Learning English one-on-one with a private tutor, or in a small group course with native speaking teachers, preferably in-country, is obviously going to be the most effective way for English as a Second Language (ESL) students and other English language learners to improve their proficiency and skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Unfortunately, this ideal situation is not possible for all English learners but there is a solution — online resources and sites for learning English.
You don't need to look far to find YouTube clips, online tuition, apps or websites that will help you either learn English from the beginning or consolidate your skills at intermediate or advanced levels.
In this article, we're all about the websites and there are some distinct advantages to learning this way:
- Variety — depending on your needs, or mood, on the day, you can switch between websites
- Interactive content — from games to chatrooms, you're doing so much more than sitting in front of a screen and listening to a disembodied presenter teaching grammar rules
- Your pace — take as much time as you need to master that vocabulary and use it in grammatically correct sentences
Then, when you're comfortable, you can mix it up and practise your speaking skills with an online teacher.
So, what are the best websites for ESL learners?
English Lessons with Babbel
Developed in 2007, Babbel is a subscription-based language learning platform available through the web, iOS and Android.
Whether you've never studied English before, or you're an intermediate or advanced learner, you can set your Babbel account up so the activities and quizzes are right at your level.
What can I expect with Babbel?
- Access to over 60,000 lessons
- Targeted skills focus — choose to focus on listening, speaking, reading or writing
- Fun course content, including games, quizzes and tongue twisters
- Lesson review or refresher options
Lessons are short, less than 15 minutes, and you get instant feedback on your progress. Super organised with a clear structure, there is a detailed explanation of each lesson, including the goals, and the format is consistent.
What are the pros and cons?
- User-friendly interface and suitable for all ages and levels
- Clear lesson instructions, perfect for ESL students
- Fun lessons you'll want to come back to because you'll see your English skills improve from Day 1
- Babbel is not free
While you might initially get a free 7-day trial, or the first lesson set for free, Babbel is a subscription service with monthly fees from $10 to $15 a month, depending on your package.
Then again, when you think about it, that's $120–$180 a year for unlimited English lessons ...
Interactive Learning with Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone software was released in 2014 and students of all ages can currently study 30 languages (including two versions of English, British and American) online and through iOS or Android.
Even if you're not living in an English-speaking country, "Rosetta Stone is the gold standard when it comes to learning a new language."
What can I expect with Rosetta Stone?
- Language teaching that focuses on images and sounds
- Fully interactive lessons
- Tools to practise speaking with correct pronunciation and accent, through comparing your pronunciation to that of a native speaker
- Instant feedback on your progress after every question, allowing you to refocus your study to help improve in the areas you really need
- Games, quizzes, worksheets and activities that are image-driven and keep learning fun
- Option of live calls with English teachers
Rosetta Stone is based on an immersion principle with the belief that learning a language is best achieved through the target language, not through translation. What this means is that the instructions and explanations for activities will be in English, aided by images. Research shows this is the best way to help ESL students improve their skills.
What are the pros and cons?
- Easy to use and customise interface
- Record your voice and listen back to improve your tone, accent and pronunciation
- Option to have speaking and listening practice with English teachers who are native speakers
- Bonus content which is perfect for students at intermediate and advanced levels
- Some students do not like the repetitive nature of the content
- Rosetta Stone is not free
You should take advantage of their free 3-day trial, but after that, you are required to commit to either a 3-month ($47) or 12-month ($126) subscription. You also have the option of a lifetime unlimited languages subscription for a one-off payment of $235.
When you're ready, maximise your learning by engaging an English teacher or private tutoring lessons.
Vocabulary Practice with Memrise
Founded in 2005, Memrise is available on the web and through iOS and Android. You can currently choose from 22 languages, including English.
The best platform for learning practical phrases that are used and spoken in everyday life ... with lots of repetition to help it stick.
What can I expect with Memrise?
- Fully customisable with multiple levels to suit all learners from beginning through to intermediate and advanced
- An easy-to-follow, 3-step approach modelled on the natural acquisition of language
- Learn with locals — all videos and speaking audio voiced by native speakers of English
- All the vocabulary you need with the correct pronunciation and context usage
Memrise uses a different approach to other online sites in that all learning is based around 'mems' — word or phrase flashcards with links to images or audio and the meaning. The point is memorisation by making links and testing yourself with visual quizzes. You can even create your own customised 'mems'.
What are the pros and cons?
- Perfect for visual (viewing) and aural (listening) learners as Memrise is based on seeing images and hearing the correct pronunciation
- Learn at your pace — you can listen to the same recordings over and over until you are ready to move on or take one of the quizzes
- You don't need an internet connection to study — pass your time productively when the internet is unavailable and improve your English skills
- No need to subscribe! You can start learning English for free
- Memrise is vocabulary only — it won't help improve your grammar, reading or writing skills
- Although it's free, you will be bombarded with requests to subscribe to their 'premium' version
Memrise could certainly be considered one of the best websites for ESL learners who often struggle with the range of vocabulary in English — and if used in conjunction with another website or course of study, it can be a great supplement to build your English language skills for ESL students of all levels from beginners to intermediate learners.
If you're looking to improve your listening comprehension skills, we highly recommend making time each day to listen to podcasts in English — not only do you hear native speakers, but most podcasts are free.
Learning English with Duolingo
Probably one of the most popular language-learning apps, with over 300 million registered users, Duolingo offers a choice of 106 different language courses in 38 languages. There is a large variety of English courses and resources for all study levels — beginner, intermediate, advanced — in this mix.
From their expansive skills trees, to the positive reactions of 'You did it!', Duolingo satisfies the fun and motivational aspect of online language learning.
What can I expect with Duolingo?
- Translation activities for short texts and phrases
- Listening dictation activities and quizzes
- Short exercises and activities — and lots of them
- Personalised learning
- Rewards driven
The premise behind Duolingo language learning is 'translation and dictation'. This belief differs widely from other online sites, like Rosetta Stone, that are anti-translation but, as with all skills, different approaches are needed to cater for different learning styles.
What are the pros and cons?
- From the start, you'll be using English in context rather than memorising word lists or completing repetitive grammar exercises
- If you like 'rewards' and the competitive aspect, you'll keep motivated with Duolingo
- Reminders to study
- Timed practice option
- It's completely free (almost)
- Some of the extras (like the timed practice) are subscription-based
- Ads! Because it's free, you'll be inundated with advertising (although you can pay to get these removed)
Although there are paid options, you can actually learn English for free, which would account for why Duolingo is right up there amongst the best websites for ESL learners.
ESL students will definitely benefit from a good online dictionary and a range of translation resources to help with daily activities and English lessons.
There is a lot of negative press about website learning but, on the whole, combined with other resources and some face-to-face teaching, online language learning is a great alternative when you don't have other options, or if you need something to supplement your study.
Get the most out of your English lessons by combining ESL lessons with one of our Superprof teachers with your choice of English learning apps for your phone or device.