The green revolution in learning


Love him or hate him Richard Branson is one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs famous for starting everything from a student magazine, back in his school days, to Virgin Galaxy, sending people into space for holidays not forgetting Virgin Records, Virgin trains, Virgin Atlantic and a host of other companies with the Virgin brand.

He is also a far-sighted visionary who has set up a philanthropic organisation called Virgin Unite which in turn has led to many other organisations which do a lot of real work in the world. This is not just painting walls for charities, but using the expertise within his organisations to make change for good in the world.

I have just finished reading his book, ‘Screw business as usual’ and he was talking about how industries can help the environment (among other things) and I  thought about my industry – online teaching. Actually without realising it, we are actually doing a lot to help the environment by teaching and learning online.

We work from the comfort of our own home, so there is no extra demand for lighting, power or heating – most of us (teachers and learners alike) have families/partners who live with us so the lights would probably be on, as would the heating and the computer. This is an initial saving which is often overlooked.

Next there is the cost of transport, maybe we can walk to the school or the places where we teach but if not, we often use our cars or public transport as do the students who attend these schools. There are a few, granted, who will walk or use their bikes which is excellent.

Now let’s look at our teaching, teachers, in spite of the best efforts of schools, (for reasons of financial cost mainly!) are notorious for producing materials and copying them, just in case. (My hand is up too, I was guilty of this when I worked in the classroom!) What a phenomenal waste of paper and the cost of copying, don’t forget that the toner needs to be disposed of too when everyone has finished and the unhealthy air that many copiers give off. When we work online all of our materials are kept on our computer and shared with students via email, screenshare or other methods. Even homework can be done online. No photocopying, no trees being cut down, no toner to dispose of, no dirty air. I have a small printer which now rarely gets used. My empty cartridges go for recycling as will the printer when it finally dies. Plastic to plastics, glass to glass and metal to scrap. I use pens which have been produced for promotions by other companies and I buy refill inserts for them when they run out. The empty refills go for recycling too.

I am just a small one person operation but there must be thousands of us, if not tens of thousands, this is the size of a large corporation. If all education in the modern world was to move online what an improvement that would be. Using modern technology we can offer courses to people in developing countries without going there. One local adult with either a load of recycled laptops or computers which are still functional (and perfectly capable of working on the internet) could make a world of difference to these people.

I am just thinking that if each online teacher was to donate 1 hour of their time per week or per month to a project like this, lives could be transformed. People could understand the world around them better. This is a two way street, teachers and learners would learn. This to me seems like a win-win solution for people and planet.

What do you think?



The 20:80 Rule in learning


I have just read a post by Veronika Palovska ((do you speak freedom) about all the wonderful opportunities for learning that have arrived since the advent of the internet. But one thing she said in particular really struck home. It is all well and good taking all of these courses, lessons and attending webinars but you actually need to do something with the knowledge.

The same is true of learning languages, you spend 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 90 minutes in your lesson and you learn something which seems really useful. Then you forget it because you don’t use it. Veronika suggested that you should spend 20% of your time learning how to do something and then 80% actually doing it. And I would add doing it for a purpose. Of course any good teacher will give you an opportunity to practice what you have learned, grammar exercises usually, sometimes speaking exercises and if you are really lucky (unlucky?), a writing exercise!

This is not really enough to embed the knowledge in your brain. Why not see how many different ways you can find to use this new language knowledge?

Here are a couple of suggestions for you.

  1. Start writing a blog, ask your teacher and other students to look at it and comment. It doesn’t have to be a regular event. I am not the best at sticking to a rigid schedule of posts! Write about whatever you like to start with – an article on another blog sparked this one.
  2. Why not record something on Vocaroo or a similar site, share the link with your teacher and friends and ask them to listen and comment or if you are really brave youtube or a similar site.
  3. If you work, why not find a letter that had to be answered and try answering it yourself in English (or the language you are learning). This time you may find a colleague to look over it for you and make suggestions/comments.
  4. If you have children, why not write a simple story in English and then read it to them. (Or try translating a simple traditional story from your country.)

