Search type

University Language Centre

Helpsheets and worksheets

Quick hints and handy templates to help you on your language learning journey.

Reading, listening and writing hints

Develop your skills with these quick tips.


10 hints when listening in a foreign language

  1. Listen to a DVD, audio CD or online streamed video/audio whenever possible. Although viewing live TV can be fun and helps to train your ear, using recorded material presents two major advantages: you have a much greater choice of subject; and you can use Pause and Replay.
  2. Think about the subject before you start. Make a list of words and phrases you expect to hear, and tick them off as they come up.
  3. Listen actively. Don't just let the language wash over you. Always have a pen and paper with you to note interesting vocabulary, language points etc.
  4. Take your notes in the target language. When listening to normal speech you do not have time to translate everything. Working only in the target language will train your brain to think in that language.
  5. Don't worry if you can't understand everything. Concentrate instead on what you do understand.
  6. The first time, listen to the whole item without stopping. This will give you a better understanding of the overall context before concentrating on the detail.
  7. For more detailed work, concentrate on quite short sections e.g. a single news item.
  8. Use Pause and Replay functions where these are available.
  9. If a transcript is available, do not look at it until the end of your activity. Your last step should be to listen again, reading the transcript simultaneously. You will normally understand the transcript more easily than the recording, and this exercise helps you link the written word to its spoken form. You should not however study the transcript as a written text.
  10. Try using a monolingual dictionary when checking vocabulary. Often a definition is more useful than a translation, especially for items which are difficult to translate directly, and it is good practice to work entirely in the target language.


10 hints when reading in a foreign language

Before reading

  1. Look at the title and introduction. What do you think the text is about? Finding a topic you are interested in means you are more likely to persevere with it. 
  2. Make a list of any relevant vocabulary you can think of.

First reading

  1. Read the text once without stopping - some of the meaning will become clearer as you read through it.

Second reading

  1. Underline words and expressions of which you are not sure. Don't look them up immediately. 
  2. There should be one main idea per paragraph. Summarise each paragraph in one sentence.


  1. Don't look up every word.  
  2. First look at the context. Do you need to know this word to understand the overall meaning? (Often a rough idea is enough e.g. a type of tree, a positive or negative emotion, an adjective meaning good or bad)  
  3. Try to guess the meaning: what part of speech is it? If it's an adjective, what noun does it agree with? Is it similar to a word in your own language or another language you know? Can you recognise the origin or root of the word?


Streichholz (German) - holz = wood, streichen can be guessed (to strike)

  • a piece of wood used for striking

allumette (French) - you know allumer (to light), -ette suggests it is small

  • something small used for lighting things

fósforo (Spanish)

  • you can guess that this relates to phosphorous, which is used to make the heads of matches

The meaning of each of these words, in the context, should therefore be clear i.e. they all mean "match".

  1. Select a maximum of 10 words or expressions to look up in a good dictionary (use a monolingual dictionary to get a definition in the target language) Try to select vocabulary with a common theme. This will help you remember it.  
  2. Instead of simply writing the translation, include the word in a sentence which demonstrates its use in this context (remember the same word may have several different meanings).


10 hints when writing in a foreign language

Before starting to write think of the following

  1. What is your purpose in writing (e.g. to inform/to persuade/to request information)? Bear this in mind to ensure you keep to your main purpose. 
  2. Who is/are your intended reader(s)? Bear them in mind all the time to ensure you keep an appropriate tone or register of language. 
  3. Who is/are your intended reader(s)? Will what you write interest them?

 While writing you may need to think of the following

  1. Will you address your reader(s) directly in the second person and if so using the formal or informal register? Or are you not addressing them directly? You need to decide. When quoting, are you going to use reported or direct speech forms and why? 
  2. When recounting events, are you going to use the present tense for greater immediacy or a past tense, and if so which one(s)?

