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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—very helpful, especially 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

Every language learner should be familiar with at least one learner's dictionary. This kind of reference features extra notes about the use of words in context.

Note: Most publishers also 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 for foreign-language testing. Some time should be set aside for this test.

Learning vocabulary is essential, but so is an understanding of how words are used in context. For example, students may write "researches" as a countable noun or struggle with dense noun phrases unique to academic writing.

An academic word list (AWL) can be of great help. An AWL is 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, many app versions are available for free or for purchase.

The COCA Corpus (Corpus of Contemporary American English) is a large database that guides writers on how frequently words and phrases are used in today’s American English and on what words go together to form idiomatic phrases in English—particularly helpful for, say, discovering what prepositions go with what words.

COCA 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 a corpus can do.

The website Word and Phrase was built with the same data as the COCA. It is a little 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 COCA.  

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

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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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