There are four kinds of skills in any language – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Reading and listening are passive skills in which you absorb the input (text or voice) passively. Writing and speaking, on the other hand, are active skills in which you produce the output, and therefore are more challenging to master.
Little wonder, most people are looking to learn speaking and writing when they express desire to improve their English. In this post, I’ll cover how to improve speaking and writing for people at two different levels:
Let’s start with things that hold true for both speaking and writing, after which we’ll take speaking and writing for each level – beginner and intermediate.
I. Common rules
1. Show discipline
Which exercise routine is more effective – 30 minutes a day five times a week or three hours once a week?
Even though you exercise more in the latter option, the former is far more effective. Right?
Same holds for learning English and for that matter, any skill. You got to be regular even if it’s just 20-30 minutes every day.
You need to be driven though to put in time regularly. Think deep and find why you want to learn the language. For professional success? For building a better network? For speaking to small and large audiences? Or for studying abroad?
Whatever it is, find your ‘why’. You may find the following post useful in this regard:
2. Embrace discomfort. Embrace it gradually
When you move out of your comfort zone, you face discomfort. If you’re used to watching YouTube for an hour every day, you’ll find it tough adjusting to 30 minutes. If you’re used to waking up at 7 AM, you’ll be discomforted getting up at 6 AM. But if you move gradually (say, reducing 5 minutes of watching YouTube every day), you’ll soon develop a good habit.
Likewise, you’ll find speaking or writing just beyond your current level to be discomforting, but if you keep moving up gradually, you’ll soon be comfortable at a new and better level. That’s how it goes for any skill.
3. Start your practice sessions with the focus of making one mistake less in your weak area
Some never stop repeating particular mistakes. For example, you may be habitually using filler words such as ‘umm’, ‘you know’, and ‘basically’ when speaking. Or you may have developed the bad habit of being too impatient with your interjections.
Start a practice session with the clear goal of making one mistake less (than the last time) in your weak area. Remind yourself this promise few seconds before you start the session. If you don’t focus hard, these mistakes will continue unnoticed.
4. Progress may be disappointing
Often times, you’ll be frustrated with slow progress or, worse, no progress at all. This is true of both writing and speaking. To quote William Zinsser from his popular book On Writing Well:
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.
‘Remember this in moments of despair.’
If you’re mentally prepared for rough time, you’ll likely to persist.
But don’t persist blindly and mindlessly. Analyze and identify mistakes you may be making. If need be, occasionally take feedback from others who’re better than you.
5. Acquiring language skills takes time
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Your language skills too would take time to reach fluency level. How long will it take, of course, depends on your current level, but it may take several months to few years to make significant progress. Remember, acquiring soft skills typically takes much longer than acquiring technical skills.
So if you don’t see noticeable progress in a month, don’t get disheartened. Others too are on a similar learning curve. Having said that, ruthlessly focus on improving your weak areas. That’s critical for progress. Otherwise, you may languish at the same level of averageness for years together, like many do. This is a point vast majority miss when learning a new skill.
6. Anyone can get better with practice and improvements
Learning English is no rocket science. There are no high concepts. There are no intriguing secrets. It’s about putting in the hours regularly and working on weak areas (improvements, in other words).
Some people don’t even make adequate effort because they think people who speak and write well are blessed in some way, and howsoever hard they work they can’t reach those levels. There is also a section of people who think they can’t get better because they’re too old (in their 30s or 40s) to improve.
The reality is that anyone – irrespective of background, current level, and age (unless they’re too old) – can get better with regular practice and improvements.
You’ll find deeper coverage of some of the points covered in the section we just concluded in the following post:
I urge you to read it.
II. Speaking (beginner level)
7. Don’t fear making mistakes
People hesitate in speaking because they fear making mistakes. They worry what others would say and think on their mistakes. And because they don’t speak, they don’t get better at speaking. It’s as simple as that.
