How to Improve Academic English Skills

What is Academic English?

Academic English language is the type of English used in higher education. It is more formal than general English and is often more structured and includes subject-specific phrases and vocabulary. Articles in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals are usually written in academic English. It is also the type of English used in lectures or presentations in higher education environments. If you want to study at a university in an English-speaking country, good, formal academic English is a must. Interestingly, native English-speaking university students also have to learn how to use academic English as it’s very different from the English that they normally use. What are the differences between academic English and general English?

Five Main Features of Academic English

Five things that make general English and standard academic English different:

  • Formality: academic English is more formal than general English
  • Precision: accurate presentation of facts and figures
  • Objectivity: the main emphasis is the presentation of information and arguments
  • Organization: writing is clearly structured and flows logically from one section to the next
  • Accuracy: accurate use of vocabulary to convey precise meaning

How to Improve Academic English?

Universities in English-speaking countries usually require proof of your ability to use standard academic English before they formally offer you a place. This could be an IELTS Academic test report or something similar. Here are some useful tips and resources about how to learn academic English.

Writing in Academic English

What sets academic English writing skills apart from other types of writing skills? First of all, academic English writing is more formal so you shouldn’t use contractions (eg, ‘they’ve’ instead of ‘they have’), or informal, spoken vocabulary such as phrasal verbs (eg, ‘go on’ instead of ‘continue’). Also, you should avoid writing in the first person (eg, ‘I found that 80% of people …’) and let the facts speak for you (eg, ‘The survey revealed that 80% of people …’). Many universities offer free online courses on how to improve academic English writing skills. 

Academic English Speaking

Spoken academic English is the type of language used in debates, presentations, seminars, and group discussions in English-speaking universities. In many ways academic English speaking is similar to academic writing – it needs to be quite formal and precise – although it is less complex than the written language. Good academic spoken English in use avoids slang and colloquialisms and is structured using clear, signaling language (eg, ‘the second point I’d like to look at is…’). Like its written counterpart, it requires precise, accurate vocabulary, but makes more use of the types of grammatical structures associated with spoken English. 

Academic Word List

Academic word lists provide you with the general academic vocabulary you need to know in order to be able to study at a university in an English-speaking country. They don’t focus on any particular subject so they’re useful for all students. Lists generally contain the words and phrases that are common in academic texts, but which are much less common in everyday writing or speech. 

Professor Averil Coxhead developed the original Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) for the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. It contains 570-word families that appear frequently in a broad range of academic texts. The 570 words are divided into 10 Groups. You can find Coxhead’s academic word list here

Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips created The New Academic Word List in 2013. This is a list of 963 words that frequently appear in academic texts. The words on the new list were selected from an academic corpus of 288 million words. You can find a link to the list here .

Another useful resource is the University of Manchester’s Academic Phrases Bank . It provides users with examples of the types of phrases used in essays, dissertations, and research papers and groups them according to communicative function (eg, describing trends, giving examples, etc.).

Reading Academic English

The way you approach reading academic English texts will depend on your purpose – just as the way you read texts depends on your purpose in everyday life. If you want to find out what time your bus leaves, you don’t read the whole bus timetable from start to finish! The most important reading skills for academic texts include skimming (reading something quickly to get the general gist), scanning (reading to find a specific piece of information), and reading for detail (reading a particular chapter or section closely and carefully). Reading academic English should be an active process. Have in mind some questions that you want answered by the text and make notes about content and vocabulary. The internet is a great place to find texts to see academic English in use, and to practice skimming, scanning, and reading for detail.

English Certification

To secure your place at a university in an English-speaking country you will need a certificate or test report to verify that your English is good enough. The score that you need will depend on a number of factors, so be sure to check with your university or the immigration authority in the country where you want to study. There is a range of different exams and tests you can take to certify your English. Some of the most widely recognized ones include IELTS, TOEFL, PTE, and Cambridge C1 Advanced/C2 Proficiency. It’s a good idea to prepare for your English certification by taking an IELTS preparation course or using Burlington IELTS preparation materials.

Academic English and General English

Whereas general English tends to place equal focus on developing reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, academic English tends to focus more on reading and writing in an academic context. The main difference between the two is register – a term used to refer to particular varieties or styles of speaking and writing. In addition to academic English, other examples of register include legal English, the language of weather forecasting, and the language of banking and finance. We also use the term register to describe formal and informal English.

To improve your confidence, fluency, vocabulary, and pronunciation, no matter what type of English you’re studying, join an online spoken English course today! Our expert tutors will help you to make rapid progress so that you can use your English skills to follow your higher education dreams.

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