Learning English as a beginner means starting over.
You basically have to become a baby all over again.
You have to learn new names and sounds for each letter—maybe a whole new alphabet—before you can read.
You have to learn words for the simplest things. Words that you’ve known your whole life need new, English names.
You have to learn to count all over again.
Learning English for beginners can be challenging. But it’s not impossible.
How do you know where to start?
Let’s begin at the beginning.
What Is the English Beginner Level?
To make language learning more systematic, the Council of Europe came up with a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Called the CEFR for short, this framework is a useful way to figure out your language level as a beginning English speaker.
In total, there are six CEFR levels. These match three kinds of learners:
- Basic User: Levels A1 and A2
- Independent User: Levels B1 and B2
- Proficient User: Levels C1 and C2
If you’re learning English as a beginner, you’re going to focus on CEFR levels A1 and A2.
CEFR Level: A1
Once you’ve studied English for a few weeks or months, you should be able to do certain basic things at the CEFR A1 level.
- Use simple greetings and introductions: You’re able to say hello and can introduce yourself or others.
- Talk about basic personal information: You can talk about yourself a little bit. You can describe your height, your eye color, the length of your hair and other basics. You can also describe other people in general terms.
- Explain family information: You can talk a little about your family, describe your parents, discuss how many brothers or sisters you have and say if they’re younger or older than you. You can say whether you’re married or now and you can talk about how many children you have, and how old they are.
- Express survival or travel needs: At a restaurant or a market, you can order meals or buy food. You can get a room in a hostel or hotel. You can also buy a plane or train ticket, or take a bus wherever you want to go. At the A1 level, you know enough English to make sure you have food, shelter and transportation.
- Hold very basic conversations: As long as people speak English slowly, you can have simple conversations about basic topics. You feel confident in talking about the weather. You can make comments on the everyday world around you.
CEFR Level A2
When you reach the A2 level of the CEFR, you’re no longer a complete beginner at English.
You’re starting to understand and use harder words in English. You can talk about a wider range of topics.
- Use simple idiomatic expressions: At the A2 level, you’re starting to use simple English sayings and idioms. For example, you know it’s time to study when you hear “hit the books.” You ask others to “pitch in” when you need their time or ideas. You understand that “a far cry” means that one thing is really different from something else.
- Talk about routine tasks: Using simple words, you can talk about things you do often—like what you do at work or hobbies you enjoy in your spare time.
- Tell others about personal history: You can tell people where you come from and where you’ve lived. You can describe your education and work history. You can now also talk about your family in more detail.
- Talk about the past, present and future: You know basic English verb tenses. You use verbs correctly when you speak about what happened last year, last week or yesterday. You can talk clearly about what’s happening right now and what will happen tomorrow or next month.
- Use proper prepositions: Prepositions can be tricky for beginning English learners—but at the A2 level, you’re understanding them much better. You know how to use the proper prepositions when you talk. You know that you’re responsible for yourself, that you put your coffee on the table and that you start work at nine o’clock in the morning.
- Read and write simple sentences: At the A2 level, you can read easy texts. You can understand short sentences in a simple story, such as a fairy tale or a children’s book. You can also write basic sentences, spell English words correctly and use the right verb tenses and prepositions. Your meaning in written English is clear.
Moving Up to Intermediate
Now you know all about English for beginners. How can you tell when you’ve reached the intermediate (B1/B2) level?
- Understand more complex idiomatic expressions: You’ve known for a while that “break a leg” means “good luck” and that “hit the hay” means “go to sleep.” Now, you’re starting to learn that “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” means that “we’ll deal with that problem later.” You’re understanding that “the best thing since sliced bread” means a really good idea—and that “on Cloud Nine” means very happy (among other idiomatic expressions!).
- Express opinions clearly: When someone asks what you think, you’re able to tell them clearly. You can explain why you feel or believe the way you do. When you’re talking about matters of personal interest, you can express your opinions in detail.
- Explain the reasoning behind basic decisions: If an English speaker asks you why you decided to do something, you can easily explain your reasoning.
- Understand basic texts fully: You can read simple articles or stories and understand them well. You can correctly answer questions about what you’ve read.
- Write about facts and opinions clearly: When you reach the intermediate English learner’s level, you can write about harder concepts. Your writing in English can state facts and express opinions in a clearly understandable way.
How to Learn English for Beginners
The path you take to learn English as a beginner will depend on many factors. Your motivation, goals and resources will help you figure out what and how to study.
Know Your Motivation
First of all, ask yourself why you want to learn English.
Are you learning for travel? For work? For family or personal reasons?
This is an important question. How you learn English as a beginner will depend on whether you’re trying to learn English to get a better job, to get around as a tourist or to talk to family and friends.
Set Your Goals
Set learning goals for yourself. Be as specific as you can.
Your goals will depend on a few factors:
- What you want to learn
- How much time you have to study
- When you want to meet your goal
- How you can test what you’ve learned
Let’s say you’re traveling overseas six months from now. You’re going to visit with family in California, and your family is planning a party in your honor. At the party, you’ll meet your long-lost American relatives.
You decide that you want to learn conversational English. You want to speak easily with everyone you meet at the party.
