How to Learn English with Movies | Top 10 Best Films

What you will learn:

Why learn English with films?
5 tips to learn English through movies
Top 10 best films for learning English
Learn English with short films
How to talk about movies in English
 

Why learn English with films?

Watching films is a lot more fun than studying with a textbook! It can also be just as useful. Here is why sitting down with a movie in English will improve your fluency:

REAL ENGLISH – Textbooks are great for learning vocabulary or grammar, but nothing is better than listening to real native English. By watching British and American films, you can listen to native English actors speaking the language in a natural way. This will help you learn modern English and sound more like a native speaker in terms of vocabulary and style.

BETTER PRONUNCIATION – Sometimes it can be hard to know how an English word is pronounced. Hearing native speakers in movies will teach you the correct way to say things. Dialogues in films also provide good examples of how sounds in words change in connected speech.

LIVE CONTEXT – When you learn a word, it can be difficult to remember what it means or how to use it. In films, words are used as part of a story and this context helps you to learn and remember them more effectively.

NATIVE ACCENTS – Across Britain and America there are many different accents used to speak English. When watching films, you will hear many regional accents being used and this will help you to understand them better. Textbooks seldom provide information about English accents.

EXPLORE CULTURE – You can learn about the culture behind the language when you watch movies in English. Language and culture are closely connected. Why not study both at the same time by watching original films?
 

5 tips to learn English through movies

  1. Only choose interesting films!
    This sounds obvious, but the most important thing when using films to study English is to watch movies you will enjoy. If you choose a boring film, then you may lose interest and pay less attention to the language it uses! To find interesting films by genre, title, actor/actress or date of release, you can visit IMDB.
  2. Avoid movies that are too difficult
    When you are watching a film in English, it is important that you understand enough to follow the storyline. Try to choose a movie that suits your current level of English. If you are a beginner, you may want to start with simple cartoons or children’s films, like Toy Story. On the other hand, if you understand 99% of the dialogue between characters in a movie, it may be too easy for you.
  3. Aim to understand 70% or more
    When learning English with films, you should aim to understand the general meaning and not every single word. Do not worry if you miss some words or phrases or do not understand the accent of a character in a movie. You can pause or rewind the film sometimes and write down new vocabulary, but avoid doing this too often. Remember that watching movies should be fun!
  4. Repeat your favourite lines!
    If you hear a line that you really like, write it down and repeat it! If you say it aloud, you are more likely to remember it. Sometimes, you will hear phrases that sound cool and are used in everyday English in the UK or America. Textbooks do not usually teach these informal expressions, but movie do!

With VLC player (or a similar video player) you can watch movies with delayed subtitles in English. If you set a delay of 2 seconds, you can try to understand by listening first and then confirm what you have heard by reading the subtitles just after.

  1. Use subtitles in the right way
    When you are watching a film in English, it is a good idea to turn the subtitles on. With most video players you can do this via the settings tab. On YouTube, press the ‘CC’ button in the bottom right corner and then select ‘English subtitles’. If you really like a movie, perhaps try watching it once with subtitles and then again without. Avoid subtitles in your own language.

 

Top 10 best films for learning English

With so much choice out there, it can be hard to know which movies to use when learning English! Check out this top-10 list of classics that includes films in different genres. For each film, there is a description of the plot (story), an extract from the movie with an explanation of the language used, and a trailer showing a short clip of the film. Let’s take a look!

  1. Toy Story (1995)

Animated films like Toy Story are a great way to improve your English. They are usually aimed at children, which means the vocabulary is simple. However, Toy Story has been written so that it is fun for adults too. It even includes some subtle adult humour that kids might not understand!

Toy Story is one of the most successful movies of all time, starring Tom Hanks as the voice of the main character Woody. There are three Toy Story movies, all of which are action packed, colourful masterpieces about the ‘secret life’ of toys that come alive when there is nobody around. In the first film, Woody meets a new toy, Buzz. All of the movies focus on friends Woody and Buzz as they go through various adventures together.

Woody: Hey! Who moved my doodle pad way over here?

Rex: ROAR!

Woody: Hey, how ya doin’, Rex?

Rex: Were you scared? Tell me honestly.

Woody: I was close to being scared that time.

Rex: I’m going for fearsome here, but I just don’t feel it! I think I’m just coming off as annoying.

One of the reasons Toy Story is such a good film to help you learn English is because it is really fun. In this scene, a dinosaur toy called Rex tries to scare Woody.

Lots of American slang is used in Toy Story. From the extract, you can see the phrase ‘doodle pad’, which is a toy that you can draw on. ‘Doodle’ is a funny word for casually drawing. Woody also says ‘How ya doin’?’. He is a cowboy toy, and so he often uses very American phrases like this one, which means ‘How are you?’.

From the extract, you can see how Toy Story uses quite simple language; making it perfect if you are trying to improve your English with movies. It does use some longer words, though, such as ‘fearsome’, which means something that is frightening or scary. You would expect a dinosaur to be ‘fearsome’, but instead Rex is just annoying!

  1. The King’s Speech (2010)

What better way to learn English than with the King of England?

When the King’s Speech came out in 2010 it immediately became one of the biggest films of the year, starring Colin Firth as King George VI. The film follows King George as he tries to overcome a stutter before his first wartime radio broadcast. A ‘stutter’ is a speech problem when a person talks with repeated sounds or words.

This is a great movie to improve your British pronunciation because the whole film focuses on how to speak English correctly.

King George VI: Listen to me. Listen to me!
Lionel Logue: Listen to you? By what right?
King George VI: By divine right, if you must. I am your King.
Lionel Logue: No you’re not. You told me so yourself. You said you didn’t want it. Why should I waste my time listening?
King George VI: Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!
Lionel Logue: Yes, you do. You have such perseverance, Bertie. You’re the bravest man I know. You’ll make a bloody good King.

In this extract, King George is talking to his speech therapist, Lionel. A speech therapist is somebody who helps you speak correctly if you have problems with your pronunciation. You can see that Lionel calls King George ‘Bertie’. This is a nickname. These are often shorter forms of the person’s first name, but they can also be invented based on someone’s appearance or behaviour. Nicknames are common among friends in the UK and America.

The language in The King’s Speech is more complicated than in Toy Story. For example, you can see the phrase ‘divine right’. ‘Divine’ means godlike or holy, and so ‘divine right’ means that God has given the King the task of leading England.

As this is a film for adults, there is also some strong language (swearing). In this extract, Lionel uses the word ‘bloody’, a swear word used to emphasise something. Today, ‘bloody’ is commonly used, but in the time the film is set it would have been considered very rude.

  1. Harry Potter (2001-2011)

Harry Potter is one of England’s greatest national treasures. Everyone loves it!

The movies are about Harry Potter, a wizard, and all of his magical adventures. The Harry Potter films are a must-see if you are learning English! All of the main characters go to a magic school called Hogwarts. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has its own animals and history, and it uses language from basic English to magical words made up by author J.K. Rowling. Some of these nonsense words are even used by fans! For example, ‘muggle’, which is an insult meaning ‘someone who cannot perform magic’.

There are eight Harry Potter films which are based on the seven books by J.K. Rowling, but it is best to start with the first (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

Harry Potter: Excuse me, who are you?

Hagrid: Rubeus Hagrid, keeper of keys and grounds at Hogwarts. Of course, you’ll know all about Hogwarts.

Harry Potter: Sorry, no.

Hagrid: No? Blimey, Harry. Didn’t you ever wonder where your mum and dad learned it all?

Harry Potter: Learnt what?

Hagrid: You’re a wizard, Harry!

This famous scene is in the first film, and it is the moment when Harry finds out that he is a wizard. You might have noticed that in this extract Hagrid says ‘learned’, whereas Harry uses the word ‘learnt’. Both ‘learned’ and ‘learnt’ mean the same thing here. They are both the past tense of the word ‘learn’ and it is okay to use either. ‘Learnt’ is the original British English form, but ‘learned’ is preferred in American English.

Hagrid uses the word ‘blimey’, which is a British slang word used to express surprise. In this scene, he is shocked that Harry has never heard of Hogwarts.

Hagrid also says that he is the ‘keeper of keys and grounds at Hogwarts’. This means he is a ‘groundskeeper’, or somebody who takes care of the land. In the movie, Hagrid is played by famous Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane.