You need to overcome this fear. Not for anyone else, but for your own selfish interests. Think of what you’ll lose if you fall to your fears. It could be as big as professional success. People will say things and go. You’ll be the sufferer.
And remember, no one has ever learnt a new skill without making mistakes. Scott and Vat made innumerable mistakes when learning Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. They, in fact, encourage mistakes while learning a language (duration: 52 seconds):
8. Resist peer pressure
Fear of making mistakes stops you from speaking in English. Another culprit is peer pressure.
If your close friends speak in their common native language, you may feel compelled to conform to the lingua franca of the group. They may even taunt you, saying you’re trying to act smart.
Many succumb to peer pressure and don’t communicate in English.
You can’t change others, but you can control your destiny. Find 2-3 persons outside your core group whom you can practice your language skills with.
BTW, you don’t need to break away from your core group. You can remain friends with them and speak their language when with them.
9. ‘I lack confidence to speak’
You’re not the only one who shudders at the thought of speaking with even 2-3 persons around, let alone a small audience. Many face this challenge.
There is a simple reason for your diffidence.
You haven’t put yourself in this situation enough. You haven’t discomforted yourself enough. Start with the smallest possible challenge, say speaking to just one or two persons for few minutes. Once done, seek more such experiences. Then, gradually, work your way up by embracing more challenging situations.
This is the only way you can overcome lack of confidence. Remember, supremely confident speakers have thousands of hours of discomforting practice behind them. They didn’t acquire their confident demeanor magically. You can read more on this in the following post:
10. Take an oath to speak only in English
You don’t need to speak English 24×7. Pick 2-3 friends or colleagues and make it a point to speak only in English whenever you talk to them. Pick situations (customer care, meetings, boss etc.) when you’ll speak only in English. Stick to your oath scrupulously.
Sticking to English-only for certain times is the fastest way to improve your spoken English. Scott and Vat reached decent level in four languages – Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Korean – in twelve weeks each by taking the pledge to speak only in the language they were learning. I found the same principle working extremely well at Freedom English Academy, an NGO imparting spoken English skills to students from underprivileged backgrounds, where students spoke only in English during their daily 75-minute sessions.
Remember, in the beginning you’ll be discomforted following this oath and you would be tempted to switch to your native language, but that’s where you need to persist. Going back and forth between English and your native language is a hot recipe for stagnation and tortuously slow progress.
11. Speak, speak, and speak
You can’t learn swimming by reading a manual on swimming or by watching someone swim. Stating the obvious, you need to take to waters to learn swimming.
So speak, speak, and speak in English if you want to get better at it. This is the biggest. And, as mentioned in the previous point, when you speak, resist the temptation to fall back to your native language. Sticking to English-only for certain time in the day is the fastest way to improve your spoken English.
How do you get more practice though?
You may follow one or more of following:
- Find 2-3 like-minded friends (you don’t need dozen-odd) who share your passion to improve communication skills and speak to them regularly. You need not always meet in person though. Conversation on phone can work just fine.
- Speak to yourself. (Yes, that’s true.) There are plenty of topics to talk on – how your day went, your opinion on any current event, your past experiences, and so on. You can even give voice to your thoughts that keep swirling in your mind through the day.
- Mute television/ video and give a running commentary of the unfolding scenes.
Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University, New Zealand, in his ground-breaking research found that the best way to learn a language is through ‘frequent exposure to its sound patterns – even if you haven’t a clue what it all means’.
Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language—which is how babies learn their first language.
If you’re a beginner, you need lots of inputs in the form of listening and reading, listening being even more important from the perspective of spoken English. Without these inputs, you would not improve on vocabulary, intonation, pronunciation, pace, and peculiarities of spoken English (examples: contractions and slangs) among other things that aid your spoken English. As a result, you’ll continue to make mistakes and be hesitant in speaking.
