Academic language is like a dialect; it’s a subset of English that is used for a specific purpose—academic speaking and writing—and understood by a specific audience—academics. All students, regardless of whether English is their first language, need to learn new academic vocabulary upon entering university. Using a unified vocabulary is one way disciplines create community. When everyone is using the same language, it’s easier to share ideas and engage in conversation.
“Learning academic language is not learning new words to do the same thing that one could have done with other words; it is learning to do new things with language and acquiring new tools for these new purposes” (Nagy & Townsend 2012, 93).
Download a PDF of this resource here.
What is academic language?How do I learn academic language?Key strategiesDo you use these?References
What is academic language?
Academic language is sometimes classified into two categories: general and discipline-specific.
- General academic language refers to words that can be found commonly in academic writing across disciplines and are distinct from informal or conversational words (e.g., analyse, study, concept, data).
- Discipline-specific language refers to words that are used in specific fields of study, like technical terms or content-specific words (e.g., organism, geometry, existential).
Research suggests that it is more useful for students to develop discipline-specific academic language since words that are considered part of general academic language are often used differently in different disciplines.
Consider the word, “code.” In computing, “to code” means to program a device with a set of instructions. In law, it can refer to a legal document, like “a code of conduct.” In social sciences, it can refer to a set of cultural values that a group of people adhere to collectively and voluntarily, as in “the society followed a moral code.”
This example highlights not only the way in which words vary across disciplines, but also introduces the importance of grouping words together to understand their meaning.
Lexical bundles, as they’re sometimes called, are groups of two or more words that academics frequently put together. They’re not idioms or expressions, but common ways of communicating ideas.
Examples: “within the context of,” “according to the literature,” “given that,” “the results of which show,” this study suggests,” etc.
These bundles are common features of academic language because they effectively and concisely convey meaning by using common and conventional word pairings that readers in the discipline recognize. In other words, using words in common expressions from your discipline is not lazy or unimaginative; it’s a way to be sure your audience understands your intended message.
How do I learn academic language?
Like any language, academic language cannot be learned overnight. Here are some strategies to use over time to help you develop increasing awareness of the ways scholars in your field write and build your own academic vocabulary.
Learn new words in context.
Words in English only have full meaning when understood in a text. When you come across a new word, pay attention to what words are around it. You can keep track of academic vocabulary in a lexical notebook.
Pair learning new words and phrases with learning content.
Use textbook glossaries and disciplinary encyclopaedias to understand key terms related to a concept as you are learning about the concept. You can find these for each subject on the Queen’s Library website.
Familiarize yourself with how your field organizes and structures information in written format.
Knowing which words to use is only half the battle; you also have to know when, where, and how to use them. Pay attention to the typical structure of writing in your field and try to notice where in texts word groupings occur frequently. Use the disciplinary analysis tool to help you.
Consider the function of the words you need.
All words serve a purpose, whether it be to explain, define, introduce, counter, illustrate, or any number of other things. When you find yourself searching for a word or phrase, reflect on what you need that word to do, then use a resource like the academic phrasebank to search for language that fits that purpose.
You might find that you understand words when you read but then have a hard time remembering the words when you sit down to write. In language learning, comprehension of words almost always comes before the ability to produce the words yourself. When you find a text that exemplifies the way you would like to write, take some time to practice modelling. Try paraphrasing or writing a summary that incorporates the language you want to add to your vocabulary.
Academics strive for concision in their writing. To be concise means to convey a message with the most effective, clear, and accurate words to fully describe an idea. Avoiding vague or value-laden words and using transition words thoughtfully are two ways expert writers show concision. Consider this example:
The city council introduced a new initiative on active transportation. This is the best. Moreover, it solves the traffic problem.
The subject of the second sentence, this, is unclear, and the evaluation that “this” is “the best” is unsupported and shows the writer’s personal stance. The transition, “moreover,” incorrectly suggests that the writer is introducing a secondary point that builds off the first. See how this second version corrects these errors:
The city council introduced a new initiative on active transportation. This initiative offers a cost-effective solution to the problem of traffic congestion.
By naming the subject of the second sentence, specifying what about the initiative is good, and getting rid of the inaccurate transition word, the second version does a better job of conveying the writer’s intended message. Refer to the eliminating wordiness resource for inspiration on other strategies to produce concise writing.
Canadian academic writing culture is a writer-responsible culture, which means it is the writer’s job to establish a clear understanding for the reader. Concision is a characteristic of good writing because it is one way for writers to ensure they have clarified their position for the reader. Academics tend to show the reader their position through guiding words like hedges, boosters, and scope markers.
