www.mjcsmith.net Mike Smith - teacher and trainer Brisbane, Australia
www.mjcsmith.net / Help for Students of English

If you need personal help contact me. Here are some useful Internet sites.

Help for ESL Students

English is a difficult language. You need a lot of time and a lot of hard work.
Here is some advice to help you.

10 Steps to Learning English

  1. Find a good teacher or school (how?).
  2. Understand your level, your strong and weak areas (how?).
  3. Set your objectives and goals (how?).
  4. Build your vocabulary (how?)
  5. Understand articles (how?), adjectives (how?) and prepositions (how?)
  6. Understand conditionals (how?)
  7. Understand Internal and External References (how?) and pronouns (how?)
  8. Listen to everything (how and what?)
  9. Read everything (how and what?).
  10. Write a lot (how and what?).

Teachers and Schools

Your Level of English

You can measure your level of English skill by taking some tests. Most schools offer pre-tests for free.

Or you can just ask a teacher.

English levels are often described with these words:

True Beginner - You have no English.

Beginner - Most students have a little English to start with. Asian students usually have more skills in reading and grammar accuracy. European students usually have more skills in listening and speaking fluency.

Elementary - Students have very basic vocabulary and some common phrases.

Pre-Intermediate - Students have basic vocabulary and grammar, developing skills (listening/speaking/reading/writing), and are becoming more confident.

Intermediate - Students have more advanced vocabulary, grammar and skills but must work hard to continue improving in all areas. Writing development often slows down. Students can communicate with native speakers using common speech of medium speed.

Pre-advanced - Students are using more structures to decode and express examples of critical thought, humour, and cultural differences.

Advanced - Students communicate very well with native speakers, but may still be confused by regional expressions and pronunciations.

Your Objectives and Goals

You must decide what type of English you need to learn and why.

General English is for travelling and has more listening and speaking. Academic, Business, and Technical English are for study at university or for work. They have special vocabulary and have much more reading and writing.

Schools and teachers can give you what you need but you must tell them your objectives and goals.

  • Your objective is the type of English and the level that you want.
  • Your goal is how fast you want to learn.


Name all the common things you see everyday. Don't worry too much about uncommon things at first.

Build word families and write them in lists:

  • in contexts - animals, plants, foods, transport, home, school
  • in time zones - night time, morning, mid-day, afternoon, evening
  • in enjoyment - things you love, like, don't like, hate
  • in activities - work, study, games, entertainment

Play with nouns, verbs and adjectives. In English you can use words for any function. You can make new words. Maybe you won't be 100% correct, but everyone will laugh and understand.

  • Make sentences.
  • Make short stories.
  • Write letters, emails and SMS messages.
  • Go to Internet chat sites.


There are three articles in English:

  • a / an
  • the
  • (zero)

These articles are like adjectives. Articles give information about nouns (things).

Adjectives give information like colour, size, ownership, etc. Articles give information about familiarity of the thing. This information is usually for deciding 'which' thing.

All nouns have an article. This includes other words acting as nouns such as: gerunds (verb+'ing'), and noun phrases. This idea is very important and will help you understand and remember.

'the' - it is one (or a group) of many but it is (or they are) familiar, usually mentioned recently or soon expected (see External References).

Example - "I can see the bus"

Meaning - Listener should assume familiar bus, perhaps one caught everyday, or one expected soon.

Example - "I can see the buses"

Meaning - Listener should assume familiar group of buses, perhaps those expected soon.

'a' - it is one of many and it is not familiar, it does not matter which bus, or it is not known which bus.

Example - "I can see a bus"

Meaning - I'm not sure which bus, or it doesn't matter which bus, but I can see one bus.

Chose 'an' if the following sound (not letter) is a vowel sound.

'zero article - Ø' - most familiar, specifying 'which' is irrelevant

Example - "I can see Ø bus" *

Meaning - Specifying 'which bus' is irrelevant - this statement is bad English because specifying 'which' of anything singular can never be irrelevant In English, a singular thing is considered a point-in-space and its difference from other points must be addressed in some way. This is fundamental to how English speakers think about objects, space, and geometry. See 'smoke' example below. See also Prepositions.

Example - "I can see Ø buses"

Meaning - Specifying 'which buses' is irrelevant - this statement is possible in English but a bit strange because we expect some more information about 'where' or 'what they are doing'. The 'zero' article tells the listener that 'buses' is most familiar and so this causes conflict or confusion in the listener's mind.

This confusion can be avoided with 'the' in this example: "I can see the buses". Here the listener is given information that 'buses' should be assumed as familiar, perhaps recently mentioned or soon expected.