These are just some suggestions off the top of my head. What other suggestions do you have? Share them in the comments.


Exam or not?


From time to  time I have students who ask me about which exam is best for them and I thought I would try to answer the question here.

The most important question is: Do you need an exam qualification? Very often people do not need an exam for general use or to prove their level. There are some tests available online which will give you a free guide to your level. Here are a couple.


The next question is why do you need the qualification? Is it for your own benefit, for an educational institution or for an employer or potential employer. If it is for an employer or educational institution, check with them what qualifications they want. They will often be specific about the exam and the level required.

Next there are 2 types of exam, one off exams which prove that you have attained the required level, these include Cambridge English: First (earlier First Certificate) and the Cambridge English:Advanced (earlier CAE) and other exams in this suite. These exams have the advantage that once you gain them you have them for ever. Unfortunately some institutions do not like them or accept them if they are more than a few years old. These are old-fashioned pass or fail exams

The other exams are exams which you need to renew. They are not pass or fail exams but they show your level at a particular time and are usually valid for a fixed period of time. Examples of these exams include IELTS and TOEFL. These are very popular with universities and companies.

Finally there are business specific exams, for example Military English exams, Legal English exams and Business English exams. Check which exams are required and any level.

One thing that you should know is that for many exams, you don’t only need the required standard of English you also need to know how to take each exam – the types of questions – and what the examiners are looking for. This is called exam technique and you may need a special teacher to teach you this. You can find out a lot by visiting the website of the organisation which organises the exams and downloading the handbook for students. They will often have sample questions for you to practise with. Here are some of the common General English exam sites

Please note that one reason that it is important to know which exam and which level you need is the cost! In some countries the cost of these exams may be a high proportion of your monthly/weekly income!

What are your experiences with English Exams?

Here comes the Summer!!!


It is now the start of the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere and people are looking forward to their break. Many regular language schools are closed or offering summer school offerings. What are you going to do?

I am living proof that with languages, if you don’t use it, you lose it! So don’t quit for the summer.

One way that you can keep up your language practice is by switching the language on your phone to the one you are learning. This can usually be done quite simply in this way you will become exposed to new words and help to reinforce existing words that you may know.

The internet is a treasure trove of English, why not try exploring some new sites written in English or how about taking a free course to improve yourself in some way. There are free courses on almost every subject under the sun if you know where to look. Try Coursera, Futurelearn and edX – these are the big ones but not the only ones. You can practice your English and learn something you are interested in. Very often there are support groups for your language, often videos come with subtitles in English and other languages.

How about meeting up with your classmates once a week to have an English morning/afternoon/evening. You can talk about the weeks events, pick up some new language – especially if it is a topic you are interested in!

I have just been told about a wonderful app called Speak & Translate (I think it is an “Apple” app but there are other similar apps too. Set the input language to English and the output language to your language. If you are speaking clearly in English the app should have few problems translating it back into your language. If there are problems, you may need some help with pronunciation!

Finally you could take some 1:1 lessons with a teacher online, just to practice your English or to clear up any points of the language you are not sure of.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t stop or you will fall back from your current level! What are you going to do?

Man’s best friend in an exam?

Image 2

Sorry but it isn’t your dog (and he/she’s not allowed in no matter how cute he/she is!) I have been working with a student recently and he seems to make many mistakes and most of these are because he doesn’t read the questions and instructions properly.

Your best friend in an exam is your highlighter. Read the questions carefully and highlight the key points – How many words, what you have to do, the things to be covered in a text etc.


By taking a little extra time at this stage you can save yourself from making silly mistakes by assuming you know what you have to do. It will also draw your eyes to the key points when you are checking back.

When you find the answer in a text, highlight that too (or at least underline it!) that way if you have the luxury of some time at the end of the text you can quickly check your answers.

Can you think of any other ways to stop making mistakes?

A different way of learning?


Time seems to have flown since my last blog. One of the reasons I have been quiet is because I have had a couple of translating jobs which have taken a lot of my free time. While I was doing the translating, I realised I was learning more about the language which I was translating from.

This is not conscious learning but more an awareness of the structure of the original language and how it hangs together.

