English Corner – The Building Blocks of Reading Materials

“When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits.”

When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits. It is a necessary complement to your learning and will help flex that muscle needed to retain both the grammar and the vocabulary that can drive your overall proficiency forward. It is not so much which reading material you choose but the fact that it should be appropriate for your reading level as a whole.

For example, it would not make sense to try something very difficult because you think you will advance that much quicker. Often times, if you go beyond your reading level in English, it will often cause an unnecessary step back and you will waste precious time in trying to understand a level of vocabulary and grammar that you are not yet ready for. It is often better to be err on the side of caution in terms of selecting multiple reading materials that you find yourself comfortable with and will challenge you yet you know for sure what the material is about and you can interpret the meaning and explain it to a teacher or a colleague.

If you are a beginner in the English language, I would start off your reading adventure with short poems and short stories, not more than a couple hundred words. Even if you are an adult as well, children’s books are a great way to get more familiar with the language level that you are currently at with basic vocabulary, phrases, and grammar principles. You may also want to read fliers and short email examples as well to become aware of the structure of those forms of writing.

I would also recommend short letters written about different subjects such as sports, weather, the daily habits someone has, and about going shopping or out to eat. It is key to read these short pieces of writing twice or three times to really understand the full meaning of what is being written. You may also want to read the story, the poem, or the letter out loud to work on your own pronunciation too to feel more comfortable absorbing the vocabulary that you are learning. A beginner should not be reading anything more than a few pages in length and at a very low vocabulary level. Preferably, a children’s book, a short email, or a quick poem are best for beginners in this sense.

For the intermediate learner, it is important to challenge yourself more and depending upon one’s age level, there are different options to consider. I encourage students who are younger to choose comic books, short stories, and even short mystery novels as well. Older students may enjoy reading magazines about sports, news, and even fashion depending upon their interests. I also encourage becoming more familiar with reading current events and news articles and being able to explain them to the teacher or to a friend.

Adding on to the difficulty means reading longer reading passages as well as longer letters or poems as well at any age group. You want to make sure that the reading level is higher so instead of at a 1st or a 3rd grade level, you should try to read materials that are at a 5th or an 6th grade level and perhaps up to an 8th grade level. Perhaps most importantly, at the Intermediate level, you should be able to hold a conversation about the topic you just read and to explain the main ideas and supporting ideas of the piece you read. Lastly, with your vocabulary, I would encourage being able to explain too your point of view for an article, what you thought about it.

The advanced learner should be at the point where they can read full books, magazines, and longer-form pieces of writing of at least a few thousand words or more. They should be able to understand and interpret vocabulary at the high school level. Depending upon which English-speaking culture they would like to learn more about, they should do their best to become familiar with writers of different backgrounds and be able to read successfully in a few genres, both fiction and non-fiction.

Reading and interpreting different kinds of texts that deal with different subjects and modern-day issues is also a key part of advancing in the English language. You should be a flexible enough reader at this point to be able to handle different types of reading that is longer than the other levels. From a 500-word poem to a 2500-word article to a 100-page book, being able to handle these types of reading at a high level will set you apart from the beginner or intermediate levels that you used to be at.

Another key to this advanced reading level is one’s ability to speak and write about what you just read with accuracy and by utilizing some advanced vocabulary and phrases learned from these reading exercises. If the professor or teacher were to assign you a persuasive, narrative, or argumentative essay for you to write about your reading assignment, you should feel comfortable by this point in doing so across a number of genres.

‘Building blocks’ take time to assemble and the same goes for building up your reading prowess. Again, it is necessary to start slow with short forms of writing from poetry to a short story to a quick email and then work your way up to a long article or a magazine and then on to the full novel or book that may take a month or two to finish. Getting better at reading in English is a key skill to have and is necessary to boost your proficiency and to do so in a comprehensive manner. It is not only true that your reading skills will get better the more consistent and driven you are with each page but your speaking skills should also improve and your writing abilities will be complemented if you can analyze, interpret, and describe what you have just written in your own words.

Patience is a virtue and reading are the biggest part of that quality when it comes to developing your English language skills. You may show quicker gains with speaking or writing but the long-term success of your English proficiency will be determined about how well you read, how you understand the reading, and what you can tell others about what you have read.