When rereading your work, bear in mind the following

  1. Are your ideas well-organised and linked?
  2. Are you being repetitive? Can you find another way of saying something rather than just repeating it?
  3. Have you written concisely or could you communicate your message effectively using fewer words?  
  4. Check your verb endings, tenses and forms. Have you been consistent in your use of tenses? Check your adjectival agreements by gender and plurality. Check your accents and any spellings you are unsure of. Check your word order.
  5. Reread it again to check the register - does it read appropriately formally/informally. Is your written style appropriate to the subject matter and your purpose in writing about it? Have you achieved your original aims?
  • Do not draft the item in your own language first
  • Write directly in the target language
  • Translating is harder than writing


Speaking skills

Languages are all about communicating with people and most communication is through speech. Yet curiously, speaking is often the one skill which is neglected, both in the classroom and when working independently. There are however various ways that you can improve these skills.


The best way to improve your speaking is to talk with a native speaker of the language, and the presence of native speakers of a range of languages in the University presents an ideal opportunity to exchange conversation in your mother tongue with conversation in the language you are learning. This will greatly improve your fluency, although this should not be at the expense of accuracy. Make sure your partner corrects your mistakes, or you could develop bad habits.

Other ways to develop speaking skills

  • Listen actively to authentic speech. Note in particular the little words and expressions that are used to link ideas, start sentences, give opinions, change the subject, etc. Try to think "how would I have said that ?" and analyse any differences with the actual speech.
  • Repeat phrases or whole sentences, attempting to imitate exactly the pronunciation, intonation and the speed of the original. If possible, record yourself using the tape recorder or an interactive CD-ROM so you can compare and try again as necessary.
  • When there is a transcript available mark the stresses, then after listening to the passage several times read the whole script aloud, again trying to mimic the original. Time yourself and compare this with the duration of the tape.
  • Many course books include controlled drills or one-sided dialogues where you have to provide appropriate responses.
  •  Don't be afraid to talk aloud, either to yourself or as a recording. Many people feel self-conscious about this, but you must overcome your inhibitions. You'll find everyone else is too involved in their own work to listen to you.


"I understand OK but I'm embarrassed to speak because my pronunciation is so bad."

  • Although it is important to work on your pronunciation in order to be understood, never be ashamed of your accent.
  • You need to make sure that the basic sounds, especially vowels, are correctly pronounced.
  • Most problems of understanding are actually caused by poor intonation, misplaced stress, etc. When listening and repeating, pay particular attention to the rise and fall of the voice: which syllable is stressed in each word, and which words are stressed in the sentence.
  • Your Face-to-Face partner can also help you with your pronunciation.


New vocabulary

When you come across a new word in reading, listening or seminar work don't rush straight for the dictionary:

  • try to deduce its meaning from the context: keep a record of the whole sentence in which you encountered it
  • try to deduce its meaning from the structure of the word - it may contain familiar elements
  • try to find other sentences or phrases containing the same word: does its meaning change in different contexts?
  • notice what part of speech it is, and how it behaves grammatically (see Grammar Hints); a range of sentences will help this.
  • note the other words around it (some verbs take specific prepositions for example): can you read the word in isolation or does it have regular 'collocations'?
  • note who is using the word and in what style or register of discourse - spoken, written, formal, informal, vocabulary pertaining to a particular age group or social context, etc
  • check its pronunciation (using a dictionary, asking a native speaker, listening to it in use on a recording) and for longer words mark its stress point to remind you.

You're more likely to remember something you've worked out for yourself.

Use a dictionary to check meaning - always use a good dictionary, preferably monolingual. 

Compile lists of new words as follows:

  • divide your page into two columns and either write the foreign language on one side, your mother tongue on the other, or write the new word on one and a definition in the same language on the other 
  • start a new sheet for each topic area e.g. have a sheet for vocabulary related to the environment, another for education etc.
  • use colour-coding, eg all feminine words in one colour, masculines in another, verbs in another etc. When you think of the word later you will envisage its colour and this will help you use it correctly.

Don't write down every new word you encounter. Do you really need to know this word, or only to understand it at this moment? Limit yourself to 10 new words per text which you will list with a view to learning because you feel they will be really useful.

