Read faster and score higher

or how to improve your reading

How do you read? Do you read word by word or do you skim through? Do you skip pages or even chapters only to go back to them later? Do you read the ending before the end? Do you write things down on your books? Do you turn down the corners of a page to bookmark it?

When you are reading for fun, it doesn’t really matter what you do or how you do it. You have all the time in the world – potentially. But when you take an exam, what and how you read will impact your score.

Here are FIVE tips to help you gain time and increase your reading score on IELTS, CELPIP or Cambridge.

  1. Find purpose

Remember, we always read for a purpose. When talking about tests, we read to find the answers. So start by reading the questions before you dive into the text itself. You will, then, know what you are looking for.

In order to improve your chances of success, underline, circle, write down keywords and brainstorm a couple of synonyms or phrases that might have the same meaning. This is because you are also being tested on your vocabulary range.

  1. Scan and skim

Now that you know what you are looking for, scan the text in search of those keywords from the questions. Once you find the word, read the surrounding phrases to understand the context and answer the question.

If you decide to read the whole text, prefer to skim through it rather than read it in detail. The only parts you really need to focus on are the ones that contain keywords.

  1. Manage vocabulary

Chances are you will come across unknown words or expressions in the text and it is perfectly fine. How you handle unknown vocabulary, however, will determine how successful you will be.

Look at the bigger picture and try to infer meaning through context. What is the general idea of the passage? Can you replace the word you don’t know with other possible words that you do know? Keep in mind that there will be more words that you do know than that you don’t. Rely on that.

  1. The order of questions

The questions are usually in the same order as the answers appear in the text. This means, the first answer will come before the second and the third and so forth.

With that in mind, start scanning the text from the beginning and read on looking for the keywords of the first question. If the first clue you find relates to any other question that comes after, it means that you have missed something.

After you answer the corresponding question, go back to the beginning and try to find the first clue but try not to dwell on it for too long. Remember, the clock is ticking.

  1. Time management

Being able to complete the tasks within the timeframe is part of the test. You should allocate a portion of the allotted time to each section of your test. If you have 60 minutes to read three passages, allow yourself to spend up to 20 minutes on each.

Try not to get stuck. Some texts might be harder than others, some tasks might be more complex than others. If you are taking a paper-based test, like IELTS or Cambridge, you can go back and forth. Take advantage of it and tackle the easier sections first.

These five tips can be applied to pretty much any reading test out there. Stay tuned for test-specific strategy tips for IELTS, CELPIP and Cambridge.

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Tips to ace the CPE

If you are preparing for a proficiency test, you might have encountered a number of gap-fill exercises along the way. Here you’ll see how to tackle the Cambridge English Reading and Use of English task.


For questions 1-6, read the text below and decide which answer (A, B, C or D) best fits each gap.


In the last ten years or so, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have 1 ______ up residence in Vancouver, in western Canada. To relax in the evening, residents 2 ______ down the city streets and, if you join them, you are likely to overhear a different language at almost every other step. People come to Vancouver for its mild climate, its wonderful setting between the ocean and the mountains, its clean and safe environment and its educational and job opportunities. And 3 ______ some may grumble about the speed at which new buildings have 4 ______, there’s no doubt that the new arrivals and 5 _____ tourism industry have helped fuel an urban renaissance. Locals once referred to Vancouver as ‘Terminal City’ because of the city’s role as a terminus or gateway to all other places. Though the name has fallen slightly out of 6 _____, Vancouver is more a gateway than ever.

(Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English 1, 2002)

How to tackle this exercise

Gap-fill exercises, in general, rely not only on the information before and after the gap (coherence), but also on how the words connect grammatically (cohesion).

Let’s identify the ‘clues’ in the text:

For # 1, the clues are: the particle ‘up’, which indicates it’s a phrasal verb, and the word ‘residence’, which suggests the idea of ‘living, inhabiting’.

The same rationale works for the other gaps. Looking at #2, we know it might be a phrasal verb as well, as indicated by the particle ‘down’. The idea is something that residents do in the streets, perhaps ‘walking’, as the phrase ‘every other step’ indicates. Therefore, the phrasal verb we are looking for is likely a synonym of ‘walk’.

