Structuring a Letter (Part 2)

 

We’ve already looked at two ways to help lend your letter better structure – beginning with a fitting salutation and stating the general purpose of your letter.

Here are some more tips for organising information effectively.

 

3. Match letter to the purpose of writing

A good letter is always a purposeful one, with its different parts sewn up together to achieve clear progression. So, before beginning writing, ask yourself why you’re doing so in the first place.

Once you identify the purpose, think of information that’ll help you achieve it and decide on an appropriate way of ordering it. For instance, if it’s a complaint letter, begin by explaining what the issue is, and then say how it is affecting you and what you’d want the recipient to do.

 

4. Have one main idea per paragraph

As far as writing goes, experts swear by one rule in particular: less is more. A letter that is verbose tends to be harder to follow, so it makes sense to keep things simple.

What is also important is that there’s sufficient paragraphing, helping the reader move from one point to another effortlessly. And the best way to achieve this is by creating short paragraphs, each with about two to four sentences. That way, when reading a new paragraph, the reader knows that they are looking at new information.

 

5. Use an appropriate ending

Just like how having a fitting beginning is important, so is the need to end your letter in a suitable way.

If a formal letter begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, end it using ‘Yours faithfully’. If you’ve used a title and surname at the beginning, then the ending should be ‘Yours sincerely’. In friendly letters, like with salutations, the ending also needs to have a casual feel to it, so use something informal such as ‘Lots of love’ or ‘Cheers’.

And here’s a final tip: formal letters have more fixed rules than friendly ones, so not following them can make you sound rude.

 

 

GLOSSARY

fitting
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for the occasion
Example : Keith served us a tasty Asian dessert, which was a fitting end to the lovely meal.

 

sew up
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to put different parts of something together to get the desired result
Example : It took them almost a month to sew up the business deal.

 

swear by
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to have great confidence in something
Example : My parents swear by this herb’s ability to cure various ailments.

 

verbose
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing that has more words than needed
Example : His letter was both illegible and verbose. 

Structuring a Letter (Part 1)

 

Electronic means of communicating, such as emailing and text-messaging, may have long made letter writing passé, but the skills required to put together a letter remain relevant.

While vocabulary and grammar top the list of things that people most want to get right, not many give due consideration to a key component – structure. In some cases, the vocabulary may be precise and the grammar accurate, but the fact is that a letter without a clear beginning, middle, and finishing paragraph is likely to confuse the reader.

Although a one-size-fits-all approach clearly doesn’t work when deciding how to organise your writing, here are some useful pointers on what to include and in which order.

 

1. Begin with a suitable greeting

Opening a letter with a greeting is something that everyone does, but the beginning they choose may not always fit the context. How a letter should begin depends on two things: who the reader is, and just how well they know the writer.

A formal letter typical begins with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, unless you’ve already spoken or written to the recipient. In that case, begin with the full title and their surname (e.g. ‘Dear Prof Higgins’, ‘Dear Ms Jackson’, ‘Dear Dr Floyd’). Friendly letters, on the other hand, usually begin with the word ‘Dear’ followed by the recipient’s first name.

 

2. State the purpose

It’s best to make clear right at the beginning of your letter why you are writing to someone. The benefit is that the reader knows straight away what the context is, making it easier for them to comprehend the information that is to follow.

If it is a formal or semi-formal letter that you’re writing, you simply can’t go wrong when you begin with the phrase ‘I am writing to’. By comparison, friendly letters are quite chatty right from the word go, so begin with an informal phrase (e.g. ‘It’s been a while since we last met.’) before you get to the topic.

 

Remember, how well you structure your writing depends on how well you’ve planned it.

 

 

GLOSSARY

passé
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is no longer popular or effective
Example : I’m not surprised Pete’s film flopped. His ideas on film-making are so passé.

 

one-size-fits-all
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that is suitable for all circumstances
Example : In teaching, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method that works for all types of students.

 

(right) from the word go
Form : phrase
Meaning : from the very beginning
Example : The band’s first performance was a disaster from the word go.

 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 1)

 

Talking about any topic at length, in itself, is never too easy, so imagine having to do it without any prior preparation.

 

Giving an extempore speech, or an impromptu speech, is something that many people find daunting. For one thing, the speaker needs to be able to think on their feet. With zero preparation done beforehand, they have to make up content as they go along. Another challenge is that the speaker also needs to organise the ideas they generate as they speak. If not, there is every chance of the talk becoming directionless, with ideas popping up randomly.

 

An extempore task brings to the fore a person’s ability to think, organise, and talk all at the same time, when little to no preparation time is available. No mean feat, right? No wonder then that B-schools commonly use such tasks to measure the speaking as well as logical thinking ability of applicants. Several international language tests also have a component that assesses the test taker’s ability to speak at length without preparation.