If you like the actor Robbie Coltrane, try watching some of this other movies! These include: Nuns on the Run (1990), Golden Eye (1995), and Message in a Bottle (1999).

  1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

If you want to watch a classic film in English, try The Shawshank Redemption. Many people see it as one of the best films ever made and it is famous for its “twist ending” (unexpected finale).

The Shawshank Redemption is based on a book by Stephen King, and it tells the story of a white, educated man who has been sentenced to life in prison for murder. Over twenty years, he makes friends with a black prisoner called Red, who is played by Morgan Freeman.

Parole hearing: Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated?

Red: Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.

Parole hearing: Well, it means that you’re ready to re-join society…

Red: I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?

As you might expect from a film about a prison, there is lots of legal language in The Shawshank Redemption. In this scene, Red is at a ‘parole hearing’, which is an official meeting to decide whether a prisoner should be released early or not.

Notice the word ‘rehabilitated’. This is often used to describe people who have recovered from a drug addiction. It means you have been helped back to normal life after something bad, such as a serious illness or time in prison.

This movie also uses a lot of American slang. In this extract, Red calls a prison official ‘sonny’. This is an informal word for ‘son’, but can be used to address a person when you are underlining your superior age (and wisdom) or when looking down on them.

  1. The Graduate (1967)

For fans of film, The Graduate is a must-see. Many people say it is one of the most important movies ever made due to its use of camera work. It also has one of the most famous endings in film history.

Starring Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate is not only a brilliant movie, it also has a fantastic soundtrack. All of the music was written by Simon and Garfunkel. Released in 1967, The Graduate tells the story of a young man who has an affair with a married woman, and then falls in love with her daughter.

Benjamin: For god’s sake, Mrs Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and telling me your husband won’t be home for hours.

Mrs Robinson: So?

Benjamin: Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.

Mrs Robinson: Huh?

In this scene, Mrs Robinson, a family friend of the main character Benjamin, has taken him back to her house. He feels like she is trying to ‘seduce’ him, which means to try to sleep with someone. He says ‘for god’s sake’, which is an informal way of showing anger or shock. This expression is a little rude in English.

Mrs Robinson says ‘huh?’. People say ‘huh’ all the time in English. It is a colloquial way of saying ‘what?’.

Dustin Hoffman is a world famous actor now, but The Graduate was his first big film. When he went to his casting interview, the producer thought he was a window cleaner! Staying in character, Dustin Hoffman actually cleaned a window for him.

  1. Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually is a ‘rom-com’, which is short for ‘romantic comedy’. A lot of people watch this movie in the winter because it is a Christmas film.

This movie looks at eight different stories set in London, all of which are about love. This means that it is good to help you learn English accents as there are lots of characters, including Liam Neeson with an Irish accent.

If you are a fan of romantic films, Love Actually is a great choice to help you learn English.

Sam: There’s this big concert at the end of term and Joanna’s in it. And I thought, maybe if I was in the band and played absolutely superbly, there’s a chance that she might actually fall in love with me. What do you think?

Daniel: I think it’s brilliant! I think it’s stellar! Apart from the one, obvious, tiny little baby little hiccup.

Sam: That I don’t play a musical instrument.

In this extract, Sam is hoping to make Joanna “fall in love” with him. If you “fall in love” with someone, it means you are crazy about them and love them very much.

Daniel says that this plan is ‘stellar’, which means perfect or first-class. He then says, however, that there is a ‘tiny hiccup’. A ‘hiccup’ in this context means a ‘problem’. The problem with the plan is that Sam cannot play a musical instrument at all. This is actually a very big problem! When Daniel says it is a “tiny, little, baby little hiccup” he is being sarcastic. Brits are famous for this type of humour and it forms an important part of UK culture.

  1. Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump’s entire life is shown in this film. Played by Tom Hanks, Forrest is a kind but slow man. ‘Slow’ in this context means that he is not very intelligent. Without realising it, Forrest takes part in some important moments in history, such as the Vietnam War, and teaching Elvis Presley how to dance!

It is a charming and funny film. One of the reasons it is a good movie for learning English is because Forrest Gump talks very slowly, meaning he is easy to understand.

Dorothy Harris: Are you coming along?

Forrest Gump: Mama said not to be taking rides from strangers.

Dorothy Harris: This is the bus to school.

Forrest Gump: I’m Forrest, Forrest Gump.

Dorothy Harris: I’m Dorothy Harris.

Forrest Gump: Well, now we ain’t strangers anymore!

In this scene, Forrest is going to school for the first time. He is not sure if he should get onto the school bus because he has never met the bus driver before.

Forrest says ‘mama’, which is a kid’s word for ‘mother’. His ‘mama’ told him not to ‘take rides’ from strangers, which means ‘get in the car with’. He takes this to mean he should not get on the bus. In Britain and America, parents often tell their children not to talk to strangers because it can be dangerous.

Throughout the film, Forrest Gump uses a lot of American slang, so this movie is great for more advanced learners too. In this extract, he says the word ‘ain’t’, which is a short form of ‘are not’. This contraction is often used by Americans and you will hear it in many US movies and English songs.

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction is a ‘Tarantino movie’, which means it was directed by Quentin Tarantino – one of the most famous directors of all time. His films are loved for being creative, unusual and violent.

Pulp Fiction follows the stories of several criminals in America, from the view of the criminals themselves. Many consider this film to be a modern cinematic masterpiece. It is also a good film to improve your English because it has many funny and interesting dialogues between its characters. Try watching this movie with subtitles, pause it from time to time and write down any new slang expressions you find! If you want to know the meaning of a slang term, you can look it up on Urbandictionary.com!

Mia: Don’t you hate that?

Vincent: What?

Mia: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?

Vincent: I don’t know. That’s a good question.

In this extract, Mia uses two common American slang words: ‘bullshit’ and ‘yak’. ‘Bullshit’ is a swear word commonly used to mean something is stupid or not true. The word ‘yak’ literally means a type of big, hairy cow! However, in this context it means chatter or talk a lot about nothing important. If you say somebody is ‘yakking away’ it means they will not stop talking! We can also call them a ‘chatterbox’.

  1. The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything is a ‘biopic’, which means it tells the true story of somebody’s life, usually someone famous. This English movie tells the story of Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world. It focuses on his relationship with Jane Wilde and his illness, which paralysed him. Being ‘paralysed’ means Hawking cannot walk and is in a wheelchair.

One reason why The Theory of Everything is a good film to help you learn English is that its characters have very clear British accents. Parts of the movie are set at Cambridge University, one of the most well-known academic institutions in England. Many of the characters speak ‘the Queen’s’. This means upper-class or “posh” English, which is clear and correct.

Eddie Redmayne’s acting in the Theory of Everything was so good that Stephen Hawking said it sometimes felt like he was watching himself on screen!

When Stephen Hawking becomes paralysed he has to use a machine to help him speak, which means he talks slower. This makes the film easier to understand for learners of English because the main character does not speak too quickly.

Jane Hawking: What about you? What are you?

Stephen Hawking: Cosmologist. I’m a cosmologist.

Jane Hawking: What is that?

Stephen Hawking: It is a kind of religion for intelligent atheists!

This is the scene where Stephen Hawking first meets his future wife. You can see from the extract that this movie uses quite difficult English words. It is a good film to watch if you already speak English well and want to push yourself further.

The words in this scene are very scientific. Hawking says he is a ‘cosmologist’, which means he studies the beginning of the universe. He says this is a ‘religion for intelligent atheists’. This means it is like a religion for clever people who do not believe in god. The Theory of Everything is also a great film to watch if you want to learn more scientific vocabulary in English.

  1. Submarine (2010)

Submarine is an independent film, which means it was not made in a big film studio. Movies like this are sometimes called ‘indie films’. This one was a very successful independent film and won several awards.

Submarine is a “coming-of-age” film set in Wales, which means it is a movie about teens growing up. This is a good film to watch if you want to hear different regional accents in English.

The main character, Oliver Tate, is 15 years old and the movie shows him struggling to grow up. It is a very funny film, which also deals with adult themes such as love and sickness.

Oliver Tate: Ask me how deep the ocean is.

Jordana Bevan: Shut up.

Oliver Tate: Come on, just ask me.

Jordana Bevan: Why?

Oliver Tate: ‘Cause I know the answer.

