The two key components of learning English academically is understanding Latinate and the part that 1066 and the Battle of Hastings played in the development of the English language: at its root, English is a Germanic language but, after the Battle of Hastings, French became a part of the language and thus English is a hybrid language, a mixture of Anglo-Saxon (or German if you like) and French, the latter leading to the high level of Latinate words (succession, decision, constitute etc etc) that English contains. This mixture of languages explains the illogical nature of English spelling and the relatively high level of spelling problems (dyslexia) in English (and French as it happens because in French there is a high level of “redundancy”, that is unpronounced letters as in they speak “Ils parlent” (pronounced “il parl“).
In general so-called educated people will use large numbers of Latinate words and use Standard English (based on the Midlands accent, supposedly as a result of the Cromwellian government). In simple terms the Sun newspaper is Anglo-Saxon, whereas The Times is Latinate. The only effective way of learning English is to read as much as possible, from a variety of sources not forgetting the classics such as Dickens and Austen. However there is no immediate need to read all the classics from cover to cover but to dip into them and get a feel of the type of language they use and one should not forget about the poets. Modern novels tend to be aimed at an “international” market, that is to say, many non-English readers will read them, so the language is to some extent made easier to meet the needs of this market, so it is essential to read older writers to develop a broad range of voices and styles. On the other hand, language should also be “accessible”, for example in adverts or publicity and marketing documents.
There are problems in early learning because there has been a tendency in State schools to use “synthetic phonics” recently (that is, the sound of the letter and its various combinations) but the word “pencil” shows where this system breaks down: is the letter “c” an “s” sound (as in pencil) or a “k” sound (as in “click)? So the key issue is to teach both the “name of the letter (a, b, c, d) as well as the sounds it makes (car, bat, dark, dab). Reading at home is important but we still send children to school to learn: children at boarding schools don’t have parents reading to them but apparently they learn better (“a thick kid at a private school does better than a clever kid at State school” as they say) so schools pointing the finger at parents is just a diversion. We send children to school to learn: that’s what parents pay for and the home environment should not be the determining factor. Plenty of middle-class children come from single-parent families (such as myself): it had no effect on my ability to learn: grammar schools showed that working-class kids can do well and there are plenty of duffers in private schools: the difference is that private schools make a direct connection between parents paying and providing and education, whereas State schools seem to imply that the parents are getting education for their kids for free. It isn’t.
In secondary schools the problem seems to be more about writing essays: the simple rule is to “say what you’re going to say, say it and say what you said”, in other words, write an introduction, write the main body of the text and then write a summary.
Reading aloud is extremely important as a means of developing confidence in speaking and reading.
At higher levels, such as A level, a variety of skills are needed, for example the difference between writing a report which should be relatively simple in style and low in adjectives and novels which can take may stylistic forms. These issues can be raised with the individuals students.