Best ESL Apps

Smart phone with color apps flying out.168774905Though smartphones are often criticized for, well, making people less smart – when, after all, was the last time you actually bothered to remember someone’s phone number? – a new generation of applications (“apps”) is helping them earn their name. Indeed, in addition to the thousands of games now available in Apple’s App Store, the Android Market, or Blackberry App World, there are also apps to help you improve everything from your time management to your finances – and language learning is no different. Here are some of our favorite tools to help you improve everything from your vocabulary to your conversation skills:

Vocabulary: Busuu
Far and away one of the most popular language-learning tools on the market, this app helps students of all levels to learn and then review vocabulary using a variety of vocabulary units and tests.

Grammar: English Grammar in Use Tests
Grammar practice got you down? Don’t worry, as this app proves, studying does not have to be all drills and tests. This app, which is based on the popular Grammar in Use series, allows students to practice English grammar through a series of games. As a result, conjugation never seemed so fun!

Prepositions: Preposition Builder
Though it technically focuses on an aspect of grammar, this app merits mentioning because of its sheer usefulness. While the concept is simple – to play the learning game students simply select the correct prepositions describe the image provided – this app takes things a step further by than most by changing the image and sentence if the student chooses the wrong answer. This means that students can learn even while making mistakes!

Conversation: Conversation English
Want to chat? This is the app for you. With it you can try your hand at a variety of comprehension exercises after watching one of 20 video dialogues and, if necessary, read the conversation script before or after for further practice.

Downloaded the best ESL apps available, but still want more? Check out our recent blog on Best ESL Podcasts!

Give Me A Break with Phrasal Verbs

Sick Car C479581563As mentioned in our last entry in the Phrasal Verbs series, phrasal verbs give the English language the power to do more with less. Because of the prevalence of phrasal verbs, instead of using completely new words to describe different actions, English speakers are able to make small – but important – additions to existing words. Nor are examples like “blow” (which is associated with at least four different phrasal verbs) isolated examples; consider, as we will today, the word break – it has more than a dozen!

Break Down / – to malfunction or stop working

  • I need to buy a new car because, after more than ten years of heavy use, my old one broke down last week.


  • After several weeks of extreme stress Jack decided to take a vacation before he broke down under the strain.

Note: As the second example shows, this phrasal verb can be used to describe people as well as machines. When applied to people, however, it typically involves a mental, not physical, breakdown. [Breakdown, the related noun form of this phrasal verb, is one word, not two.]

Break … Down – to examine closely

  • To better break down difficult problems Matt likes to work in a calm, quiet place.

Note: The object of this phrasal verb can come either between the words or, as in the case above, after it.

Break In / – to interrupt

  • While watching a tense conversation between his parents Jeremy waited for an opportune moment to break in and make his big announcement.

Note: “Break into” is a common variant of this phrasal verb that has the same meaning. In the above example, however, we might change the sentence to say “break into the conversation…” instead.

Break In/ – to enter a location forcibly (and often illegally)

  • The band of thieves broke in at midnight and was gone – with the jewels – in less than five minutes.

Note: As with the other meaning of break in, above, this phrasal verb often appears as “break into” – in which case the location often immediately follows it in the sentence.

For more on our system of notation – as well as a lot more phrasal verbs – check out our phrasal verb blog posts!

More Idioms Inspired By Geography

Mole with a magnifying glass on molehill182218664While we concentrated our efforts on the more positive expressions Mother Nature has inspired in our last installment, in this one we will turn our attention to a few of the negative ones. Here are a few examples of our favorites:

To Go Downhill
Although you might enjoy walking downhill – especially when you consider the opposite as the alternative! – when things go downhill they are generally deteriorating or otherwise worsening. English skills, for example, tend to go downhill without practice!

To Make a Mountain Out of a Molehill
The key to this idiom is to know what a molehill is – with that piece of information in mind this expression is actually pretty straightforward. That is because a molehill, the small pile of dirt created by mole while it digs, is rarely no larger than a watermelon (and nowhere near as large as a mountain). To make a mountain out of a molehill, then, is simply to blow things out of proportion or otherwise exaggerate your problems.

Once in a Blue Moon
Like the molehill, above, the meaning of this idiom revolves around the meaning of a piece of unusual vocabulary. The blue moon in question is the name given in English to phenomenon of having two full moons in a single calendar month – a rare occurrence that matches the meaning of the larger expression perfectly.