English Corner – Double The Word Phenomenon

“The particular reason why this particular comedy hour stood out to me was due to Jerry’s focus on a peculiar aspect of the English language and how it was even strange to him even as a native speaker and whose English vocabulary is varied and mature.”

I was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix documentary last week titled, “23 Hours to Kill”, which was pretty funny, and I do recommend it if you are looking to watch a comedy special featuring a native English speaker doing a comedy routine. The particular reason why this particular comedy hour stood out to me was due to Jerry’s focus on a peculiar aspect of the English language and how it was even strange to him even as a native speaker and whose English vocabulary is varied and mature. He was drawn to the fact that in the English language, we sometimes have this tendency to repeat certain words again or back to back and it can still make sense.

While he did not give this tendency a name, I am going to refer to it as what I like to call the “Double the Word” phenomenon. In my opinion, it is a phenomenon because it does not happen that often and if you can spot it, you can understand it easily but it tends to happen rarely and when it does, the speaker is unlikely to repeat it or even explain it to you. They may not understand why they doubled the same words or even know the meaning behind why they said it.

The phenomenon of the ‘double word’ or being back to back is not that complicated. It only takes an example or two for you to get the deeper meaning underlying the expression. I also think you will be able to use them after reading these examples. Hopefully, you will be able to take this knowledge gained to expand your English vocabulary and to explain the ‘double word phenomenon’ to your friends and family. A good skill to develop with English is to become acquainted with our various phrases expressions that you won’t find in your average textbook.

  1. “It is what it is.” This phrase means that sometimes, you can’t change things or people to be what you want and that the situation will not change so it’s not worth fighting it. You have to pick your battles but sometimes it’s best to leave things as is. An example of this ‘double word phenomenon’ would be: “Jamie does not want to change jobs at the moment because of the economy; it is what it is.”
  2. “Business is business.” This phrase is a bit neutral in its meaning in that business could be good or it could be bad, but it goes on as usual and remains uninterrupted or in danger of not going on. The meaning behind its positive or negative significance really depends upon the speaker’s tone and body expressions so it’s something to be on the look-out for. “We are making do with what we have in the store: business is business.”
  3. “Rules are rules.” Rules are not meant to be broken and this phrase makes it clear. Usually, an authority figure of some sort would say this to you to say there are no shortcuts or no easy ways out and laws or rules have to be obeyed. This kind of phrase does not lend it to leniency and means that you have the follow the rules whatever they may be. “There is no diving or jumping into the pool. Rules are rules.”
  4. “A deal’s a deal.” In the English-speaking business world, business deals after being finalized are final hence the phrase of “a deal’s a deal.” You cannot back out of a deal after it has been signed and it is a bad cultural practice to renege on your commitments after giving your signature to the paper. If you back out of a deal or want to re-negotiate, you have to make sure that is a possibility before signing the deal. If “a deal’s a deal”, it means you cannot go back on it and it has no room for further negotiations or changes. “You had agreed on the terms and conditions a week ago and now you want to back out? Sorry, but a deal’s a deal.”
  5. “What’s what.” When a person usually a colleague or a friend want to show or explain something to you. They want to show you what something is, how it works, what its’ function is, and why it’s important. When somebody wants to show you “what’s what”, they want to explain it to you so you can understand how it works and even let you figure it out while they watch. This phrase is especially true of machinery of any kind which takes a skilled person to operate it. “Jack took me to Tesla headquarters to show me what’s what regarding the new car model designed to be emissions-free.”
  6. “Who’s who.” This phrase indicates that you or someone you know is indicating that they want to show you who is really important, famous, or worth getting to know. Regardless of which career field or hobby they mastered, they are the ‘who’s who’ of their profession or craft. You might see this double word phenomenon in a Hollywood magazine to show you who are the famous or important people at an awards show. While not used often, it is an interesting ‘double word’ usage that has a deeper meaning. “The Entertainment Tonight hosts were scouring the red carpet at the Oscars to figure out who’s who for the award ceremony later.”
  7. “Whatever happens, happens.” Sometimes in life, you have to let the unknown play out and not try to control the outcome. You have to leave things up to chance or fate and not try to control it. The double the word phenomenon of “whatever happens, happens” means letting things fall as they might and rolling with what life throws at you. If you are in Las Vegas, for example, you could let down your hair a little and enjoy a party or two because in Vegas, whatever happens, happens. “John knew that Las Vegas was a good trip for his friends’ birthday because whatever happens, happens and it stays there after they leave.”
  8. “Whoever does it, does it.” You are very hands off and laid back when you say this particular phrase. You want to express your desire for the responsibility to lie with someone else and for someone else to also take the lead. You express your preference for the work to be done already and for the person to step up and do it already. “Tina did not have a preference for who starts the group’s presentation and stated, whoever does it, does it.”
  9. “And that’s that.” Conclusions or endings can be very subtle, or they can be very sudden. When “And that’s that” comes along, the ending happens very quickly to a story or an event and it is over quicker than you thought it had started. You want to leave no impression behind of any ambiguity after recalling what happened and to indicate that there is no debate to make because the ending was quite clear. There are different ways this double word can be used but this example could be one to use: “Frodo threw the ring into Mordor, Sauron and his minions were destroyed, and they lived happily ever after…And that’s that.”
  10. “Totally totaled.” This phrase may not be an exact double word, but I wanted to include it because it is close enough and includes two similar words that have the same meaning. “Totally totaled” means that something has been destroyed beyond repair or there is no way of fixing it at all. It may not be a bad thing especially if it was your intent to destroy the thing, but it often refers to a car or other kind of vehicle that was damaged beyond repair. “James was anguished when he realized that his beloved car was totally totaled in the accident that happened last night.”