Jordana Bevan: Oh! Do you?

Oliver Tate: Yes, I do.

Jordana Bevan: How deep is the ocean?

Oliver Tate: I’m not gonna say.

Jordana Bevan: I’m broken-hearted.

Oliver Tate: The ocean is six miles deep.

Submarine was praised for being brave and direct. Oliver Tate is an awkward character. In this extract, he is talking to somebody he loves and he should be serious, but instead he is asking her if she knows how deep the ocean is. This makes the situation funny!

As you can see from this scene, lots of slang is used in this film. Jordana tells Oliver to ‘shut up’, which is a rude way of saying ‘be quiet’ or ‘stop talking’. In the extract, Oliver uses informal short forms like ‘‘cause’ (because) and ‘gonna’ (going to). These are very commonly used by native speakers in everyday conversation.

One of the reasons Submarine was such a popular hit in the UK is that the soundtrack was written by Alex Turner of the famous Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys. It’s well worth a listen!

Jordana says that she is ‘broken-hearted’. This means she is very sad or ‘overcome with grief’. It is often used to describe how people feel after the break-up of a relationship. However, in this particular context, Jordana is being sarcastic.
 

Learn English with short films

If sitting through a full movie in English seems too difficult, then it might be a good idea for you to start by watching short films. There are many short films in English, which can range from just a few minutes long to about half an hour.

Shortoftheweek.com uploads new English short films every week. There are thousands of films in categories, such as horror and animation. Try watching a few of these short movies to improve your listening and vocabulary skills.

There are also many short films on YouTube. To find them, try searching for a phrase like: ‘short films in English’.

Try watching Alone – a short film that has won awards for Best Cinematography. This piece is just six minutes long and only has one character. This means that it is simple and quite easy to understand for anyone learning English.

Alone is a post-apocalyptic film. This means that it is about the world after the end of our civilisation. There is only one person left on Earth, and this film follows him while he speaks about what it is like to be the “sole survivor”.

I had that dream again, when everything was normal. People working, people laughing. Years ago when it was all, well…before it all went to hell.

You can see from the extract that this film does not use complex language. It is good for remembering everyday English words, such as ‘working’ and ‘laughing’. The phrase ‘before it all went to hell’ is American slang, meaning ‘before everything went wrong’.
 

How to talk about movies in English

Talking about movies in English can be confusing. For one thing, there are different words for every type of movie! Here are some of the genres of films in English:

Film genreWhat it meansExamples
Rom-com‘Romantic comedy’There’s Something About Mary, Just Go With It
‘Whodunnit’Short for ‘who has done it?’ These films are about a crime, and the audience has to try to guess who did the crimeSherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie
Sci-fi‘Science fiction’ – films about robots, aliens or the futureStar Wars, Star Trek
HorrorMovies that are scaryDracula, Frankenstein, It
ActionFilms with lots of action – about heroes, guns and adventureDie Hard, Taken, The Dark Knight
ComedyMovies that try to make you laughAnchorman, Airplane!, Hot Fuzz
DocumentaryFilms that investigate something in real lifeThe March of the Penguins, Grizzly Man
MockumentaryA mock or joke documentary. This is like a documentary, but it is about something that does not really exist.Spinal Tap, Borat
AnimationCartoon filmsToy Story, The Lion King

As well as different types of films, which are called genres, there are some other words that are often used to talk about movies. Here are a few of the most common, with examples:

Cast – all of the actors and actresses in a film
‘Harry Potter had a really good cast.’

Character – one of the people in a film
‘Hermione was my favourite character in Harry Potter.’

Plot/Storyline – the story of a film
‘Shawshank Redemption has a brilliant plot!’

Scene – a small part of a film with one location and one group of characters
‘My favourite scene from Pulp Fiction is the one in the diner.’

Cinema (slang: the pictures) – a place you go to watch movies ‘on the big screen’
‘Do you fancy going to the cinema/pictures tonight?’

Cheesy/corny – describes a film that is clichéd, too predictable or in poor taste
Jaws is just a cheesy film with a rubber shark!’

21 English Phrasal Verbs with PUT

21 phrasal verbs with ‘put’ 
 

PUT ACROSS

a) Give opinion clearly, explain an idea well, describe articulately
‘I thought Emily put her views on politics across really well during the discussion.’

b) Speak and express yourself clearly, make a positive impression
‘When David spoke in front of the class, he put himself across really well.’
 

PUT ASIDE

a) Keep or save something for later
‘I always put aside my best suit for special occasions.’
‘You really should put some money aside for your retirement!’
‘Hardworking parents still need to put time aside for their children.’

b) Not allow yourself to be negatively affected by something, ignore temporarily
‘Mike and his girlfriend were able to put aside their differences because they loved each other.’
‘Jim has put his problems aside and is now getting on with his life.’ 

Put phrasal verb quiz
 

PUT AWAY

a) Return something to its usual place
‘Arthur put away his car keys and his wallet.’
‘Tell the kids to put their toys away before bedtime!’

b) Send to prison or a mental hospital
‘If you commit a serious crime and get caught, you could be put away for life!’
‘That woman’s crazy! They should put her away.’

c) Save (up) money
‘You should consider putting some money away for your grandchildren each month.’

d) Consume food or drink quickly or in large quantities (informal)
‘I went to the pub with Emily last night. That girl can really put her beer away!’

e) Score a goal (informal)
‘Ronaldo skinned the keeper and put it away in the 91st minute! What a goal!’
 

PUT BACK

a) Postpone, delay, schedule for a later date
‘Tell John that the meeting has been put back until next week.’

b) Return something to its original location
‘When I finished reading, I put the book back (in the drawer).’

c) Change a clock/watch to an earlier time
‘When do we put the clocks back? I know it’s sometime in October.’

d) Delay or hold up progress
‘The economic crisis in Europe has put back production in several key industries.’
 

PUT BY

Save (up) money
‘I try to put a fiver (£5) by each week to give to charity.’

In English, there are often several ways of saying the same thing. For example, ‘put by’, ‘put away’ and ‘put aside’ can all be used to describe the process of saving money to spend later. Another example of this is ‘put down’, which can mean the same as ‘take down’ and ‘write down’ (record in writing).

 

PUT DOWN

a) Insult, humiliate, criticise
‘As a child, Jennifer never liked her aunt because she always put her down.’
‘I wish you’d stop putting yourself down. You can do this job standing on your head!’

b) Kill an animal or pet because it is old or ill
‘The poor dog had to be put down because it couldn’t walk anymore.’

c) Suppress, stop with force
‘Armed police have put down another riot in the city of Cairo.’

d) Write down, make a note of
‘Can you speak a bit slower, please? I’m struggling to put all this down!’ (Also: take down)
‘Let’s put some ideas down on paper before we start the meeting.’

e) Leave a deposit, make a down payment
‘Rob and Lucy have put down £30,000 on a house near their son’s school.’

f) Put a baby to bed
‘Little Alfie has kept me awake all this week! Can you put him down tonight?’

NOTE: When we say ‘put down’ about a baby, it does not mean we are going to kill an annoying child! Meanings b) and f) above are very different! Phrasal verbs often have multiple meanings so you must pay attention to the context in order to understand them correctly.
 

PUT DOWN FOR

Book place as, sign up as, list as
‘Shall I put you down for swimming classes on a Monday, or would you prefer gymnastics?’
‘I’m happy to donate to your charity. Please, put me down for £10.’ (Record pledge)
 

PUT DOWN TO

Be due to, be the reason for, attribute to
‘John’s made a few mistakes, but I think we can put that down to inexperience.’

 

PUT FORWARD

a) Suggest an idea, opinion or candidate
‘At the open day, Hannah put forward her opinions on veganism.’
‘I’d like to put Marie Walker forward as the new chairwoman for our committee.’

b) Change the time on a clock to a later time
‘The school children put the clock forward so the lesson would finish earlier.’

c) Schedule to an earlier time
‘Our annual conference has been brought forward by a week.’
‘If you bring the deadline forward, then we are not going to complete the project on time!’
 

PUT IN

a) Invest time or effort
‘The amount of money you make depends on the work you put in.’
‘I had to put in an extra 3 hours today to cover for an absent colleague.’

b) Install
‘Jim and Henrietta are having their new kitchen put in next week.’
‘What’s going on with all the roadwork? Are they putting in a new bus lane?’

c) Formally submit (request, claim, proposal, etc.)
‘Our charity has put in a grant application for additional laptops and printers.’

d) Interrupt
‘“Why don’t we just postpone the project?” she loudly put in.’