Hedges and boosters
Part of writing critically is to be able to maintain credibility with your reader. Expert writers tend to construct more limited arguments that show respect towards other views and competing positions. They do this partly by using a balance of boosters and hedges.
- Boosters: words that express certainty and leave little room for other views
Examples: absolutely, clearly, should, must, very, never, always, certain, more than, a lot, conclusively
- Hedges: words and phrases that express caution and are open to alternative perspectives
Examples: possibly, may, might, often, generally, likely, somewhat, almost, nearly, perhaps, suggests, relatively, tends to, for the most part
Expert writers tend to use hedges at a much higher frequency than novice writers, which contributes to an ethos of caution, humility, and diplomacy, rather than too much certainty. Expert writers use boosters mostly to emphasize an idea.
These are words or phrases that indicate the extent to which an argument can be applied. They are used to indicate precision and focus.
Scope shows engagement with the world of research, rather than just the world in general. Expert writers tend to use phrases that keep them in this text-internal world of discourse, while novice writers tend to refer to the broader text-external world.
For example, when you say: “Childhood development is significant in society”, you are using language to refer to the “real world” outside of textual research. But when you say: “In this study, childhood development is examined,” you are referring to the world of research, which is where you want your focus to be in academic discourse.
You can also indicate scope through nouns. Novice writers tend to use general nouns (people, the world, our society), while expert writers tend to qualify nouns to make them more specific and focused (young people, the Arab world, democratic society).
Do you use these?
Although not ungrammatical or objectively wrong, these phrases are not common in academic language. Review your writing for these elements and ask yourself, “Is this the choice I want to make? Is this adding value to my writing?”
- Clichés, and cultural references
Example: piece of cake (idiom) or gone to the dark side (cultural reference from the Star Wars films)
Example: ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’
- Similes and metaphors
Examples: They’re pretty like a flower. (simile)
She’s a machine. (metaphor)
- Rhetorical questions
Example: She hates cake. Who knew?
- Phrasal verbs
Example: ‘go over’ instead of ‘review’
Aull, L. 2015. First-Year University Writing: A Corpus-based study with implications for pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Nagy, W. and D. Townsend. 2012. “Words as Tools: Learning Academic Vocabulary as Language Acquisition.” Reading Research Quarterly 47 (1): 91-108.
SASS offers a number of programs and resources to help multilingual students be successful at university. Both undergraduate and graduate students can improve communication and build confidence by working on academic English reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.
Not sure where to start? Visit our frequently asked questions tab.
We support...EAL appointmentsWeekly programsPractice English onlineReading and computer softwareFrequently asked questions
Language skills we can help with include…
- General skill development: learn strategies for academic writing and self-editing
- Grammar: learn, review, and practice grammar topics
- Cultural conventions: learn about the expectations of a North American / English audience
- Academic vocabulary: develop an academic word bank
- English Proficiency Test (EPT) preparations: practice for Engineering and Applied Science Students
- Presentation practice: get feedback on a presentation for a course or conference
- Pronunciation: review and practice the sounds of English
- Academic discussions: learn and practice strategies for contributing to class discussions
- Vocabulary: build a spoken academic vocabulary with appropriate idioms and expressions
- Lectures: learn and practice strategies for understanding lectures and conferences
- Comprehension: develop skills to understand spoken English and pull out key ideas
- Active listening: find ways to engage with what your peers and professors are saying
- Comprehension: develop strategies to break down complex academic readings and identify key concepts
- Vocabulary: learn about resources for understanding academic language
- Integrating Research: explore how to effectively integrate ideas from readings into your writing for a North American / English audience
What is EAL support?
Students who speak English as an additional language can meet with the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) for ongoing skills development. The purpose of this service is to support students in developing their academic English skills over time. Students may be interested in additionally booking writing or learning strategies appointments. The EAL program helps students develop similar skills as these other two programs, but through the specific lens of English skills development.
These appointments are private and confidential. Appointments are free, and they are available to all current domestic and international students who do not speak English as their first language.
“[The EAL Coordinator] explains things really clearly and made me feel more confident about my English skills. SASS and EAL made my graduate studies easier and less stressful. I wish every university had that program.”
What are EAL appointments like?
The first meeting focuses on discussing your goals for improving your academic English and creating a plan to achieve those goals. You and the coordinator will decide together how many times you should meet and what you will do at each session.
Each appointment is different, to suit each student’s needs, but some typical sessions include:
- Grammar lessons: Students bring in a piece of their writing. The coordinator helps to identify trends of grammatical errors and explains self-editing strategies to fix them. (Note—this is not an editing service.)