Learning vocabulary

There are 3 things you must learn: meaning, pronunciation, and use.

Using lists, cover up one column and work your way down testing yourself, first from the foreign language to the definition, then reverse the process. Work with a friend to test each other if possible. Always read aloud. If you are unsure of the pronunciation of the word, check it in a good dictionary which provides a phonemic transcription.

Write words out on pieces of paper/card and put the definition (translation or target language definition) on the reverse. Spread them out in front of you, choose one at a time, test yourself, check on the reverse. OR: write the word on one card and the definition on another. Spread them out upside down and play memory games pairing them up. Each time you're right, collect the card(s). Both of these are best played with a friend.

  • Choose words from your list and write three different sentences in the target language using each word to illustrate its meaning. Make them humorous or silly if possible then read them aloud.
  • You'll remember words better when you've used them in context or, preferably, a variety of contexts.
  • Try the Internet - there are vocabulary tests and other language learning tools to be found. 
  • Each day, choose a 'word of the day' and think up as many ways of using it as possible. Try to use it with your conversation exchange partner, in class or in open access activities.
  • Repetition is the best way to remember : copy sentences containing the word, write your own sentences, record yourself repeating words rhythmically, then play the recording back.


Bilingual dictionaries are vital tools for all language learners. They seem very easy to use - you just look up the word you want and find its equivalent in the foreign language. But they can also be very dangerous if misused. Look at the following example.

You want to look up the word match as in a football match. Collins German dictionary:

match 1 Streichholz or Zündholz. 
If you choose either of these words you will be using the German for a small stick which you strike to light a fire or a cigarette!! You will need to look down all the entries under 
match 2 1 n to find 
(d) (Sport) and then read all the definitions under sport to choose the definition after (team game) which is Spiel.

This example is based on the word match being a noun. But in English it can also be a verb, so you need to understand the abbreviations provided in dictionaries.

1 n means category 1 nouns. Further down you will find 2 vt (verb transitive) meaning verbs which take a direct object, with examples of usage. And then 3 vi (verb intransitive) meaning verbs which do not take a direct object. The dictionary helps you with these by giving examples of usage e.g. they're well matched, to match each noun with an adjective, match that! she matched the carpet with the curtains etc.

The above example holds for any language you might be looking up.

One word can have a number of meanings in one language, translated by numerous different words in another language.


  • To ensure that you have found the right word always look it up the other way round. So Streichholz German-English: you will find match, but next to that, Streichholzschachtel meaning matchbox. That immediately tells you you have found the wrong meaning of match. One student looked up the word flyer in an English-French dictionary. He wanted dépliant (leaflet/prospectus) but found and used aviateur = a flyer in the sense of a pilot. Had he looked up aviateurin a French-English dictionary he would not have made this mistake. 
  • Before you use the dictionary, be clear in your own mind as to what meaning you are trying to convey. If you want to describe teams as well matched, look up match/matched but also think about saying they played as well as each other or that they were of a similar standard, and use the dictionary to help you find a way of expressing your meaning that you are comfortable with.
  • Be aware of the function of the word you are looking up. If it is a noun then you will need to find definitions listed for that word as a noun. Sometimes the definitions may be verbs or phrases, but make sure you start from the right point.
  • Take note of genders of nouns and types of verb. Sometimes words with different genders mean different things e.g. in Spanish: la orden=(religious) order; command. But el orden=(sequential) order. Some verbs will have different meanings depending on whether they are transitive or intransitive. Check the examples of usage that good dictionaries provide to be sure.
  • Familiarise yourself with the abbreviations used in dictionaries. There is a list printed in the dictionary and if you do not understand any of the meanings, ask a tutor or language adviser in the language centre.
  • Above all, use a good dictionary. Small dictionaries do not provide as many examples of variation of meaning. Use a monolingual dictionary whenever possible to have meanings described in the foreign language and ensure you are expressing yourself in the most appropriate way.