The double the word phenomenon may not be that common in the English language, but these phrases can help you improve your proficiency. You will notice the subtle meanings behind idioms such as these and you will be able to use them in a number of situations, sometimes funny and sometimes serious. Like in most other languages, you can find ways to use the same words back to back and it would still make logical sense to the native speaker.

Part of being an advanced learner of English is recognizing these subtle yet important meanings behind seemingly simple words. The added word that is back to back makes it more subtle in terms of its overall meaning and it’s good to be able to know and understand these deeper meanings behind these seemingly innocuous double word expressions.

Also, if you get a chance, try and look up Jerry Seinfeld’s other comedy specials or YouTube comedy clips. He does other skits that focus on the idiosyncrasies of the English language and is able to explain these weird oddities to both native speakers and those learning the language as their 2nd or 3rd languages.  

English Corner – Creating a Cover Letter

What is a cover letter? Why is it important for an English learner to know about it and also how to create a good one? Well, a good cover letter can make the difference between landing that dream job or hitting refresh on the search results again to find the next job opportunity. Your experience and your professional background need to be succinct and summed up in a well-written way and the cover letter is your best way of doing that. It is an excellent way in which for you to improve your English writing skills and to prove that you can handle your future job’s writing components which there is likely to be many of them since you are a worker during an age of e-mails, 24 hour communications, and instant messaging services.

A cover letter is an opportunity for you to go into more detail about yourself and your experience(s) and background, both professionally and personally. However, your cover letter should focus on the job you are applying for as well as why you are interested in the particular company that you intend to work for. Your cover letter should be a balance of who you are as a professional, what you can offer for the job you’re applying to, and what your interest in the company is. It’s a balancing act between these two objectives and you should remember to personalize your cover letter depending on where you are applying to.

You may be asking yourself as you read this blog post: Why do I need a cover letter and what benefit(s) do I get from creating a worthwhile one? Well, there are a number of reasons for it which I will list below but be sure to note that it’s more than just a chance to land a good job but it’s a chance for yourself to become a better writer and know how to sell your abilities and skills.

Your cover letter is different from the resume in that it allows you to go more in-depth about yourself and why you’re a good fit for the job. Instead of short bullet points, you can highlight your experiences in broader detail. Employers will also expect why you would like to work for their company and how your skills line up with their requirements. It’s a chance to tell your story to them while interweaving how their company or organization aligns with your professional goals. In addition, you have the ability to showcase how good of a writer you are because the cover letter is more grammatically, and vocabulary focused than your resume.

Action words will make up a large component of your cover letter’s sentences so please be sure to put these verbs to good use. Here below are just a sampling of them listed below but remember that there are hundreds that can be used within the context of a regular cover letter. Try not to repeat yourself too much and to keep your usage of action words fresh and consistent throughout the letter.

Sample Action Words

  • Activate
  • Compose
  • Communicate
  • Develop
  • Direct
  • Manage
  • Organize
  • Review
  • Systemize
  • Test
  • Verify
  • Value

Note: Remember to add –d or –ed to the end of the action verb if using it for the past tense.