Next time you have a little free time why not take a paragraph  from your favourite book in English or an article from the internet or a magazine and translate it into your language. Try Google Translate ( as you will probably need to work a little harder to get it correct in your language. (I recommend working a sentence at a time!)

If you rest your mouse over the words in your language (Right hand box) it will show you the original word(s) in English. Remember that if you click on a word in your language alternatives will appear below. Does one of these make more sense than the originally suggested word?

When you are cleaning it up what do you notice about the English language? What things are similar? Which things are different? Are there any words which are similar? Think about sentence structure, punctuation and words forms.

If you click on the little speaker icon in the left hand box (English) you can hear the words being said!

When you have tried it, why not post the new things you noticed or became more aware of? Remember to tell us your source and your first language!

1-2-1 online – get the best out of your lessons!

one to one

Lots of people consider taking private lessons whether through the internet or face to face. This is possibly one of the best ways of learning but you need to make sure you know what you want. One to one can be an expensive way of learning and you really want to get the best out of it.

The pros and cons.

First of all the advantages of learning online, you don’t have to physically be present in a classroom. This means that you can save travel time, you can have a lesson from wherever you are. Away from home at a conference? No problem, you can arrange lessons for when you have a break or in the evening. Bad weather? No problem, you can have the lesson from your nice warm cosy home. Feeling a little under the weather (sick)? – It is far less effort to switch on your computer and have a lesson. And one thing I noticed when I started teaching online – I didn’t get sick so often because there was no direct contact with other students. This obviously works for you too – one less source of illness!

The disadvantage is that there are no classes to go to, so you may miss the contact with other students and the social aspect which may go with that. You need to be a little more focused to study on the internet. Set yourself regular hours each week for lessons, just like a regular class and you will be fine. Sometimes in a lesson if you do understand something you may get help from your fellow students. To get round this you should not be afraid to ask your teacher questions. ‘I don’t understand’ is not a bad thing, it means that the teacher needs to explain the point again and/or in a different way until you do understand. The other problem can be the internet service where you live. Many online teachers use Skype, you can check their recommendations here .  You can ask your teacher if they use another service if you are not happy with Skype.

Getting the most out of the lessons.

First of all you need to know why you want to learn the language. Do you want it for work, for travel, for exams, to meet people. Once you know this you need to decide what level you need. Do you need basic functionality, full command of the language or something in between. People going to study or work in a foreign country may need IELTS or TOEFL to prove their language ability. Everybody would really love to get top marks but be realistic. What do YOU need to get into that Uni or work. That is your minimum target and anything above is a bonus.

Think about your experiences of learning languages, what did you like/not like. How long did you study, what problems did you have. How could the teacher have made the lessons better for you. Remember, as soon as you move into online 1-to-1, the teacher only has one student to worry about – YOU!

How much time can you spend each week studying? I would recommend 2 lessons per week with a space of 3-4 days between each lesson. Are you prepared to spend time out of lessons doing extra activities? Just like a regular class, the teacher can set you extra work to do to practice/reinforce the language you have learned. But this will be focused on YOUR needs not the needs of a class.

Do you know your language level? This may help your 1-to-1 teacher but most experienced teachers will be able to assess your level with a reasonable level of accuracy within 10-15 minutes of the first lesson. Don’t worry about it!

Do you have any particular needs? Some people want to focus on speaking and listening, others on reading and writing. Some people want to increase their range of vocabulary. Others want to work on pronunciation. What do YOU want?

Your first lesson.

You need to communicate all of the information from the previous paragraph to the teacher in the first lesson to help them decide on the best course of action to help you. Expect to talk about these  things as well as your job and family. The teacher needs to be able to hear you working in English in order to find out about you and your level of English. Don’t be worried about your mistakes, you are not being marked up or down you are just being assessed for the level you are. Try to relax, stress strangles language! Again an experienced teacher will understand that you are stressed and make allowances for you and try to help you relax.

In the lessons.

If you have decided to take lessons with a particular teacher, remember that you are the one that is paying – you are in charge! If you don’t like a topic, say something. As I said earlier, if you don’t understand, stop the teacher and ask. You are not stupid. When you buy a car or a stereo and you don’t understand something, you ask until you are happy. A good teacher will find a variety of ways to explain something if necessary.