 

In IELTS, the second part of the speaking section, known as the individual long turn, requires the test taker to speak on a particular topic for up to 2 minutes uninterruptedly. Of course, there is the advantage of having a minute to prepare and make notes, but the task is essentially extempore speaking.

 

Here are some ways to perform well in the extempore part of the IELTS speaking test:

1. Use prep time wisely

Test takers do get time to think about the topic and make notes before they start talking, but one minute is not a lot of time. So, do not write in full sentences. Instead, jot down keywords that can help you talk elaborately on the topic. For instance, if you have been asked to talk about an unforgettable meal you’ve had, add words such as ‘exotic’ and ‘flavoursome’ to the notes you make. Once you begin talking, they’ll serve as a reminder to describe the origin of the food and its distinctive flavours.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Speaking tips in the next part. Stay tuned!

 

 

GLOSSARY

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long period of time
Example : The ministers spoke at length about the need to bring down crime rates.

 

think on your feet
Form : phrase
Meaning : to have the ability to think and react quickly 
Example : Stand-up comedians need to have the ability to think on their feet while doing live shows.

 

no mean feat
Form : phrase
Meaning : not easy to do
Example : He has played in over 300 international matches, and that’s no mean feat.

 

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 3)


Image courtesy of Jil Wright via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

So far in the series, we’ve spoke about four different ways to increase your word power: reading extensively, learning words in context, listening, and practising using new words. Here are two more tips to help build your vocabulary.

5. Keep a dictionary close at hand, always

When it comes to vocabulary building, an obvious place to start would be somewhere you are likely to encounter thousands of new words: a dictionary. If you don’t have one, invest in one, for a good dictionary is worth its weight in gold. Maybe you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way by consulting a printed, unabridged version. Or maybe you wish to have something more sophisticated, such as an app or online version. Whatever your choice, it hardly matters. The one thing that does is that you always have a dictionary close at hand while reading. Why? You are more likely to use it that way.

 

Apart from the meaning of a word, a dictionary also has alternative meanings, pronunciation, word origin, useful expressions and phrases featuring the word, collocations, and lots more. In short, it’s a treasure trove of information, so make the most of it.

 

6. Make it fun

Let’s face it, learning of any kind could be a pretty dreary affair after a while, even if you happen to be an eager beaver! So, try as best as you can to make vocabulary building a fun activity.  A game of Scrabble, for instance, is an enjoyable way of getting introduced to new lexis. If board games aren’t your thing, you can always play a spoken word game. A quick online search should get you a list of ideas. If you wish to push yourself, then try a crossword puzzle or perhaps an anagram. Crossword puzzles can be a right challenge, as creators are typically forced to use unusual words so that everything fits into the puzzles they design.

 

Remember, there’s no one perfect way to acquire an extensive vocabulary. Feel free to chop and change learning strategies so that you find out what works best for you.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

worth its weight in gold
Form : phrase
Meaning : very useful
Example : A good cookery book is worth its weight in gold.

 

unabridged
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes a book or article that has not been shortened in length
Example : I’ve seen the unabridged version of this play, and it is just too long.

 

close at hand
Form : phrase
Meaning : near
Example : Is there a hospital close at hand?

 

treasure trove
Form : noun
Meaning : describes something containing many useful things
Example : The encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information.

 

 

chop and change
Form : phrase
Meaning : to keep changing what you are doing
Example : Football coaches sometimes chop and change players to find the right balance.

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Velaia (Paris Peking) via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In Part 1, we looked at two sure-shot ways to build your vocabulary: forming a reading habit and learning words in context. Here are some more suggestions to increase your word power.

 

3. Listen to natural speech

Want to learn new words and pronounce them right at the same time? Listening to lots of natural speech can be the answer. From a lexical point of view, it can introduce you to several new words within a specific context, making it easier for you to retain them in your memory. Should you choose to give this method a try, be sure to watch videos that come with transcript. That way, you get to listen to new vocabulary as well as see it. A good place to begin is TED Talks (www.ted.com), where there are plenty of short, powerful talks to choose from. When you watch a TED video, see to it that you read the transcript and jot down new vocabulary. You may also want to pay attention to how words are pronounced so that you say them just the right way.

 

4. Try using new words or risk losing them

Learning new vocabulary is one thing, but forming an ability to recall them when needed is something else. Not putting newly learnt words to immediate use could mean losing them in the long run, as they may no longer be fresh in your memory by then. One way of getting round this problem is to focus only on vocabulary that is personally relevant, as you are sure to have opportunities to use them at regular intervals. Keeping this in mind, before you decide to learn new lexis, ask yourself whether the word or phrase is something you would use in your day-to-day conversations. And make an effort only if the answer is a resounding yes! Your task doesn’t end there, though. Use the newly acquired word at the earliest opportunity. Once you’ve used it a few times, it usually sticks in your mind, becoming a part of your active vocabulary.