So, you know your time frame and what you want to learn: You have six months to learn basic American English conversation.
Since you work full time, you only have an hour a day to study.
You can test your learning by speaking English on the phone with your American cousin, who’s also fluent in your native language.
Find Your Resources
Find resources that work with your life. Think about your learning goals and how much time you have to study each day.
For example, if you’re more focused on learning conversational English, you might not worry about learning a lot of written English.
Or, if you don’t have a lot of time to study, you can look for short exercises that can be done in a few minutes. That way, you can work on your English whenever you have a little free time.
No matter your goals, it’s a good idea to use a variety of resources. If you’re trying to learn English for a job, get a foundation from a good course or textbook. Pair it with recorded dialogues that you can use to improve your accent. Try mobile apps to learn more vocab and grammar. Take some easy English lessons to really help you get started with proper support.
Start with greetings and the most basic vocabulary words—the kind you’d see in picture dictionaries for kids. Begin with easier words and get to know them well. This approach will build your confidence.
When you’ve learned a few basics, add in authentic (real, non-learner) resources. These will help you learn to speak more like a native English speaker. Real-world resources might include simple books, magazines, TV shows, movies and FluentU videos.
Create Your Study Plan
Use your study goals and resources to create a study plan. This plan will be your guide as you learn beginner English.
Your study plan should include a schedule, letting you know what you’ll study each week. It’ll also tell you how long to study each day.
By deciding ahead of time what you need to study, you’ll be less likely to miss important material.
How to Improve English for Beginners
So, now you have your learning goals and your study plan in place. You’ve started to master the basics of English for beginners.
How can you learn to avoid common mistakes in English? How can you go from learning the basics to speaking like a native?
Listen and Watch
Listen to English music, radio broadcasts and podcasts to help you learn. Radio stations around the world play English-language music. When you hear English songs on the radio, listen for words that you’re learning.
Boost your learning by watching English-language TV, movies and videos. If you have a streaming service like Netflix, you probably have access to many English-language films and TV shows. YouTube can be a great place to find English-language videos on a topic that you’re interested in.
And, with a learning tool like FluentU, you can learn even more from the videos you watch.
With FluentU, you can check the definition of any word while the video plays, and add it to your flashcard vocabulary list. Study new words with video-enhanced flashcards—new words are much easier to remember when you learn them in context!—or use the full transcripts to practice the dialogue and look for new words before any video.
Plus, each video and flashcard deck comes with interactive fill-in-the-blank quizzes that’ll make sure you actually remember all the content you learned.
Try FluentU with a free trial to learn English with authentic content at any level, even as a complete beginner!
Don’t just listen to English-language music and watch shows in English: Imitate what you hear.
Listen to the words and how they’re pronounced by native speakers. Try to make your tone of voice sound like theirs.
Of course, English has native speakers all over the world. If you really want to sound more like someone from a certain country, try to get most of your English-language audio and video from that country.
Swap Out Words
Learn practical phrases and words that go with them. Practice swapping out words in set phrases.
For example, when you learn to say, “Good morning,” you can try other greetings, like “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “Good night” or “Good day.”
In a dialogue about going to a restaurant, you might hear, “May I have a glass of water?” Try to swap in other drinks. For instance, try, “May I have a glass of wine?” or “May I have a glass of tea?”
It’s easier to remember patterns than complicated rules.
For example, you might see patterns like this for most English verbs:
I/you/we/they see—but he/she/it sees.
I/you/we/they walk—but he/she/it walks.
I/you/we/they make—but he/she/it makes.
For the simple present tense of most English verbs, the pattern is that you add an -s for the third-person singular (he/she/it). The conjugations for I/you/we/they are identical to each other.
So, instead of memorizing seven different conjugations for seven different persons, you only have to remember two conjugations.
Look for other patterns in English words. Noticing and using patterns will make English easier to learn and speak.
Start Reading Shorter Texts
Start reading in English with something simple, like comics or children’s books. When you’re learning English as a beginner, long news articles or 300-page novels will be too hard to understand. You might get frustrated and want to give up.
When you start small, with easy texts, you’ll understand and gain confidence—and want to learn more.
Take time to study each text you read thoroughly. As more words become familiar, you’ll be able to read longer, more difficult texts.
Speak with native English speakers as often as you can. Find a language exchange partner or get a virtual tutor.
Make an appointment to have a short conversation in English with a native speaker at least once a week.
Even if you start small, challenge yourself to use English wherever you can. Look at English-language websites. Join a group that uses English on social media. Go to a restaurant where English is spoken and order your food in English.
Keep a daily journal in English. Use your mobile phone to record yourself talking about your day in English. Practice consistently, in different ways.
English Phrases and Words for Beginners
When you first start learning English, there are certain basic words that you should master. These words will be used often. Knowing them well will help you progress more quickly to intermediate English.
Use the “Basic Words and Survival English” suggestions below, as a guide. Find simple words that fit into these categories. Use them to make yourself a list of important words and phrases to learn in English.
Basic Words and Survival English
The most basic English words you need to learn first can be broken down into a few main topics.
Greetings and introductions
Start simple, with common English greetings.
