As we all know, learning a language is not an easy task.
At higher levels of language learning, it is very common to reach a plateau—a point where you feel like you are no longer making progress.
In this post, we will discuss methods you can use to continue improving these four skills at an advanced level of English proficiency.
- The Receptive Skills
- The Productive Skills
The Receptive Skills
First, we will start with reading and listening. They seem very different but they have one major thing in common: Reading and listening are both receptive skills. You will receive English-language input and need to understand it.
1. Change your usual resources
One of the reasons students reach a plateau in their reading skills is that they often read the same kind of text over and over again.
Do you read the same newspaper every day? Are you on the fifteenth book in a series of mystery novels?
To continue improving your reading skills, choose a newspaper you have never read before. Choose a genre of novels that is new to you. If you read a wider variety of genres and authors, you will encounter more varied language and you will be more likely to learn something new.
Of course, reading anything is better than not reading at all. However, if you really want to improve your reading skills, you have got to get out of your comfort zone!
2. Test yourself on the text
Are you studying English by yourself without a classroom or a teacher?
Has it been a long time since your last formal English reading exam?
If so, then you may be out of practice with certain skills, like guessing the meaning of a new word based on its context, which is something that is often taught to students when they are going to take exams.
Next time you read a text for pleasure, take a few minutes after you finish to study the text as if you were preparing for an exam. Pretend that it is very important for you to really remember all the most important information about the text. Imagine what type of questions could appear on the exam, and then try to answer them!
Questions on this section of text (under #2) could be the following:
- In the third line, what does the expression out of practice mean?
- The author discusses finishing something. What action is she talking about finishing?
- What is the main idea of the text?
3. Try speed reading
Is there anything better than being a good reader? Being a good, quick reader is definitely better.
You do not have to sign up for a speed reading course and get competitive about it, but you can try to increase the number of English words you are able to read and understand per minute.
Time yourself while reading a paragraph out of a book or other text. Read quickly for 30 seconds. Then read the paragraph again to check whether or not there was any key information that you did not understand because of your reading speed. If you missed something, practice reading at the same speed for longer. Keep reading at the same speed (or perhaps even a little bit slower) until you are able to understand almost everything.
If you can read the text without missing key information, then you know that you can try the next paragraph a bit faster.
Little by little, your speed will improve. Reading quickly takes practice, but remember—it should not be done if you are not able to understand what you are reading.
4. Get familiar with different accents
One challenge of learning any language is the fact that different regions have different dialects and accents.
You may be perfectly comfortable listening to an American speaker, but have you mastered the Australian accent? How about the Northern Irish one?
If you still find certain accents difficult, why not focus on improving your comprehension? These days it is easy to find YouTube videos narrated by users from around the world, or even full-length films featuring actors with the accent you would like to work on.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find relevant videos or ones at your level. One easy way to find tailored content with different English accents is FluentU, where real media clips like movie trailers, news reports and excerpts from popular TV shows are used in a language learning platform. Unlike just watching random videos in English online, FluentU has tools to make learning English much easier. The program has a website and app (both on Google Play and in the App Store) with a unique video player that allows you to quickly see the definition of any unknown words, so you will never get lost with tricky pronunciations.
Using this kind of authentic content, which is intended for native speakers, will allow you to pick out the nuances of different accents, so you can sound more natural and practice all types of English. There is even a speaking feature so you can specifically target your speaking skills and improve pronunciation and intonation.
Like all the other language skills you are improving now, your listening comprehension of these accents will improve with practice. Once you feel more comfortable, you could even try to find a language partner from that region to practice with!
5. Try out a podcast on a new topic
Are you interested in American history but do not know much about it? Nowadays podcasts on just about every niche—very specific topic—are available online.
Listening to a podcast on a topic that you know a lot about in your native language will improve your language skills in English. You will already know most of what they are talking about, because you learned about this topic before you learned English.
So, is it really a good idea to start listening to a podcast about a topic that you are interested in but that you do not know a lot about? Well, yes! You will be more excited to learn something new, you will find all kinds of new vocabulary and you will broaden your general knowledge and improve your listening comprehension. That is a lot of learning!
6. Transcribe exactly what you hear
One of the best ways to truly test your comprehension is to try and transcribe exactly what you hear. Transcribing is when you write down everything you hear. You can either type on your computer or write everything by hand, but writing by hand is much better for your memory.
This exercise will give you an idea of how much of what you hear you are actually understanding. You will also learn whether that understanding is based on your real comprehension of individual words, or just on overall, general context.