Phrasal verbs are not always logical! For example, you can ‘put on’ a shirt, but you cannot ‘put off’ a shirt. Instead, we say ‘take off’. You cannot say ‘take on’ to mean ‘get dressed’ because this means ‘to hire’! It is always best to learn phrasal verbs with several examples in context.

e) Invest, contribute money
‘When the business started, each of the investors each put in £20,000.’

f) Give position or place to someone
‘They had to put in a new Head Teacher because the school was failing to meet its targets.’
‘Local voters put the Democrats in because they were angry with the ruling party.’ (Elected)

g) Stop at a port (about a ship)
‘The tall ships put in at Cape Town on their 1000 mile voyage.’
 

PUT IN FOR

Make formal request
‘After a failed office romance, Mary put in for a transfer to a different company branch.’
‘Have you put in for your provisional driving licence yet?’
 

PUT OFF

a) Delay, postpone
‘When are you going to learn to drive? You can’t keep putting it off forever!’

b) Make someone feel dislike for, discourage someone from doing something
‘Steve had dirty shoes on the date. That really put me off (him)!’
‘I would’ve gone into medicine, but was put off by the long hours.’

c) Distract
‘I am trying to concentrate, but you’re putting me off! Can you please keep the noise down?’

d) Avoid through postponement
‘I keep putting my mum off, but she really wants you to come round for dinner!’
 

PUT ON

Put phrasal verbs in English

a) Present, host, organise something
‘The Globe Theatre in London puts on a lot of fantastic plays.’
‘Our local pub is putting on a gig for charity next month.’ (Concert)
‘There are lots of parents joining the school trip so we’ll have to put on extra minibuses.’

b) Gain weight
‘David’s put on a few pounds over Christmas, hasn’t he?’
‘I’ve put a bit on since I quit the gym. I really need to do more exercise!’

c) Get dressed, start wearing
‘He put on his coat and left the house.’

d) Pretend, fake, recreate something
‘Olivia put on an American accent because she thought it made her sound cool.’

e) Apply, spread on surface
‘Hotdogs are really tasty if you put some mustard on (them).’
‘My girlfriend always puts makeup on before we go out.’

f) Turn on, cause device to start working, play
‘Do you mind if I put the TV on?
Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea!’
‘I’ve just bought this new CD. Can I put it on?’
‘If I’m home late, can you put the dinner on?’ (Start cooking with a cooker/oven)

g) Place a bet
‘Geoff put £10 on Arsenal to win the cup final.’

h) Call to the phone
‘Jessica’s just upstairs. Hang on a minute and I’ll put her on!’

i) Add, apply to
‘Farmers are asking supermarkets to put 10p on a litre of milk to help cover production costs.’
‘These days, parents put too much pressure on their kids to perform well at school.’

j) Give responsibility for
‘Junior doctors are often put on night shifts because older members of staff have families.’

k) Prescribe treatment, medicine
‘The doctor has put me on some stronger painkillers.’
 

PUT OUT

a) Defeat in a sporting competition
‘Everybody laughed when Iceland put England out of the Euro’s.’

b) Hurt or injure (usually about the back or joints)
‘John’s put his shoulder out playing tennis so he won’t be joining us for our match.’

c) Have sexual relations with someone (American slang)
‘I heard Jenny puts out on the first date!’

Bear in mind that phrasal verbs can have unexpected slang meanings! ‘Put out’ is one example of this, but there are many others used in everyday English. For instance, ‘make out’ (USA) and ‘get off’ (UK) both meaning ‘to kiss’.

d) Stop from burning, extinguish
‘The bouncer put his cigarette out and went back inside the night club.’
Put out that fire before anyone sees we’re camping here!’
‘I’m going to bed now. Please, put the lights out when you come up.’

e) Place outside, give away for collection
‘I put the bin out early every Thursday morning.’ (For rubbish collection)
‘In winter, we like to put some bread out for the birds in the garden.’
‘We have to put the cat out at night so it doesn’t scratch the furniture.’
‘Can you put the washing out when it stops raining?’ (Hang on the washing line to dry)

f) Inconvenience, create extra work for
‘I can easily stay at a hotel. Please don’t put yourself out just because I’m coming to visit!’

g) Broadcast, publish, produce and make public, introduce to market
‘When is your band putting out its first album?’
‘Hollywood puts out loads of films that never get shown at the cinema.’
‘Apple puts out a new iPhone once a year.’
‘The police have put out an official statement following the bank robbery.’

h) Move hand/arm/leg away from your body
‘If you want to stop a bus in the UK, you need to put your arm out.’ (Give arm signal)
 

PUT OVER

Express, convey information
‘During the presentation, I thought June put her main point over very clearly.’
 

PUT THROUGH

List of phrasal verbs with put

a) Connect someone by phone
‘Please hold while I put you through to our sales team.’

b) Make someone do something difficult
‘I’ve put myself through a tough week of training in preparation for the marathon.’

c) Test or trial something
‘The new drug was put through several trials before it was officially accepted.’
‘Our boss puts all new employees through a series of cognitive tests.’

d) Pay for someone’s education
‘Josh’s dad put him through

e) Ensure something is submitted, approved or implemented
‘With this substantial majority, the ruling party can put through its new measures on housing.’
‘The local council has put through plans to redevelop the city centre.’
‘Has your application been put through yet, or are you still waiting to hear back from them?’
 

PUT TOGETHER

a) Create a group of people or things
‘Our company has put together a football team, but it’s not very good!’
‘The think tank has put a group of experts together to tackle the research project.’

b) Assemble, build from separate parts
‘The IKEA wardrobe took 4 hours to put together!’
‘My son has taken the computer apart and now I don’t know how to put it back together!’

c) Compile, organise, create from separate items
‘We’ve put together a set of simple rules to help staff keep the office tidy.’
‘I’ve put this CD together for you. It has all my favourite 80s tracks!’
‘The art students put the exhibition together at short notice.’

 

PUT TOWARDS

Use an amount of money to cover part of the cost of something
‘If you give Rob some money for his birthday, he’ll put it towards a new mountain bike.’
 

PUT UP

a) Build or erect
‘We’re planning to put up a new shed at the bottom of our garden.’
‘They’re putting up a primary school on the site of the old cinema.’
‘Let’s put the tent up now because it’ll be dark soon.’

b) Raise the price or value of something
‘Supermarkets have put their prices up
‘The Bank of England has decided to put up interest rates.’

c) Allow someone to stay for a short time
‘I had nowhere to stay, so my friends agreed to put me up for a couple of nights.’

d) Fix or hang on a wall or vertical surface
‘Where do you think we should put this picture up?’
‘Do you mind if I put up some posters in the window of your cafe?’
‘Can you help me to put up some shelves in the garage?’

e) Provide a large sum of money for something
‘An anonymous businessman has put up £10,000 to help rebuild the church roof.’

f) Raise something so it is ready for use
‘It’s raining! Put your umbrella up!’
‘If it’s windy and you’re cold, why don’t you put your hood up?’

g) Suggest someone as a candidate
‘The Democrats have chosen not to put up a candidate in this constituency.’

h) Raise hand
‘If you know the answer, please put up your hand.’

i) Make an effort to achieve or prevent something
‘The rebels put up a spirited fight, but were eventually overcome by government forces.’ 
 

PUT UP TO

a) Encourage someone to do something bad
‘Mike stole some sweets because his girlfriend put him up to it.’
 

PUT UP WITH

a) Tolerate someone or something unpleasant or annoying
‘Nathan puts up with his little sister even though she can be annoying at times.’
‘I know you don’t like your new school, but you’ll just have to put up with it for now.’

 

QUIZ: Test your knowledge of phrasal verbs with ‘put’!

