What are Academic English skills and how to improve them

Are you comfortable using social English? Awesome!

But what about the English at universities and in textbooks? Awful?

Learning academic English doesn’t have to be terrible.

It can be terrifically rewarding to follow your interests, working a little every day over time (rather than cramming a lot in a short time) in order to build reading and writing skills.

Improving your English for professional and academic communication is a journey that goes step by step. Joining an Intensive English program can provide guidance.

The importance of English for Academic Purposes cannot be underestimated if you’re attending university or seeking work in the USA, Canada, UK, or other English-speaking country. Communication skills make or break careers.

What exactly is English for academic purposes (EAP)? How is it different from social English?

Here are the main characteristics of academic English:

  • More formal. That means avoiding slang, contractions, and idioms. Meanwhile, you adhere to strict formatting rules. Formatting means the way your text looks on the page: font, margins, line breaks, footnotes, punctuation, italics, and other formalities.
  • Less personal. Instead of saying “I think,” you present data, logic, and reasoning. However, your academic English style can still reflect your personality as long as you stay objective. 
  • More structured. Academic text and speech follow organizational plans. Sentences, paragraphs, and essays are carefully structured and connected. Papers and presentations tend to be linear, which means moving in a straight line from point A to B to C and so on, starting with the introduction, continuing through body paragraphs, and arriving at the conclusion. 
  • Less opinionated. Academic English aims for objectivity, presenting facts and balancing different perspectives. Instead of boldly asserting “X is definitely true,” academic writing tends to cautiously suggest that  “X may be true because…” or “It is possible that X is true…”  Opinions are supported by arguments and open to revision. 
  • More evidence: Academic English includes data from research, quotations from experts, and paraphrases of other texts. You cite sources, crediting other authors for their work while adding your own analysis. If you don’t cite sources, the professor may think you stole the ideas; in other words, you plagiarized. Plagiarism is an academic violation that can lead to failing the class or getting expelled.
  •  More precise and concise. The ideas are complex, but the language is clear and brief. While some specialized vocabulary may be necessary in your field, academic English doesn’t require fancy lingo, complicated grammar, and lengthy lecturing.  You choose the best words to get your point across effectively–and then move on to the next point.

When learning how to improve Academic English, you focus on being objective, organized, and precise. To what purposes?

When producing academic English for an essay assignment or a class presentation, you may be doing one (and probably more) of the following modes of critical thinking:

  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Analyzing causes or effects
  • Describing a process
  • Organizing categories
  • Arguing for or against a position
  • Summarizing research
  • Analyzing art and literature
  • Explaining a topic

So, to answer the question “What is academic English?” consider the above points addressing both form and content. The form of academic English refers to word usage,Students in a class all raising their hands formatting, and structure. The content of academic English refers to the ideas, evidence, and analysis.

Who wants to look at how to improve Academic English? Raise your hand.

How to learn Academic English

You reach academic English skills on two roads: reading and writing.

University coursework involves lots of reading, often hundreds of pages a week, followed up by writing assignments such as essays, short answers, and forum discussions.

The key to reading academic English is to read actively. You can’t be passive. You can’t just flip pages and move your eyeballs from left to right.

Active engagement involves thinking before you read, thinking while you read, and thinking after you read. Developing academic English on your own before university, you should feel free to choose books, articles, and web sites that fire up your interest and imagination. A motivated reader stays active.

Unlike reading for fun on the beach, reading English for professional and academic communication calls for different strategies, such as:

  • Reading with a purpose–to complete the assignment. This involves reading at different speeds.  You might rush through irrelevant chapters while slowing down and scrutinizing crucial passages.
  • Scanning and skimming the entire book front to back. You do this before starting on page one. By surveying the author’s approach to the topic, you begin thinking about how to complete your assignment.
  • Asking questions about the text and topic before, during, and after reading a passage. 
  • Distinguishing main points from supporting points.
  • Sorting facts from opinions.
  • Analyzing the ideas while you read.
  • Thinking critically about the author’s evidence, reasoning, and persuasiveness.
  • Evaluating sources. Does the author support claims by citing biased political blogs or credible researchers?
  • Taking notes, highlighting, attaching post-its–whatever works for you–to collect and organize ideas.
  • Figuring out unfamiliar vocabulary from context WITHOUT a dictionary. Constantly looking up words gobbles up too much time.

