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Skidmore College
The Philip Boshoff Writing Center

Self-Study Resources for English Language Learners

Writing and the Writing Process Vocabulary, Word Clusters and Language Patterns Grammar Diagnostics and Practice


Writing and the Writing Process

The ESL-Writing Online Workshop (ESL-WOW) walks students through the stages of college composition, making it especially helpful for first-year students. This resource was funded by a million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education and piloted at Skidmore College, among other institutions.


The same developers have recently introduced a similar Online Reading Comprehension Lab designed to prepare students to understand and use college-level texts.  

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a rich collection of resources for dealing with academic issues and skills. This page includes notes on skills like listening, speaking, and reading and on practical language tasks such as writing emails or requesting feedback from professors.

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Vocabulary, Word Clusters and Language Patterns

Learning word meaning is essential, but so is an understanding of how a word is used in context. For example, students may write "researches" as a countable noun or use use an innapropriate adjective like "eminent" (meaning: important and influential) to describe it.  

The most obivous tool to address this problem is a learner's dictionary, which offers much more information about real usage in context. Every language learner should be familiar with at least one learner's dictionary.  Learner's dictionaries are typically broad and general, examining the most common words and patterns. Keep in mind that some fo the language you will have to read and write within your major will be more specialized (but don't worry; there are other tools available to explore this languge, too).    

Note: Most publishers offer app versions (usually around $5), so you can carry a dictionary with you at all times.  

Here are three reputable learner’s dictionaries:

Adaptive vocabulary tests give a picture of vocabulary knowledge by starting with basic words and becoming increasingly challenging. The CATSS (Computer Adaptive Test of Size and Strength) is similar to the CAPE test used at Skidmore for foreign-language placement testing. Some time should be set aside for this test.  Note that this test has moved to a new website and now requires a free registration.  

Not all vocabulary is equally worthy of a busy student's attention.  You may choose to focus on an academic word list (AWL), a collection of words that are unique and/or common to academic language. Several lists have been constructed over the years; Coxhead's (1998) probably remains the most popular.

Studying an AWL is an easy but rewarding self-study experience.  Again, numerous app versions are available for free or for purchase.

More recently, the AWL has expanded to include the Academic Formulas List (AFL), which reflects stock phrases that frequently appear in academic texts.  This resource is far less developed, but signals the importance of learning academic language in "chunks" or phrases if your goal is to sound native-like (which doesn't have to be your goal).  

Corpus tools represent the next generation of language learning tools.  A corpus is a collection (literally a "body") of real texts from native speakers, usually within a specific context (like academic essays, news articles, in-class discussion transcripts, etc.)  Software helps us "search" this huge database to understand how the word is actually used.  For instance, what adjectives do academic writers use to describe "good research"? (in-depth, painstaking, extensive)  Or, what verbs typically describe the action of "doing research"?  (carry out, conduct, undertake)  

We call these special associations collocations and they are the easiest first step to exploring what corpus tools can offer.  You can try to search for a single word like "research" or "reasoning" using the tool below to see if this could make your writing sound more natural.

The COCA Corpus (Corpus of Contemporary American English) is a much more powerful database.  We can find multi-word phrases, see specific frequency information, separate results by context or even academic discipline, or compare two search terms simultaneously (and much more).  If you are looking for natural-sounding word combinations, or just trying to figure out which preposition to link with a verb, give the COCA a try.  

The COCA is available for free online. The How-to Guide is a good place to start; a visit to an ELL specialist can also provide an explanation of the tool and its many useful functions. There is no tool that comes close to what the COCA and its associated tools (especially its billion-word web corpus) can do.  

The website Word and Phrase was built with the same data as the COCA. It is easier to use, though perhaps a little less powerful. One advantage is that you can input entire paragraphs of text at once, instead of the phrase-level queries available in the regular COCA interface.  

The MICASE Corpus is much smaller and less powerful than the COCA, but it focuses on a different type of academic language: real classroom discussions transcribed from the University of Michigan.

Corpus studies have uncovered patterns that students can immediately put to use.  For instance, the link below is a list of sentence frames and stock language that are closely related with research papers.  Even native speakers can benefit from these tools!  

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Grammar Diagnostics and Practice

Grammar diagnostic tests usually take some time (30–60 minutes) but give you a good picture of your grammar knowledge. For instance, "verb tenses" is a big topic, and it can be helpful to know precisely which verb tenses need improvement. Students are encouraged to learn their strengths and weaknesses so that they can efficiently balance improving English with the demands of their coursework.  

The pages below focus on grammar self-study. These study aids are most useful if you already know the grammar topic you wish to improve (for example, after taking one of the diagnostic tests above), but these sites are also helpful as a general reference.

The Writing Center also keeps a collection of print style and grammar guides.  

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