John Larrysson Column: How to Learn English

One of the most common questions I get is, "What should I do to improve my child's English?" The answers that many people expect are wrong.

More English homework does not help. Practise using English does.

If children get bored with English worksheets they will not learn. Most HK English textbooks are very boring. Instead encourage them to read English books/ magazines/ newspapers that they find interesting. They must first improve their reading, so that they can afterwards improve their writing.

Most English worksheets are just work to keep the children busy. Better use of worksheets is to have a diagnostic test that shows specific language problems the child has and then give them an individual worksheet based on their actual needs. However large classes and the teacher's workload make this impractical.

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Extra English classes and tutorial lessons do not always help. Practise and help with specific problems does.

Many children have to go to tutorial centres after school for extra English classes. Many children hate them; I would too. Some of these tutorial centres are a great help, many others are not. Take a look at what they do. If the children are just doing more worksheets or textbook work they will not learn more English. Good tutorial centres give children a chance to practise using English. Children talking about football in English are getting good English practise. Tired children filling in blanks in sentences on just another boring worksheet are not learning anything.

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Reading the dictionary cover to cover does not help learn English. Only people who study linguistics read dictionaries from cover to cover. (I know someone at Hong Kong University who does that!)

What books interest your child? Encourage them to read things they like. Make regular public library trips every week or two. Make friends with the librarian; a child's relationship with the librarian can help their education. If your child rereads a book many times buy the book. Make sure your child can use their dictionary to look up words and then leave it with them.

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The English practise children miss

The most difficult type of practise to get is speaking and listening. It is difficult to manage in a classroom of forty students. Buy a DVD of a movie your child likes. Let them watch it once only in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles. Afterwards they should watch it in English only and with English subtitles. Very young children often like watching the same movie many times. This can be excellent English practise. Watch TV in English. Watch DVDs in English with English subtitles. People learning a language must first improve their listening or they can never improve their speaking.

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Don't force the child to only read English. A person's ability in a second language is limited by their first language skills.

Encourage children to read more difficult books of interest to them in Chinese. I have had primary five and six students who enjoy reading books like The Three Kingdoms or the Chinese translation of Harry Potter. Their English was also good. Find out what more difficult Chinese books interest them and allow them to borrow those books from the adult section of the public library on your library card.

This advice is aimed at Hong Kong parents, who are keen to help their children learn better English. However the same advice can be of help to the parents themselves.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.