My son is trying to pick up English, but I've found that he is far behind the other students at his age. Is there anything we can do to help him catch up?
At a younger age, immersion in kindergartens or with an English-speaking helper or nanny is by far the best method to improve language ability. If that's not possible, or if your child is too old, don't worry. There are many traditional approaches that work just fine, too.
The most beneficial thing you can do at home for an English learner is to create opportunities for them to use English outside school. This can be achieved at home or through various outside options. The child can take classes at an academy, or parents can create an English-speaking environment at home. Just as useful are activities where English is spoken. Let the school focus on grammar rules and all the boring stuff; it's easier for you to normalise the language to show your child that English is not only something to be studied, but also enjoyed and used on a daily basis.
For weaker and younger students of English who don't live in an English-speaking atmosphere (and even for those who do), radio and music are simple motivators for learning the language and are good subconscious teaching tools. Even passively listening to English radio or Western music will allow children to pick up the tone of English speech, will add to their vocabulary and encourage the use of English at home. Put on the BBC World Service (675 AM on the radio) in the kitchen while you and your child do something together, whether it's cooking, washing the dishes or eating. You don't even need to actively engage with the radio to gain benefit from it; it's a simple way to make English part of your home life. Music, in particular, is beneficial in the same way, but it also builds an appreciation and passion for learning that can be as valuable as classes with the most experienced teachers. Passion for English-speaking bands or musicians allows for a greater connection to the language and an interest that will last long after the lessons taught in a classroom are digested.
Television and film often focus on action, so don't think of them as learning guides. Instead, consider live theatre.
The best medium for teaching English, ahead of radio and film, is books. Because I was read to from a young age, I can attest that reading increases the ability and interest of a student. Being read to encourages children to try for themselves and normalises reading as an everyday activity. It can also be a rewarding bonding opportunity for parents and children. Do it before bedtime or whenever you have free time: even 10 minutes a day of shared reading can be beneficial. If the child is too old to be read to, use English-language newspapers or magazines to discuss political or sports events. Not only is it a good bonding exercise, but the kids will also learn about the world. If you can set a regular schedule for reading and choose books or topics that are fun for both of you, shared reading will never seem a chore.
There are options for learning English outside the home that do not cost much money. Many after-school or weekend arts, crafts and sports activities are conducted mostly in English, especially those relating to more Western interests. Another possibility is making English-speaking friends. Although it won't be as useful as speaking English exclusively at home, the one or two hours a week that a child spends playing sport or doing art at an after-school or at a weekend club can greatly benefit their learning.
Finally, parents should try to be patient regarding languages. If your child didn't pick it up when they were very young, they will obviously be at a disadvantage compared to those who did. Encouraging the use of English outside school works, and if it's done in a positive, fun and laid-back environment, it will pay dividends later with good marks.
Finally, if you have the time and income, then after-school language academies are also a good investment and should be considered.
Samuel Partridge teaches at the NTK Academic Group