So listen to English content regularly. There is no dearth of content these days on TV and internet. You can watch news, YouTube videos, and TED talks. You can listen to audio books (there are plenty of free available on the internet) and podcasts. However, listen to content that is not too difficult for your current level. If it’s too difficult, you’ll start reading subtitles, which will divert your attention from the core focus of listening (human beings are poor at performing two tasks simultaneously).
Reading is the second input you need if you’re a beginner. It improves your grammar and vocabulary, besides equipping you with the content to sustain conversations (for lack of content, you’ll struggle to speak beyond a minute even if you’re a fluent speaker).
While reading, mark difficult words and later on refer a dictionary to see its meaning and how it is used in sentences. Both are important (some make the mistake of limiting to only the meaning). You can also listen pronunciation of the word if you’re using an online dictionary. If you’re not sure which online dictionary to use, you may find following post useful:
What to read?
Read something that interests you and isn’t too difficult for your level. It could be newspapers. It could be books. Here is a relevant post that covers books and novels you can read:
14. Make use of commute time and other time wasters
Many of us spend anywhere between 30 minutes to few hours every day commuting, standing in queue, waiting for someone, and other sundry things.
How do people use this time?
Mainly entertaining themselves. Facebook. YouTube. WhatsApp. Twitter. Myriad streaming services. And so on.
You can utilize this time in a much better way by reading or listening. These are low-effort, passive activities and can easily be done during your time wasters.
Choice is yours. There are only 24 hours in the day.
15. Think in English
Those in the beginner to intermediate stage in speaking English tend to think their response in native language, translate it into English, and then speak. This mental translation slows them down, killing fluency.
How to stop this mental translation?
An exercise you can practice is calling things you see around as soon as you see them. No lag. Instantaneously. Extend this practice to describing actions as well. For example, if you see a speeding car, say ‘the car just sped past’ or if you see a car stopping at a traffic signal, say ‘the car came to halt at the traffic signal’. Go for spontaneity, not accuracy.
When you speak instantaneously, you bypass the intermediate step of thinking in your native language.
16. Don’t wait to speak till your grammar and vocabulary reaches ‘decent’ level
Don’t procrastinate on speaking.
Don’t wait for other things to get to ‘decent’ level before you start speaking. Take the plunge at whatever level you’re and simultaneously keep working on other things.
17. More grammar doesn’t mean better spoken English
As long as you’ve the basic grammar – tenses, past and past participle forms of verbs, subject-verb agreement etc. – additional dose of grammar is not going to make any difference to your spoken English.
You may find following post useful in this regard:
18. Make it a habit to listen – and read – pronunciations on online dictionaries
Non-native speakers mispronounce by the dozens every day without even knowing they are.
They’ve learnt pronunciation by listening to others around them, who too are mispronouncing. It’s contagious, and we’re all guilty of spreading it. And your mispronunciations rarely get corrected because others around you, by and large, think you’re pronouncing correctly.
To give few examples, pronounce these words: refrigerator, potato, adjective, competitor, object (when used as verb), Asia, jewelry, apology, and comb.
Most people pronounce these words the way mentioned in the middle column (the common mistake highlighted in red) when these should actually be pronounced the way mentioned in the last column. You too may have been mispronouncing some of these words for ages because no one ever pointed them out.
The way to break this vicious cycle is to listen to people who pronounce correctly. Listen to news. Listen to native speakers. But more importantly, whenever you hear a pronunciation that is different from what you’re used to, listen the pronunciation again on an online dictionary (or just Google: [word] + pronunciation) and speak it few times. And if you read out loud regularly, you’ll revise pronunciations you’re learning as these words will keep cropping up in your reading-out-loud sessions.
If you’re interested in improving pronunciation, you may find the following post useful:
19. Search commonly mispronounced words on Google and YouTube
Pronunciation can be a really big issue for some beginners.
If you fall into that category, you can quickly raise your level – maybe in just a week – by identifying commonly mispronounced words. Google ‘commonly mispronounced words’ and collate such words from all the links at least on the first page of search results. Repeat the exercise on YouTube.
