386. Breaking the Intermediate Plateau (Part 2)

Here’s part 2 of this episode about ways you can push your English to higher levels even if you feel that your progress is stuck or moving very slowly. Click here for part 1 of this episode wp.me/p4IuUx-6Wl

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Measure your progress – test yourself

Take a test, do an IELTS or CAE simulation. Speak to people and see how it goes. Try to understand a TV show without help. Read authentic material. Try to do exercises meant for a specific level and see how it feels. Take FCE use of english sample papers. Take the grammar test at the back of Blue Murphy. Download Duolingo and take their level test.

Use DIALANG dialangweb.lancaster.ac.uk/

DIALANG is an online diagnostic system designed to assess a person’s proficiency in 14 European languages.[1][2] Competences tested are reading, writing, listening, grammar and vocabulary, while speaking is excluded for technical reasons.[1]

DIALANG was designed primarily for European citizens to assess their language abilities in adherence to Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference – CEFR – as a basis for determining language proficiency. The CEFR is a widely recognized framework used to describe and measure the language proficiency level of a learner in a particular language.[1]

Dialang was funded by the SOCRATES programme and by some 25 institutions, largely universities, throughout the European Union.[3]

Also, ExamEnglish.com www.examenglish.com/leveltest/index.php

Practice practice practice practice practice (The 5 ‘P’s)

Practise using it! Again – a language partner on italki can help.

A note about using italki or any 1to1 lessons – make sure you know what kind of teacher you’re looking for. Be clear about what you want from lessons. If you want plenty of speaking, say so – be clear that you want a lot of language feedback. Bring topics yourself. Be imaginative and prepare questions, speaking tasks etc. If you need to do job interviews, ask to do that, and bring some materials to the lessons – e.g. job interview questions. The more involved you are the better. Know exactly what you want before you get into the lessons. In the first lesson or trial lesson, explain what it is you want to practise. This will avoid the trap of just talking aimlessly, or letting the italki teacher talk too much or make it all about them. I think a good italki teacher should do a lot of listening. Make sure you take time to show that you respect them as a teacher and that you’re glad to talk to them, but also make it quite clear what you expect from them.


It’s how you perceive your progress. Where are your priorities? What’s making you feel like you’re not making progress? Perhaps you’re focusing on one thing too much that might not be that important. E.g. you might be frustrated that you can’t lose your accent, but in fact that doesn’t matter too much. Understand that some things will just never be perfect, and realise that you’ve made a lot of progress in other areas. Don’t get caught up on your accent – don’t let one thing hold you back. Keep pushing in other areas too.

Be positive!

Yes we can!

A lot of people just tell themselves they can’t do things.

A student of mine recently told me that she couldn’t speak English. She said “I think I can’t speak. I don’t know why but I just can’t speak English. What do you think?” I said – well, you can speak English because you’re doing it right now. What you mean is that it’s difficult.

When you experience resistance, don’t say “I can’t do this”, just say “this is difficult”. It’s all achievable with practice and the right attitude.


Give yourself little goals, not one big one. Learn English step by step. I know some students who have unrealistic goals, or at least goals that are too high. E.g. I want to become bilingual – it might be possible one day, but at the moment it’s probably best to scale it down to something more achievable, like I want to improve my accuracy, or I want to be able to speak on the telephone about my work more confidently. I want to improve my sales skills in English, for example.

Don’t create a vague goal like “I want to master English”. It’s built for failure.

Create specific goals that will allow you to define a specific set of actions to achieve it.

Goals are pointless unless you have a plan on how to achieve them.

Let’s use the CAE test as a standard. Cambridge English have put a great deal of time and effort into classifying and testing advanced English. Let’s use their test and their assessment criteria to create goals. You’ll see that there are a LOT of goals here! But the point is – they’re specific.


I can/want to/will:

(let’s just use writing and speaking as an example or this will go on forever)

  • Writing
  • Write a structured ‘for and against essay’ in which I compare two opinions on a subject, write in the appropriate register, use the right linking phrases, develop arguments and give a persuasive point of view.
  • Write a business email with the appropriate style, including the right opening and closing parts and the appropriate phrases for making requests, agreeing, disagreeing, asking for and giving information.
  • Write a business report in which I give details of results, numerical data and recommendations for action to be taken.
  • Write a personal email in a friendly style.
  • Learn and use the appropriate phrases and style to achieve all those types of writing.
  • Speaking
  • Use a wide range of grammatical structures accurately and with the right amount of control (note that this aim focuses on being able to use the grammar not just understand it)
  • Use a wide range of vocabulary, especially on abstract areas which are unfamiliar. (again a focus on using vocab not just understanding it)
  • Produce longer pieces of structured spoken English with little hesitation, e.g. a 1 minute speech on any topic.
  • Speak clearly and intelligably (not with a perfect British accent!)
  • Use intonation and sentence stress to help me make a point
  • Interact naturally in conversation with others, including negotiating things, managing any breakdown in communication. (this is about effective communicative competence and comes from listening as much as from speaking but must be practised in the context of real communication)