The more you read, the more vocabulary you learn, the more knowledge you retain, and the more understanding you develop of academic writing styles, sentence structures, and persuasion strategies. 


Besides active reading, the second main focus of academic English is essay writing. Critical thinking is the underlying principle of English for Academic Purposes. When you write essays, you put your critical thinking into greater action.

Writing is an art, not a science. There are millions of equally effective ways to use academic English to write about a topic.

As you acquire greater academic English, your own unique writer’s voice emerges. Your writing voice expresses your viewpoint, personality, values, and background. Your style of writing reflects your way of thinking.

However, basic principles of academic English persist, such as clarity, concision, and structure.

Essays need an introduction to attract the reader’s interest and establish the context or importance of the topic. Most importantly, the beginning of the essay presents a thesis statement with your main idea, purpose, or argument.

The ensuing body of the essay provides the supporting evidence, explanation, and elaboration. Academic English essays rely on facts, data, and logical reasoning. 

The conclusion wraps up the argument with final comments.To create a sense of closure, an academic English essay may conclude with a prediction, opinion, or call to action.

See how the structure of an academic English essay is linear–meaning, it goes in a straight line? 

Like a story, essays have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets the stage of your thesis, the middle presents the action of your argument, and the ending creates a feeling of satisfaction. 

When writing academic English, you also must keep in mind your readers. You’re not writing to yourself for fun–you’re communicating with an audience to persuade.

What does your audience already know and believe about the topic?  Don’t explain what should already be obvious to your reader.  Conversely, don’t assume readers will see what may not be obvious (to them). 

Might your reader bring biases or assumptions to the topic? What strategies would most effectively persuade a general audience? What arguments would alienate or annoy your reader?  Shape your arguments to refute the counterarguments you anticipate. 

Besides taking care of the reader, you also pay close attention to your word choice, sentence structure, and grammar. Though just scratching the surface, here are some tips to improve Academic English:

  • Avoid generalizations. Instead, get specific. Don’t say “everybody.” Say “79% of adult males between the ages of 18 and 30.”
  • Avoid hyperbole. Instead of overstating your case, stay cautious. Don’t say, “This discovery is the most controversial and consequential in US history.” Instead say, “This finding sheds light on three major causes of political polarization in the US.”
  • Avoid repetition. Instead, make your point once. Make it effectively. Make it impactful. Make it perfect. But don’t make the same point again and again and again and…
  • Avoid gendered language. Instead of saying businessman, say businessperson. Instead of saying manmade, say synthetic. Instead of referring to a surgeon as he, refer to surgeons as they. 
  • Use active verbs: Dynamic verbs bring life to your sentences. (However, passive voice is appropriate in highly objective scientific writing, such as research and lab reports.) 
  • Use correct verb tense. Again, focus on the verbs in a sentence. Check the form (past or present?), number (singular or plural), and time sequence (what’s before and after what?)
  • Use complete sentences.  Every sentence must have a subject and predicate (verb). The worst things to have in academic English writing are fragments (incomplete pieces of sentences) and run-ons (super long, incorrect sentences that you must divide up into shorter, correct sentences.)
  • Vary sentence length and structure. Variety is the spice of academic writing. For instance, craft a careful, detailed sentence with relative clauses, descriptive language, and details. Then add a short punchy sentence for impact. A good range runs from around 3 to 50 words per sentence.

Young man asking an older man "what's the next step".

Examples of English vocabulary for Academic English

Let’s explore three aspects of Academic English vocabulary: phrasal verbs, biased language, and the Academic Word List

Phrasal verbs in academic English

Academic English usually avoids informal phrasal verbs like check out (investigate) and pig out (eat a lot). 

But some phrasal verbs are ok in English for professional and academic communication. Some phrasal verbs are formal, or at least neutral, and thus appropriate for academic English. Some phrasal verbs lack one-word alternatives with the same exact meaning. Without a better option, you choose the phrasal verb, even in academic English.

Here are 10 phrasal verbs common in English for academic purposes:

  1. carry out an experiment = conduct an experiment 
  2. bring about changes = cause changes
  3. put forward a theory = advance or propose a theory 
  4. account for the findings = explain the findings
  5. point out the flaws = indicate, identify, and explain the flaws
  6. set forth your reasons = state or present reasons in speech or writing 
  7. ascribe to the movement = believe the movement is a cause or source of blame or credit.
  8. verge on despair = to almost be in a state of despair, but not quite yet
  9. allude to an idea –  indirectly mention an idea
  10. adhere to guidelines = obey or follow guidelines

However, in many cases, a one-word alternative is preferable to the phrasal verb, especially if the phrasal verb is informal. Furthermore, many phrasal verbs have multiple or vague meanings, which could make your writing unclear.

