Think back to when you first started learning English.
Your very first experience studying the language was probably when you were in school.
You might not remember exactly what you first worked on, but chances are you started with classroom vocabulary.
When you’re learning in the classroom, your teacher is completely in charge of deciding which skills you need to focus on, choosing the most essential language so that you can start communicating, and structuring your learning plan.
For the most part, you don’t have to make decisions for yourself regarding what skills you practice and when.
To be honest, when I studied Spanish, I didn’t start thinking about what skills I personally needed to focus on for about six years!
That’s right – I was a Spanish major in college, and even still I hadn’t really thought about the actual language *I* needed to communicate.
You probably relate. One of the best things about learning English in traditional environments is that you can make steady, consistent progress by following someone else’s plan.
Moving Beyond the Intermediate Level
But something happens once you start speaking at the intermediate level.
If you want to take your skills to the next level become an advanced, proficient, or fluent non-native English speaker, you have to start taking charge of your language learning goals.
You may notice, as I did, that your speaking skills need work, that you have trouble understanding native speakers, or that your pronunciation does not sound natural.
If you’re like me, realizing that you have so much work to do can be discouraging.
This is why many intermediate students plateau, or get stuck at the same level.
You may feel like you’re not making progress.
There’s an English expression for this feeling: spinning your wheels, but not going anywhere.
Let’s talk about why this happens.
Why You Feel Overwhelmed
If you’re reading this article, I know that you’re a motivated, hard-working person.
You’ve identified that you need to improve your English, and when you have language questions, you search the internet or YouTube for answers.
I want to reassure you: you’re definitely on the right track, and you’re on your way!
But there’s a downside to consuming so much information about English, and it’s called overwhelm.
One minute, you’re watching a video on phrasal verbs, and the next, you’re learning about travel vocabulary.
But then you remember that started out looking for a video on how to pronounce the “th” sound, but what you really wanted to know was how to introduce yourself to new people in English.
The reality is that you *do* need to improve all of these skills, but not at the same time.
When you’re taking in so much information at once, you end up learning a little bit about everything but not making much overall progress.
In this article, I’m going to explain why you need to find focus in order to improve your English.
I’ll talk about how you make more consistent progress when you stop trying to do everything at once and focus on one skill at a time.
Ready to achieve your goals? Read on.
Why Focus Matters
When students join Sound More Natural in English, my free email course, I ask them what skill they most want to improve, their biggest concern with regards to their English.
Almost everyone names a combination of skills. That’s normal. Speaking a language means mastering all of them.
But you have to start somewhere. You need focus. You need specific goals.
As an accent and communication coach, it’s my job to determine what needs immediate, urgent attention for each of my clients.
We want to fix whatever is most distracting from their intended message.
For some people, this means that we start working on building confidence in conversation and improving communication skills.
For others, it’s working on reducing their accent and improving their stress and intonation.
It can also be increasing vocabulary related to their specific field of work or study, or working on language and expressions used in casual conversation.
I’ve even worked with clients to help them understand American culture better!
All of these aspects are equally important. But we can’t give them equal focus all at the exact same time.
Instead, we have to zero in on just one language skill at a time.
A good framework is to spend three months of each year focusing on one particular skill.
Focus On One English Skill Per Quarter
If you’re learning English independently, you can commit to focusing on one English skill per quarter.
Decide which skill is most important to you, and work on just that one.
Remember, you can practice different aspects of English while focusing intensively on one skill.
If your goal is to become a better conversationalist in English, you need to do the following:
- learn essential conversational expressions,
- practice small talk,
- listen to native speakers having natural conversations.
This just means that you won’t spend extra energy searching for pronunciation tips, watching videos on phrasal verbs, or studying vocabulary related to food, restaurants, and cooking just yet.
Instead, make a wish list of what else you’d like to study, and work on each of those skills one at a time.
Quarterly Learning Goals Related to Language Structures
If you decide to focus on learning advanced grammar skills, do only that for three months. Here are some ideas:
- Review your old grammar textbooks and brush up on the lessons you learned years ago.
- Move on to more advanced language structures and start mastering how (and why) native speakers use the tenses.
- Practice your listening skills by paying careful attention to how verb tenses are used to tell stories. Choose one tense per day and pay special attention to how it’s used by the characters of your favorite TV show, on the news, or in a podcast.
- Find a conversation partner and practice using these tenses in speech. Look for conversation questions that are focused on practicing those particular skills. For example, you can ask and answer questions using the future tense.
This is how your grammar skills improve from intermediate to advanced.
