The key to fluency and literacy is better control over vocabulary, both words and phrases. It is not the learning of grammar rules. But how is this best done?

There are many people who have studied English for ten or more years and have very poor control of vocabulary. I am always surprised at the poor level of English of students at our local universities and colleges. This is especially the case with non-native speakers but unfortunately also the case with native speakers.

Recently a third-year university student in Marketing at a local university suddenly discovered that her English was not very good. She was doing a work-term placement with a company and when she went to a customer, the customer complained about her “broken English”. She was not told by her classmates and professors that her English was unsatisfactory. She has decided to join The Linguist. Looking at her writing confirmed that it was far from the level required for professional communication.

When I correct writing, it is poor vocabulary control, including poor knowledge of phrases that is the biggest problem. Yet there seems to be an unlimited number of words and phrases to learn. What is the best strategy?

The answer is to do a lot of listening and reading. But this needs to be done using a systematic way to save, review and notice the key words and phrases. I think it is useful to pursue two separate types of content. To improve fluency requires a good control of phrases. Learning phrases will reinforce the correct use of prepositions, articles and all aspects of agreement for tense and number. When pursuing the fluency goal it is best to work from texts which have few rare or difficult words. If you can find texts with easy words you will often find many idiomatic expressions. You will certainly find many phrases where the prepositions, articles and tenses are used correctly.

The ideal content for this is natural conversation. People use more common words in conversations. Conversations are interesting only if they are real. At The Linguist we have lots of conversation and interviews to listen to.

On the other hand to increase your knowledge of more difficult words, especially words need for academic and professional purposes, or for tests like TOEFL, TOEIC or IELTS, there is nothing better than doing a lot of reading in your areas of interest. If the subjects are familiar or of interest to you it will be easier. It is best to read new and somewhat difficult content on a computer to take advantage of on line dictionaries and other new learning technology, such as is provided by The Linguist for example.

Whatever you do, there is not substitute for learning in context through lots of reading and listening.