7 Super (and Free!) Ways to Practice English Online
Imagine you had unlimited time and unlimited money.
Would that make it easier to master English? I would argue that it wouldn’t.
To understand why, you have to look closely at one particular English word: easy.
Even if you have money to spend and time to burn, is it truly easy to improve your English if you have to study all day and spend tons of money? That doesn’t sound like the definition of “easy” to me.
Luckily, thanks to the internet, there are plenty of ways to study English without using up your whole day or spending lots of cash.
In fact, many of the very best English resources online are free. And just as importantly, most English study on the internet is unscheduled. On the web, you can study English on your own time, without having to cut into your regular daily life.
The 7 Best Free Ways to Practice English Online
1. Study Online English Materials for ESL Students
“Self-studying” English seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Isn’t language supposed to be used with others? Well… yes and no.
It’s best to work with other people when you practice English writing and speaking. Writing and speaking are known as “productive” skills because you are producing language. But the “receptive” English skills—listening and reading—can be self-studied easily and conveniently online.
Below is a list of some top websites and web services that allow you to learn English reading and listening on your own time, free of charge.
Websites for free English listening practice
Free websites for English listening practice usually fall under one of three categories:
- Sites for conversational English listening. Elllo.org is a typical website for conversational English listening. The site contains conversations in every kind of English accent, including non-native accents.
- Sites for practical “daily life” English listening. Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab is a good example of the second type of English listening website. It’s full of listening exercises related to shopping, travel, school and other daily situations.
- Sites where people can listen to academic/educational talks in English. TED Talks just might be the most famous source of English listening practice. It’s a collection of educational monologues (presentations with one speaker). TED is so popular among English learners that there’s a TED site just for ESL students: TEDxESL.
Websites for free English reading practice
Good things come in threes (or so I’ve heard). There are three major types of English reading websites, too:
- Self-study courses. Some websites offer very organized courses in English reading that you can complete by yourself, free of charge. ReadTheory, which includes diagnostic tests, daily lessons and ways to track your learning progress, is a typical “guided English reading” web service.
- Graded readings. Other sites offer “graded readings,” which are English articles that have been edited and simplified for English learners. English Online and Breaking News English are two good places to start looking for simpler texts like these.
- English learner newspapers. These are sites with regular news reporting, but which are written with ESL students in mind. The Bangkok-based S Weekly (an abbreviation of “Student Weekly”) is a good example of this kind of newspaper.
2. Practice English Anytime with Mobile Apps
While we’re looking at self-study resources on the internet, let’s not forget “the internet of things.” What’s the internet of things? It’s the special parts of the web that you can access through your mobile devices—the apps that you can use on your phone and tablet.
The scene for free mobile apps that teach you English has absolutely exploded in the last ten years.
Some English lesson apps, such as Duolingo, are completely free. Duolingo offers well-organized self-study courses. The courses focus primarily on reading, writing and listening skills.
Plenty of other apps out there offer free English practice of one kind or another. Check your own phone’s app store and you should be able to find free English instruction that works for you.
3. Take a MOOC
What is a MOOC, you may ask? The name may sound like a weird insult or the hiccup of a cow, but it’s actually a short version of the phrase Massive Open Online Course.
Those of you who are gamers may already understand what that means. Just as a massive online game like Starcraft or Guild Wars allows unlimited players in a game, so a MOOC allows unlimited students in an online class. However, MOOCs are generally available free of charge, unlike most massive online multiplayer games.
English learning MOOCs are taught by real teachers who communicate with students through online MOOC message boards, pre-recorded video lectures and a limited number of live web broadcasts.
As you can imagine, there isn’t much individual student-teacher interaction in a MOOC. Still, this is a good way to learn English from a real instructor, and you’ll have chances to join online study groups with classmates.
Most of these massive online English courses can be found through MOOC specialty websites.
Some sites, such as FutureLearn, include ESL MOOCs.
Other sites like the MOOC List search engine allow you to search for these kinds of English courses.
Coursera is an especially great site that lets you learn through the MOOC of your choice. There are a lot of courses to choose from, and you can complete them at whatever pace (speed) you like. Courses include learning tools like instructional videos and exercises you can use to test your understanding.
EdX is another great MOOC site that offers actual college courses. You can even earn college credits, through Arizona State University. You can also earn certificates for courses, though you often have to pay for these. However, you can check out all the options and details for a course beforehand, including the number of hours the course will take each week and how long the course lasts.
4. Connect with Other English Learners
How many English learners are on the internet? Millions! And when all of those English learners want to talk to each other online, they flock to online English Learner forums, which are also sometimes called message boards. They’re places where learners can talk to each other.
Most major ESL websites have busy message boards. The English Club forums and ESL Cafe forums are two of the biggest examples.
You can also find specialized forums to help you prepare for English exams. Major forums include the Urch TOEFL forums or the IELTS Network message board.
But maybe the most obvious way to meet other English learners online is to do something you’re probably already doing. That’s right, I’m talking about using social media.
You may already know about the biggest social media websites for English practice, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr.
Of these sites, Facebook has the most active users, with countless pages and groups for English learners. Don’t get Facebook in your country? Have no fear! For students in non-Facebook countries, there’s a good alternative: a social media website called VK.
Because VK is based in a non-English speaking country (Russia), it has a really good range of English learning resources.
Popular VK pages for English study include English book clubs, platforms for English teachers and even online English conversation groups that coordinate live English conversation via webcam and phone.
