Taking Your English to the Next Level

By: Alena Acker

Your attendance is perfect, you always do your homework and you can fill in a grammar exercise perfectly in only five minutes.  So why is it so difficult to pass your level test and move up? As an English teacher, I have seen many a student get frustrated and lose motivation, because he or she is working hard in class but can’t seem to make progress.  If this sounds like you, you might need to think about your passive knowledge as compared to your active use of English.

Alena and Class

Passive knowledge is information that you have learned and can use in a controlled way.  When you recognize a verb tense or explain its rules to your teacher or another student, you are using passive knowledge.  The same is true when you can recognize and understand a word, but don’t feel comfortable using it yourself or when you do practice exercises in your workbook.  Passive knowledge is very important, but it can only take you so far.

Active use is what can help to bring you to the next level.  When you are able to use a new word in a correct, logical sentence that you have written or spoken without any help, you are turning your passive knowledge into active use.  Likewise, active use is employed when you are able to use a verb tense accurately and with flexibility.  In order to improve your English, you must create a bridge between passive knowledge and active use.

Now, building such a bridge is of course easier said than done.  If attending class, participating actively and completing all of your assignments is not working, what can you do?  My advice is to choose a small chunk of language, such as a verb tense or a list of 3-5 vocabulary words and focus on observing it in the world around you.  For examples, let’s say you’ve chosen the present perfect, which can be a very challenging verb tense.  For one week you should keep your eyes and ears open for the present perfect.  Listen for people using it when you are in line to buy your morning coffee or at the movies with your friends.  Look for it in the books and magazines that you read.  Every time you hear or see someone using the present perfect, make a note of it and try to figure out why he or she has used it (for example, why did I just use it here?).  By doing this, you will start to become more comfortable with the language you have chosen and will have a better understanding of when, why and how native speakers use it.  The next step will be to focus on using the language in your own speaking and writing.

Everyone encounters obstacles and has difficulties learning English, but if you take an active role in turning your passive knowledge into active use, you might be surprised by how much progress you can make, and when you take your next level test you’ll be able to use your English with confidence.