For example, did you understand 100% of the words that were spoken? Or did you understand 50% of the words that were spoken, while understanding the overall message due to context?
Transcribing everything you hear, word by word, will draw your attention to different forms of words, words that connect other words, words that blend together and unstressed syllables, all features of natural spoken English which are problem areas for learners.
The Productive Skills
Now we will discuss the next type of language skills! Writing and speaking are the productive skills. You will need to create English sentences yourself, sometimes without any input.
Many learners find that these are more difficult because they require more knowledge about English and how it works.
7. Test your ability to write to different people
How would you write an email invitation to dinner for your 13-year-old niece? You would probably be very casual, cute and simple.
How would you write a letter to your grandmother? It would probably be casual and friendly, but also very respectful and polite.
How would you write a business letter to your boss? This letter would most likely be very formal, polite and professional.
Practicing different registers, or levels of formality, is a useful exercise that will keep your writing skills fresh and varied.
Even if there are registers that you do not normally have to use, it is good to practice them because you never know when those skills might be helpful or required!
8. Experiment with advanced grammar structures
Our daily writing needs are often limited to text messages and maybe a few emails.
Often we will study grammar to an advanced level and then we promptly forget all those advanced structures as soon as we stop studying. After all, you do not need so many complex grammar patterns to send a quick text message to a friend.
Just because you do not need to use a more advanced grammar pattern does not mean that you should avoid advanced grammar. Try to use it all the time!
Next time you write something like this, try remembering some of the more advanced grammar that you have learned (like the examples in the little list above) and use it in your text!
You can also try using these great daily writing practice ideas if you want different reasons to write and unique ways to play with your written English.
9. Challenge yourself with new vocabulary
Just like with grammar, most language learners understand much more vocabulary than they actually use.
However, there is no reason not to use the words that you have spent such a long time learning! Again, it is important to get out of your comfort zone and try out vocabulary that you do not often use.
You do not need to start using tons of new vocabulary all at once. It is okay to start slow. First, choose one new vocabulary word you want to master and write it multiple times in different sentences. Next time, write something longer and replace a few words in each paragraph with more advanced synonyms.
Be careful to stay true to the meaning of every new word you use. Do not use a synonym without being sure of its meaning and proper usage. Otherwise, the writing might sound awkward or have a meaning that you did not intend to give.
10. Incorporate idioms and expressions into your speech
Native speakers of every language use a lot of idioms and expressions in their everyday speech. One way to take your English to the next level—beyond advanced, and closer to fluency—is to make sure you use them too!
I am sure you have already learned a lot of idioms and expressions, and there are whole books and websites where you can learn more. But the key is to start using them!
Every day, make a list of five idioms that you would like to use. It is okay to repeat a few of the idioms for many days, or even weeks. Then, challenge yourself to find appropriate moments in the day to use them. Even if you are speaking your own native language all day at work, you can do this silently in your own mind.
Then the next time you find a good moment to use them in English, they will come more readily to your lips, and your English will sound more carefree and natural.
11. Keep working on your pronunciation
First things first, unless you moved to an English-speaking country before the age of about four years old, you will not sound like a native speaker when you speak English. That is okay!
Just because somebody is a native speaker does not automatically make them a perfect speaker, anyway. Just because somebody does not sound native, does not mean they speak English badly. The most important thing about English pronunciation is that you are well-understood by the people with whom you converse.
Since you are at the advanced level of English proficiency, I am sure people already understand you pretty easily. Now it is time to perfect your English accent!
Keep listening to native speaker pronunciation. Listen to the pronunciation of friends who have a higher level of English than you. When you hear pronunciation like this, try to mimic it.
Pay attention and try to figure out exactly what mouth shape and tongue positions are necessary to keep improving.
12. Practice with a native speaker or with a friend
You probably knew this advice was coming. What is the number one way to improve your English speaking skills?
Speaking, of course!
The key is to spend as much time as possible practicing your speaking skills. If you have a very advanced level of English, you will progress more—until you become fluent!—by practicing with a native speaker.
No native speakers around you? Don’t worry! There are plenty of other solutions, including practicing with a friend who has the same or a higher level of English than you. Here are some more great options for when you are ready to speak but cannot find a speaking partner.
Remember, mistakes are normal, even at the highest level of language learning. Not even native speakers speak perfectly all the time!
Don’t be afraid to invite your friends or language partners to correct you when you make mistakes, and you will keep improving.
Last of all, know your own language needs.
Depending on your motives for learning English, you may need to focus on certain skills more than others. Figure out which skills are essential for you, and work on those first.
You are the boss of your own language learning process!