If mastering grammar is your main focus for about three months, you’ll see noticeable, measurable progress.
After three months, you may start to feel a little bored by grammar (I would too), so you’ll be ready to move on to something else with the same committed level of focus.
Quarterly Goals for Having Great Conversations in English
Let’s say you decide to focus on having great conversations in English next. Here are some things you can do:
- Spend some time really listening to conversations, whether that’s by listening to podcasts, watching your favorite TV series, or listening to people interacting in cafes or at the airport.
- Review the way small talk works in English. Study the most common topics for small talk and understand why people ask certain questions.
- Learn how to ask better questions in conversation.
- Focus on essential conversation skills like interrupting and changing the subject. Really try to understand how they help a conversation flow and start using them.
- Join a conversation club, find a language exchange partner, or work with a language coach. After three months, you’ll notice a big difference in how you speak.
Quarterly Goals Focused on Improving Your Vocabulary
Next up, maybe you want to focus on vocabulary, but you want to be specific about what kind of vocabulary you need. Here’s what I mean:
- Don’t just study every phrasal verb in English – study the phrasal verbs most commonly used in business situations.
- Focus on idioms that can help you express yourself better when you are talking about gratitude and being thankful.
- Learn new words that are related to food, restaurants, and cooking so that you’re prepared to talk about your favorite topic of conversation.
- Make sure you’re ready to travel to an English-speaking country and focus on the language you need to navigate the airport, get through customs, find a taxi, and check in to your hotel, guesthouse, or hostel.
(If you want more guidance with your vocabulary, check out my series of detailed workshops on improving your vocabulary naturally.)
Quarterly Goals for Improving Your Accent and Pronunciation
What about accent reduction and pronunciation? You can spend another quarter studying a few aspects of pronunciation. After practicing grammar, conversation skills, and vocabulary, you’re probably ready for a big change.
Here are some ways to focus on pronunciation:
- Understand the four elements that go into a natural-sounding American accent.
- Troubleshoot and fine-tune those sounds that are particularly challenging for speakers of your native language.
- Practice tongue-twisters using the “th” sound, contrasting “f” and “b,” or showing the difference between “sh” and “ch.” Practice for 10 minutes every day for two weeks.
- Work on the differences between vowel sounds. Learn how to shape long vowels, practice long and short vowels, and master the schwa sound (finally).
- Clarify any doubts you have about the past tense -ed endings. It’s easier than you think!
- Revisit word stress and really determine which words are hard for you and master them. Or take a course designed to help you master word and sentence stress.
- Think about the nine ways you can use intonation in conversation and work on each aspect one at a time.
Quarterly Goals for Improving Your Reading and Writing Skills
You can do the same thing for reading and writing skills, being sure to focus on one aspect at a time. Here are some more ideas:
Maybe you want to read comic books, newspapers like the New York Times or The Guardian, or follow a blog on minimalism, entrepreneurship, or personal development.
Or you want to read one your favorite author’s books in English. Do only that for a quarter, looking up the vocabulary you need after you’ve tried to understand it from context.
If you want to focus on writing, review key written communication skills.
- Learn how to structure a five-paragraph essay like we do in the United States, which will help you with the TOEFL or essays in college.
- Spend time researching how we write business emails and the most common expressions we use to begin and end letters.
- Learn how to chat with English speaking friends online.
- Study the structure of your favorite poems or songs.
By focusing on just one aspect of English at a time, you avoid feeling overwhelmed. In just a year, you’ll have made amazing progress in English!
Find Your Focus
So now it’s your turn to decide: what’s your highest priority right now? What do you want to spend the next quarter focusing on?
(If you enter your email in the box below, I’ll send you a worksheet that will enable you to come up with a self-study plan. This will help you commit to sounding natural in English and show you how to gain momentum quickly. Sometimes you need a little guidance and clarity to get started.)
To avoid feeling stressed, think about how you’re going to invest your time and money each quarter rather than enrolling in every program you see.
If you decide you’re going to focus on conversation skills, you may work with a conversation teacher just for those few months or make sure you have time in your schedule to go to conversation classes locally. You can also check out my Conversation Anatomy course.
If you’re going to focus on your pronunciation, you may want to save a lot of energy by enrolling in an accent reduction course like Stress Simplified.
Do you feel motivated to approach the next year with focused energy and attention? I certainly do.
You’ll notice that my articles and videos also follow a similar quarterly plan! I practice what I preach!
Now it’s your turn – leave a comment and let me know what you’re planning to focus on during the next quarter of the year.