You could even break those things down into more specific goals too. E.g. to be able to talk freely about finance, or to be able to write clearly about facts and figures, or simply to be able to say all the numbers and dates without hesitation.

That all might seem a bit challenging, but it has been proven time and time again that breaking down your learning into small yet achievable goals is the way to deal with the challenge.

Step by step

How do you eat an elephant – one spoon at a time. How do you climb a mountain – one step at a time. Don’t try to leap up it. Take it steadily – it’s a long journey but every step is a step in the right direction. Sometimes you take steps backwards and work out where you’ve gone wrong and then find the path again.


Study the grammar again and again and again. Test yourself again and again. Learning a language is difficult. It takes time and effort. Accept that and just keep going day by day. In the end it will all pay off. When I first started teaching English I couldn’t understand a lot of the grammar. I had to study it for ages at the weekend before I taught it, but I learned my own grammar! It helps that I’m a native speaker, but understanding the rules was difficult for me too. Now I know it well and I think it’s because I put the time in and because there was pressure – I had to teach it. Also it’s because I studied and taught the grammar again and again. It’s the same with vocab, and with other areas like listening.

Listen to episodes of the podcast more than once, like this comment from Mayumi

MayumiM 3 minutes ago

Hi, hope you feel better than the day you recorded this episode. Your voice is kinda sexy like you mentioned and I’ll miss that when your voice is fully recovered, though.;) Anyway, you always keep encouraging us to keep listening even though we have some difficulties to understand everything and listen again. That totally worked this time for me. I’ve repeated last Ian Moore episode maybe 3 or 4 times straight. I could do this because the conversation was just fascinating. Maybe I could understand 70% at first and next time, 80% or more and at the end of this routine, I felt I could get almost everything! After that, I did with different episodes and it went well, too.

Thank you for encouraging us as always and I’m looking forward new episodes.

Enjoy it! Take stock. Enjoy the small victories. See progress as achievable.


Spend some time learning grammar but do it selectively. Use the murphy grammar test to identify things you need to work on. Notice the grammar you’ve been studying in the real world. You’ll start to notice it everywhere.

Don’t get blocked by your grammar knowledge

I suggest studying the grammar, but sometimes you need to know when to just put the grammar rules away and use the force.

Listening and reading a lot are just as important in learning grammar as focusing on the rules. You need to have seen and heard a lot of grammar to be able to judge if something is right or wrong and to make sense of the rules. Always remember to understand and analyse the language in a meaningful context, not just abstract grammar rules. Everything comes back to the way the language is actually used, not the so-called rules on paper. Understanding this can help you study grammar more effectively.

Notice grammar in the real world. Make your own rules. Test them. Check them with the rule book. Keep going.

Writing to get through the Plateau

I should also mention that writing is a really important way to get through the intermediate plateau.

You can use it to help you find errors that you make in your language, correct them and learn to stop making them. Often these errors are simple fossilised mistakes that you know you shouldn’t make. Your own knowledge of the language plus any research you do can help you identify and correct the mistakes, making it less likely that you’ll do it again.

So you can correct yourself by doing some creative writing and then checking it carefully on your own. But also you might need someone to correct your writing or give you feedback. You might have a native speaker, a teacher, an italki teacher or a relative who can check your work, or  you can you have your writing corrected through sites like Lang-8 and LingQ.

Different skills in English are connected and mutually beneficial. There are basically 4 skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking, and they’re all connected. There are receptive skills like listening and reading, and then productive skills like speaking and writing. Listening is connected to speaking because it is the oral version of the language, and reading is complementary to writing because of the syntax, the spelling and punctuation.

Writing is also different to speaking in that you have more time to reflect on what you’re putting down. When speaking you have to be spontaneous and it’s linked to body language. Writing is a solo experience and that allows you to think more clearly about the language you’re producing.

