Want to improve your career opportunities? One way is to strengthen your English skills. English is used worldwide for commerce, technology and travel, and it’s hard to overestimate the importance of speaking and writing it well.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that roughly 1 billion people are currently learning English, and that number is expected to double by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of English Language Programs.

If you’d like to improve your English skills but don’t know where to start, the State Department and the Voice of America (VOA) offer free programs to help people of all ages learn American English, with hundreds of English-language materials available in multiple formats: print, video, audio and online.

These programs aim to make learning English as easy as possible — even fun. It’s not just about mastering grammar and conjugating verbs anymore.

Which program is right for you?

If you have good grades but limited resources, the English Access Microscholarship Program might be a good fit. This two-year program, known as “Access” for short, provides a solid grounding in both spoken and written English to bright, economically disadvantaged 13- to 20-year-olds through after-school classes and intensive learning activities.

Offered in more than 85 countries, Access uses current events, popular culture and other engaging topics to teach English.

Check with regional English language officers, who are located in every region of the world, or with your local U.S. Embassy to find an Access program near you.

Regional English Language Officer Kevin McCaughey (foreground, with ukulele) poses with a group of Access students in Ungheni, Moldova, on the front steps of a local library. (State Dept.)

For additional information, visit the State Department’s American English Web page, an online resource center for learning about American English and culture.

The American English Web page features Why English? Comics for the Classroom, a series of comic-based stories written by teenagers and young adults to help students build vocabulary, reading comprehension and other English-language skills. Plus, students can log on to Trace Effects, an English learning-adventure video game for players aged 12–16.

And don’t forget the State Department’s American English app, a free mobile app for Android and feature phones. It provides English learners with language resources while using very little data.

You can follow the State Department’s Office of English Language Programs on Facebook and YouTube, and there’s also a separate Facebook page for the Access program.

If you’re interested in quick lessons for students of various ages and skill levels, try the VOA Learning English programs, which provide free lessons that combine video, audio and print. Simple sentences, vocabulary highlights and read-along audio help students absorb words and concepts quickly. Plus, daily live Skype sessions — called TALK2US — allow callers to discuss the day’s topic with VOA staff members.

Jonathan Evans, Marsha James and Ashley Thompson, left to right, record a program in the VOA Learning English studio. (Voice of America)

VOA’s American English programs have three levels of instruction and resources.

Level One consists of shorter stories, photos and videos using a 1,500-word vocabulary based on the VOA Word Book. Designed for beginners, Level One offers video, audio and print stories in the following broad topic areas:

Level Two, for intermediate students, uses video, audio and print stories focusing on news, culture, history, science and business.  Each story comes with a quiz that lets you test your progress. These are the topic areas:

There are also stories on health and lifestyles, business, and technology, environment and science.

Anna Matteo, Jill Robbins and Roger Hsu tape a VOA Learning English program about Thanksgiving dinner and other Thanksgiving traditions. (Voice of America)

Level Three, for more advanced students, features stories drawn from American literature, conversation and education. Students can also practice writing in English.

  • American Stories offers short stories by celebrated American authors with lesson plans and quizzes.
  • Confessions of an English Learner is a blog with writing prompts for learners, and articles and tips on education, testing and writing, which appear in the VOA website’s Education section.

“We aim to provide news and information in easy-to-understand American English for our audience wherever they are, online, on radio, TV and podcast,” says Hai Do, chief of the VOA’s Learning English branch.

“Many non-native English speakers have come to use our website as the source for news around the world and news from America.”

Educational features like Everyday Grammar and short videos like English in a Minute are among the VOA’s most popular offerings, but there are more programs in the works, Do reveals.

More English eLearning to come

The VOA is currently developing basic how-to videos on everyday situations (Level One); materials to enhance English-for-Specific-Purpose (ESP) language skills required for certain fields of employment (Level Two); an interactive program called The Making of the Constitution (Level Two); and a dedicated program for VOA audiences in specific regions, featuring certified instructors of English as a Second Language (Level Three). This last program has already been launched in Kenya and will expand to other countries in the future.

You can follow VOA Learning English on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.