One of the most important principles for students hoping to improve their English is the everyday practice of organization. Whether you plan on taking an internationally recognized English examination or not, all students can benefit from simple organizational techniques, which can help one progress at a rate that is both natural and consistent.
Getting Back to Basics
Outlined below you will see the ‘TOP’ Student Model, which can help students from all over the world adopt a learning style which is surprisingly basic yet brings fantastic results. Are you a ‘TOP’ Student?
T – TAKE DOWN (Be receptive and write down new pieces of language)
O – ORGANIZE (Re-arrange and store new language effectively)
P – PRACTICE (Use this information. Practic makes perfect!)
Let’s start with ‘T’- ‘Take down’. Taking down new information doesn’t have to start in the classroom. There are plenty of resources in the outside world to assist you when learning English. Yes, most of the information you are provided with usually comes from a classroom setting. However, there is nothing stopping you from visiting a library, reading articles online, or picking up a free newspaper. ‘Taking down’ is vital when improving English. You might have the best memory in the world, but you can’t remember everything, nor should you try to. Pens and paper exist for a reason. Never forget that! If you really want to step up your language level, you will need to stay focused, concentrate and write down as much new information as possible. Getting better at something takes time, dedication and energy. As a teacher, I am satisfied if a student feels exhausted after class- this means they have been pushing themselves to work at full capacity. When I look to see how much new language my students have taken-down on paper, I expect to see plenty of pen work. Once class has ended, it’s time for step two- ‘O’ is for organize.
Most students enjoy finishing class for the day. It feels great because the hard work is over, right? Incorrect! This is one of the worst assumptions many students make. The real hard work hasn’t even started! Covering new material in a coursebook is not the same as knowing it. To ‘know it’, you must ‘learn it’. To ‘learn it’, you must ‘organize it’. The question becomes, ‘how do I organize this new language in a way that will make it easier to learn?’. Well, there are a number of ways, all of which depend on a student’s learning style. Below is my preferred technique known as ‘banking’, where notes taken in class can be organized and re-written before applying this language to real life experiences.
‘Banking’ involves storing words and grammar in an organized column or table, which displays new pieces of language, their word categories and a brief definition. Having observed my student’s take notes, most of them choose to write down information as it is presented to them in class. The result is often disorganized and rather messy in presentation. An example of a student’s notepad might look like this:
head out (phrasal verb)
As you can see, the language above has not been ‘taken down’ with a key purpose. This form of note-taking is performed by many students, even those not studying English. However, if notes like this are not in your first language, there needs to be a way of making life easier! Getting into the habit of ‘banking’ new language is a step towards learning any foreign language. Let’s assume the student who wrote the notes above spoke French. Here is an example of how they could re-write what they had put down in class into a neater, more organized format:
history (n.): past events (histoire)
historic (adj.): important/influential in history (historique)
to head out (phrasal v.): to leave a location (sortir)
to do a favor (fixed expression): to help/assist another person (faveur)
Notice, just by writing down the new word in a column with its word category in brackets provides an easier way to interpret the language. Secondly, the student has now written the meaning of the word in their native language. Both ‘history’ and ‘historic’ are similarly spelt in French. Writing these down in your native language will also make the English vocabulary easier to identify.
Once new language forms have been re-written and their overall ‘meaning’ is now clear, students may put this new knoweldge to practice. Practice may actively be performed through speaking or writing. Of course, students will experience this language through listening and reading. However, if a student is to truly perfect this language, they will most benefit from speaking and writing. ‘Example sentences’ (as outlined below) are an effective way of praticing new language both out loud and by hand.
The term ‘example sentences’ sounds simple. It is. But something simple doesn’t have to be simple in it’s effect. In fact, when it comes to learning a language, ‘simple’ is far more effective when it comes to breaking down information. Here is how you make the most of an example sentence (be sure to have a pen and paper):
1. Refer to your new piece of vocabulary: historic
2. Apply the new piece of language to another word category which forms a fixed expression: historic (adj.) + building (n.) = historic building
3. Insert the fixed expression into a basic sentence structure and change the form if necessary: Paris has many historic buildings
4. Be vocal and say the sentence out loud (this can also help perfect pronunciation)
5. Apply the new word to another word categorary and repeat the process above
By writing down (and actively repeating) example sentences, students can train their memory, grammar skills and pronunication simultaneously. Now that’s effective! In addition, if students get into the routine of becoming a ‘TOP’ student regularly before doing their homework, this will actually make the work set by their teacher more managable and perhaps, surprisingly easy. I find it important to remind my students that in order to learn a language efficiently, they must be be motivated during the class and equally motivated afterwards. Get started today and you too can become a ‘TOP’ student.
Adapted for EC English Language Centers from ‘The Art of Organization’ in ‘ESL Accelerate: Mastering Examination English’, Smith, H. (Copyright, Camb.to Calif. 2011)