Listen to the pronunciation of these words on an online dictionary (dictionary.com is a good resource for learning pronunciation) and speak them out few times. Better yet, note the pronunciations down and repeat them after few days.
20. Read out loud
Read out loud for at least five minutes (in one session) every day. Better yet, squeeze out two – one in the morning and the other in the evening. This exercise has few benefits:
- If you haven’t spoken certain words often, you’ll likely struggle to say them correctly or hesitate to say them at all in a real conversation. Reading out loud from a newspaper, magazine, or any text will force you to speak wide range of words (note: the vocabulary in these sources is much wider than yours and hence you’ll get exposed to sounds of many new words) on a regular basis, which will make you comfortable with their sounds and consequently you’ll be more likely to speak them in a real conversation.
- This exercise will also unearth plenty of words whose pronunciation you aren’t sure of. When you read a word silently, you don’t come to know of your ability (or inability) to pronounce those words. But when you move your mouth and tongue, you discover words whose pronunciation you fumble on.
- Reading out loud also reinforces pronunciations you’re learning, as these words keep cropping up in your reading.
- Last, you can practice pauses, emphasis, and pace when reading out loud.
21. Pick standard phrases
Some people hesitate to speak because they don’t know what to say in certain situations. For example, in an elevator you may want to ask someone to press twelfth floor for you, but you hesitate because you don’t know how to make the request. You could have said ‘can you press for twelfth floor, please’, but you don’t. Sometimes you may even sound rude (even though you aren’t) for lack of appropriate phrases.
Therefore, specifically note down such phrases whenever you come across them in your listening, reading, and conversations. This post will help you get plenty of them:
22. Get feedback
Once in a while, get feedback from someone who is better than you. This will unearth hitherto unknown mistakes and you’ll also get inputs on how to overcome them.
III. Writing (beginner level)
23. Work on your grammar and punctuation
Grammar is far more important in writing than in speaking. If you make mistakes such as following, then you need to pick a book on grammar and brush up your basic skills:
He eat with his left hand. [Subject-verb agreement]
She has finished her work when the carpenter rang the doorbell. [Should be past perfect tense]
Delhi is the most polluted metro in India, its Air Quality Index crossed 950 last year. [A comma cannot join two complete sentences without a conjunction.]
Following post has recommendations on books on grammar, punctuation etc.:
Note: reading helps your writing even more than your speaking (point # 13). So keep reading also for the sake of your writing.
24. One idea, one paragraph
This is the rule of thumb for writing.
Each paragraph should cover an idea, with the paragraphs containing more important ideas coming earlier than the others.
For example, if you’ve to write an essay on growing pollution in cities, one of the structures could be:
- First paragraph: how polluted our cities have become in recent times, with few alarming statistics thrown in?
- Second paragraph: air pollution, the main cause of pollution, and its sources (exhaust from vehicles, construction activity, stubble burning, and so on)
- Third paragraph: solid waste disposal, another source of pollution
- Fourth paragraph: steps citizens and governments can take to combat the problem
Here, each paragraph is dedicated to one idea or subtopic, and builds logically from the earlier paragraph.
25. Use active voice, not passive
Have a look at the following two:
The evidence has been carefully considered and there seems to be ground for disciplinary action. The managing director has been informed by letter and his reply is expected by Tuesday.
Having considered the evidence carefully, I think disciplinary action is called for. I am writing to the managing director and expect his reply by Tuesday.
The first example, with both sentences in passive voice, leaves room for guess work on who considered the evidence and who informed the managing director. The second example, with both sentences in active voice, leaves no room for ambiguity.
26. Don’t lose focus of the topic
People often digress from the topic they’re writing on, and it’s more common than you think. Details that don’t support the core issue creep in. Core issue doesn’t get addressed adequately.