Some common abbreviations:

  • vb - verb
  • vi - verb intransitive
  • vt - verb transitive
  • vr - verb reflexive
  • vti - verb transitive and intransitive
  • adj - adjective
  • adv - adverb
  • f - feminine
  • m - masculine
  • nt - neuter
  • pl - plural
  • n - noun
  • npl - noun plural
  • art - article


All languages have rules which tell us how words are formed and how they are put together into sentences. These rules are the 'grammar' of the language. Different languages have different rules. For example, in French, Italian and Spanish an adjective comes after a noun: la maison rougela casa rossala casa roja, but in languages like English and German an adjective usually comes before a noun: the red housedas rote Haus.

Native speakers have known the grammar of their language from childhood, but if you are learning a foreign language you have to learn the rules in a much more conscious way, and you often need to look them up in a grammar book to find out how you say something in the foreign language. In fact, you should work with your grammar book on a regular basis.

You may find, though, that grammar books contain unfamiliar technical terms. Don't be put off by them. They're simply tools for talking about particular features of grammar. Once you know what they mean, you'll find them handy and easy to use. Here are some explanations of the most important ones:


Verbs express the action (or sometimes a process or a state) in the sentence, and pretty well all sentences contain a verb.

Verbs have many different forms. First, there are finite and non-finite verb forms. Finite verbs in most European languages typically have endings on them which agree with the person and number of the subject, and/or show tense. English sees, for example, has the ending -s to agree with the subject he, she or it, and it is present tense as opposed to past tense saw.

Non-finite verb forms do not have endings which agree with the subject and do not change for tense. In English and most European languages, there are only three non-finite verb forms: the infinitive (the form that you would find in a dictionary, e.g. (to) lock, (to) see, (to) fly); the present participle (which always ends in -ing, e.g. locking, seeing, flying) and the past participle (locked, seen, flown). All other verb forms are finite.

Finite verbs have endings which agree with the subject of the verb for person and number. i.e. whether it is the speaker (the first person), someone the speaker is talking to (the second person), or somebody or something else (the third person) - and whether it is singular or plural (i.e. whether one or more than one person or thing is involved). Most European languages have the following categories:


  • 1st person = I
  • 2nd person = you
  • 3rd person = he/she/it


  • 1st person = we
  • 2nd person = you
  • 3rd person = they

The forms of verbs can also indicate a number of other grammatical notions (called grammatical categories), i.e voice, tense and mood.


Voice indicates the perspective of an event which is being adopted by the speaker. Active voice is the 'normal' way of using a verb (The tiger ate the little boy - the tiger actively did something to something else), while passive voice is the other way round (The little boy was eaten by the tiger - the little boy had something done to him).


Tenses give some indication of time. Most languages distinguish between the broad categories of present (e.g. I play tennis. You are reading a book), past (e.g. I played tennis. You were reading a book) and future (e.g. I will play tennis. You will be reading a book). Some languages have further subdivisions within each of these categories.


Mood tells us what the speaker's attitude is to what s/he is saying. The mood of the verb indicates whether the speaker is telling someone to do something (imperative mood) or whether s/he is reporting what someone else has said, or whether the speaker is talking about possibly unreal conditions (subjunctive).

  • The indicative mood is the most general mood. It is used to make statements, ask questions, etc. (e.g. I live in Manchester. Can you speak Russian?) 
  • The imperative mood is used to give instructions or orders (e.g. Turn left. Go away!).
  • The subjunctive mood is something we are not particularly aware of in English. We say - If I were you rather than If I was you, and this is a subjunctive. In other languages, the subjunctive is used much more frequently, usually indicating doubt, a tentative opinion, unreal conditions etc. The rules for when to use the subjunctive and in what tense need to be studied for each language separately.

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are verbs which are used to 'help' other verbs in certain constructions, for example progressive forms in English (She is writing. She was writing), which express that an action is currently in progress, or the present perfect or pluperfect tenses (He has gone. He had gone). The auxiliaries used like this in English are called primary auxiliaries. When forming the perfect tense or the pluperfect, there are specific rules in many languages (e.g. in French, German and Italian) as to when to use the equivalent of to be or to have. The second group of auxiliaries is called modal auxiliaries (also known as modal verbs). These are used together with another verb to express possibility, necessity, ability, permission and the like (e.g. He might do it. I must go home. She can ride a bike. May I sit down?).