Example - "I can see Ø Peter"

Meaning - Although Peter is a common name, the listener should assume that Peter is so well-known that specifying 'which Peter' is irrelevant This is often true with names of people. Some grammar books say it is a rule that Proper nouns have no article. Of course this is not correct in situations of multiple people with the same name. In such situations the speaker might say: "I can see the Peter from next door, but not the Peter from upstairs"

Example - "I can see Ø smoke"

Meaning - The listener should assume that specifying 'which smoke' is irrelevant This is possible since smoke is rarely a point-in-space. This is often possible for uncountable nouns. However as for the 'bus' example, the listener would still expect more information about 'where'. Without that information the listener might assume smoke is all around (not possible for a point-in-space, see 'bus' example above).

If there is more than one source of smoke then they need to be distinguished in some way, either by using 'the' or by specifying 'where' or both: "I can see the smoke from your cigarette" or "I can see smoke coming from under the door", or "I cannot see the smoke from your cigarette, but I can see the smoke coming from under the door".


Adjectives give information about nouns (things), perhaps the colour, size, type, or number of things, or what they are made of.

In English, the the word order in a sentence is that the adjectives are before the noun.

e.g.: red wine

In comparison, In French the adjectives are after the noun.

e.g. vin rouge

However since French has influenced the development of English, we sometimes adopt the French word order (when we want to sound a bit fancy).

e.g.: the light fantastic
e.g.: the man about town
e.g.: the chef extraordinaire

The last example even sounds French and helps explain why we change the word order. A bit of history...

After the Norman invasion of the British Isles, the French language became used by the aristocracy for their everyday things. This explains the vocabulary we use for foods at the table: lamb, beef, etc

The common folk kept their old English vocabulary: sheep, cow, etc.

So the where French words are used in English, they generally indicate more formal situations, or where we are trying to embellish something, or make it sound better than it really is.

This applies not only to vocabulary, but also to word order.

There are rules about the order of multiple adjectives before a noun but usually the maximum is three.

e.g.: the big brown bear
e.g.: the small red sport scar
e.g.: the dazzling, razor-sharp, steel knife

The useful rule is that the adjectives which describe finer detail are closer to the noun. Size is usually furthest , while material is usually closest.


Prepositions are much easier to understand if you think in a certain way.   It may help to think about prepositions using geometry.  Please read my paper (available soon).


Like prepositions, conditionals are much easier to understand if you think in a certain way.  Conditionals should be taught at once, not separately.  This helps students to understand the patterns and meaning.   Please read my paper (available soon).


A very confusing aspect of learning English (or any language I suspect) is that not all the information is in the sentence.  Sometimes very important information comes from understanding which is already shared between the speaker and the listener.

e.g.: It is fine today.

This sentence does not specify the subject. 'It' could be anything - my breakfast, my sore knee, the taste of my coffee. However the usual meaning is the weather and this is understood as an external reference.

e.g.: Tom was very worried yesterday.  He (Tom) was sailing his boat across the lake.  It (Tom's boat) was rocking wildly on the water.  It (the water) was very rough on that day (yesterday).

The examples above are backward references and are indicated by pronouns.  Backward referencing is easy to decode because you can find the information usually in a recent sentence.

The examples below are forward referencing. This creates a more dramatic feeling because you must continue reading to find out what it is talking about.  Your curiosity makes you keep reading. 

e.g.: It (what?) was very rough that day (which day?).  His (who?) boat (whose boat?) was rocking wildly on the water (ah.. the water was rough!) as he (who?) was sailing across the lake.  Tom (ah.. it was Tom!) was very worried yesterday (ah.. it was yesterday!).

Forward referencing is good for dramatic narratives and shows high language skills.  It is excellent for spoken story telling.

It is not appropriate for formal, business, technical or academic writing.


Pronouns are special nouns we use for convenience to talk about other nouns.  You must decide which thing or person that the pronoun is talking about.  This can be confusing in English because of referencing (see above).   Read my paper (available soon)


Listen to as much English as you can.  It doesn't matter if you can't understand.  Your brain will still learn and start to recognise words and expressions.

Listen to the radio and the TV.  If you like music, then find the lyrics of your favourite English songs and sing with the songs.  You can find lyrics here or here.

Listen to other people at cafes and on buses and trains.  Write down new expressions and ask your teacher about them.


Read as much as you can. Start with simple books like children's books with pictures and easy language.

Many adult books are published again for English learners.  These may be books you know from your language.  Read them again in English.

If you like the Internet, try to make friends in chat rooms.


Write a diary to help you remember your vocabulary and grammar.  Practice writing about the past and the future.  Write about your dreams, wishes and regrets.

If you like the Internet, try to make friends in chat rooms.

ESL Internet Sites

There are lots of Internet resources. Here are just a few:







    Updated 20 July 2004