Also, as you correct your writing, this will benefit your speaking by giving you an inner monologue which can be converted to speech. All in all, it’s a good idea to practise writing as well as speaking in order to improve your accuracy and fluency.

Enjoy it 

Enjoy the English you consume and produce. Follow your heart and focus on the aspects of language that you enjoy and that will keep you coming back. Take pleasure in the act of learning a language. Remember that it’s making you a much more rounded and multidimensional person.

Here are some motivational quotes

Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can; there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.
‒Sarah Caldwell

Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.
‒Chinese Proverb

To have another language is to possess a second soul.

❝The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.❝ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Rapping with Fluency MC

253. Rapping with Fluency MC!



  • Jilmani

    Thanks Luke for being with us during the challenge it was amazing and I really enjoyed making the quizzes and collecting responses it was fun. I hope people continue to listen to you podcast everyday. Thanks for everything you do for us.

  • Marta KL

    No worries Cat, 8 months ago is like ages!!

  • Naomi

    It has been a total joy to join Jilmani’s 15 day challenge!
    Thank you so much Jilmani!
    I want to keep continuing to listen to old episodes from now on too.
    I might come across something I’ve missed or discover new thing.
    The last 2 days(#385 & #386) helped me to get motivated.
    Thank you Luke!
    And your rap was so cool!
    Writing lyrics can be tricky, can’t it?

  • Luis Santiago Lopez

    I finished the challenge too. Thanks Jilmany, I really apreciate this quiz. Finish listening this episode it’s wonderful. Thanks Luke you are a great coach English Teacher.

  • Marta KL

    The challenge is done! Many many thanks to Jilmani and her dad again for this great opportunity to repeat various parts of the grammar etc. with having lot of fun! I´m pretty sure I will miss it :)) The truth is that I always find some new things while repeated listening of episodes and that´s great, isn´t it?

    • Jilmani

      You’re most welcome Marta thanks for being an active participant.

  • Catherine Bear

    Luke on how to climb a mountain :)


    • Marta KL

      Haha Cat, that´s brilliant, how did you find it? :))))
      Sometimes I feel like my learning process hurts physically too!

  • Catherine Bear

    I wandered into your wonderland …
    (Run Wild, by Barry Gibb — from “Guilty” 1980, Barbra Streisand)


  • Catherine Bear

    Hi Lepsters,

    I’ve got a question, again :)

    Is it worth to spend some money searching for the appropriate italki teacher? Because the test lessons, they cost some money, right?

    I personally am quite demanding to my teacher. I expect only the best. So it could take some time (and obviosly some money) until I find someone.

    Is it worth to spend the money? I would rather donate that money to Luke.

    What do you think? What is your experience with italki?

    Thank you in advance,


    • Agnes

      Hi Cat,

      Are you still looking for an English teacher on Italki?

      To my mind, each the money spent on searching for a good teacher, are worth it. It costs less than normal one hour class, for example a half of the price.

      I am demanding English learner too, so I had spent a quite long time until I found an appropriate one. Not always explaining to them my requirements was successful. Not always they met my expectations. So I was searching for a few months and then I checked out a few of them.

      Finally, I have found a great teacher who is originally from Scotland, at first I was sure I couldn’t have understood her at all relating to others opinions, but I was totally surprised how clearly she spoke.

      Now I take 2 or 3 classes with her a week, which helps me to prepare for my exam. These classes are not as pricey as previous, I pay for two as for one.

      I would suggest to take a look at this website and find one tailored to your individual needs:-)

      • Catherine Bear

        Dear Agnes,

        I’m happy for you that you finally have found a nice and competent italki teacher who you’re comfortable with. That’s really great. Your long search and investments have paid off. Now your English is improving really fast! Congrats!

        I’ve looked at some teacher profiles at italki — two of them I’ve written an email to. They didn’t answer. So I didn’t try after that. On the other hand, I’ve already have someone (a very nice person) with whom I can talk and communicate regularly. He is also from Scotland. And I love the Scottish accent so much. :)

        Also at my work we regularly have international guests, some of them are native speakers — so at the moment I am not looking for an italki teacher any more.

        Good luck with your exam preparation!!! I have my fingers crossed.

        Enjoy your day,

      • Agnes

        That is weird that neither of teachers answer to your email.

        You are so lucky having opportunities to talk in English in regular basis, even they are not neative speakers, and to natives also!

