By Leisha Cali, director of the English as a Second Language program
If English is not your first language and you are pursuing a college degree in a country or at a university where English is used, you know that increasing your understanding and use of academic English will determine whether you can meet course requirements and ultimately graduate. Many of us get stuck in the habit of recycling the same words and expressions or making the same mistakes when communicating. One of the biggest challenges advanced speakers of English face is expanding and using English while trying to meet the demands of course assignments. As you have probably discovered, you will have to work as hard on enhancing your language skills as you will on understanding and completing assignments. The following tips will give you a strategy for increasing your English skills while meeting the demands of coursework.
In order to increase comprehension, do not get overwhelmed by unknown words. In your own language, you probably skip unknown words but note the repetition of themes to interpret meaning and the point of a text.
- Look up and learn those vocabulary words you keep meeting in your courses, but do not look them up while reading. When you have 60 pages to read by Tuesday, and today is Sunday, you want to focus on comprehending the main ideas in those 60 pages.
- Highlight the main points and terms defined in the text for Tuesday and underline general vocabulary to study for later. Think of reading for your coursework assignments and learning for your vocabulary expansion as separate, not simultaneous, activities. Make time during the school week to go back to the text and write down those underlined words in a separate notebook.
- Look up the words in a bilingual or English learner’s dictionary, and check that the definition or synonym you have found fits the context of the sentence. Write it down in your vocabulary notebook, and include a clear example of the word used in a sentence under each new definition. Use those new words in assignments for your classes so that your vocabulary grows in context to academic work.
Keep writing formal. Avoid contractions, phrasal verbs and idioms. As you know, academic writing does not sound like every day speech. Your professor may speak informally in class but will have different expectations of your writing when he or she grades your paper. One way to approach the challenge of developing an academic style in writing is to make writing and editing separate activities.
- When writing, focus on developing your topic with explanations and examples as you integrate research as much as possible. Leave editing for when you have completed a paragraph or paper.
- When editing for formality and style, expand contractions and notice if you used phrasal verbs and idioms where you could have used more specific vocabulary words by consulting a thesaurus. For example, “get rid of” or “throw away” could be changed to “eradicate,” “eliminate,” “discard” or “dispose of.” Determine which word best fits the context of your sentence and topic. In addition, you want to avoid using the same words and phrases throughout an essay. While academic writing always repeats the point in a topic sentence or thesis, it should not sound repetitive. If you are writing about something “important,” you can say that it is “necessary,” “needed,” “essential” or “required” later in the essay. Use “for example” in one paragraph and “for instance” in another. Notice if you are recycling vocabulary and expand it by a quick look in a thesaurus if a synonym does not come to mind. You probably know many of the words you will find; however, you did not think of them while writing.
Finally, print out your assignment and edit your writing before submitting it for a grade. It is easy to miss errors when reading from a monitor. Read your writing out loud. Sometimes you cannot see the error, but you can hear it. Many students hand in papers with simple errors they could have avoided because they did not take the time to check what they had written.
In both reading and writing, expand your English accuracy and formality by noticing and applying grammatical structures. When reading, note and learn which prepositions follow certain verbs and adjectives. Make sure you use a (pro)noun or gerund after each verb and adjective when writing, and watch out for the word “to” when it is a preposition. Do you overuse infinitives? Many people do. Use more gerunds in the subject position and noun clauses after nouns or adjectives. Noun clauses make your sentences longer and sound more formal. Finally, make sure an infinitive or gerund follows a certain verb. In many cases, a noun clause may be more appropriate or even necessary. You will find a variety of grammatical structures in your academic reading and writing assignments, so do not just focus on meaning when completing coursework. Instead, notice and integrate a variety of grammatical structures as you would with vocabulary in reading and writing.