Other parts of speech / word classes


Nouns are names of people, animals, things or concepts (e.g. Samdogapplehappiness).


Determiners are 'small' words used with nouns to relate a noun to a particular context or situation. There are several kinds of determiners, and the most important ones are definite articles (the), indefinite articles (a, an), demonstratives (this, these, that, those) and possessive determiners (myyourhisheritsourtheir).

Definite articles pick out a specific item or set(s) of items (e.g. the apple, the houses by the river). 
Indefinite articles refer to something in a non-specific way (e.g. an apple, a book).

Demonstratives, like definite articles, pick out a specific item or set(s) of items, but, in addition, they 'point' to them, demonstrating what is being referred to (e.g. this applethat applethese applesthose apples).

Possessive determiners express who or what something belongs to (e.g. my appleyour bookhis penher carits colour). In many traditional grammar books you will find the term 'possessive pronoun' instead of possessive determiner. This is unhelpful, because possessive pronouns are different from possessive determiners. In English, for example, most of them look different and can't be placed in the same position in a sentence (e.g. possessive determiner: That's my book; possessive pronoun: That book is mine). Note, too, that the possessive determiner (and, as it happens, the possessive pronoun) we use for things or animate beings whose sex we don't know is its (e.g. The dog's tail is long, but its legs are short). There's no apostrophe in this word - after all, you wouldn't think of writing hi's or he's instead of his! (The form it's, by the way, is short for it is.)


Adjectives give further information about a noun and usually come before the noun in an English sentence (e.g. a big applea good filma fast car). Occasionally, though, adjectives can occur in a different part of the sentence from the noun to which they belong (e.g. This apple is really big). Adjectives used like this after the verb to be are known as predicate adjectives.


Pronouns take the place of a noun and any other words which are grouped around that noun to form a unit in the sentence. These other words are often determiners and adjectives (but there may be other word classes, too). Such a grouping of words around a noun is called a noun phrase (e.g. The School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures consists of five departmentsI can see that tall blond boy. Do you know Peter?). Pronouns, despite their name, replace entire noun phrases, not just individual nouns, although it is, of course, possible for a noun phrase to be made up of just one noun (e.g. The School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures consists of seven disciplines - it is quite largeI can see that tall blond boy - he is coming over hereDo you know Peter? Yes, I know him.) English has subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) and object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, them). In some languages (e.g. Italian and Spanish, but not English or French), you can leave out the subject pronoun, because the form of the verb tells you all you need to know and the language doesn't need the pronoun to be there to satisfy the grammatical requirements of the verb (e.g. E' pericoloso literally: 'Is dangerous' has to be translated into English as 'It is dangerous').

  • Reflexive pronouns are often used to express the fact that the action referred to by the verb is directed towards the subject of the sentence, e.g. She bought herself a nice jacketHe cut himself chopping vegetables. The most important reflexive pronouns in English are myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.
  • Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, and they usually refer back to a noun in the main clause of a sentence (e.g. This is the car that I want to buy - that refers back to carThe cinema where we are meeting is in the town centre -where refers back to cinema).


Adverbs further describe the action of verbs (e.g. he sang well, she read the document carefully, we walked slowly, the horse runs fast). Note that some words like quick and fast can be either adjectives or adverbs in English. They sometimes translate differently in a foreign language - so be careful with the dictionary.


Sentences usually contain at least a finite verb form and a subject. I ate the apple is a sentence. Even She has eaten is a sentence because it contains a finite verb form (has) and a subject (She). But Eating the apple is not a sentence, because there is no finite verb form and there is no subject either, even though the verb requires one. A sentence consists of one or more clauses. 

Clauses are rather like sentences embedded inside a sentence. So, Peter was reading a book is a sentence consisting of just one clause, but Peter was reading a book, while Pat was mending the car is made up of two clauses.