It is a good idea from time to time to review your progress and discuss it with your teacher. Are there things that you haven’t done yet that you wanted? Tell the teacher – there may be a reason that it hasn’t been done yet or the teacher might not have realised that it has still to be covered.


This is the real world and things happen, but in the 21st century we have many ways of communicating. If you are unable to attend a lesson, please tell your teacher as soon as possible. There are two reasons for this, firstly the teacher may be able to book another student in your place if enough time is given. Secondly, teachers are not happy if they are sitting at their workstation waiting for you and you don’t turn up. If you have to cancel at very short notice or don’t turn up you should expect to pay for the lesson. Ask your teacher for his policy at the beginning of the course.

Of course real emergencies do happen and a teacher may be prepared to just move your lesson time in this event. Communication is the most important thing!

Skype or ?

Many teachers use Skype, others use learning platforms for their lessons. Find out which you teacher uses. If it isn’t suitable for you, ask them if they can use a communication system that you are happy with.

What is the best way to learn a language?


There are lots of ways to learn a language but which is the best. First of all, lets look at the options.

You can take evening / Saturday classes. In this case you will be part of a group of people learning the language. This is good as long as you are all approximately the same level, the teacher knows the subject and is capable of relating to people. The drawback is that often you all have to work at the same speed which may not be the right speed for you. Some older style teachers may also not allow you the time to use the language for its main purpose ie to communicate. Certainly, in the past many teachers just imparted knowledge without giving the students the opportunity to use it. I have had many students who said “I learned English for 10 years at school but I can’t speak.” Their teachers for different reasons did not allow this type of practice. Another drawback is that you have to go to the lessons at a fixed time each week either of which may not be suitable for you.

You can take online courses with Coursera and other similar institutions, here you can often work at your own pace which is much better but many people feel isolated when they learn in this manner, they lose heart and give up. They do not participate in the forums which is a pity because they can be an amazing source of information as well as extremely motivating. Even if your language is not English there are often sub groups set up for speakers of a specific language so that issues can be discussed in your mother tongue – this can be especially valuable for lower level learners who can share their experiences and knowledge. Similar to the regular classes the big drawback can be the lack of opportunity to engage in real spoken communication in the new language. You do often have the freedom to study when you want each week although there may be live events which can be beneficial to attend.

Today, in the 21st Century there are a myriad of apps to help you learn languages. These often have the advantage of being self-paced – you work at your own speed. There are flashcard apps like quizlet and memrise and sites/apps like duolingo and busuu to name a few but these will generally only help you  to learn words and phrases and not necessarily to communicate. You can use sites like to practise listening skills and some news based sites will help you to learn vocabulary and sentence structure but you are still not communicating.

Today there are a number of sites which offer the chance to speak with people in other languages through the internet. If you combine one of these with one or more  of the previous options you can be successful. The only problem can be finding a language partner. There are often problems with time zones, sometimes there are personality clashes and often you need to find someone who you can exchange languages with. The last point is nor so much of a problem if your native language is a popular language like, for example, English, Spanish or French. But if your mother tongue is one of the  less popular languages you may have trouble finding exchange partners. Another thing to be aware of is that unfortunately some misguided individuals think that language exchange is the same as dating! You may also find that some people don’t have the patience to help others – teaching is not for everyone!

A final option is online lessons one to one with a language teacher. There are many advantages to this you can shop around until you find the right teacher, many teachers offer free or cheaper trial lessons. You can find a teacher which you can afford, even native speakers who live in other countries will often take less than a native in their own country. You can take lessons when you want and wherever you are and the lessons will be tailored to your needs. A good teacher will help to motivate you and provide you with additional activities to do between lessons to ensure that you keep up your standard. And of course you will be communicating throughout the whole lesson.

So the answer to the question which is the best depends a lot on you. Some people prefer the camaraderie of the classroom, others prefer to work alone using apps – these people can have a good knowledge of the language but not be able to communicate. Others are lucky enough to find good language partners. More and more these days people are turning to the internet to get lessons and also more and more teachers are making themselves available on the internet.

