades, registering for a class, or dealing with campus life. Notes can be taken during the lectures or conversations, but they are collected at the end of the exam and destroyed.

Four Question Formats

There are four question types in the Listening section.
1. multiple choice (there is only 1 correct answer)
2. multiple choice with more than one answer (1 and 2, or 1, 2, and 4)
3. place events or steps in order
4. matching objects or text with categories in a chart

The multiple choice questions require you to listen for tone of voice and other cues to try and determine how the speaker feels about the specific topic. Some questions replay a portion of the discussion, and then you answer the question after hearing it repeated.

Listening to English frequently, especially academic materials, is the best way to improve your listening skills for the TOEFL exam. Remember, the speech is at a normal speed. 

Some ways to improve your listening ability is to:
–watch movies or television, both with and then without subtitles
–listen to the radio or other English music you have downloaded
–download a podcast on your phone to listen while commuting 
–just listen to English conversations around you
These simple tips will all help you get better at this important skill of listening for comprehension.

Visit a bookstore or your library to find CDs and other audio of lectures and college level presentations. You can also search the internet for listening materials. Some good resources are:
4. (from the TOEFL creators)

More information and tips coming in a future post. Stay tuned!