Have you ever had to take a test that required you to write in English about some random topic you didn’t care about? Or have you ever taken a class where you had to debate a topic you had zero interest in?
If you did, you probably didn’t enjoy it, nor learn much from it. After all, if you’re not interested in something, your mind will wander and learning won’t happen.
Well, you might be surprised to learn that research validates these experiences. Today, we’ll go into the science of learning to show you why you should bring your interests into your English studies and how you can do this, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced learner.
Studies have found that interest in a topic or a learning material lets students learn more.
For example, in a study in New Zealand, classroom teachers read two picture books to 168 elementary school children and tested them to see how much vocabulary they learned. As it turned out, the children found one book more interesting than the other and learned 10% more vocabulary from it.
Another study of South Korean students learning with American tutors found that even if there were things that made them hesitant to talk (e.g. an intimidating tutor), they became more willing to speak when the conversation turned towards topics related to their interests or experiences.
In other words, bringing your interests into your learning can actually help you! Findings related to the brain help explain why.
For example, in her book, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning, neurologist and educator Judith Willis points out that any new information we learn first travels to the “amygdala,” a part of the brain that responds to stress.
If students are stressed because they “feel alienated from their academic experiences … when a lesson is tedious, not relevant to their lives, confusing, or anxiety-provoking,” the information won’t make it past the amygdala to other parts of the brain for processing and storage.
Simply put, if you feel bored or disconnected from your studies, your brain actually gets stressed and stops absorbing information. This means that interests don’t just enhance your learning, they’re actually an important condition for it.
Yet, how often do we consider our own interests when deciding how to study English? Most of us let our classes, textbooks, and apps decide how we learn. Well, it’s time for us to take learning into our own hands.
Upper Intermediate and Advanced learners
Higher-level learners can delve into interesting content made for native speakers. For example, if you like knitting, watch videos of people who teach it in English and join online forums where people discuss this hobby.
It might take some time to find content and communities you truly like, but they are definitely out there!
Just don’t forget to be specific about what aspects of English you want to work on. For example, many advanced learners want to perfect their pronunciation or grammar or sound more sophisticated when they speak. Make sure to use your favorite English content and communities to help you achieve those goals!
Beginners and Lower Intermediate Learners
Lower-level learners will need more support when learning, even with content they’re interested in. This support can come in the form of translations or audiovisual cues. For example:
You’ll also want to accept that you won’t understand most things. For example, you might not understand all the lyrics of a song, but be happy that you learned a few new words and know that they’ll most likely stick with you longer since you’re learning with content you like!
In any case, tailoring your learning to your interests is more effective if you have someone helping you.
As an advanced learner, you may need help figuring out which words in the books you’re reading are actually useful in real life. After all, you don’t want to spend time learning an expression only to realize that it’s only used in your book!
And as a beginner, you’ll want to know which words or phrases in the movies you’re watching are ones that you should be learning at your level. For example, you probably don’t need to learn words like “exhilarating” when you could just use “exciting” at your level.
So it’ll help to have an English-speaking friend who shares your interests or even better, an English language professional who does! At Engoo, we have thousands of tutors with all kinds of interests, from jazz and gaming to basketball and Harry Potter. You’ll even get one lesson for free, so why not give us a try?