What do you think? Which have you tried and which would you like to try?

Why can pronunciation be difficult?

exercisePronunciation can be so difficult sometimes and the question is why?

Sometimes it is very easy, someone shows you how to say a word and then you copy them. Easy, right? Not always!

So why have I got a picture of people doing exercise at the top of this post?

When you do exercise you normally have an instructor to show you what to do and how to move your body in the right way. At first it can be very difficult to get it right. Muscles feel strange, muscles ache and you make lots of mistakes. After a while it starts to get easier and  you make fewer mistakes and finally you get it right.

Sometimes learning to speak follows the same pattern. You need an instructor to show you how to make some of the sounds which you may not have in your language. This may involve learning how to move your mouth and tongue in different ways. At first it can feel very strange, sometimes it may feel uncomfortable and you will make lots of mistakes. After a while, with practice, it will start to get easier and you will make fewer mistakes and finally you will get it right.

First of all you need an instructor who can identify your problem sounds, many people can tell you if something doesn’t sound right but not so many can tell you why. They can tell you how it should sound but no matter how often you try you just can’t imitate that sound correctly.

You need someone who can tell you what your mouth should be doing in order to help you. They will tell you how your mouth should be held, where your tongue should be and how you should express the sound.

Once you can understand how to do this the instructor will be able to give you exercises to help you practise the sound. Just like going to the gym, you will have to practise regularly but probably 5 minutes a day for each sound will be enough – it may be a good idea to practice in front of a mirror to make sure your mouth is doing as you have been shown.

Here is an example – many people have trouble making the ‘w’ sound often using ‘v’. I train my students by telling them to imagine they are kissing their old grandma on the cheek. Your lips should be pushed forward to make a small ‘o’ shape, as you say the sound, the lips come back and open up – you try it!

When you have mastered the sound on its own you need to practise it in words. So I give my students tongue twisters to help them practise. How about this one?

“Wild women get wet when white water rafting.”

The good news is that you can learn. I would like to thank my student Huanwei for inspiring me to write this after our lesson.

If you would like to know more about pronunciation or you would like some lessons, please contact me via my website – english with bob

Leaving it to the last minute.


Several times recently I have been approached by students who are taking an exam within a very short period of time and they want help to prepare for the speaking paper.

Personally I think that all papers should be prepared for well in advance of the test, the reason for this is that it is important to know what the structure of the test will be and to gain confidence in your speaking ability. All of the other papers require you to either use your receptive skills or writing skills. Students spend many hours practising to get these right and then worry about the speaking.

Speaking is the only paper which in which you are likely to have to work face to face with an examiner (and sometimes another student). All of the other papers are written or anonymous so there is much less nerves involved. If you start working on your speaking at the same time as the other papers you have a chance to gain the confidence you need or at worst reduce your level of nervousness.

First of all you should understand how the speaking exam works. See if you can watch some videos of real speaking exam sessions – very often the examining body will have some recordings that you can watch. If not trawl the internet – sites like Youtube often have recordings of exams but please try to make sure they are either real exams or they have been produced by a reputable school/institution.

Make sure you have a copy of the marking scheme for the exam so you know what the examiners are looking for and how you will be assessed.

It is probably worth having a few lessons with an experienced teacher, they will be able to give you tips on techniques to use in the exams and advice on your language use. Once you understand what is required of you then you can practise with a friend or even in front of your webcam if necessary. Remember to listen to your recording with the marking criteria to hand. Do you think you have achieved what you wanted, what problems do you have – do you need to focus on anything in particular. If you have to speak on a topic for a certain length of time, can you do it without repeating yourself or without too many hesitations. Do you know any technical words that you need to talk about your topic?

Most speaking exams are just that – speaking exams. The examiners will be more impressed by a clearly expressed opinion than a lot of very technical words that may not be used correctly. You do not need to worry about whether the examiner agrees with your opinion or not – it is how you present your opinion that counts.


Like everything practice makes perfect, so please don’t leave speaking to the end!