 

We’ll be back with more vocabulary tips in the next part.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

sure-shot
Form : adjective
Meaning : certain to be successful
Example : Continuous practice is a sure-shot way to improve your sporting skills.

 

transcript
Form : noun
Meaning : the words that someone says in written form
Example : The police have transcripts of all the telephone conversations made by the suspect.  

 

in the long run
Form : phrase
Meaning : at some time in the future
Example : Although expensive, new machinery will help us cut costs in the long run.

 

stick in your mind
Form : phrase
Meaning : stay in your memory for a long time
Example : He has won several tournaments, but his first ever final sticks in my mind.

 

Advice on the U.S. Student Visa Interview

Image courtesy of xiquinhosilva via Flickr (CC 2.0)

Richa Bhasin, a former EducationUSA Adviser based in India now works in the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney, Australia. Richa shares her experience working with prospective students as they prepare for the student visa interview.

 

What is one word you would use to describe the U.S. Student Visa Process?

Straightforward

 

What is the I-20/DS-2019 form that a student receives after they have been admitted and documented funding?

Form I-20 is a document issued to accepted students by Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified schools that indicates a student’s primary purpose for coming to the United States.

Form DS-2019 allows a J exchange visitor to apply for a visa. It identifies the exchange visitor and the designated sponsor and provides a brief description of the exchange visitor’s program, including the start and end date, category of exchange and an estimate of the cost of the exchange program.

 

What is the SEVIS fee students must pay?

SEVIS stands for Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains data on foreign students and exchange visitors, as well as their dependents, before and during your stay in the US. If you apply for a student or exchange visitor visa, in most cases you must pay the SEVIS fee.

 

How soon can a student apply for a student visa after receiving the I-20/DS-2019 form?

You can apply for a visa no more than 120 days before the start of your program and can travel no more than 30 days before the start of your program.

 

Are there any in-country resources students can consult about the student visa process?

Students are encouraged to reach out to the EducationUSA network in their countries. The advisers are highly knowledgeable about the process and guide students for the visa application process. Here is where you can find the closest center – https://educationusa.state.gov/

 

What advice would you give to students who are nervous about their student visa interview?

This is the key thing all the students should be aware of – Under U.S. law, people who apply for non-immigrant visas are viewed as “intending immigrants” (who want to live permanently in the U.S.) until they can convince the consular officer that they are not. You must, therefore, be able to show that you have reasons for returning to your “residence abroad” (usually in your home country) that are stronger than reasons for remaining in the United States and that you intend to depart the United States at the conclusion of your studies.

Hence, the consular officer needs to know your specific objectives, both academic and professional, for studying in the United States. Be prepared to explain why it is better to study your specific field in the United States than to study at home. Be ready to say exactly what you will study and for what career your U.S. studies will prepare you. Calmly state your education plans concisely and clearly.

 

 

Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

One striking feature that sets proficient English speakers apart from those less competent is their lexical range. Quite often they exhibit a near-magical ability to summon just the right kind of word or phrase, with the result that they convey with precision what they wish to say.

Considering that words are the basic blocks using which we give and receive information, the broader your lexical range gets the easier it becomes to communicate. Here are some handy tips to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read regularly!

Anyone who has tried to work on their vocabulary must’ve had this advice time and again. After all, reading is the most obvious way to learn new vocabulary, because it exposes you to the same words and phrases at regular intervals. That said, building vocabulary may not be a priority when you are reading interesting stuff. So, note down unfamiliar words while reading. Afterwards pick out useful ones you wish to learn. Remember, reading can also provide reinforcement. When you come across vocabulary you’ve learnt recently, and you understand what it means, it is proof enough that you have learnt it well.

A confusion that many learners face is deciding what to read and what not to. While there are no hard and fast rules, see to it that you pick materials that interest you. And if that happens to be a lowbrow magazine on fashion, so be it. What’s important is to choose something you find enjoyable, with a view to possibly learning new words.

 

2. Learn vocabulary in context

Some learners make the mistake of learning vocabulary in isolation. In other words, they try to learn a random collection of new words off by heart. Instead, learn vocabulary in chunks or sentences so that a context begins to appear, helping you understand when and how the word can be used. The added benefit is that this way you get introduced to a lot of new words at the same time.

If done the right way, building vocabulary can be enjoyable and beneficial.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

reinforcement
Form : noun
Meaning : the act of making an idea stronger
Example : Jokes can sometimes be a reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

 

hard and fast
Form : phrase
Meaning : not able to be changed
Example : There are no hard and fast rules about how a film should end.

 

lowbrow
Form : adjective
Meaning : lacking serious cultural or artistic value
Example : Although his books are quite popular, critics consider them to be lowbrow literature. 

 

in isolation
Form : phrase
Meaning : separately
Example : Environmental damage cannot be considered in isolation, as it affects humans and animals.

