Real Academic Documents to Improve TOEFL / IELTS Reading


Students studying academic reading, especially for standardised tests like TOEFL and IELTS frequently ask “How can I improve my academic reading?”

The answer is, “Do more academic reading.”

You need to look at real academic documents and analyse them for meaning. Try to insert your own subheadings and summarise the documents within 200-300 words. Underline key words and add new vocabulary to your word cards.

Where can you find academic documents? In your local college library, sometimes in your city library and on the internet.

If you are a college or university student, your institution’s library may give you access to JSTOR or other online document libraries.

If you are not a higher education student Google Scholar should be your first choice to search academic documents.

The World Bank also has an enormous amount of documents and data that you can access for free.

‘Just’, ‘Only’ and ‘Only Just’


Using the adverbs ‘just’, ‘only’ and ‘only just’ is just one of the troubles you face when using English.

  • Just

  • ‘Just’ indicates a limit or exclusion. In this case it can be replaced by ‘only’.

    “I just invited you, not the others.”

    It can indicate an action has taken place in the moment being talked about. This ‘just’ cannot be replaced by ‘only’.

    “I just finished my homework before the film started on television.”

  • Only

  • ‘Only’ indicates a limit or exclusion. In this case it can be replaced by ‘just’.

    “I only invited you, not the others.”

    It can indicate an action has taken place in the moment being talked about. It cannot be replaced by ‘just’; ‘only’ means that it took a long time and/or a lot of effort, perhaps more than expected.

    “I only finished my work at ten o’clock and had to hurry to catch the last bus.”

  • Only Just

  • ‘Only just’ tends to be used with past or present perfect tenses and means that an action has taken place in the moment being talked about. It is stronger than ‘just’ or ‘only’ used by themselves.

    “Have you been waiting long?”

    “No, I only just arrived, too.”

A Push When You Need It


This week one of my students who has been a little bit too relaxed about his TOEFL study has become extremely motivated and started undertaking listening practice of his own accord and systematically logging the vocabulary he is learning, emailing me to tell me his progress. What caused this? Me telling him I’d check up on him and give him more work if he didn’t do it.

Yesterday one of my teenage students promised me he’d actually try in class, instead of giving up before starting, after leaving his listening paper blank. He doesn’t cope with change well and has all new classmates and a new textbook for this year. For him, this is a significant promise and one that I told him I’d watch to make sure he’d keep to.

Sometimes you don’t need a teacher, you need someone to look over your shoulder, check you’re on task and give you a push when you need it.

If you’re one of my students, you get that nudge as part of the service. A lesson doesn’t last for just the lesson; it needs to last for as long as you need it. Without somebody to coach you (and sometimes that coach can be yourself) you can get lazy. Without a cheerleader (and that can be you, too), you can think that you’re doing badly and lose motivation.

If you need a push, ask me.

If you want to tell me how you’re going to study English, leave a comment.

Getting Better and Worse at English


Which of the words in bold mean ‘get better’, ‘go up’, ‘at the top level’, ‘stopped changing’, ‘get worse’ and ‘go down’?

Everyone wants to improve their English. They’d like to increase their vocabulary and develop their fluency. Not only that, they’d also like to build upon their existing grammar knowledge. They think about new goals to help them focus on getting better at English.

As their English ability grows they want their command of less common vocabulary to expand and their accuracy to reach dizzying heights.

When their English level seems to have peaked, what it is actually doing is hitting a plateau. It stops improving but does not depreciate. However, motivation falls and, in turn, the amount of study time also drops. When the study time decreases too much, it becomes more difficult to recall everything learned before. At this time, the motivation has bottomed out; it cannot decrease further and guilt starts to trigger a desire to study again and their motivation to study English appears to be working its way back up.

Giving and Asking Opinions: Podcast


Today’s podcast is about giving and asking opinions. It can be difficult to give your opinion or to ask for somebody’s honest opinion and in today’s podcast I’ll give some examples of how to do it.


The podcast is also available in the iTunes Store by searching for Get Great English or clicking here.

Modal verbs: Have, Must, Need and Ought


Today I’m going to give a a quick guide to the modal verbs ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘need’. For other modals, see last week’s post.

  • Have to

  • ‘Have to’ is used to indicate an obligation. It is weaker than ‘must’.

    “I have to go to the dentist at one o’ clock today.”

    “Don’t you have to finish your homework?”

    ‘Don’t have to’ or ‘haven’t got to’ is used to say that an action is unnecessary. One may do the action but if one does not, it is acceptable.

    “You’re a guest. You don’t have to wash the dishes.”

    “I haven’t got to do anything tonight so do you want to watch the telly?”

    In its positive form, ‘have to’ can be used to speculate.

    “It has to be minus ten degrees outside today. I’m freezing.”

    “You have to be serious about passing that test. You haven’t stopped studying for four hours.”

  • Must

  • Must is used to indicate a strong obligation. It is not a recommendation. It is extremely strong and can appear impolite or bossy if used in the wrong situation. It is much stronger than ‘have to’.

    “I must get up early tomorrow. I have so much work to do.”

    “You must come out with us tonight. It will be so much fun.” (This is not rude; it is a strong invitation.)

    In its negative form, ‘must not’ or ‘mustn’t’, it is used to say that something is forbidden. ‘Must not’ has a very different meaning to ‘don’t have to’ or ‘haven’t got to’.

    “You must not put knives and forks in the microwave.”