In addition, you have to be able to choose and use some phrases and sentences that will come in handy either at the beginning or end of the cover letter so that you will come off as being both professional and serious. You do not have to use all of them but there are a number of them that are cordial in nature that a potential employer will expect from you to see when they read it during their evaluation.

Here are some key useful phrases/sentences that you can use for your average cover letter:

  • Dear Sir or Madam…
  • I am applying for this ________________ opening with _______________ for the purpose of __________________________________.
  • This job appeals to me because ________________________.
  • Your company / organization / firm is my top choice because ____________________________________.
  • I believe that I offer a lot to this position based on my skills and qualifications.
  • For example, last year, I was tasked with ____________________________________ and I was able to help by ______________________________________.
  • Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or comments about my application.
  • Thank you for your consideration of my application for this _________________ position with ________________ and I look forward to hearing from someone soon.
  • Sincerely, __________________ (Your Name).

To give you reading at home a better idea of what the content and the structure of a cover letter looks like, I have included two sample cover letter excerpts that will show you how it can be written and what to write about potentially if you are still struggling for ideas as to how the cover letter should be shaping up.

Sample Cover Letter Excerpts

  • “I have over five years of management experience and led my team of software developers to develop a successful mobile application. This mobile application was instrumental in connecting doctors with patients in an online booking system that took out the middle man from participating in this previously onerous process.”
  • “I believe your company, Syntax Inc., has been successful in implementing various infrastructure projects related to bridges and tunnels throughout the Middle East. These kind of projects are related to what I hope to do with my career and I think that this work is very important to the future.”

Remember that you should know who your audience is and tailor your phrases to reflect who you are writing the cover letter for. Always use formal language such as sir, madam, sincerely, respectfully, please, thank you, etc. Go into detail about the job you are applying for and give different reasons on what you bring to the table for the position opening. Structure the cover letter into multiple paragraphs with an introduction, body paragraph(s), and a conclusion. The cover letter is a formal piece of writing so it should be structured as a formal letter whereas a resume is less substantive and more general.

In the introduction of the cover letter, remember to always put your full name, your current mailing address, your cell phone number, and your e-mail address at the header of the cover letter. The date at which you are sending out the cover letter should go next in the left hand part of the cover letter below your header. Then, you should begin the cover letter with “Dear Sir or Madam..” or “To Whom It May Concern”, or “Dear Mr. or Mrs. ________” if you know who specifically the cover letter should be addressed to. The introduction should be a paragraph or two focusing on what position you are applying to, the company associated with the position, and for which reasons you are applying for this specific position. You can also add the person or place that referred you to this job application especially if the person works for the company you’re applying to.

The body paragraph(s) of the cover letter should be a few paragraphs in total length but not be too lengthy or repetitive. Each paragraph should cover a different part of your professional or educational background and highlight what these experiences meant to you and what skills you developed. You should give a few examples of where you showed leadership, where you completed a successful project, and what you took from the experience. Do remember to not discuss every professional experience or educational program you’ve gone to but instead highlight the relevant ones related to the job application in question. Always use complete sentences for this part of the cover letter and check it over for grammatical coherence and correct vocabulary usage.

When it comes to a cover letter’s conclusion, you’ll want to re-state again why you are applying to this particular position and company. Discuss which characteristics, skills, and personal traits you have that will make you stand out as a job candidate. The conclusion of your cover letter should indicate gratitude and thankfulness for being able to apply and that you hope to hear back soon from the employer. Sign off with a salutation such as Sincerely, Best regards, Warm regards, Best wishes, Cordially, etc. and re-state your full name at the end of the cover letter. Don’t be too presumptuous that you will land the position but let your experiences, skills, and qualifications speak for themselves.

Your cover letter is what you make of it really and if you want the job bad enough, it will come through in your writing and in your sincerity. The point of becoming a better English learner is to put yourself to the test and to make the most of your abilities in this language and developing a good cover letter is a great way to do that. If you follow this advice, practice until there are few if no mistakes at all, and revise multiple times what you have written, you will be well on your way to having better success in your professional career in the English-speaking world.