Then, learn how to introduce yourself in English in formal and informal situations.
Once you’ve gotten to know the people around you a little bit, you can have basic conversations with them. Use common conversation starters and master the skill of English small talk.
Common English words
When you meet people and make small talk with them, you’ll need the most common English words for conversation.
To keep your conversation lively, learn commonly used English verbs.
Basic question words
Learning to ask questions in English is important for two reasons: First of all, you need to ask questions to get information. Whether you’re asking for directions, a place to stay or more information about a job, questions help you find out what you need to know.
Secondly, asking questions in English will improve your conversation skills. Most people like to talk about themselves. If you know how to ask questions, you can connect with people as you learn more about them.
Many questions in English start with the “five Ws”:
These “wh-” questions are essential when you’re learning English as a beginner!
Number words and telling time
You’ll also need to know numbers for learning how to tell time in English.
Once you’ve mastered numbers, common words, question words and all these other English fundamentals, you can take your next steps to build on what you’ve learned:
- Polite forms of address
- Weather words
- Days of the week, months and seasons
- Colors and shapes
- Household words
Use a language journal to keep track of the basic words and “survival English” that you’ve learned. In your journal, you can practice writing out your new words and phrases. Try to make original sentences with them. Maybe you could write a short dialogue to recite aloud!
Practice your new words and phrases in conversation with English speakers. The more you practice saying these basic words, the more they’ll become part of your everyday speech. You won’t even have to think about them after a while. You’ll use them automatically when they fit the situation.
English Grammar for Beginners
If English vocabulary words are the bricks that build your English-language “house” of knowledge, English grammar is the frame that gives the house structure.
Grammar may not be your favorite thing to study. But with a solid grasp on these English grammar essentials, you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to speak, read, write and understand English:
- The English alphabet, English vowel sounds and English consonant sounds
- “To be” verbs
- Parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.)
- English articles: the, a, an (definite, indefinite, possessive)
- Sentence structure and some basic easy English sentences
Once you’ve gotten the hang of these English grammar basics, your next steps will be to study topics such as prepositions, natural gender, verb tenses, gerunds and modal verbs.
With this solid foundation of English grammar knowledge, you’ll easily master simple English sentences and start to understand and use more complicated phrases.
English Skills for Beginners
Once you take time to learn essential words and phrases—and you understand how they work together with grammar—you’ll be ready to practice your English skills.
What are your English skills? They fit into four main categories:
You’ll know you’re learning when you can do all of these with understanding.
Listening and speaking go together. So do reading and writing.
Listening to fluent and native English speakers will teach you how to speak English fluently.
Reading all kinds of English-language texts will teach you how to write correctly in English.
Remember: Before you can speak, you must listen. Before you can write, you must read.
Listening and Speaking
Find resources that use very basic English, spoken slowly and clearly. Start with English conversations for beginners and short dialogues about simple topics like greetings. Pay attention to the words and phrases used to say hello, ask questions and say goodbye.
Listen first, then repeat.
Even if you don’t repeat perfectly at first, try your best to sound like the speakers in the dialogues. Take note of which words give you trouble and use strategies to learn proper English pronunciation.
Don’t just limit your English listening to dialogues. English media is plentiful—and the more varied your listening, the more you’ll learn.
Use different techniques to get English listening practice for beginners from a variety of sources.
Listen to easy easy English songs. Sing along! Repeating lyrics, refrains and choruses will help you remember new words and phrases.
Watch kids’ TV shows, like cartoons. Learning English for beginners is a good excuse to binge-watch “Looney Toons,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy.”
Take time to learn some slang and English idioms. A lot of what you hear in television shows, songs and conversation won’t be “textbook English.”
Use an app such as FluentU to help you learn real-world English even faster. FluentU adds tools such as interactive captions and custom quizzes to authentic English-language videos. With these tools, you can better understand and remember everyday English expressions.
Once you’ve spent some time listening, start to practice simple conversation with a fluent English speaker or tutor. Ask them for feedback on your English accent.
Ask each other questions, to make sure you understand what you’re hearing. Talk about English-language programs you’ve watched or English-language music that you like.
Reading and Writing
Start with reading short, easy English reading resources. You want to understand most of what you read, even as you learn new words.
Easy short stories can be a great choice for beginning English readers.
If you want to try reading longer texts, practice with English children’s books and other easy-to-read novels.
Do English reading practice for beginners and exercises that test your understanding, such as answering multiple-choice questions about what you read.
Once you’ve been reading in English for a while, you’ll feel more confident about writing. You’ll have a better idea of how to express yourself in written English.
Learn some English writing tips and practice them by writing short sentences and texts. Write about anything that interests you. You can write about your day-to-day life, about the books you read or about the TV shows you watch.
Try to find someone to read your texts—someone who knows English well and can give you tips for improving your writing.
Consistency is the key to improving your English skills.
Practice a little bit every day. Practice listening and speaking, reading and writing. Review what you’ve learned and plan out what you’d like to learn next.
Soon, you’ll be a master of English for beginners. You’ll be moving up to intermediate English… with plans to become an advanced English speaker!
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you’ll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.