TASK A

Choose the appropriate phrasal verb to complete the sentences below:

  • I don’t know how you put up/put up with/put up to your boss. He’s such a bully!
  • Our sales are down 10% this year. What would you put this down/put this down to/put this down for?
  • The financial crisis put the UK economy off/put the UK economy back/put the UK economy down 5 years.
  • I really don’t want John to come to our wedding. Is there any way we can put him off coming/put him out coming/put him out coming?
  • I want to put up to/put up/put down some shelves this weekend. Can you give me a hand?
TASK B

Match the phrasal verbs 1-5 with their correct meanings a-e:

  1. Put up
  2. Put aside
  3. Put down
  4. Put together
  5. Put forward
  1. Assemble, build from individual parts
  2. Suggest an idea, give your view
  3. Fix to a vertical surface
  4. Insult, criticise
  5. Ignore, not allow yourself to be affected by

Your answers: 1 = __, 2 = __, 3 = __, 4 = __, 5 = __.

Bonus task: To test your understanding of these phrasal verbs with ‘put’, try to write one sentence for each of them.      

TASK C

Fill in the gaps with an appropriate ‘put’ phrasal verb:

  • I don’t smoke. Would you mind putting _______ your cigarette?
  • If you give me some money for Xmas, then I can put it _______ a new laptop.
  • I’d be happy to donate! Put me _______ £15 and I’ll give you the cash next week.
  • Laura would never steal anything! Perhaps a friend put her _______ it?
  • Even though my parents were poor, they still put me _______
ANSWERS

TASK A: put up with, put down to, put back, put off, put up

TASK B: 1/c, 2/e, 3/d, 4/a, 5/b

TASK C: put out, put towards, put down for, put up to, put through

How did you score?

Remember to download your free copy of this guide to use anytime! Practice makes perfect.

5-step guide: How to improve your English by reading simple books

 

1. Why learn English through literature?

If you want to become more fluent in English, you need to keep pushing yourself. Reading original English books is a great way to do this! Even if you are an intermediate English speaker, you can still use simple novels and books to make good progress. Let’s take a look at how reading can help you improve:

Best English books to read

  • Real English: Modern novels show you real examples of how English is used today. Textbooks do not always do this because they are written in a simpler way for non-natives. Novels can also teach you how to show emotion, express ideas or tell a story in English. You can also use literature to find examples of realistic conversations between native speakers.
  • Vocabulary: Even if you speak English well, there is always more you can learn. A good novel will be simple and easy to understand, but it will also introduce you to new words. Reading books gives you the chance to learn vocabulary in the context of a story. This means you can see how words and phrases are connected in everyday conversation. Reading modern British or American novels will teach you all sorts of weird and wacky English words (like ‘wacky’, which means: ‘crazy’ or ‘eccentric’)!

If you cannot find a word or expression in a standard dictionary, then this could mean it is a slang term. Try using UrbanDictionary.com to find out the meaning.

  • Accuracy: Great authors are masters of the English language. Their writing uses perfect style and form. To improve your grammar and your written English, there is no better teacher than a good book! When you read books regularly, you begin to understand English more through passive learning.
  • Interaction: By reading a novel in English, you are interacting with the language. Many books have several layers of meaning and can be understood in different ways. When you develop your own thoughts and opinions on a story, you create a personal relationship with the language. Students often say that they feel different when reading a book in English, even if it has been translated from their own native language.
  • Reward: Reading a novel might seem like a lot of work, but it can be one of the most rewarding ways to improve your English. When you read a novel, you are using English to achieve a goal. In other words, you are reading and translating in order to understand and enjoy a story. When you use English as a practical tool in this way, you are one step closer to fluency.

 

2. How to improve your English by reading simple books

There are many different ways that you can use reading books in English to improve your language skills. However, it is important to find the books and methods that work best for you. Remember to choose novels that suit your level of English and personal interests. Reading should be interesting and fun. If you find it boring or difficult, then change the book! These 8 tips will help you get started:

Good books to read in English

  1. Find a book that REALLY interests you There are millions of books out there, and when you start reading English literature it is important to choose one that you will really love. Openthebook.com is a website that suggests books for you to read. All you have to do is enter your preferences or keywords! You can also use Bookbrowse.com to read extracts (or samples) from current books and then choose which you like best.
  2. Make sure the level is right for you You need to find a book that is not too difficult, but not too easy. First, try reading 2 or 3 pages. If there are more than 10 new words per page, then it may be best to choose a simpler book. Reading should not become a boring ‘dictionary exercise’. If you can understand the general meaning and just look up a few new words per page, then the book is probably a good choice for you.
  3. Watch the movie! If reading an original novel in English feels a bit scary, try watching the film first. Many popular books now have film versions. These will give you a basic understanding of the story before you read the book itself. Watching movies is great practice too!

Most novels are now also available as audiobooks. If you find that reading takes too much time, then why not try listening to an audiobook as you drive to work or relax on the sofa? You can find free audiobooks on LibriVox.

  1. Try dual language books Dual language books have the original English text on one page and the translation into your language on the other. This means that you can quickly reference your own language if you do not understand all of the English text. You can buy books of this kind in local shops or online, but the choice is always limited. Alternatively, you can buy the same book in English and in your language, and then compare the two. You can start with these 5 free bilingual novels.
  2. Analyse the language in the bookAlways pay attention to how the writer uses words and constructions in English. Novels use both formal and informal language and are often filled with everyday English expressions. As you read, use a pencil to highlight any unfamiliar words and write them in a notebook. When you are speaking English, try to use the words and phrases that you have read in recent books. Remember to check words and phrases from older books as they may sound old-fashioned today.
  3. Learn new vocabulary in context Original English books will contain words you do not know. Before you look them up in a dictionary, try to work out what you think they mean based on the context of the story. In many cases, you will be able to guess the meaning of the word without having to open your dictionary. However, when writing down new vocabulary, it is a good idea to double check.
  4. Think about what you have read When you have finished your book, take a moment to reflect on what you have read. Were there any new words from the book that you especially liked? Have you written these down in your notebook? If you really enjoyed the book, then would you like to try another by the same writer or perhaps read about the author’s life on Wikipedia? Just because you have finished one book does not mean you have reached the end of the road! There is always more to discover…
  5. Choose your next book!
    When you have finished your first novel, it is time to choose the next one! If you are feeling confident, you could try to find a more advanced book. Reading books by the same author (or from the same genre) can make life easier. Writers often use the same words and phrases in their books, and this can help you learn vocabulary through repetition.

Love reading in English? Why not create a book club to read and then discuss English novels with your friends? This can be done face-to-face or via Skype. Try to read one book per month and give each club member a choice!

 

3. Genres of English books (with examples)

Before you choose a book to read, it is a good idea to think about your favourite styles or genres. Whether you like science fiction or romance novels, there are thousands of English books out there for you. The table below gives some examples of books from different genres:

Learn English by reading

GenreMeaningExamples
Science fiction (also called ‘sci-fi’)Books about an ‘imagined future’. Often about space or other planets1984 – George Orwell
War of the Worlds – HG Wells
FantasyIncludes things that are not real. For example: magic, or mythical creatures like dragonsHarry Potter – JK Rowling
Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
RomanceThis has two meanings:
– A story about a hero who is faced with challenges
– A book about love/relationships
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table – Roger Lancelyn Green
Jane Eyre – Emma Bronte
The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks
Satire‘Satire’ is a genre that uses humour to criticise the government or societyAnimal Farm – George Orwell
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
HorrorA story that has been made to frighten you – a scary story!Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Shining – Stephen King
Murder mystery (also called ‘whodunit’, ‘detective novels’ or ‘crime fiction’‘Murder mysteries’ are books about somebody who has been killed. The novel is spent trying to work out who the killer is – this will normally be revealed at the endAnd Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
ThrillerAn action novel that aims to leave you in suspense. It comes from the English word “thrilling” – which means excitingThe Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
Non-fictionA book that is factual and informative, instead of telling an imaginary story. A non-fiction book can be about any topic. For example, historical accounts and biographies are non-fictionInto the Wild – Jon Karkauer
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

 

4. 5 simple novels for you to read in English

Best English novels

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

(Listen to the audiobook here!)

The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an old Cuban fisherman chasing the biggest catch of his life. All alone, and miles out to sea, he battles with the fish for several days. The book looks at many themes, like ‘man vs. nature’ and the idea of ‘masculinity’ (or being a ‘man’). It is the way this book deals with these themes that makes it one of the most famous and successful novels written in English.

When reading older books, you may find words or phrases that are not used today. Try a Google search to see if the phrase is still popular in modern English. Remember to look at the dates of the published web pages too.