Over the Hill
The hill is a metaphor for life itself, with the top of the hill middle age and birth and death on either side. To be over the hill, then, is to have passed through both youth as well as middle age and headed towards the other end of life’s path.

Up the Creek
This idiom often appears in the three word form as above but also has a six word version that better explains its meaning: up the creek without a paddle. With that detail added – and the knowledge that a creek is a body of water – it should be pretty clear why this expression means “to be in trouble”.

Want more idioms inspired by geography? Check out other blog posts with an array of common idioms that will make you laugh!

Fast Facts: Pearson’s New Global Scale of English

s1x5uzj4_400x400Pearson English recently announced this year its release of its new “Global Scale of English” in an effort to establish what it calls a “universal benchmark for businesses, governments and academic institutions.” Such a development should be seen as more than an academic exercise, however – after all, when one of the biggest names in English-language assessments makes a change like this and it is sure to impact the lives of many. It is this importance that has compelled us to go investigate the story behind the headlines. Here, then, are the “need to knows” regarding Pearson’s new Global Scale of English:

What is it?
Like most English proficiency metrics, the new “Global Scale of English” measures the core components of language learning – reading, writing, speaking, and listening. What makes the GSE different is that it allows learners to measure their English proficiency on a scale of 10 to 90. Moreover, because this scale will be consistent across all of Pearson English’s exams, including the PTE Academic and the PTE General.

How is it different?
The result of 25 cumulative years of research, the new, numerical scale is tied (much like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages about which Pearson English consulted) to concrete skills it also offers important advantage for educators and employers who are interested in what functional abilities different candidates possess.

Why is this important?
Pearson English believes the new scale will be more accurate than other proficiency metrics. While earlier measurement devices have tended to divide test-takers into more nebulous bands of “beginner”, “intermediate” or “advanced, the GSE will allow test-takers to compare their results over time using a consistent, nuanced scale. Indeed, according to Pearson, the results of the exam are much more detailed than anything else on the market and should enable students, educators, and employers to measure both progress and proficiency in a much more meaningful way. According to the company, given the important of English in both the classroom and the boardroom such a scale is “long overdue.”

When will it be released?
Those interested in using the new results will still have to wait a while, however. While all of the company’s new products will begin using the GSE immediately, the company plans to gradually integrate the new assessment into its existing offerings over the next 18 to 24 months. Don’t worry, though: during this transition the results will still be tied to the existing scales. In this way Pearson English hopes to make the switch as easy as possible to handle.

Want to learn more about English language exams? See which language exam is right for you.

ESL Podcasts

Sporting runner listening to music fitness illustration148138948Stop and think – what’s the one thing you never leave home without? Well, if you’re like one of the 15,000 people recently surveyed by Reputation Leaders, a global management consultancy, in countries as diverse as Brazil, Italy, and Japan then you probably said “your smartphone.”* The same survey also revealed that half the global population wastes up to four hours a day by sitting in traffic or waiting in line. What if we told you, however, that there was a way to make the most of that time to improve your English by using the very thing you carry with you wherever you go? That’s right, forget Angry Birds and try ESL podcasts. These handy learning tools offer great listening practice in the palm of your hand and, best of all, at a price that suits any budget: free. In fact, you don’t even need a smartphone to listen to them – but you are on your own if you want to bring your PC on the subway. Here are a few of our favorites:

ESL Pod: The mother of all ESL podcasts, this program has more than 800 episodes featuring native speakers engaging in a variety of real-life situations. Well-suited to beginner- and intermediate-level students thanks its slower conversational pace, ESL Pod also features a vocabulary review section at the end of each conversation.

Better at English: This ESL podcast offers intermediate and advanced students plenty of advantages. Not only does it feature realistic conversations using both American and British accents but it also provides a series of comprehension questions before the listening portion so that students can really test their mettle. Plus, unlike much of the competition, both transcripts and vocabulary explanations are available for free on their home page.

Business English Pod: Like Better at English, this ESL Podcast also uses both American and British accents but, thanks to its focus on Business English, it provides far more nuanced discussions of topics such as job interviews and business presentations. As an added bonus the hosts even go so far as to deconstruct each conversation to explain new vocabulary and concepts.

Of course, these three are just a few of the many ESL podcasts available. If we missed your favorite just let us know in the comments below and we will be sure to share it with ESL students around the world! Want more tips? Check out these top 10 tips to learn English.

* According to the survey, more people said their smartphone (24%) than either cash (20%) or credit card (21%).