Finding the right answers

After having identified the ‘clues’ in the text, the next step is to identify the wrong or impossible answers. This might happen in two ways: first, cross out obviously wrong answers based on meaning or form. Second, cross out answers that are exactly the same. Remember, there is ONLY ONE correct option, thus, if two answers seem equally good, both are equally wrong.

Let’s check our alternatives:

Looking back at #1, we know the idea is connected to ‘inhabiting’. Let’s check out our options:

A ‘take up’ = occupy time, space, attention → occupy space ≈ inhabit

B ‘put up’ = stay temporarily in accommodation other than home ≠ inhabit

C ‘make up’ = invent, create, prepare → no connection with ‘inhabiting’

D ‘ build up’ = make or become stronger, establish or develop → could be connected to housing but not necessarily to ‘inhabiting’

Based on  this analysis, the correct answer is A.

Now, as we analyse #2, we should keep in mind the idea of ‘walking in the city to relax’:

A ‘prowl down’ = ‘prowl’ means to move in search of prey (animal being hunted) → surely not what residents of Vancouver do to relax in the city

B ‘stumble down’ = ‘Stumble’ means to trip, almost fall. Again, it is not something most people would do to relax in the city

C ‘trudge down’ = ‘trudge’ means to walk slowly and with heavy steps, almost like it is hard or a burden. Therefore, it is not a relaxing activity

D ‘stroll down’ = by elimination, this is likely the correct answer, but let’s take a closer look anyway. ‘Stroll down’ means to walk in a leisurely way. If ‘leisure’ means to use free time with enjoyment, it seems like the perfect match to ‘walking in the city to relax’

Based on this analysis, the correct answer is D.

Now it is your turn

Click on the button below, ‘Vancouver’, to access the complete exercise and the answer key.

Let us know in the comments how you like this approach and if it works out for you.

Stay tuned for more test prep tips: Cambridge English Qualifications, IELTS and CELPIP.

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How to really learn English

Over the years, I have noticed that, in spite of how badly everyone seems to want to speak English (or any other language, for that matter), very few people are actually willing to put in the work. That’s why there are so many schools, courses, and approaches selling a ‘magical solution’ to language learning.

Please don’t get me wrong, I do believe it is possible to learn a language relatively fast; I spent the first years of my professional life working for a chain that sold English in 18 months. I’ve also worked for other schools that expected students to invest 4 to 5 years of their lives in learning English.

What really determines how successful someone will be in their language learning journey is their attitude towards learning.

I, myself, have never been to a language school – as a student. I pretty much taught myself English but not because I was this curious genius; I simply needed to survive in a foreign country in the pre-internet era. So I guess what I am saying is that, although there is no magical formula to learning English, there are many ways to learn.

I have encountered successful learners in the 18-month course, in the 4-to-5-year course, and who taught themselves how to speak English. I have also seen people struggle in all three categories.

What really determines how successful someone will be in their language learning journey is their attitude towards learning.

It may sound a bit corny but, as the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way”. Naturally, there is more to it than just willpower. Some call it ‘growth mindset’, others call it ‘agency’. All it means is that, in order to learn, one must make the decision to do so, put in the work AND be open to a whole new set of beliefs about what it is to learn something.

Photo by Pixabay on

Over a decade ago, when The Secret was ubiquitous and there was no hiding from it, I came across this tale about this chief who kept staring into the ocean day in and day out. Although he couldn’t see anything in the water, he spotted a change in the wave pattern: it was caused by the caravels approaching the pre-European American continent. The bottom line is that it is hard to see what you don’t know that exists.

Based on this same principle, one can only begin to learn something once they become aware of its existence. Students will only be able to spot the different uses of specific words or grammar points if they are aware that they exist. Have you ever thought about how many words just fly off the radar daily simply because we don’t know they are there?

I, myself, have experienced this ‘phenomenon’ many times in my life – both in my first and second languages. I always recall this one time a dear friend of mine – who is a fluent English speaker – in a conversation at work, noticed, for the first time, the expression ‘run errands’. Even though it is a common expression, they had never really been aware of it. So I clarified its meaning, told them it is used quite frequently in English, and asked them to try and notice it being used within the following week. When we talked about it again, my friend told me how surprised they were to notice how many times they had seen it since they had been made aware of it.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

The same goes for anything in life, really. Have you ever noticed that every now and then it seems as though there is an abundance of information about one certain thing that you had never noticed before? For example, you decide to travel to Canada and do some research and find out that the capital of the country is Ottawa. Soon after, you begin to hear about it quite frequently: it’s in the news, you have a friend whose friend’s daughter lives there, a new movie is set there, your favourite actor was born there, and so on.

