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Developing academic English

Develop your reading

Reading is a core skill for study. You will do a lot of reading for your academic work, so if your reading in English is slow, you may need to allow extra time for study.

When you read for academic purposes, you need different strategies from those used when reading for pleasure. You will need to

  • understand new vocabulary and the style in which your study materials are written
  • identify the main points in a piece of text
  • select the key information relevant to your task or assignment
  • read actively and critically, thinking about the sources of your information and whether there is evidence to back up any arguments that are made

In the following videos student discuss how they boost their vocabulary and tips for and challenges of reading.

Boost your vocabulary

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Agron: Have access to English basically, since we're talking about English here. Any kind of interaction, communication in the language that you're trying to reproduce in writing, would increase your vocabulary even if you're not realising at the time.

Anna: To help myself with improving my language, I watched a lot of documentaries, especially to do with arts or history because that's the subject I'm trying to graduate in.

Kafula: I found that listening to the news and the media and reading newspapers helped very much, especially with the language that was in the social sciences.

Anna: I really enjoy reading books in English and if you come across a difficult word and you know what that means, it just gives you such joy that you didn't have to run to the dictionary and slow down your reading. It gives you that sense of pride that you achieved something.

It's really helpful to enrich your vocabulary and get this confidence you need when you listen to other people.

Tips for reading

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Aneta: The books are structured in a way that there is a lot of repetition within one topic and when you read about new concept, for instance, it is explained in one section of the chapter. But then throughout the entire chapter, authors will continuously repeat the same concept, using different words, different descriptions but still talking about the same thing.

It's not only the fact that the repetition makes me remember it. That also allows me to learn new words and also learn to describe one thing in different ways, which is very useful for writing the assignments.

Kafula: Doing the social sciences I started, you know, paying a little more attention to the new words, especially 'contemporary' comes up quite a lot and, you know, words like 'narrative.'

What I did for myself to help me understand a little bit more was I used the dictionary, I used Google to search and find out the meaning of the new words and I found that very useful.

Moungru: The OU courses do use a lot of terminology word and they can be quite difficult to understand. I do tend to use a lot of dictionary. I look it up in my dictionary. If not, sometimes even some of the dictionary read doesn't have the explanation, so I do use internet. Internet does help.

Or I actually ask some of my fellow student to see if anyone can come back to me and tell me what does that mean. And I often do actually get some response so I think it's really nice. If you are there and you want to find out things, you should ask.

Challenges of reading

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Kafula: The English in my course was very, very different from the English that I use in my everyday life and through my work. It was a totally new subject, a new language, new words. I was a bit apprehensive about that.

Agron: Initially, when I started studying in English, it was sometimes a matter of reading a whole sentence and understanding about 70% of it and then in the context of the rest that you did understand, you tried to work out, you know, as fast as you could, what the rest of the phrase or the sentence or the gist of the point being made was, basically.

Moungru: To do my study in as a second language, it is quite difficult because it is not my mother tongue and the approach to reading and understanding of the language is really very different. The way that I interpret the question or the reading itself can be quite different from the text presented.

Kafula: You had to start and stop to find out the meaning of things before proceeding because obviously the language was new; everything was new.

Aneta: Within the Psychology course, for instance, there is a lot of very specific language that comes from psychology. The good thing about it is that this is apparently new vocabulary for native people as well.

Alexa: It's all about learning the new words, a bit like you learn a new language, I suppose.

You will find strategies for improving your reading skills in the 'Critical Reading Techniques' section. It gives you tips on how to read with greater purpose and how to critically process what you are reading. There is also a booklet 'Reading and taking notes' which offers some useful guidance.

If you are studying a maths module or a module that contains maths, the 'Reading and Writing Maths' section might help. It gives you some suggestions for coping with the highly technical language.

Abstract vocabulary activity

Use this activity from the University of Southampton to learn how to distinguish between main points and supporting points. You'll also practise how to recognise facts and opinions.

Last updated 2 months ago