The best way to not digress is to come back to the subject matter or core issue few times while writing and ask yourself ‘have I addressed this issue adequately’.
27. Write 50-100 words every day
Writing, like speaking, is a skill that can best be learnt through (duh!) writing.
Writing can be really daunting for beginners. Most beginners stare at the blank screen – even some experts do – of their computer, wondering where to start.
So don’t plan big. Write just 50-100 words every day, trying to apply the rules you’re learning. The best way to make it a habit is to write every day at the same time of the day.
28. Write small paragraphs
Most of the reading these days happens either on the internet (examples: emails, websites, and blogs) or on soft formats (examples: word documents and presentations). Reading long paragraphs on screens is a pain and, therefore, you’ll lose readers fast if you write walls of text.
So, keep your paragraphs under check. Aim for 4-5 sentences or under.
29. You’ll take lot more time to finish in the beginning
At the beginning of your writing journey, you’ll take several hours to write a 1,000-odd-word good-quality piece. But if you keep writing regularly, you’ll progress to only a fraction of this time in few months. I’ve been through this learning curve myself. The blog posts I used to write in 20 hours in the beginning now take just 3-4 hours.
So, don’t get frustrated and throw your hands up at the tortuously long finish times especially in the initial months.
IV. Speaking (intermediate level)
30. Continue reading out loud
Don’t drop reading out loud as you improve. It’ll provide a base level of vocal exercise, which will be useful when you don’t speak in the language for a day or more. And, of course, you’ll continue to reap other benefits mentioned in point # 20.
31. Look for opportunities to speak in variety of situations
Open up in situations other than one-to-one conversations. Speak in a meeting. Make presentations. Be a part of panel discussion. Ask a question in a conference. And if you get an opportunity, address a small group.
Start small – maybe just a brief interjection in a meeting. And then expand. You’ll have butterflies in your stomach as you graduate from one-to-one conversations to one-to-many, and the best way to control them is to get more practice under your belt, stepping up gradually.
32. Take your pronunciation to the next level
You may have graduated to pronounce words such as potato, tomato, bouquet, monopoly, mosquito, and jewelry correctly.
But what about well-known brands such as Gucci, Renault, Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Tag Heuer, and Peugeot? They too figure in our daily conversations quite often.
What about common cities, countries, institutions, cuisines, and so on – Morocco, Asia, Oxford, Stanford, Connecticut, Peru, Missouri, Guangzhou, Risotto, Minestrone, and Mayonnaise.
What about words such as canal, mischievous, silhouette, and maestro.
Maintain your habit of checking pronunciation when in doubt, but cast your net wider than just English words. (Search the pronunciation of brands and other proper nouns on YouTube. You won’t find most of them on an online dictionary.)
33. Widen your reading to fill the content gap
After you reach certain fluency level, content can become the bottleneck. For example, if you’re asked to speak on ‘impact of artificial intelligence on employment in 2030’, you wouldn’t last more than 30 seconds because you don’t know what to say. Even on simpler topics such as ‘presidential vs. parliamentary form of government in a democracy’, most would struggle beyond a point or two. Same reason. Lack of content.
You can bridge this gap in content by reading wider variety. Read non-fiction books. Read a newspaper. Read a business newspaper. Read a blog or two, especially in your professional field. For this to happen though, you need to schedule 30 minutes to an hour every day for reading.
34. Form opinions
Ambivalence doesn’t stand out. Clear opinion does.
What’s your stand on an issue? And why? Remember, how in debates (in debating competitions and prime time news) people take a clear stand and then defend it.
35. Listen to make effective arguments
Listening isn’t as easy as we think.
Most of us listen to respond… and not to understand. While the other person is speaking, many times we don’t listen because we get busy thinking of our response to what s/he is saying. And sometimes we don’t listen because of plain lack of interest.
If you don’t listen, you can’t respond effectively. Recall, how on TV news debates panelists support or demolish, point wise, what the earlier speaker said. Such effective articulation comes from listening the other points of view well.