The skeptic in you might be thinking it is Siri listening in. Well, nowadays it might be the case, too, but it goes beyond that. I propose a little experiment: try and notice how many times this week you will encounter the expression ‘run errands’, or how many times you will come across some piece of information involving Ottawa.

In language learning, it is not enough to start a course, or to commit to reading a number of pages, or doing homework, or watching movies. None of it will be of any use unless you start purposefully noticing the language – and how it is used – around you. If you are learning Past Perfect, for example, make a point of underlining it whenever you see it written, make a point of actively listening for it while watching a movie or the news.

Photo by Wallace Chuck on

This is how I learnt English, this is how I learnt Spanish and this is how I pick up some of my very scarce Polish vocabulary. Well, this and the fact that I am a perfectionist, but this is another story.

It is a well-documented fact that each and every one of us learns in different ways. However it is that you do your best learning, one thing remains the same: you must deliberately notice the language used around you.

If you need help in your journey, email me. I will happily share some practical ways to make language awareness an everyday thing.

Skills you will need in the post-pandemic world

So you have been stuck at home for the past couple of weeks – or months – and everyone seems to be either thriving or struggling. There have been countless Instagram lives on how to stretch, cook, homeschool, meditate, change careers, make millions, gain lean muscle, write the next great Canadian novel and whatnot.

You think to yourself, ‘I guess I must have fallen off the wagon at some point’ and feel you must really be doing something wrong. On the other hand, you feel kind of guilty for actually showering everyday – perhaps you are not struggling?

And caught in between the two sides of this same coin lies the realization that the world has changed and you might need to change too.

Photo by Pixabay on

Interpersonal relations seem to soar in spite of the fact that life is happening much more indoors than outdoors. It is as if we had realized that we don’t have to share a physical space to be together, to work together, to grow together.

Nobody knows how long we’ll have to avoid physical proximity to others or when our borders will reopen. And when they do, well, what will it all mean? Specialists indicate the future of work and learning will rely on a stronger virtual connection. Remote is the new black – I mean, the buzzword of the moment.

In this climate, it has become evident that certain skills will be the rock upon which we build our new normal. Digital literacy is now a bare minimum; the ability to connect, troubleshoot, create and navigate the digital world is what is keeping many of us with our heads above water.

In a (digital) world without borders, English is the language that brings us all together. It enables cross-country collaboration, the sharing of unfiltered information, a first-hand view of the world’s issues. 

Perhaps because we now clearly stand on the edge of change, we find ourselves pressured to thrive: improve ourselves, learn something new, get in shape, become better people. And the alternative seems to be letting it all go and giving in to absolute procrastination and denial.

Well, I am sure many of us drift between these extremes quite regularly: between the urge to learn something new and the need to shut down. There is no right or wrong, there is no recipe.

And to the question of whether now is the time to invest in learning anything, well, only you have the answer. When the time is right for you, consider this new reality, consider all the changes that the pandemic has brought about and then make your move.

Just keep in mind that tomorrow will be another day.

Things no one teaches you in school

At some point in your learning journey, there will be a moment where you will believe you have reached a good level of English; a moment you will feel you are ready to face whatever comes your way. Kudos for reaching that point. However, this is not the end of your journey.

A new journey awaits and it goes beyond textbooks; it’s real life.

Textbook English versus real-life English

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
  1. Grammar does not equal communication

Having perfect grammar doesn’t guarantee you will be understood. Yes, it is important to properly use grammar, but grammar alone can’t ensure communication: there is pronunciation and vocabulary to factor in.

Besides, native speakers don’t necessarily know the grammar themselves and may make mistakes, too. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a grammar expert in your native language to be fluent, so why would English speakers have to?

  1. Vocabulary is deceiving

Regional differences in vocabulary usage mean people from different places use words differently. The most popular example of such is the comparison between British and American English.

Everyone knows that the Brits take the lift while Americans take the elevator. A lorry (UK) is a truck (USA) and underground (UK) is subway (USA). But it goes far beyond that. In Canada, people drink double-doubles (coffee with two creams and two sugars), in Australia, people get Maccas (McDonalds) and in the UK, people love salt and vinegar flavoured crisps (chips).