English Corner – The Utility of One-on-One Practice

When you are learning a new language especially one where you don’t have a lot of access to native speakers of that language, your ability to learn the foreign language can suffer as a result. Even if you are learning from someone in your country who speaks with advanced proficiency, there is still a discernible difference between a native speaker who also would likely be a qualified teacher for foreign students and one who is a teacher but is still a non-native teacher.

Now, there are a lot of great foreign teachers of second languages including the English language out there who are non-native speakers but I think that if a student has the chance to work with native speakers especially if they have taught before and are certified, your odds of getting better at the target language will increase exponentially. Most group classes or formal class settings for language learning instruction place an emphasis on a comprehensive strategy involving reading, grammar, vocabulary, and listening comprehension. However, while there is a little bit of speaking and writing practice, it is often not enough and there is also no time spent on the individual student and their own strengths and weaknesses.

If you are in a class of 25 to 30 students, one teacher will not be able to effectively work with each student as much or as effectively to improve either the speaking or writing skills in such a constrained time period. If you have four or five hours of English language instruction per week, the chances are high that out of that amount of time, there will only be 30 minutes to an hour dedicated to either speaking or writing instruction, which is very little.

While group or class settings can be ideal for addressing certain proficiency needs such as the aforementioned reading, listening, grammar, and vocabulary practice, such a large setting is often not conducive to conducting good lessons related to addressing speaking or writing practice. In order to boost a student’s proficiency levels specifically with regards to their speaking or writing needs, then you’re going to have to go smaller to get the best results. Any student of the English language must take it upon themselves to find one-on-one practice because that is the best way to help them achieve the best results when it comes to improving their English especially when it comes to speaking or writing.

Even if a student has no access to one-on-one practice, an admirable alternative would be small group sessions or roundtables of no more than five students so they can get as much individualized attention as possible. The key point to make is that one-on-one or small group practice will help the individual student advance a lot more in English than in a large classroom setting. Large classroom settings can benefit ESL students in some ways especially for socialized learning and group practice, but it lacks that kind of one-on-one correction and encouragement that a foreign language student often needs to succeed.

If the English student in question doesn’t have the funds or the time to research private options, it would be ideal for the school or learning institution providing his class study to provide him or her with some outside options for additional learning, especially online if the student is able to do so. While funding private one-on-one learning may not be possible for the academic institution, to improve their students’ performance, they should do their best to make one-on-one tutoring as cost effective as possible.

If it cannot be offered within the institution, then it should be subsidized as much as possible and referred back to other trusted learning centers or individual teachers who will do a great job in assisting the student in one-on-one tutoring. One-on-one learning, especially for speaking and/or writing purposes is extremely effective for a number of reasons. The greater amount of attention, the ability to correct the student quickly and show them how to fix their errors, and the ability to have a longer, more in-depth conversation or writing session is key to helping the student than they could receive instead in the classroom setting.

To have the ability to study the language on a one-to-one basis is a key part of becoming a better English speaker and writer. To have an hour or two of one-on-one practice will do wonders for the student’s self-confidence, their comprehension, and their ability to cover more topics than they would in a class with 25 other students. The next best option that the student has without spending any money is to attend a language exchange event if available in their city or town where they can practice English with another speaker in exchange for sharing their native language with another student or more. These language exchanges are a great way for language students to meet each other, practice their native and foreign languages, and build a community of like-minded students. While these are not specifically one-on-one practice events, you are likely to be speaking to one other person at a time as you rotate to talk to other people at the event as they likely go for a few hours each time.

By practicing one-on-one, you are not able to hide from your language ability and will put them to the test. Overall, that is an excellent way to develop your English proficiency and to do it more quickly. In a classroom, you can hide as other students answer questions and do work on shared projects but there is no hiding in a one-on-one practice session. While it can be intimidating to work with a teacher or a peer one-on-one, it’s not only good for the student’s English language skills but also for their personal development and socialization.

An added bonus to this is that the student can learn from a native speaker perhaps or a person from a country where the language is native to them. Lastly, with the advent of digital learning, it is now easier to work online with a native speaker from halfway around the world in English or another language for free with a peer or with a paid tutor for anywhere from thirty minutes to a couple of hours each week.

Group lessons and classroom learning are key to being better at English but if you really want to develop your proficiency to the highest level, you should consider learning and practicing on a one-on-one basis as much as possible. You’ll be putting yourself out there and may mistakes but that is a natural part of any learning process and you will definitely grow as a result of being accountable for both your failures and your successes as a language learner.