Remember, your number one job when trying to improve English for professional and academic communication is clarity. Phrasal verbs may muddy things up. (muddy up = making things unclear.)

Avoiding phrasal verbs is NOT an absolute rule. Using a few phrasal verbs is fine. But too many phrasal verbs can make your academic English unclear. 

To improve the clarity of your academic English, here are 10 phrasal verbs and their one-word equivalents.

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Besides choosing phrasal verbs wisely, academic English vocabulary chooses unbiasedMan eating popcorn saying "go on". words carefully.

Biased language may contain racial, religious, gender, or other stereotypes. Biased language may carry unwanted political, ideological, or emotional meanings. Biased language may cause strong emotional reactions in your readers. Biased language is distracting, manipulative, and alienating.

In sum, biased language makes your English less persuasive and less objective. Objectivity and persuasiveness are crucial in academic English.

As discussed above, one type of biased language is gendered words. For instance, say congressional representative instead of congressman or congresswoman.

Ethnicity and race are topics to handle with care. Instead of saying American Indian (general), careful writers refer to members of the Navajo nation (specific). Little things count; for example, terms like Black or Hispanic are capitalized.

Avoid labels that define an individual by a single trait. Instead of saying the disabled, say people with disabilities. Physical impairment sounds more respectful than handicapped in academic English. 

Socioeconomic status is another source of potential bias. Instead of saying poor people (general judgement), say individuals with an annual income below $13,000 (specific data). Describing jobs with dignity, custodian is preferred to janitor, for instance.

To avoid age discrimination, academic English often prefers senior citizen to old people, or even the elderly. Instead of saying teenager, academic English writers narrow down statements to males between the ages of 13 and 18, for example. 

Notice how academic English aims to report data and cite specifics, not make generalizations or cast judgments.

To respect strong political or religious beliefs, choose respectful words like dedicated instead of negative words like fanatical. Devout Catholic sounds objective; rabid Catholic sounds insulting.

Sexual orientation is another sensitive topic. For instance, same-sex marriage is considered preferable to gay marriage. Learn the acronym LGBTQIA+, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual, with the plus sign allowing other subjects like polyamorous and ally.

Keep in mind that terms that were acceptable twenty years ago may be offensive today, and today’s preferred terms may become inappropriate ten years from now. Language norms evolve.

Mastering unbiased language requires cultural sensitivity, life experience, and knowledge that you can’t get from books.. That’s why joining an intensive academic English course is so helpful in learning the most appropriate and objective vocabulary for the university and workplace. 

As you improve your use of formal phrasal verbs and unbiased language, you also need to strengthen your grasp of the most common general academic vocabulary. 

How many academic English words should you learn?

Answer: exactly 570 words rank as the most common in academic English.

Developed by Averil Coxhead, Professor in Applied Linguistics in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, the Academic Word List consists of 570 words. 

The academic English vocabulary on this list is not specially connected with any particular field; rather, the 570 words appear frequently in all general academic English, making them the most useful to learn.

Below are 10 examples of words on the Academic Word List. These examples show you how to improve Academic English no matter your field: engineering, business, or computer science. 

English for professional and academic communication requires you to use words from the Academic Word List confidently and naturally. That requires identifying the part of speech (verb, noun, adjective, adverb) and using it in a sentence.

Also, don’t forget to practice pronouncing the word by itself and in a sentence. Listen to the pronunciation online five times and record yourself saying it five times. 

Your sentences don’t need to be long and elaborate, but it’s helpful to connect the vocabulary to a specific idea of interest relevant to English for professional and academic communication. This helps you remember the meaning and learn how it fits with other words such as prepositions and noun objects.

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Without academic English words like these, you’ll struggle to understand and produce basic academic English, no matter if you major in economics, law, or sociology. 

Man raising his arms and shouting "victory".Taking an academic English course is a great step forward to improve your practice skills writing essays and using academic English vocabulary.

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Written by Chris Elliott, IEP Academic Coordinator and ESOL Instructor