The subject of a sentence is normally who or what is being discussed. Most verbs need a subject and it's the subject which decides the form or the ending of the finite verb in most languages. In the sentence, I am a teacher - I is the subject, requiring the verb form to be am rather than are or is. Similarly, in The horse runs fast - the horse is the subject, which means that runs is the right verb form, while run isn't.


Objects are other parts of the sentence which are required by the verb, in addition to the subject. Objects are often the person or thing affected by the action of the verb. In English, we can distinguish between direct objects and indirect objects.

  • A direct object answers the question Who? or What? (I ate ... what?... the appleI met himI met ... who?...him - him is the direct object of met.) Verbs which take direct objects are known as transitive verbs. So in a dictionary the verbs eat and meet will be listed as vt(=verb transitive).
  • Indirect objects don't answer straight questions, but indirect ones. I spoke to him - I spoke ... what? ... the answer could be English but is irrelevant here; I spoke ...who? ... can't be answered. I spoke ... to whom? ... to him (or, if 'to whom' strikes you as old-fashioned: Who did I speak to? to him). In this sentence, him is therefore an indirect object. Typically, if a verb has both a direct and an indirect object, the direct object is a thing directly affected by the action of the verb, and the indirect object is a person indirectly affected (often benefitting from the action in some way), cf. My friend (subject) gave her father (indirect object) the book (direct object).


Agents can appear with verbs in the passive voice. The little boy was eaten by the tiger - the little boy is the subject of this passive sentence, but the tiger is the agent, i.e. what or who is actually performing the action.

  • Transitive verbs always have a direct object. But some verbs can be used either transitively or intransitively. Eat is one of these. In the sentence, Have you eaten your greens? the verb to eat is used transitively, whereas in Have you eaten? it is being used intransitively.
  • Intransitive verbs are listed in a dictionary as vi (=verb intransitive). They do not have a direct object, but may have an indirect object. In the sentence, The horse runs fast there is no object at all, so run is an intransitive verb. But run can be used transitively in a sentence such as, The directors run the company. Here, the company answers the question - what? - so run functions as a transitive verb, but the meaning of run is completely different from the meaning it has in The horse runs fast. So if you are looking up run in the dictionary to translate into another language, take care to find the right meaning of run and refer to the abbreviations vt and vi.
  • Reflexive verbs are verbs which require a reflexive pronoun. These are relatively rare in English, and the best example is perhaps to enjoy oneself, where the oneself contributes little to the meaning and there is no real concept of doing something to oneself. Languages such as French, German or Spanish, for example, have a number of reflexive verbs which have nothing to do with doing things to oneself, e.g. French se rappeler, German sich erinnern ' to remember', Italianchiamarsi, Spanish llamarse 'to be called'. In the dictionary, reflexive verbs are normally listed as vr or v.pron. (short for pronominal verb, which means much the same as reflexive verb).

Relative clauses

Relative clauses are one way of combining information from two separate sentences into one sentence. A relative pronoun is needed to provide the link: That's the car. + I want to buy the car. = That's the car that I want to buy. The relative pronoun that stops us from using the car twice. The main clause is That's the car and the relative clause is that I want to buy because it is dependent on the main clause and is introduced by a relative pronoun. Note that English allows relative clauses to be formed without a visible relative pronoun, e.g. That's the car ___ I want to buyShe knows about the crime ___ he witnessed yesterday, while languages such as German always require a relative pronoun to introduce a relative clause.


Pro formas

These are mainly blank grid formats which will assist you to summarise what you have understood from reading and listening in a foreign language. You can print them off, or copy the format to suit your requirements.

Typing special characters

You can type accented characters for many Western European (and other) languages in any Windows program by holding down the ALT key and typing a four-digit character code. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can also type accented characters using a special set of keyboard shortcuts which are quite easy to remember. Both methods are detailed in the following PDF document:

The above method and character codes do not include many accented characters used in Central European languages (such as Polish) and Eastern European languages (such as Turkish). A slightly different method with additional character codes for inputting characters in Polish and Turkish is given in the following PDF document: