If you are serious about improving your English, especially if you are preparing for a test like IELTS or one of the Cambridge ESOL exams, you need to be regularly practising your speaking and writing - what we could call output. But you also need to make sure that you are getting enough input - that you are taking in enough of the right sort of English, through your eyes and ears.
Although a large part of your exam preparation should be in the form of practice tests, you need more than that. Chatting with friends, both face-to-face and on the internet, is a great way of practising your informal speaking skills, but you need more than that. Reading about your favourite fashions or sports on websites is an excellent way to improve your reading skills and give you the vocabulary you need to talk with your friends (and the examiner) about your everyday life and the things you love. But you need more than that.
To get really high scores in exams like IELTS, and to pass exams like Cambridge Advanced, you need to know a bit about the world. Not just your world - you need to know about what goes on in the world as a whole. I don't mean that you need to know and remember a huge number of specific facts about current affairs. What you do need is a general understanding of other people's lives and experiences, so that you can talk and write about things of which you have no direct experience.
I'll give you an example. If you are reading this, you are a literate, educated person, but to write an essay about the problems of illiteracy you need to be able to imagine what it would be like to have little or no education, to be unable to read and write. It's much easier to write about the less familiar topics if you have got into the habit of thinking about what happens outside your own family and social life. Newspapers, or news websites, are the place to find this type of information.
I'm going to make two suggestions about how to read the news to improve your English (I'll talk about listening another day):
- If you live in the UK, buy the newspaper called the 'i' every day. It's only 20p, and is a shortened version of one of the high quality newspapers called the Indpendent. I know that Metro is free, but the type of English used in Metro isn't as good as the language in the i. The first two pages are full of very short articles (about 50 words each) on the hot topics of the day from around the world. If you look through these and read about half of them, you will get lots of new vocabulary and ideas for essays (don't forget to add all your new ideas to your Ideas Book). If you flick through the next 20 pages or so, you will find lots of longer news articles - and you could pick one or two a day and read them quite closely, making a record of the useful vocabulary and ideas. After that there's pages about the day's television, fashion, technology, cars - all sorts of different 'general interest' topics. Then come the business pages, so if you are studying for IELTS with a view to doing a Master's degree in Business, you can make sure that you are aware of all the latest developments. Finally, there's lots about sport, and some great crosswords and other puzzles. You don't have to read it all, but commit yourself to spending a certain amount of time on it, and do it regularly.
- If you don't live in the UK, or don't want to buy the i, do the same but use the internet. You can use websites by the Guardian or the BBC, or have a look at this website which lists the top ten news websites for English language learners. Read the headlines, and choose one or two articles a day to look at more closely. I do this for my German, using the German version of Yahoo. Sometimes I don't feel like it, but I always enjoy it once I actually start, and it's a good habit which has really helped me.