        I think of my investments, that I paid every coin for learning and hope that it will pay off in a future, in my future job. And I am pretty sure that my learning doesn’t end on the exam, it will happen forever, even though now is tiring.

        what is more, I see rapid progress in my grammar, so that is bright side of my preparation for the exam:-)

      • Catherine Bear

        I’m happy to hear it, Anges. :)
        I think you belong in Ravenclaw too, because you love to learn. ;)
        Those italki teachers I’ve contacted were “community teachers” — so maybe there were busy with other community engagements. I didn’t contact professional teachers. If I had done that, maybe it would have been different. (feel free to correct my grammar) ;)
        Enjoy your day,

      • Agnes

        I am not going to correct your grammar at all, I am not a professional at that field, not yet, hi hi.
        By the way, friends don’t correct each other, that would happen only with a teacher:-)

  • Catherine Bear

    Hi fellow LEPsters,

    What Grammar book do you use?

    The Raymond Murphey’s blue book is considered to be the best one.

    What about this one? Does anybody use it?

    Advanced Grammar in Use. Third Edition. By Martin Hewings. (Cambridge)

    “The advanced level (C1-C2) of the world’s favourite grammar series for learners of English. Advanced Grammar in Use Third Edition is an updated version of Martin Hewings’ best-selling grammar book, and is now also available as an interactive eBook.”

    Should I buy it? Or should I go for the Raymond Murphey’s blue book?

    Thanks. :)


    • Ptholome
      • Catherine Bear

        Thank you, Ptholome, you are too good to me. :)

        Luke says that he uses this book quite regularly, as a reference book and to be on top of grammar. He said — test yourself regularly and do the exercises again and again after some time.

        Besides, it could be our family grammar.

        But, I still thinking about bying or not… I’ve got a voucher worth of 25 Euro and I wanted to invest it in some English language book.

    • Agnes

      Hi Cat

      As you know I use a blue one, and I found it easy to learn with.

      What I would suggest is that, if you do grammar exercises from this book, try to do them with other sources also, such us other websites, or make sentences and expressions with a new known rule.

      I did one after one for long time, but I realized that I did it wrongly, because you have gaps in sentences there which are easy to fill, so after some time I totally forgot how to use this rule I have learned. Is it vital to do as much as you can with one grammar rule. And after a few months check your knowledge again, if you remember all of it.

      so, that’s all, if you have any questions please let me know:-)


      • Catherine Bear

        Yes, as Luke says:

        Practise, practise, practise.

        Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

        Do lots of exercises.

        And stay positive. :)

        I have to learn more phrasal verbs — those are really tough for me. I always forget those parts: off, out, on, up etc. Those little mean words. I try to make for myself some meaningful rules, but in practice they keep disappearing.

        WHAT CAN I DO ?!? :°°°°(

      • Agnes

        Hi Cat

        uff that is one of the most difficult for me too. What I did once, I practiced some phrasal verbs with my teacher after an one week listening of Luke’s podcast ( I don’t remember the number of this one but it was about his childhood and schooldays, there are lots of them). To sum up, I was listening over one week and then practiced with my teacher.

        In my opinion these ones are difficult to learn, they might not to be difficult to remember the meaning of particular word, but difficult to use them. I think they are used by natives in daily conversations, but for us it seems as a part of disappearing words in basic conversation. I know we’d like to sound like a natives, but if we don’t use them in regular speeches we are not going to use them at all.

        I would suggest to use them as much as you can, step by step with your speaking partner, if he is Scottish probably uses all of them, try to catch every phrase and use it in speech.

        It might not be the best suggestion but it came to the top of my head.

      • Do you know about my phrasal verb podcasts? There are over 130 short episodes about different phrasal verbs. Listening to them might help you with these phrases. It would also be a good idea to get a phrasal verb practice book.
        Phrasal verb podcast teacherluke.co.uk/phrasal-verb-a-day/a-phrasal-verb-a-day-episode-archive/
        A possible practice book www.amazon.co.uk/Phrasal-Verbs-B1-C2-Collins-Work/dp/0007464665/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1479754136&sr=8-5&keywords=phrasal+verbs

      • Agnes

        Hi Luke,

        thanks for reply, o yes, I know them, I’m actually struggling with tests, but before that, I used to listen 3 particular phrasal verbs daily, over one week, so I’d done over 50 phrasal verbs, for me the best method for memorizing all of them. In my opinion, short funny stories you created in are great and can help us, learners . The drawback of it is that, I haven’t practiced them at all, they are passive, so that’s why I can’t use them in speech. What is vital, practice makes perfect.

        Thank you for the recommendation of the books for learning phrasal verbs, I will check it out for sure.

        have a nice evening