5. Speak with Native English Conversation Partners
Speaking of live English conversation, there are plenty of free websites just for that.
If you look at our article on the top places to find an English conversation partner, you’ll find seven places on the web where you can practice English conversation free of charge.
In addition to the fine websites listed in that blog post, I’d like to recommend italki.
The italki platform offers the opportunity for English conversation practice by helping people organize language exchanges and private tutoring sessions.
In a language exchange, you teach your own language to a native English speaker, and they teach you English. It’s a very rewarding way to learn English and to get a better understanding of language learning in general.
If you’re willing to spent a little money, you can focus entirely on English practice by scheduling time with a private italki tutor.
6. Follow Educational Websites in English
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This common English expression means that when you’re trying to adjust to a new place, you should behave like the people who live there.
So, who “lives” in the online English-speaking world? Native English speakers do, that’s who. And you too can live comfortably on the English internet, if you do as the native English speakers do. Do what they do by browsing native English websites. There are also a few categories for these sites.
If you’re preparing to study in English or simply like to keep up with what’s going on around the world, informative websites are a good form of English practice.
News websites like CNN, BBC News and Al Jazeera English can be your go-to for English-language breaking news in current events as well as science and technology.
Other educational websites such as Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Scientific American focus entirely on science news in English. All of these sites help you build up your “book smarts” and “world smarts” as you also build English reading skills.
There are also informative sites that are made for younger English speakers. One example of this is Wonderopolis, which has lots of short, interesting articles about how the world works. It also includes vocabulary lists, comprehension quizzes and suggestions for activities related to the topics.
News and science aren’t the only educational topics in English cyberspace. The English web also has countless sites that fall under the category of “infotainment” (a combination of “information” and “entertainment”).
Infotainment websites are educational, but exist mostly to entertain. These sites feature weird news stories, fun and interesting true facts, and funny commentary. Some of the top English infotainment sites include Snopes, Boing Boing and Cracked.
Boing Boing and Cracked in particular are known for one of the web’s top forms of infotainment: English podcasts.
The Cracked podcast and the Boing Boing group of podcasts feature informative talks and conversations by English speakers.
You should follow our recommendations for podcasts for English learners (and also see how podcasts can help you improve your speaking skills!). You can also find many other great ones through specialized podcast websites like iTunes, Stitcher or Earwolf.
7. Have Fun with Online TV, Music and Movies
The main “native English” countries in North America, Europe and “Down Under” sure do export a lot of things, don’t they? But perhaps the biggest export from the English speaking world is entertainment. English speakers make films and music that are loved by people around the world.
Television shows and movies
If you’re one of the many global citizens who loves English language TV, entertainment websites are a fun, motivating way to practice English for free.
You can use sites like YouTube to practice English by watching all kinds of content, including full movies, TV episodes and music videos.
There are also alternatives to YouTube for people in countries where YouTube isn’t available. Dailymotion and Vimeo are nice global alternatives. Other free TV and movie websites include Crackle, Hulu and MoviesFoundOnline.
If you just want to listen to music, English cyberspace has you covered there, too.
Web services such as Pandora and Spotify allow you to make your own English music playlists.
Other websites like iHeartRadio or TuneIn let you listen to music on English-language radio stations from around the world.
If you’re a music lover and want to make the most of the free English practice you get through music, be sure to also check out our tips on learning English through music and song.
Last but not least, if you’re going to use entertainment as a free source of English practice online, don’t forget about famous people and celebrities.
There are tons of entertainment news sites—Entertainment Weekly, People Magazine, E! News, etc.—that provide lots of English reading and listening practice.
English-language entertainment fan communities also give you a chance to interact with other TV, movie and music fans in English. At places like TVFanForums.net or the Popjustice Forums, you can write English posts about the shows and albums you love.
Other fan forum sites are more comprehensive. Remember when I told you that there’s a message board for everything, somewhere online? To see what I mean, check out the Fanpop forum for movies, TV, music, comics, video games and other areas of popular culture.
Authentic language learning programs
Why choose just one type of media? A program like FluentU combines all three types of the content above.
The thing about learning with authentic (made by and for English speakers), is that it’s always fun but it’s not always easy. For instance:
- Native content can be too fast and difficult for learners to understand.
- Videos rarely have accurate subtitles.
- When you look up new words, you’re never sure which one of their definitions is being used.
- It can be easy to become distracted by what you’re watching and forget to actually study from it.
That’s why a program like FluentU is so useful for learners. FluentU takes authentic videos—like TV show and movie clips, music videos, entertainment videos and news segments—and makes them more approachable for English learners:
- All the content in FlunetU is organized by skill level, topic and format, making it easier to find videos that are at the right level for you. This also lets you find videos that you find entertaining and engaging, keeping you more focused on your learning.
- FluentU’s subtitles are accurate (they’re checked by language experts). Plus, they’re interactive: Click on any word to see what it means, view other videos where it appears and add it to your flashcard lists.
- FluentU’s dictionary is contextual, so when you check what a word means, you’re only seeing the definition that’s actually being used in that instance.
- Personalized exercises let you practice all four language skills (writing, speaking, reading and listening) so you’re always engaged.
Want to try it for yourself? You can use FluentU on the browser as well as iOS and Android apps.
Whether you’re rich or poor, whether you have lots of time or a little, the internet is your best source for easy-to-access English practice that won’t cost you a thing.
Jump in, and get ready to learn English any way that you want to, without having to reach for your wallet or rearrange your daily schedule.