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Going it Alone: Self-Study Tips for Improving your English

By Tim Boundy

It can be said that nature always wins, and is this is clearly visible in much of our physical world. Second languages are no different and there is no better way to learn them than to simulate the natural process – the way we all naturally learn our mother tongue through those who raise us. This natural environment should be the one we recreate when teaching second languages, however it is next to impossible in all but the most fortunate of situations. The truth is that second language acquisition already occurs in less favorable circumstances and Covid-19 has unfortunately exacerbated the challenge enormously.

Hope is at hand, however, as 2021 brings with it the most opportunity students learning languages alone may have ever had with what is seemingly unlimited content available online now. This article will focus on how students can make the most of the challenges faced when trying to improve their English skills in isolation in terms of the four key areas of: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 


But before we start, we must remember rule number one – self-study must be fun!




Listening is a challenge even for natives when strong accents are taken into account and it is an invaluable skill for new language learners. The first step is to choose something enjoyable. Movies, TV shows, and YouTube are the obvious choices here. Students should choose topics that interest them and commit time to making it a study exercise which is also fun. 




Movies, TV shows, and even YouTube to a certain extent are great because they often include subtitles. However, subtitles must be treated with caution. The best way to use them to develop listening skills is to do the following: 


1) Watch the movie (TV show etc.) with English audio and no subtitles, 

2) Watch the movie again with English audio and English subtitles, then finally, 

3) Watch the movie for a third time with English audio and subtitles in the student’s native language. 


This will give students’ listening skills the best chance of improving through the challenge of an ‘information gap’. 


Additionally, radio and live TV are great but challenging due to their live nature. In these situations, it can often be good to have something like BBC News playing in the background while doing domestic duties with the focus on just trying to develop overall listening skills without the pressure of intense attention to a specific talk or show.





Speaking is next, and is one of the hardest to improve alone for the obvious reason that most of us are not comfortable talking to ourselves. This is something language learners need to get over with, and also to see as a task of ‘speaking practice’, not simply talking to oneself. 



The easiest way to start is for students to read aloud, record themself, and then play the recording back with the goal of making corrections and identifying errors. There is no need to rush and it is good to read 15-20% slower than normal, as well as focusing on rhythm, syllable stress, and accurate pronunciation. Start with small amounts of reading and then progress to longer texts when the students are ready. 


It may be useful to read published speeches, or other writing which may have been spoken (such as podcasts). In such cases you can then compare your own speaking of the text to that of the original. This will help you become more natural in your speech and provide a point of reference.





Reading is a skill which certainly lends itself to being done alone. The challenge here in the digital world of 2021 is to have the discipline to force oneself to read. With so many distractions this can be difficult, however it is one of the most important skills a person can have. 





To best develop your reading, focus once again on areas of interest to you such as hobbies or future life goals. Then allow yourself the opportunity to develop your reading in multiple areas to get a rounded development. 


1) Find something like a novel of interest to you and read sections over time. 

2) Look for some current news like publication of interest which you could follow (digital magazine, publication, newspapers, etc.). 

3) Look for something of interest which includes live writing such as blogs and forums where you can observe authentic written exchanges. 


In each of these cases, the goal is to record new words, so keeping a ‘new vocabulary’ book is helpful.






Finally, writing which is perhaps the skill which lends itself the most to self-study is one which must not be overlooked. 



Students should start by keeping a diary which is completed regularly with a simple structure. It may be beneficial to start with smaller entries and work towards longer ones. In addition, completing the written tasks of common English tests such as IELTS, TOEIC, and TOEFL is an appropriate challenge. By doing this you are able to measure your written responses with model answers and determine areas of improvement. 


Lastly, utilize the vast array of writing and grammar textbooks which are available. Find a book focusing on the areas you wish to develop and work through its exercises. 


Books in the series of the following two suggestions may be useful: 







In summary, self-study should be looked at the same as we view going to the gym – it takes time and energy but you feel better afterwards. Students should make efforts to choose interesting topics to work with to ensure that their study is fun, because if it is not fun, they won’t do it. 


Finally, students should vary their study – they shouldn’t focus only on one learning area (such as reading) as this will not provide appropriate ‘overall’ language development.