Open book with English letters flying above the page.

How to Help a Friend Learn English

Has someone asked you to help them learn English, and you don’t know where to start?  Learning any language is a marathon, not a sprint, and understanding this concept and a few basic principles about learning a new language can guide you as you help your friend in their English study.

Understanding Language Levels

Unfortunately, no one wakes up one day and speaks like a native; learning language is a process. As someone goes through the process of learning English, they progress through “language levels”. When you begin helping someone, it’s important to identify the level they are at, and then find lessons or curriculum that is appropriate for their level. If you choose material that is too easy, your friend will probably become bored and loose interest. If the lessons are too difficult, they may become discouraged and give up. For example, you wouldn’t teach someone the alphabet unless they are an absolute beginner, and you don’t want to recommend that your friend read an ESL news website if they can’t say much beside their name and where they are from. To help you identify your friend’s level, here is a brief description of what someone can do at different ability levels:

Absolute Beginners

When someone begins to learn English, they need to learn the alphabet and basic sounds each letter and the combination of letters makes.  As an individual’s basic understanding of English grows, they learn simple phrases and can have very basic conversations with others and identify words for common objects.

Beginners

At this stage, people know some basic vocabulary and phrases. They can have  short, simple conversations and make themselves understood, even though they will often need to pause and think about what to say or write. They can recognize and identify simple information in basic writing. As they progress through the beginning stage, they will be able to correctly use past tense verbs.

Intermediate

As their vocabulary, understanding, and ability to use English to express themselves increases, learners move to the intermediate phase. Individuals at an intermediate level can understand the main point of everyday conversations, news reports, TV shows, etc. They can be active in discussions on familiar topics without preparation. As they grow through the intermediate level they will move from being able to write a personal letter about an experience they had to being able to write an essay, including providing reasons and supporting evidence for their position.

Advanced

Finally, someone is considered advanced when they can communicate fluently, accurately and effectively. They have no difficulty understanding spoken and written language on a variety of topics. They can precisely and effectively communicate complex thoughts and opinions both orally and in writing.

The first thing you should do after you decide to help your friend learn English is to get a rough understanding of what their current English level is by having a conversation with them. During this conversation, ask them why they want to learn English and what their goals are. You can then look for vocabulary resources and lessons that will help them achieve their goals. For example, if someone wants to be able to communicate with their child’s teacher, you will want to look for lessons that have to do with school, classes, subjects, school behaviors and expectations. However, if someone is working in construction and needs to improve their English for communicating with their co-workers, they will need a completely different vocabulary. When you are talking with your friend to assess their level, also ask about their reading and writing, and if they studied English in the past. In some countries, children study English in school where lessons are mostly focused on reading and writing, resulting in listening and speaking skills that are less advanced. For others, they may have learned to have conversations in English for a job, but never learned to read and write. (For these reasons, someone may be at one level in their oral English skills, and another level for their written skills.) After talking with your friend, you should have a general ideal of what level they are at. If they need to use their phone to translate everything, start at an absolute beginner level. If they need the translator some, they are most likely still a beginner. If they do not use a translator at all, see which category above you think they fit into and try some material out from the level you think they fit into. If most of the words are new for them, try easier material. If they know almost every word, try something a little harder. Each lesson at the right level should have several new words, but not be overwhelming. Once you find your friend’s level – find appropriate lessons on relevant topics at that level.

As you are looking for material, be aware that different publishers and websites sometimes have different names for these levels. (Even within each level, there are different levels.) Some material is leveled from 1(beginning)  through 5 (advanced).  Others: A1 & A2 (Beginning), B1 & B2 (Intermediate), C1 & C2 (Advanced). Other sites may have levels 1 (beginning ) through 10 (advanced).

There are lots of ESL lessons available online and in books. You can check out some resources we’ve found useful here: https://www.tesolministry.org/search-resources/  We are continually reviewing resources and adding links, so check back regularly. You can also log in and leave a review of the resources or suggest a resource you’ve found to be helpful. You can also read more about language levels here:

How quickly someone progresses through the language levels depends on various factors. There’s no “right” speed for someone to progress. However, the more time someone spends studying and practicing English, the faster they will learn and grow in the language. In the following articles in this series, we’ll examine the 3 key elements in learning English, as well as strategies and activities to help you and your friend.


Shannon Mann is the founder and CEO of TESOL Ministry. She has a M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Golden Gate Seminary (now Gateway Seminary). She has over 7 years experience teaching ESL in college and university settings and trains and mentors students working toward their TESOL certificate.

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