 

by heart
Form : phrase
Meaning : to learn something so well that you are able to remember it without having to read it again
Example : Mike knows all the poems in his text book by heart. 

 

British vs American English (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Secabtien Wiertz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how Britons and Americans tend to spell and pronounce a lot of words differently. Here are some other ways in which UK and US English differ.

3. Vocabulary

This is arguably the most striking difference between the versions of English spoken on either side of the pond. Let’s do a quick comparison: in British English ‘you take the lift from a friend’s flat to the ground floor of the building’, while in American English ‘you take the elevator from a friend’s apartment to the first floor of the building’.

 

There are hundreds of such everyday things that are described using different terms. That said, Britons and Americans are generally able to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. On rare occasions, though, it could cause confusion. For example, the phrase ‘first floor’ can be found in both versions, but it carries a different meaning in each.

 

Here are some common examples of different words describing the same things:

 

British English American English
biscuit cookie
flat apartment
petrol gas
trousers pants
chips French fries
crisps potato chips
aubergine eggplant
mobile phone cell phone
torch flashlight
football soccer
the cinema the movies

 

4. Grammar

Like spelling, the way speakers of UK and US English use grammar can also be slightly different at times. For starters, Britons use question tags (a phrase added to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question; e.g. You don’t eat meat, do you?) a lot more than speakers of American English.

 

Here are some more grammatical differences:

 

British English American English
Preposition Are you in my team or his?

 

I’ll see you at the weekend.

Are you on my team or his?

 

I’ll see you on the weekend.

Tense Use of the present perfect to describe something that has happened recently

 

I’ve just had dinner.

Use of the past simple to describe something that has happened recently

 

I just had dinner.

Verb forms Some verbs are considered irregular

 

dream, dreamt, dreamt

learn, learnt, learnt

The same verbs are made regular

 

dream, dreamed, dreamed

learn, learned, learned

Collective nouns Collective nouns can be singular or plural

 

My team is / are in the lead.

Collective nouns are always singular

 

My team is in the lead.

 

 

All in all, these two versions of English have a lot more similarities than differences, so if you can understand one, the chances are that you’ll be able to understand the other too.

 

GLOSSARY

 

the pond
Form : noun
Meaning : an informal term for the Atlantic Ocean, which lies in between Britain and America
Example : This rock band is huge in Britain but relatively unknown on the other side of the pond. 

 

Train Yourself to Read Faster (Part 3)

Image courtesy of Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr (2.0)

 

So far in the series, we’ve discussed three things you should do and one you shouldn’t in order to read faster. Here are a couple more things to avoid.

 

Don’t sub-vocalise

Have you ever caught yourself pronouncing words quietly in your head while reading a text?

This habit of saying words in our mind as we read them is called sub-vocalising.

When we first begin to learn to read as children, we do so by saying words out aloud. This practice improves both comprehension and diction. As we grow older, we learn to be silent while reading, but the habit of pronouncing words one by one sort of stays with us. The difference, of course, is that by then it’s all done in our head.

There’s no doubt that vocalising text helps comprehension, but it also slows us down terribly, so it’s best to kick the habit.  One effective way to overcome this is to move the pointer faster than the speed at which you hear words in your mind.

 

Don’t re-read everything

Do you sometimes go back to a sentence you’ve just read and double-check to see if you’ve understood it correctly?

Don’t worry if the answer is ‘yes’, you’re not alone here.

When doing a reading exercise, however, fight the urge to re-read, because it may be a total waste of time. Instead, wait till you finish reading an entire section before you choose whether or not to go back to a sentence.

You’ll find that reading some more of the text can help you understand without having to re-read that first sentence.

 

Remember to follow these dos and don’ts, and you should be able to read faster with better comprehension.

 

GLOSSARY

Train Yourself to Read Faster (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr (cc 2.0)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it is good practice to use a pointer while speed reading, and how to retain information. Here are a couple more tips you should try…

 

Practise regularly

As clichéd as it sounds, there is no doubt that practice makes perfect. Speed reading may appear to be challenging at first, but regular practice should help you master this skill. And once you get to that point, you’ll realise that it is quite possible to glace through entire sections of a document or book in a matter of minutes and get the gist of it.

Think about how much time speed reading can save you, and you’ll need no further motivation to put in the hard yards.

 

Don’t read every single word

When we first start learning to read as children, we are often told how it is important to read every single word to ensure complete understanding. Guess what? You can’t do this when you speed-read. Your focus should be on gaining a general understanding of the content, so trying to do anything more can slow you down.

So, which words should you focus on? Well, if not reading a word won’t affect your comprehension, feel confident to skip it. Allow your eyes to fix on the important words. Over time, your brain will pick these out and gloss over the less important ones.

Before you know it you’ll be reading super fast!

 

We’ll be back with some more advice in the next part.

 

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