What’s the best way of learning English? Part two.

In part one I suggested that students first need to clarify exactly what their objectives are when they decide to study English. I will now consider the options they have available.

So, once you have decided what your real objectives are, you need to consider your possible options for achieving those objectives. All of your options have advantages and disadvantages. Basically they are:


  1. attending a school
  2. self-study
  3. having a private teacher.

Obviously one could mix and match these and that might be a good idea but I’ll consider then separately.

Attending a school - Advantages.

Attending a school it probably the most common solution. One of the advantages of attending a school is social contact and reinforcement. You get to know a group of people who are all studying the same thing and will have similar problems and ideas. If, for example, the classes are every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 pm then there is social pressure to attend and this is very important for some people.

Schools are usually good at teaching you how to pass exams. And they are reasonably good at teaching you how to read and write. Depending on the importance they place on the subject they can be good at teaching you to listen.

Attending a school - Disadvantages.

While classes in schools can be good for imparting information and teaching some skills they are not particularly good at giving students the opportunity to speak. This is because while reading writing and listening are activities which the whole class can carry out simultaneously speaking is an activity which people carry out individually.

I’m afraid that I'm now going to need a few paragraphs to explain the issue. Imagine that a particular class lasts an hour and that equal time is spent on the four primary skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Let us further assume that there are only six students in the class and that class time is split equally amongst these activities. In such a case each student would spend 15 minutes reading writing and listening. But the 15 minutes for speaking would have to be shared.

Assuming that the teacher spends five of those “talking” minutes explaining or introducing an activity then each individual has only a little less than two minutes of personal speaking time. Some will argue that I am being unrealistic and that more time can be spent or that there are other solutions. So let’s imagine that the entire hour is given over to speaking and then make a further series of generous assumptions. Let’s imagine that it is a full 60 minute class with no time for setting up or finishing, that nobody arrives late and that teacher speaks for a maximum of ten minutes.

All these are quite unreasonable assumptions but I’m trying to be generous. (The reality is that people arrive up to ten minutes or more late, that setting up and closing can take five minutes each and that most teachers would speak for more than ten minutes.) But sticking with our initial generous assumptions the students are now left with fifty minuets. Even in this case the students only have a little over eight minutes each in which to speak. And of course this is an average – if a couple of students speak for ten minutes then somebody else may only speak for four.

Nevertheless an average of eight is better than an average of two – but it’s still not a lot out of an hour. Of course the solution schools have come up with is to have the students talk to each other. A case can be made for this based on claims that: students are more relaxed talking to each other; that weak students can learn from strong students and that students can learn from each other’s mistakes.

However, the fact that students are more relaxed, even if it’s the case, doesn’t mean they are learning; even if it’s true that strong students learn from weak ones then this is unfair to strong students who are simply unpaid teachers; and while students may identify each other’s mistakes they are just as likely to reinforce them or, even worse, copy them. In reality, having students talk to each other is simply a second best solution to the problem that the teacher can’t talk to each one individually.