Hemingway uses short, simple sentences to great effect. This means that the book is quite easy and quick to read, but that it is also powerful. Perhaps one tip to take from Ernest Hemingway’s writing  is that simple is often best when using English. There are few better authors to teach English than Ernest Hemingway, and The Old Man and the Sea is one of his finest works.

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. […] He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what he will bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?

In this extract, Hemingway is ‘personifying’ the fish (giving it human qualities) and the fisherman is comparing it to himself.

Men are shown to be weak and small compared to nature throughout the novel and even in the title itself – The Old Man and the Sea. Despite man’s technological progress, he is no different to the fish as they both struggle to survive in the dangerous ocean.

Words related to fishing are used a lot in this book, which means you will learn some specific jargon related to this topic. In the extract, you can see the word ‘hooked’, which means to catch a fish on a hook. There is also lots of emotional language. For example, ‘pity’ means ‘to feel sorry’, and in this context ‘desperate’ means ‘hopeless’.

1984 – George Orwell

(Listen to the audiobook here!)

George Orwell has a special place in many British hearts. There is even a prize named after him: the Orwell Prize, which awards the best political writing across the world.

English reading books

1984 is a ‘dystopian’ novel – which means it is based in an imaginary, unpleasant world. This is the opposite of a ‘utopia’, which is an imaginary perfect society. It was released in 1948 and looked forward to a future where the world is run by dictators and everybody is constantly being monitored. In the book, the main character, Winston, tries to fall in love and struggle against the government in a world where his every move is being watched.

Since it was released, 1984 has been seen as a classic – meaning people think it as one of the best books of all time because of its story and the way it deals with difficult themes. It even created a new word: ‘Orwellian’, which is used to describe things similar to the world described in the book.

Orwell also had several ideas in 1984 that are often used in political discussions in the UK. One of these is ‘doublethink’, which means to accept two opposite ideas at the same time. Another is ‘thought police’, which can be used when somebody punishes or judges someone because of what they think.

From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

In this extract, Orwell uses ‘contradictions’. This means he has taken two opposite ideas and put them together. The Party slogans are all contradictions, and examples of ‘doublethink’. ‘War is peace’ means that by always being at war and having an enemy, the people will support their government. ‘Freedom is slavery’ means that, in the eyes of the government, independent men are certain to fail. ‘Ignorance is strength’ is the idea that if the public are ignorant of politics, the government can stay strong and in full control.

As you can see, 1984 deals with some quite heavy political themes – but this should not put you off. It is one of the most popular and entertaining books in the English language

George Orwell also wrote a list of rules on how to write well. This is used by native English speakers. Why not try using it to improve your writing in English?

Harry PotterJK Rowling

(Listen to the audiobook here!)

Perhaps you have already read the Harry Potter books, or at least seen the films. These books are a must read for all English students who enjoy fantasy novels. There are seven books in the series, which get progressively longer and more advanced in their English. It is best to start with the first.

Harry Potter is a story about witches and wizards. All of the main characters go to Hogwarts, which is a school where they are taught how to use magic. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has its own animals, history, and even words! Some authors like to create ‘nonsense’ words – for example, Rowling uses the term ‘muggle’ to mean ‘someone who cannot use magic’.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. […] Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.

In this extract, you can see Rowling’s easy-to-read but descriptive style. This detailed account of Harry Potter’s appearance is in the first book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You can see that these books are a goldmine for practical English words and phrases.

‘Skinny’ is another word for thin, but in a negative way (from the word ‘skin’). Calling someone ‘skinny’ means they are too thin, and this is seen as insulting. You can also say: ‘He’s all skin and bones’. Scotch tape is another word for sticky tape or Sellotape. ‘Knobbly knees’ is a term for someone who has legs so skinny that you can see their knee joints clearly sticking out. This term sounds funny in English, but it can be a little insulting. In the extract, Rowling is painting a picture of Harry as scruffy and lanky – meaning his appearance is messy and he is tall and thin.

YouTube has some great videos to help you learn English with popular books such as Harry Potter. The video below is an English lesson that uses the first book:

About a Boy – Nick Hornby

(Listen to the audiobook here!)

Nick Hornby is one of the most popular modern English authors. Many of his books are bestsellers that have also been made into popular movies – including About a Boy (the film). This is a funny story about an immature man who behaves like a boy and a serious young boy who behaves like a man. In many ways they are opposites, but they become friends and help each other to understand their own hearts.

The great thing about novels is that they teach you both formal and informal English. It is a good idea to read new books as well as old classics, as they will help you learn the modern language as it is used today.

Loving yourself and allowing yourself to be loved, was only worth the risk if the odds were in your favour, but they quite clearly weren’t. There were about seventy-nine squillion people in the world, and if you were very lucky, you would end up being loved by fifteen or twenty of them. So how smart did you have to be to work out that it just wasn’t worth the risk?

Hornby writes with a lot of energy and this makes his books exciting to read. In this extract, he shows the cynical way the main character sees the world – which means he does not trust people’s intentions.

About a Boy uses a lot of modern slang words and phrases. ‘Squillion’ is a slang term used to say that there are lots and lots of something. Saying there are ‘seventy-nine squillion people in the world’ is an example of ‘hyperbole’, or exaggeration. Hornby also says ‘if the odds were in your favour’. This is a phrase often used in England. If the odds are in your favour, it means something is likely to turn out well for you. It comes from the gambling term ‘odds’ (chance), which is a way to show how likely something is to happen.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Listen to the audiobook here!)

F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of how poetic you can be with the English language. Set in 1920s America, this novel looks at the ideas of love and the American Dream. It is one of the best-selling books ever written in English.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald died, the Great Gatsby had sold less than 25,000 copies. Upon receiving his last payment, the author said: ‘I am a forgotten man’. The book has since sold 25 million copies worldwide!

Although The Great Gatsby is harder to read than the other books mentioned here, you can learn many new words from it. Fitzgerald uses a wide range of vocabulary and images to bring out the beauty in the language. This book may be a little complicated in places, but the story is interesting and will keep you turning the pages!

 This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdering air.

In this extract, you can see how poetic Fitzgerald’s writing can be. There is a 2013 film version of this book, which you may like to watch before you read it. YouTube comedy channel Thug Notes has a plot summary for The Great Gatsby (see below).  As these videos use lots of slang words, you may need to press the ‘CC’ button to see the English subtitles.

 

5. Common writing techniques you should know

There are many ‘literary techniques’ that are used in novels. Although they are used in literature from all across the world, they have different names in different languages. Why not try using some of these techniques to bring your own English to life?

Personification

Personification is when you give human characteristics to something that is not human. This might be objects or animals.

Example in a novel: ‘Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others.’ (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

In this example, Jane Austen is giving the character’s heart human features. This shows the emotion her worry is causing her.

Examples in everyday conversation:

  • ‘Love is blind’. This is a common English saying, meaning that when you love someone, you do not see their faults.
  • ‘Time waits for no one’. A philosophical way of telling someone to do something before they run out of time.

English novels online

Metaphor

A metaphor is when you describe one thing as something else to create a more memorable description of it. This can be used all of the time in conversation.

Example in a novel: ‘It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’ (Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare)

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous romance stories ever. In this line, Romeo is comparing Juliet to the rising sun to show how much he loves and worships her.

Examples in spoken English:

  • ‘A heart of stone’. A way to describe someone who is unkind or cruel.
  • ‘Apple of my eye’. Something that you love more than anything or anyone else.
  • ‘Jumping for joy’. This means ‘really happy’.
Simile

A simile compares two things by saying item A is like item B. It is often confused with a metaphor. The difference is that you are not describing something as actually being something else. So, if you were to say ‘I am an ox’ that would be a metaphor. If you say ‘I am as strong as an ox’ or ‘I am strong, like an ox’ that would be a simile.

Example in a novel: ‘Her romantic mind was like tiny boxes, one within the other’ (Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie). This is a lovely simile, which shows the many layers of the human mind. It also shows how in her ‘romantic mind’ she is always discovering new feelings – every time she opens a box. With this quote, Barrie shows how a simile can be used to describe something beautifully.