So pay attention to what the other person is saying. It’s a learnable skill.
36. Structure your thoughts before speaking
Take a minute or two before you start speaking to thrash out the points that will support your line of argument. Think them in bullet points, with the most important coming first. Such a structure will help you proceed systematically and logically without missing out on any key points.
37. Be empathetic
You can tailor your conversation/ talk to the specific worries and desires of the other person(s) if you know them at a deeper level (or if you’re empathetic), thereby making you more effective.
To give an example, speakers often tailor their speech or presentation according to the audience they’re speaking to. A good speaker will minimize technical jargons if s/he is addressing non-technical people on a technical topic.
38. Improve diction through vocal exercises
Professional speakers and showbiz people make vocal exercises a part of their daily routine. That’s a reason for their clear, impressive voice.
Here is a YouTube video demonstrating few vocal exercises you can adopt (duration: 01:14 minutes):
If you’re not a professional speaker, it may be tough for you to practice these exercises regularly. However, even if you run through these exercises few minutes before you’ve to deliver an important speech or presentation, you’ll reap some benefits.
This YouTube video offers more such vocal exercises.
V. Writing (intermediate level)
39. Expand your reading
Stephen King, whose books have sold more than 350 million copies, famously said:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
The best writers are often the most voracious readers. Expand the range of topics you read
40. Learn from experts – Crawl Method
When we read a book, we subconsciously focus on the content, and not the language (unless it’s too bad). And rightly so. But if we want, we can learn how to write from the best authors in the world.
I’ll describe what I do.
I slow down on three pages when reading a book (you can do the same with articles) and observe how the author has written – why paragraphs have been limited to the size they’ve been to, how monotony has been kept at bay, choice of words, transitions, punctuation, grammar rules followed or broken, and so on. (I call this Crawl Method.)
41. Make smooth transition between sentences and between paragraphs
This quote from arguably the most popular book on writing, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, sums it up:
As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition. If a paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again, therefore, for the same reason) in the first sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to get into the topic slowly, by way of a sentence or two of introduction or transition.
Some of the common transition words you can use are: however, but, yet, while, in contrast, on the contrary, therefore, again, nonetheless, before, after, although, since, because, and whereas.
42. Vary your sentences
Consider these two sentences describing the same situation:
I considered the evidence carefully. I think disciplinary action is called for. I am writing to the managing director and expect his reply by Tuesday.
Having considered the evidence carefully, I think disciplinary action is called for. I am writing to the managing director and expect his reply by Tuesday.
The first, with all the sentences starting with ‘I’, is monotonous. The second is much better.
Message: Vary your sentences, or else you’ll put your readers to sleep.
43. Use specific, not general, language
Prefer specific over general language. Examples:
Prefer ‘it rained most of the evening yesterday’ over ‘the weather was bad yesterday’.
Prefer ‘it’ll take you 2-3 years to become fluent in English’ over ‘it’ll take you quite long to become fluent in English’.
44. Don’t write and edit at the same time
When writing, most of us write a sentence, revise it to perfection, and then move to the next sentence.
This is a bad habit.
Writing and editing (revising and polishing) are two different skills, and if you go back and forth between the two in quick succession, your writing will slow down to tortoise pace.
So, first just sprint through your first draft without revising. (The output be awful, but that’s fine. Even the best writers can’t show their first draft to others.) And then come back, ideally after some gap, to edit it.
45. Continue writing
Without practice you’ll lose the skill.
Increase the volume of words you used to write in the early days. Find an avenue which forces you to write regularly, say on weekends. You can maintain a blog. (Nothing like your own blog. If you write quality posts in a particular area, you can enhance your personal brand and network in the medium to long term – Andrew Chen is an example. It can even lead to serendipitous business opportunities.) You can write contributory articles for other publications, including blogs. You can write on popular content platforms such as Quora, Medium, and LinkedIn.