    “You mustn’t be late because the teacher is very strict about that.”

    However, both positive and negative forms of ‘must’ are used for speculation, that is guessing about situations.

    “A lot of people are carrying umbrellas. It must be raining.”

    “She hasn’t eaten a thing. She mustn’t be hungry or she must hate my cooking.”

  • Need to

  • ‘Need to’ is used for strong obligation. It is slightly weaker than ‘must’ but stronger than ‘have to’.

    “I am going to go home now. I need to do my homework.”

    “Do you need to do it tonight?”

    In its negative forms, ‘do not need to’, ‘need not’ or ‘needn’t’, it indicates that an action is unnecessary like ‘don’t have to.’

    “I needn’t study tonight. The test isn’t until next week.”

    “I don’t need to wash the car today. It’s going to rain later.”

  • Ought to

  • ‘Ought to’ is used to strongly recommend actions. It often sounds formal. It is stronger than ‘should‘.

    “You ought to study English every day. You’ll get better quickly.”

    ‘Ought not (to)’ or ‘oughtn’t’ is used to strongly recommend against doing actions. It also sounds formal. Again, it is stronger than ‘shouldn’t

    “You oughtn’t study while listening to music.”

    “There is no fine for returning books to the library late but you ought not to do it because other students may be waiting for the books.”

Assume, Presume and Suppose


All three words are similar and can confuse even native speakers. Here is a quick guide.

Assume is used to guess and it is often, but not always, used to indicate a lack of knowledge about the situation.

“I assume he was at the pub because he wasn’t at home last night.”

Presume is used to indicate that you are making a guess about something and that you may change your mind after you get more information.

“I shall presume he is innocent until proven guilty.”

Suppose is the least formal and most common of these verbs. It is used for guesses and also as a weakened way to say ‘think’ when making suggestions.

“I suppose it will take a long time to drive from London to Edinburgh.”

“I suppose we should take the train instead.”

Four Costly Business English Mistakes

Business English

Usually I tell my students, “If you make a mistake, nobody dies.” For most people, English mistakes in a conversation don’t have significant effects and in business conversations you are probably fine. However, there are four kinds of mistakes that business people routinely make and may cost them money.

Spelling Mistakes

This should be easy to avoid. Most businesses use Microsoft Word and you can definitely install the English spelling and grammar checker, or you can ask the IT manager. The grammar checker is not always reliable but the spelling checker is very accurate. Go through each error one by one – do not click ‘Correct All’ – because the spell checker will change any names to real words.

Machine Translation

Google Translate works quite well between European languages but between European and Asian languages it is dreadful. The grammar, especially word order, is strange. This tells customers you couldn’t be bothered to try to translate your document. If you need to translate something, give the document to a company employee with a high level of English and ask them to try it. Give them at least twenty percent more time than you think they need because everyone underestimates how much time translation takes. If they are not a confident translator then you should hire a professional. It is not cheap but that is the cost of doing business.

Lack of Proofreading

You must proofread documents. Check they make sense to your readership. Depending on the type of document, you may need to have a high level of accuracy; contracts ought to be 100% accurate but short emails may have grammar and spelling mistakes as long as they can be understood and they are not the first contact with your customer. If you don’t have the confidence to proofread your own documents, consult a professional. (I also offer this service – email me for details).

Unclear Vocabulary

Nobody expects a non-native speaker to be 100% proficient in their conversation all of the time. However, people expect presentations and speeches to contain the correct vocabulary and to communicate effectively. If there is a word you need to use in a presentation or speech that you need to check in a bilingual dictionary ensure you also check it in a monolingual English dictionary. If you still don’t know how to use the word, try a different word that you do know how to use or change Google’s language settings to English and search for examples of the word in real sentences by native speakers. Then, input your sentence into Google and if there are a high number of results it is probably correct. If you aren’t sure, hire a proofreader, such as me.

If you follow these steps you should limit your mistakes to only the trivial ones that rarely matter. Remember to proofread everything and if you are unsure of your proofreading, ask a professional.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good


Some students are patient and others are very impatient. Some students are diligent and others want to communicate as much as possible and as quickly as possible. The ones I see improve most quickly are the impatient ones. Why?

Hungry for language

Impatient students are hungry for language and they will try to soak up as much as they can in any way possible. Books, radio, podcasts, DVDs, making friends, joining organisations.

Urge to communicate

Impatient students need to communicate and this need comes from their heart. They want to talk to people and use the language they are learning and share the passion they have in their lives with someone.

They are not ‘good at studying’

Impatient students don’t study grammar with books very often unless someone has told them that their grammar stops them being understood. They don’t sit down with books they don’t enjoy. They don’t always do their homework but they come to lessons prepared to talk.

They don’t care about being perfect, they care about being good enough.

On they other hand, students who try to be perfect and diligent usually take a long time to speak, but their grammar is perfect. They are nervous about mistakes. However, if you make a mistake, nobody will cry; in fact, nobody cares about the mistake but you. You can’t communicate outside the classroom by taking one minute or more per sentence because people will walk away.

Be good enough. Perfect is an unrealistic goal. Native speakers are not perfect all of the time. Try to be as natural as possible and be understood, because what is language for? It is for communication.

If you want to be quicker at speaking here are some things to try:

  • reading aloud;
  • mimicking television shows, DVDs and podcasts (using the pause and rewind buttons if you need to use them); and
  • talking to yourself, perhaps even recording yourself.