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Examples in everyday conversation:

  • ‘Good as gold’. This is used to say somebody is behaving very well, or even perfectly. It is often used to describe good children at school.
  • ‘Busy as a bee’. This is a way to say somebody is very busy, as bees are known to work hard. Both ‘busy as a bee’ and ‘good as gold’ are examples of ‘alliteration’, which is where words with the same starting letter are used together.
  • ‘As snug as a bug in a rug’. People say this when they are comfortable in bed. It is also a good example of rhyming in the English language!
Hyperbole

Hyperbole is when you exaggerate on purpose to show how important something is. ‘Exaggerate’ means to make something seem bigger, better or worse than it is in reality. Hyperbole is often used in native English conversations, but be careful not to overuse it!

Example in a novel: ‘People moved slowly then. There was no hurry then, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’ (To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

In this example, the author is saying there is nothing to buy and nothing to see. Of course, this is an exaggeration: there are at least a few things to buy and see! The hyperbole here makes the scene appear desolate – which means empty and bleak.

Examples in everyday conversation:

  • ‘Her brain is the size of a pea’. This is an insult. It means someone is very stupid or dim.
  • ‘I could eat a horse’. This is a phrase used to say ‘I am very hungry’ – we do not actually eat horses in England!
  • ‘I’ve told you a million times’.  If you have told somebody something several times and they do not remember or understand, then this is what you say!

Personification, metaphor, simile and hyperbole are the most common ‘literary techniques’, but there are many others. Check out Literarydevices.com to see all of the techniques you can find in English books. As your skills develop, you can use these ‘decorations’ to bring your spoken and written English to life!

How to learn English with songs and music

 

1. Why learn English through music?

To make faster progress with your English, you should connect it with your hobbies and interests. This will give you more contact time with the language. If you love music, then why not try learning English through your favourite songs? This is a great way of improving your understanding and fluency. It can also be a welcome break from your textbook studies. Music contains more than just words and melodies. Let’s look a little deeper:

Best English songs

  • Culture: The lyrics of English songs are full of references to the local culture. For example, see how The Kinks (UK) talk about tea and toast in the song Autumn Almanac. English songs are like a window into the culture behind the language. They show how Brits and Americans live and how they think about the world. You won’t find this information in a textbook.
  • Accents: English is spoken in many different accents by people across the UK and America. The voices in songs make it easier to hear this in action and understand the differences between them. For example, Arctic Monkeys sing in a Yorkshire (northern) accent, while Blur sing in a cockney (London) accent.
  • Slang: English song lyrics often use slang words and phrases instead of Standard English. This is useful because it will teach you common informal phrases used by native speakers today.
  • Speed: Songs have different speeds – some are fast, others are slow. This means you can start with slow, simple songs and then use faster, more complex ones later. Native Brits and Americans often speak quickly so listening to faster songs is good practice for real conversations later.
  • Pronunciation: It’s hard to know how a word is pronounced unless you actually hear it. Songs are a fantastic way to hear English words spoken (or sung) by a local Brit or American. You can try to copy this pronunciation so you sound more natural when speaking English.
  • Access: Listening to music can be possible when other methods of study are not. For example, in the car, in the shower, or just walking around the house. With headphones, Spotify and a Bluetooth speaker you can listen to music anywhere.
  • Memory: The best English songs are “catchy” and will stay in your head for days. This makes it easier to remember any new words and expressions through repetition.
  • Fun: Learning English with your favourite songs is fun! Studying with music from time to time can help you take a break from boring textbooks and stay motivated.

 

2. How to use music to practise your English

Study with song lyrics

The easiest way to learn English with music is to listen to and then analyse song lyrics. Most popular songs will have lyric videos on YouTube, so you can read the words as you listen. You can also download song texts, print them and translate any new vocabulary. Singing along and trying to work out what the words mean will also help you improve.

Lyrics of English songs

Here are several websites you can use to teach yourself English through music:

  • Lyricstraining.com offers an interactive, fun way to study English through music. Using lyric videos, it asks you to fill in words from a song based on what you hear. There are hundreds of songs on the website, so you can choose your favourites to help you learn.
  • Lyricgaps.com offers similar gap-fill exercises with music videos. This website also includes a ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Quiz’ mode for many popular English songs.
  • Lyricstranslate.com is an international community website for translating song lyrics into different languages. If you find that your favourite songs do not have translations into your language, why not take this as a challenge, and translate them yourself?
  • Genius.com includes the lyrics to thousands of songs, so you can read the words while you listen. It also features comments written by users about what the lyrics have been written about and what they mean. This is a great way to engage with English music and push yourself to really understand what the songs are about. Try looking up a few of your favourite songs on this great site!

Pick up your guitar!

Play music yourself? Why not try learning some English songs?

Playing and singing English songs will make you remember the words and give you an emotional connection to the language. Here are a few easy English songs to learn on guitar:

  • Oasis – Wonderwall
  • Pulp – Common People
  • Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees

Ultimate-guitar.com has chords and lyrics to all of these songs and thousands more. If a song is difficult to play, try searching for “song title + guitar lesson” on Youtube to find a video tutorial.

You could take this a step further, and try writing your own song in English. Perhaps try to write lyrics using a particular area of the language you find difficult, or words that you struggle to remember.

Use a rhyming dictionary or website like Rhymer.com to help you write song lyrics that rhyme correctly in English.

If you enjoy playing and writing English songs, you could even attend a local “open mic (night)”. These are events where a pub or cafe allows amateur musicians to go on a small stage and play songs of their choice. If there are no open mic nights near you, why don’t you try starting one with your friends? Alternatively, just arrange to jam (play informally) with other musicians in English.

Sing along with karaoke

Karaoke is a great way to get yourself singing along to English songs – even if you can’t play music at all. Try to find a karaoke bar near you and see what English songs they have so that you can sing the words in a fun, judgement free environment.

If this isn’t for you, try just doing karaoke with your friends at home. The great thing about music is you can sing it anywhere: your car, around the house, in the shower. Choose a song, find the words and sing along! It’s all great practice.
 

3. Examples of songs in English by level

Everyone has a different taste in music. However, when using songs to study English, you may want to choose some unfamiliar tracks in other genres. This can help you to learn new words and expressions. If the song has interesting lyrics, then it can be of use in studying the language. Below are some examples of useful songs that have been divided by level:

Lyrics of English songs

ENGLISH SONGS FOR LOWER LEVELS

The Cure – Friday I’m In Love

The lyrics to this ‘90s classic are perfect for remembering the days of the week in English. The song also talks about all sorts of emotions and the words English people use to describe them. For example ‘blue’ is used to mean ‘sad’.

Just take a look at the verse below to see how this song can be of use:

Monday you can fall apart,
Tuesday, Wednesday, break my heart,
Thursday doesn’t even start,
It’s Friday I’m in love

‘Break my heart’ is an English term which means: to be overcome with sadness. When the singer says Tuesday and Wednesday can ‘break his heart’ he is giving the days of the week human qualities. This is called personification.

In this verse you can also see ‘it’s’ and ‘doesn’t’. These are examples of contractions, where two or more words are joined together. In this case, the words that have been joined together are ‘it is’ and ‘does not’. Contractions are very common in English speech and informal writing.

The Beatles – Let It Be

The Fab Four hold a special place in British music history and their brilliant songs use words from all corners of the English language. This famous song sees the Beatles at their simplest and most beautiful.

When the broken hearted people,
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer:
Let it be

Here is that phrase ‘broken hearted’ again! Can you see that it’s quite common in English music? In this song, the people with broken hearts are told to ‘let it be’. This is a famous saying that means: ‘leave it alone, relax, it doesn’t matter’. The Beatles are telling us that our problems wouldn’t seem so bad if we just ‘let things be’ or accepted life as it is.

Adele – Hello

Slow and conversational, Adele’s Hello features everyday phrases like “how are you?” and “I hope that you’re well”. This English pop song is your chance to have a normal conversation with Adele. It is bound to stay in your head, making sure you remember all of the essential phrases it includes.

Hello, how are you?
It’s so typical of me to talk about myself
I’m sorry
I hope that you’re well

‘How are you?’ is a must-know phrase for everyday conversation. It is how English people often start conversations: by asking someone how they are doing.

Among all the simple must-know phrases are some more complicated words to improve your vocabulary. In this verse you can see the phrase ‘typical of me’. This means it is ‘usual’ or ‘normal’ for Adele to talk about herself and her problems more than she listens to the other person.

You can also see more examples of contractions: ‘you’re’ is ‘you are’ and ‘I’m’ is ‘I am’. Contractions such as these are extremely common in conversations between native speakers and they will make your English sound more natural.