  1. Pronunciation and accent may vary

English speakers have different accents. New Zealanders don’t sound like Australians, who speak differently from South Africans, who pronounce words differently from the Brits, who don’t sound like the Irish, who have a different accent from Canadians, who, believe it or not, don’t speak like Americans.

Beside the accent, there are words that are pronounced differently depending on the country. Americans say missile /ˈmɪsəl/ and fragile /ˈfræʤəl/ while the British say /ˈmɪsaɪl/ and /ˈfræʤaɪl/. And the differences don’t end there:

International Phonetic Alphabet symbols

And we could go on and on and on… but I guess you get my drift, eh?

How to land on your feet

Now you might be wondering what you can do to improve your chances to communicate well and effectively. A good way to start is to take your English out of the textbook: watch movies and series in English. Listen to music in English. Read – and this is crucial – books, magazines, blogs in English.

Notice that it is not enough, however, to simply do those things. You must be an active reader, and you must listen and watch with purpose. Take notes of words you don’t know or that are used in different ways. Check the pronunciation of words you had a hard time to understand or that you were sure should be said in another way.

If you need help in this process, drop me a line. I will be more than happy to share with you what I did when I was learning English and what I still do these days that works for me.

Five tips to prepare for an exam in times of pandemic

Imagine having to prepare for an exam during a pandemic. This is exactly what several international students and immigration applicants are going through at the moment.

Covid-19 has changed the shape and form of our world and how we carry on with our lives, our tasks, our plans and dreams. Many workers have had to work from home and schools quickly transferred their curriculum to online delivery.

For my students, the way we work together has not really changed. At least this part of their routine remains unchanged. But, for most, it is a completely new way to study. Here are five tips to help you get yourself organized and make the most out of this difficult situation:

One: find yourself a quiet space

A corner of the dining table, the centre table in the living room, lying in bed, on the couch with legs criss-crossed, whichever way you prefer. Remember, you do you. However, it is important that this place be quiet enough to allow you to focus on reading, writing, doing grammar exercises, listening to audios and so on.

Two: set a time to study

Just because you are at home all day, it doesn’t mean you have all day at your disposal. To fend off procrastination, create some sort of routine and try to stick to it.

Depending on what your goals and timeline are, you may need to put in more hours or to study more times a week.

Three: map out your process

Easier said than done, I know. When you have the guidance of an instructor, they will (hopefully) do that for you. But if you decided to venture on your own, well, you are on your own.

Establish what you will be studying each day and why. The official websites for the exams are usually pretty good at offering some tips on how to prepare for the test.

Four: map out your progress

This part might be trickier. Marking reading and listening is as simple as counting up to 10 as these are multiple choice – or gap-fill – tests. It is, undoubtedly, harder to measure one’s own achievement in writing and speaking.

If you do not have a teacher to help you out in this part of the process, the next best thing is to try and compare your production to the sample answers made available by the testing institutions.

Five: don’t limit yourself

It is true that you are preparing for a specific test which is comprised of specific skills, but that’s not all. It is important to keep your learning process varied and interesting.

Reading books in English is a great way to improve reading speed, comprehension and inference. Listening to songs in English and singing along is an effective way to beef up listening comprehension, pronunciation and vocabulary.

Movies and series are an excellent option to practice both reading and listening as well as providing you with invaluable non-verbal cues.

Here are a few websites to help you get yourself organized and on track:

What about you? How have you been managing your time? Share with us your systems to keep studying in such unprecedented times.

Visit Berlin from the comfort of your couch

In times of social distancing, travelling may have been put in the back burner. However, you can still virtually visit all the iconic places in Berlin.

In the quiz below you will not only be able to find out more about the websites and apps that take you for a virtual stroll around the German capital, but also test your vocabulary knowledge.

You can find out more about virtual visits to Berlin on and by downloading the app About Berlin.

To read this article in its entirety follow this link to

How much English you need to live in Canada

Canada is one of the best countries in the world to live. Canadian immigration is incentivized by the government and receives support from great part of the population.

Not surprisingly, many have the dream of living in Canada in either a temporary or permanent arrangement. So how much English do you need to know to be able to live in Canada?

Depending on what your goals are, you might need a higher level of English.