- Academic writing development: Students bring in writing and the coordinator helps identify places where meaning is unclear. By discussing word choice, transitions, and sentence structure, students develop their ability to produce writing that effectively communicates critical ideas.
- Pronunciation: Either by going through the sounds of English, one by one, or through speaking exercises, students receive feedback on their English pronunciation.
- Academic reading in English: Students bring in an academic reading and learn, then practice, strategies to support their comprehension of both vocabulary and key ideas.
How do I book an EAL appointment?
If you are interested in booking a EAL appointment, please request an introductory appointment. Once you fill out this form, you will receive an email with further instructions on how to access our online booking tool.
You need to fill out this form only once.
Both SASS and QUIC (Queen’s University International Centre) offer weekly opportunities to practice academic English skills and improve your writing with the support of professionals. All programs are free and you can come every week or just when needed.
- What is it? A chance to learn about and practice English academic writing
- When? Tuesday evenings, 7:30pm-9pm
- Where? Register for Zoom sessions here.
How does it work? Each week, SASS’s EAL Coordinator leads an interactive workshop on a different writing topic, such as articles, critical thinking, or sentence variety. Students can join for the topics which are of interest to them in order to build on writing foundations, evaluate examples, do practice exercises, learn strategies, and ask questions.
“I have benefited a lot from the Write Nights workshops! It was like a course for me. The things I have learned from these workshops helped me to edit the writing myself. Although I still make mistakes, I believe I will be better and better! Everyone there are super dedicated in learning.”
“The Write Nights program was one of the first activities I did after my arrival to Kingston; it really helped me to get engaged in the Queen’s University and to adapt to the new academic environment. It is a perfect space to review the most complex topics in English writing for EAL students and even for practicing conversational English while you are meeting new people. They also provide useful tools and handouts in each class.”
Drop-In EAL Support
Drop-In EAL Support
- What is it? A drop-in program for academic English homework support
- When? Wednesday evenings, 6pm-8pm
- Where? MS Teams. Drop-in to this program by visiting our events page
How does it work? An EAL assistant will talk with a student for 15 minutes at a time to answer questions, give feedback, and offer strategies. After assisting other students, they will come back to the previous students to check in and answer further questions.
English Conversation Group
English Conversation Group
- What is it? An opportunity to practice English language conversation skills
- When? Wednesday evenings, 7:30pm-9pm and Thursday evenings, 5:30pm-7pm
- Where? Register for the program here. The Zoom link will be emailed to participants upon registration.
How does it work? Volunteers help guide English conversation with group activities and discussions. There’s a new topic every week. Learn idioms, expressions, and pronunciations in a welcoming environment.
QUIC Social and Cultural Activities
QUIC Social and Cultural Activities
- What are they? Activities at QUIC that offer opportunities to meet other students and practice oral communication skills in a social environment.
- When? Check the QUIC Events Calendar or QUIC Instagram for activities throughout the year
- Where? Activities held virtually
How do they work? QUIC plans social and cultural events throughout the year to engage all students. Examples include trivia and speed-friending.
Grad Writing Lab
Grad Writing Lab
- What is it? An opportunity for all graduate students to get writing support
- When? Monday and Thursday mornings, 9am-12pm
- Where? Online (link coming soon)
How does it work? Both domestic and international graduate students can drop in and work on their writing in an online graduate community space. A dedicated academic writing specialist will be available who can help students with writing questions
Practice English online
In addition to SASS’s writing and learning resources, you can use these external links to develop your academic English skills.
Grammar lessons and exercises
Online Writing Lab, Purdue University: exercises on grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, sentence style, writing numbers, and paraphrasing and summarizing
Punctuation, Oxford Dictionary: explanation of the different punctuation marks and their uses
Grammatical Terms, Grammar Bytes!: printer-friendly explanations of grammatical topics with examples
Exercises, Grammar Bytes!: interactive or printable exercises on various grammatical topics
Verb Tense Chart, Alba English: colour-coded infographic explaining English verb tenses—link automatically downloads PDF of chart
Verb Tenses, Englisch Hilfen: text-based chart explaining English verb tenses—includes conditional tenses
Reading and computer software
Students have the opportunity to work independently on language and academic writing skills. SASS offers students access to two new computer programs:
- Inspiration can help students brainstorm ideas, clarify thinking, and organize information using mind-maps and outlines.
- Kurzweil 3000 is text-to-speech software providing multilingual students with audio and visual aids for reading, writing, and fluency.
If you would like to learn more about how this software can help develop language fluency, vocabulary, and self-editing skills, please contact the Academic Skills Specialist (EAL) (email@example.com).
Frequently asked questions
What can I do if…