George Ezra – Don’t Matter Now

This song is an example of one that is in the charts right now. It is a fun, cheerful song about being carefree.

Sometimes you need to be alone
Shut the door, unplug the phone
Speak in a language they don’t know
It don’t matter now!

The main line in this song is ‘it don’t matter now’. You will notice this breaks the rules of English grammar. However, it is common in some regional forms of English to say ‘don’t’ instead of ‘doesn’t’ with he/she/it. You can find this a lot in British and American songs.

Fresh Education – Metaphors and Similies

Fresh Education make hip-hop with one aim: to teach. Lots of their music focuses on the English language. In their songs, they look at everything from metaphors to poetry, and they give you useful words in every verse. Learning English has never been so funky!

A metaphor’s a comparison of a couple (of) things
Two different pictures we want to fit in a single frame
A more convenient description of how to see the world
He’s a solid rock, she’s a black pearl

In this extract from ‘Metaphors And Similes’ they explain what a metaphor is, and then use their own metaphors as examples. A metaphor is when you describe something by saying it is something else. In this song, he says a girl is a ‘black pearl’ to say she is very important (or precious). Metaphors are used in a lot of songs so pay attention to them!

You can listen to Fresh Education’s music on Soundcloud

ENGLISH SONGS FOR ADVANCED LEARNERS

If your English is strong and you want to use more challenging music to test yourself, try listening to the words in faster genres such as hip-hop. Here are some examples of English songs you can use:

Stormzy – Big For Your Boots

Stormzy’s rise to the top of the British music scene has been incredible. In just over a year he went from freestyling in a park with his friends to being top of the charts! He is now seen as one of the best UK rappers. So turn him up loud and let ‘Big Mike’ lead you through some real English slang!

You’re getting way too big for your boots
You’re never too big for the boot
I’ve got the big size twelves on my feet
Your face ain’t big for my boot

In this verse Stormzy cleverly uses the double meanings of the word ‘boot’. Firstly, he says ‘you’re getting way too big for your boots’. This is a common English phrase which means you are behaving as if you are more important than you really are. He then says ‘you’re never too big for the boot’. This is another English phrase meaning ‘no matter how big or successful you are, you can always be kicked out’. Finally, Stormzy turns to the literal meaning of boots: big shoes!

Stormzy also uses the word ‘ain’t’ in this verse. This is another regional form that is very common in songs and means ‘isn’t’ or ‘is not’. You will notice that he sings some words with a Jamaican accent: ‘dem’ (them), ‘ting’ (thing) and ‘yout’ (youth).

Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone

Bob Dylan’s lyrics are often complex and tell stories. This song is an angry attack on privilege, in which a naive person from a rich family has to face the difficult realities of being poor on the street.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lyrics in 2016. The poetry and beauty of his songs make them perfect for learning English at higher levels!

Dylan sings this song quickly so it is a good track to test your listening at advanced level.

You never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns
When they all did tricks for you

In this verse Dylan uses a metaphor of ‘jugglers’ and ‘clowns’, who are circus performers. This metaphor is used to attack somebody who has used people as if they were ‘performers’ or ‘servants’ for their own enjoyment. The person does not notice that the circus performers are ‘frowning’ – meaning they are unhappy about what they are being forced to do (probably for money).

Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics

Warning: Only for the most daring English students! This song is one of the fastest you will hear in English. Each verse focuses on a different letter of the alphabet and lists rhyming words that begin with that letter. With everything from “irate” to “zealous” these are not easy words. However, if you are confident with your English and want to expand your vocabulary, you can’t beat this song.

Artificial amateurs aren’t at all amazing
Analytically, I assault, animate things
Broken barriers bounded by the bomb beat

From this verse you can see how the song uses complex vocabulary. The sentences don’t make a lot of sense, but there are plenty of unusual new words for you to learn.

Translated into more simple English, these sentences say:

Unnatural beginners (other rappers) are nothing special
Using reason/intellect, I attack (rap) and bring things to life (with my lyrical storytelling)
Broken barriers held together by a good beat

In this context the word ‘bomb’ can be used to mean ‘good’ – it is a slang term sometimes used in music. As you can see, the sentences do not make much sense, but if you focus on individual words they can be very useful. This track is all about the beauty of rhyme in English, so don’t try to translate it literally.

If a slang word or phrase in a song confuses you, then try looking it up on Urbandictionary.com. Write down the most common slang words and learn them to improve your understanding of modern English.

ENGLISH SONGS FOR KIDS

If you want to use music to teach your child English, and improve your own skills at the same time, there are many nursery rhymes and kids’ songs you can find.

Bussongs.com has cartoons and lyric videos for many of the best English songs for kids – from ‘Eyes, Ears and Noses’ to ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’. English nursery rhymes, like the ones found on this website, go through every area of essential vocabulary: from body parts to animals. Try some for yourself and then show your children how fun English songs can be!

Many of these songs are used to teach British and American children English, so they are very useful for someone just beginning to study the language!
 

4. How to talk about music in English

When native English speakers talk about music with their friends, they use all sorts of slang terms to describe what they are listening to. This can be quite confusing even to native speakers! Let’s take a look at some common words that Brits use to talk about the songs they love:

Top English songs

WordMeaningExample
tune‘Tune’ means ‘song’. If you say ‘that’s a tune’, it means ‘great song’That’s a tune! Who’s it by?
Bangin’Amazing. Usually used to describe rap or dance music with a lively beat.That DJ last night was playing some bangin’ tunes!
tightIn time and together when playing musicThis band sounds really tight
trackA songI don’t like the new Arcade Fire track
funkyMusic with a bouncing rhythm that makes you want to danceRed Hot Chili Peppers are so funky
raveA warehouse party, usually with dance music, smoke and lightsDo you fancy going to a rave later?
freestylingImprovised singing (usually rapping)Stormzy’s great at freestyling
classicA brilliant song that has stood the test of time. You can call any song a ‘classic’ – but other people may not agree with you!Yesterday by The Beatles is a real classic
cheesyTrying too hard, sentimental, cornyThat pop song is way too cheesy
one-hit wonderA band that only has one hit song (their other music is not popular)That band’s just a one-hit wonder. No real talent!
cover (version)A copy (or alternative version) of another band’s songDo you like that new cover of Across the Universe on the Samsung advert?
gigCommonly used instead of the formal term ‘concert’My mate’s playing a gig tomorrow night if you fancy coming.
catchyMemorable, melody that sticks in your headI hate that tune, but it’s really catchy!
bluesyLike -ish, meaning ‘a bit like blues’. Also possible with rocky, grungey, etc.I’d describe his latest album as bluesy rock.

 

5. Where to find the best new English songs

Regardless of where you live, you can always access English music via the internet. It is a good idea to build up your own music collection so that you can use this to improve your English. Your personal library might include your old CDs, MP3s, lyrics printed from the internet, music apps on your phone or websites you have bookmarked. Remember to take some familiar songs, but also some new tracks each week in order to look at different vocabulary and styles.

Music for learning English

5 ways to find the best English music:

  • MAGAZINES & WEBSITES: NME.com is an English music magazine website that writes about new and existing bands. It offers an interesting way of finding out more about your favourite artists. You can also discover new songs and improve your English by reading articles each week.
  • MUSIC CHARTS: Check out the official UK chart website! Listening to music that is in the charts right now is a great way to learn the latest slang and stay up to date with modern English.
  • MUSIC AWARDS: There are several awards for new acts every year in the UK. In November the BBC releases a longlist for the ‘Sound Of’. The acts on this list are expected to do great things the following year. Keeping an eye out for these lists is a good way to stay up to date with the best new English artists and their songs.
  • SPOTIFY: This is one of the best ways to access music anywhere and anytime. It has lots of ready-made playlists with English music: for example, New Music Friday UK covers the newest English songs (plus some international ones). There are also playlists for specific genres, such as Classic UK Punk and UK Rap.
  • RADIO: Tunein.com allows you to listen to English radio stations from anywhere in the world. Apart from the benefits of hearing English spoken by natives, this is also a great way to find new music. For example, BBC Radio 6 Music is a radio station that has programmes covering every style of music, both old and new. You can also find the newest music on BBC Radio One. Every Friday they have a charts show, counting down the top 40 songs in the UK that week.