Learn English

If your goal is to brush up on your knowledge of English and have an international experience, you don’t necessarily need to speak any English prior to your trip. There are courses for beginners to advanced students available in the various language schools in the country.

Based on my experience as director of studies of the largest school in Toronto, students who can already communicate – that is, make simple sentences, ask for directions, express some feelings – have easier adaptation than those who cannot.

It’s already not easy being in a different country, with a different culture, far from family and friends. If we factor in not being able to communicate, things might become a bit harder.

Post-secondary education

There are a few options for those who want to attend college or university in Canada.

A very popular way to enter colleges and universities in Canada is through a pathway program. Candidates may choose to attend English for Academic Purpose (EAP) classes in a language school or even at universities or colleges. At the end of the program, students should be apt to enter the school and program of their choosing. This process may take as little as 2 months and as long as 6 to 8 months; it all depends on prior language knowledge and development.

Another well-known entry to post-secondary education is through standardized proficiency exams. A student may write the test in their home country or in Canada. Common choices of tests are the IELTS Academic, the TOEFL, and the PTE Academic. Some schools also accept C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency certificates from Cambridge.


In order to become permanent residents, PR, applicants must write one of the two tests: CELPIP General or IELTS General Training.

CELPIP is a computer-based Canadian test. It is cheaper – but not by much – than the IELTS and results tend to come out faster. IELTS General Training – and it is important to note that it is NOT the same as the Academic version, which is not accepted for immigration – is paper or computer-based and includes a face-to-face speaking interview.

Those hoping to attend higher education or become permanent residents of Canada should achieve a minimum level of proficiency to be accepted. Generally speaking, it is around 7/9 for IELTS and 9/12 for CELPIP.

If you are not sure of what the best option for you is, or where your knowledge is at, drop us a line. We can help you figure all of that out at no cost.

And if you are looking for advice on study visas or the immigration process, contact Dreamies. After all, it all starts with a dream.

The social impact of ‘Where are you from?’

As soon as any student starts their journey towards becoming a speaker of English, a couple of pre-made sentences, a learner’s ‘toolkit’, is handed them.

Statements such as “I am (name)” or “my name is (name)” are the tip of the iceberg. Soon after students are presented with the predictable and unskippable “he is”, “she is”, “it is”, “we are”, “you are”, “they are”.

I believe every ESL or EFL teacher has gone through the drill: affirmative, negative, interrogative and so forth. And trust me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. These are the building blocks of English as a language, the foundations of the SVO sentence, the distinction between affirmative and interrogative sentence structures, the concept of auxiliary verbs.

But there, hidden amidst all those helpful sentences, lies “where are you from?”. The seemingly innocuous pre-set question abounds in language classrooms all over the world. 

Teachers use it as cue to introducing pupils to nationalities and languages and to some cultural awareness. Again, so far, so good. Or is it?

Have you, as an educator, ever taken the time to think about what “where are you from?” implies?

Before we take any other step, however, it is important that we acknowledge that context must always be taken into consideration.

In Canada, a country whose population grows greatly due to immigration programs, it is rare to find anyone popping the “where-are-you-from” question.

You see, asking a person where they are from automatically assumes they are not from here. Again, it is perfectly fine to ask this question to someone who is clearly a tourist. But if you ask the question to an immigrant, it may carry a different meaning.

It is not uncommon to see international students here in Toronto asking the dreaded question away every time they meet someone new. Most people will just dismiss it as lack of command of the language, however, awkward smiles might show up.

“So how do you get around it?”, you might ask.

Here in Canada, the question we ask is “what is your background?” And here is why: when you ask someone about their background, you acknowledge them as part of your community, part of the diverse fabric that represents the Canadian population. This question implies acceptance and inclusion.

Now, if you ask “where are you from?”, you set a person’s origin as somewhere else, you imply that they are only a visitor here, an outsider.

As a teacher, you might want to start preparing your students for the world outside of the classroom. And in this case, maybe you should consider adding “what is your background” to the list of useful questions alongside “what is your name”, “where are you from” and “what do you do”.

This article was first published here.

Learn idioms with music

Learning English may, at times, seem challenging or even tiring. One way to fight demotivation is to learn through music.

Today we’ll listen to Adele’s song “Someone Like You” and dig deeper into the idioms that appear in the lyrics.

You will also find a few more idioms at the end of the activity.

Listen to the song.

Answer the questions: